English Literature » Notes » “The Waste Land” as a Modernist Text

“The Waste Land” as a Modernist Text

TS Eliot‘s The Waste Land, which has come to be identified as the representative poem of the Modernist canon, indicates the pervasive sense of disillusionment about the current state of affairs in the modern society, especially post World War Europe, manifesting itself symbolically through the Holy. Grail legend and the fertility legends discussed in JG Frazer‘s The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (1890) and Jessie Weston‘s From Ritual to Romance (1920).

Originally titled “He do the Police in Different Voices”, The Waste Land, based on the legend of the Fisher King and the quest for the holy grail in the Arthurian cycle, presents modern London as an arid waste land. Though the legendary Fisher King’s waste land has the hope of redemption through the healing of his impotency, Eliot’s waste land does not seem to:have any such hope. Much of the symbolism of The Waste Land suggests these ancient fertility rites, but always gone awry, particularly in such instances as the fortune-teller Madame Sosostris. Built around the symbols of drought and flood, representing death and rebirth, the poem progresses by abrupt transitions through five sections — “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, “The Fire Sermon”, “Death by Water” and “What the Thunder Said,” and is a powerfully moving presentation of sterility and disruption. Eliot’s work is informed by Irving Babbit‘s view of the unity and multiplicity of experience, and an urge to return to the Renaissance ideal of a “complete” man with “unification of sensibility”, Pound’s Imagism and fragmentation techniques, the French Symbolists’ use of sensuous language and an eye for unnerving and anti-aesthetic detail.

The poem Presents the picture of a desolate London (populated by ghostly figures like Stetson, the fallen war comrade) abounding in physical, moral and spiritual decay, symbolized by rats and garbage surrounding the speaker in “The Fire Sermon” — among whom Buddha and St. Augustine appear as the representations of Eastern and Western philosophy, unable to transcend the World on their own, despite their intense spiritual ardor — thus, revealing the futility of man’s struggles, however fervent and passionate.

“The Burial of the Dead” (title taken from Anglican burial service), presents four different person’s perspectives — an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, a prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, imaginative tarot card reading, and a surreal picture of a speaker who walks through London populated by ghosts of the dead. “A Game of Chess” (title from Middleton’s play A Game of Chess), denotes stages in seduction by presenting two pictures — one of an affluent, highly groomed woman surrounded by exquisite furnishings, and the other of a London bar-room where two women discuss a third woman. “The Fire Sermon” (title from Buddha’s sermon) describes a polluted river representing spiritual degeneration, and concludes with a river song and a religious incarnation. “Death by Water”, describes Phebas, the Phoenician man’s who died by drowning, and suggests the mortality and ephemerality of life “What the Thunder Said” describes the quest for salvation and inner peace through three “objective correlatives”: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the chapel Perilous, the present decay of Eastern Europe. Seeking refuge in the ancient Indian wisdom, alluding to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Eliot concludes with a message of hope with “Datta” (give); “Dyadhvam” (sympathise) and ‘Damyata” (be. controlled). This resorting to oriental philosophy, he believes, will help in the regeneration of present disintegrated and pessimistic society.

Eliot makes wide ranging allusions across literatures and legends of various ages and cultures — ranging from The Bible, Sappho, Catullus, Pervigilium Veneris, Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Dante’s Inferno, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Spenser’s Prothalamion, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Middleton, Webster, Donne, Byron, Joseh Campbell, Wagner, Tennyson, Walter Pater, Baudelaire, Rupert Brooke, Walt Whitman, Theophile Gautier, Apollinaire, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Yeats. These allusions add symbolic weight to the poems contemporary material, to encourage free association and to establish a tone of pastiche, seeming to collect all the shards of an exhausted civilization into one huge patchwork of modern existence. Perhaps it is also a response to the dilemma of coming at the end of a great tradition; the poet seeks to address modern dilemmas and at the same time to participate in a literary tradition. The method of assembling “fragments” or “broken images” from the past into a sort of mosaic allows him at once to suggest parallels between contemporary problems and earlier historical situations and to disorient the reader, turning the reading process into a model of modern, urban confusion. It parallels the Cubist use of collage, calling attention to the linguistic texture of the poem itself and to the materials (both literary and popular) out of which it is constructed. Influenced by Pound and Joyce, allusion, for Eliot, became a favorite technique for reconciling formal experiment with an awareness of literary tradition. Thus, with allusions and quotations in various languages, The Waste Land stands as a collage of poetic fragments representing an entire culture in crisis.

The structure and method of the poem throughout, is deliberately fragmentary, abandoning traditional verse forms for free verse to juxtapose monologues or overheard snatches of conversation by the inhabitants of the waste land, with allusions, religious teaching and myth. The resulting “heap of broken images” both intensifies the portrait of spiritual decay and hints at the possibility of redemption. All the techniques associated with Modernist literature, most distinguishably its forms and rules, expressed a rebellion against traditional literature, especially after World War I, literature shifted from a romantic, idealized entity to a radical and experimental mode.

The Waste Land embodies other common themes of the modern literary tradition, such as the disjoint nature of time, the role of culture versus nationality, and the desire to find universality in a period of political unrest. The poem also has a number of recurring themes, most of which are pairs of binary oppositions such as sight/blindness, resurrection/death, fertility/ impotency, civilization/decline, voice/silence. Thus the poem is a glimpse of the collective psyche following the World War I and an aesthetic experience exemplary of the Modernist literary tradition. IA Richards influentially praised Eliot for describing the shared post-war “sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavor, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed.”

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