The Waste Land as a Modern Poem

The Waste Land by T.S.Eliot

The Waste Land by T.S.Eliot

 

[This essay is the modified version of the Students’ Seminar Paper prepared under the guidance of Dr. B. K. Das, reader in the P.G.Department of English of Ravenshaw College, and delivered on 22nd March 2003]

               The period from which The Waste land took its shape was very disturbing. It was the time when new sociological and scientific views, the secular interpretations of nature and history, challenged the old Theo-centric and liberationists movements, with the publication of Communist Manifesto by Marks and Engels. Even Darwin’s The Origin of Species had long before the poem started to question the Christian view of creation and about God’s Existence. More over William James’ Principles of Psychology and Freud’s The Interpretations of Dreams with their revolutionary views made the agitation, which was growing in public mind, more distinct. The milieu that appeared on the foreground of this period was so unconventional that all the traditional modes failed to express it in literature. So, many experiments were done on various modes of literature both in its form and its treatment of its subject under the label of ‘Modernism’. And when The Waste Land was published as a result of these experiments in 1922, it produced a sense of shock, a feeling that ‘the poetic tradition was being upturned’(Bradbury 1989). But it was not abnormal as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested through his character of Zarathustra, ‘Whoever wants to be creative in good and evil, he must first be an annihilator and destroy values’ (Bradbury 1989).

                About eighty years have passed since T.S.Eliot published The Waste Land in The Criterion (London, October 1922) and in The Dial (New York, November 1922) and during this period the poem not only has become successful in establishing itself as a classic of the modern period, but also has become ‘a major critical industry in recent years’ (Sahnne 1999). Since that time many have tried to interpret the poem on various grounds. This was possible because ‘The Waste Land can be interpreted in terms of different schools of critical theories such as myth criticism, formalistic, structuralism, feminist criticism, deconstruction and New Hinduism (Cultural Poetics). But no single approach makes a complete reading’ (Das 2002).     

                Among the various aspects of a modern poem, only two important ones namely its form and its theme are always considered as the deciding factor while evaluating to the poem. It’s because the so well known vague term ‘modernism’ can be applied to the piece of work which involves ‘a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases ‘ (Abraham 1994) as far as its very structure and forms are concerned , and secondly if the work questions ‘the certainties that had supported traditional modes of social organization, religion and morality and also traditional modes concerning the human self ‘ (Abraham 1994).So, while judging The Waste Land , which is often referred as ‘a poem of modern anti-climax, of contemporary sterility’(Bradbury 1989), it is helpful and also convenient if one judges the poem under these two aspects.

                At the first glance at The Waste Land , the first question one is compelled to rise is

      ‘Is the poem a unified whole or is it a group of separate             poems?’(Jain 1996),

which tests our beliefs of ‘poetic unity’ . As far as Eliot is concerned in this regard , he him self was not sure of this as he had once referred The Waste Land as a ‘ series of poems’(jain 1996), but later agreed to Pound’s persuasion that ‘ the poem should appear as one sequence’(Jain 1996).As this confusion was there in Eliot , the poet himself , what to talk of critics who want to make The Waste Land whole transparent, ‘ misconceive entirely the theme and the structure of the poem’(Brooks 1939).Anyway Eliot’s remark that Tiresias’ personage in the poem important as it unites all the rest (Pinto 1972) , resulted in ‘ little or no attempt to deal with it [The Waste Land ] as a unified whole, (Brooks 1939).

                A.J.Wilks is one of those critics who threw light upon the fragmentary nature of the poem . In his view the unconnected fragments of The Waste Land are assembled ‘to form a pattern’ (Rudra 1979-80).‘In a very general sence structure of simple and un analyzed juxtaposition’ (Books 1939) of it. ‘In section-II of The Waste Land for instance , there is the bored neurasthenic woman sitting in the rich room talking to man beside her ; and then without warning , this scene is sharply juxtaposed with one of the completely different complexion in which we find two cockney women talking in a pub’(Brooks 1939) . And The Waste Land is full of such juxtapositions offered dramatically and sometimes even crashingly without comment from the author ‘(Brooks 1939).

To use such juxtapositions in the poem ,Eliot borrowed some of newly developed techniques from others which include ‘the elliptical techniques from others which include ‘ the elliptical techniques of flash backs , cross cutting , unannounced dream sequences and unexplained visual analogies ‘(Rudra 1979-80).Eliot’s use of such ‘method of exposing […] tangle of feeling is often considered , presentative or cinematic as well as subjective’(Rosenthal 1960). On such design creation by Eliot , M.L.Rosentha;l comments that ‘Impressions , voices , images , dramatic glimpses and poses provide a varied surface , but actually they are locale with a care in a cumulatively manipulated design ’(Rosenthal 1960).This technique , technically termed as ‘Montage’ is accompanied by presentation of ‘view –point‘ in the poem , because Eliot was sure that ‘ one cannot create a very large poem without introducing a more impersonal point of view or splitting it up into various personalities’(Jain 1996). And this also contributed to fragmentation of  the poem.

‘ The themes of this symphonic poem which are a series of scenes rather like film-shots fading and dissolving into each other , seen from the viewpoint of an impersonal observer , the protagonist of the poem and who is identified with the impotent Fisher king and also with Tiresias , the blind prophet of Greek legend’(Pinto 1972).

“The different voices and point of view shift, merge , dissolve , collide ‘(Jain 1996),so that the boundary between them doesn’t exit in the poem . ‘At first we are aware of someone, of a silent partner to a conversation in a Munich Café , of a man with a girl on a damp evening , of a figure in a lady’s room ; but this shadow becomes a voice that laments by the waters of Lake Leman , the fisherman , Tiresias ; and at the end , time and place has disappeared ‘(Gardener 1949).

Eliot’s original drafts of the poem , when dissected by Pound , got the magic touch of a modern movement which was growing under the works of Pound _________ Imagism , whose main principles were:

‘ 1. Direct treatment of ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective .

2. To use absolutely no word that doesn’t contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sense of musical phrase , not in sequence of metronome ’(Bradbury 1989)

So, the edited version of The Waste Land was condensed , unadjectival ,centered on object .As it was constructed in the sequence of musical phrase , it used ‘free-verse’ . ‘The aim was to break with the romantic tradition of lushness in poetry , and produce a new verse as radical as Cubist painting’ (Jain 1996) . Manju Jain says in this regard:

‘ Some times The Waste Land is considered as a cubist poem which juxtaposes a variety of temporal prospective, languages , genres and areas of experience’(Jain 1996)

And all this juxtaposition of this poem was made possible due to the methods of ‘Collage , the assemblage technique practiced by Cubist painters , contemporary with Eliot such as Picasso’ (Tamplin 2003).

Those who interpreted the poem as a ‘Musical Poem’, found in it the ‘themes and motifs flowing together and recur with a powerful emotional impact, but with no regular or predictable structural elements’ (Jain 1996), to which I.A.Richards has referred as ‘a music of ideas’ and has said that ‘ they may tell us something , but that this effect in us may combine into a coherent whole of feeling and attitude (Drew 1993). Why Eliot used such a frame work is clear from what he writes in The music of Poetry:

‘ I know that a poem or a passage in a poem , may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches the expression in words v, and that this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and the image; and I do not believe that this is an experience peculiar to myself’(Drew 1993).

 Whether as a ‘ music of ideas’ or as ‘ cubist painting’ or even as a marvel of Montage technique , what makes The Wate Land distinctive among other works of such category of modern period lies in the way Eliot selected and applied the objects , images , experiences to the core of the poem . This is in fact his retrospection quality which he explains as :

‘ the mind of any poet would be magnetized in its own way ,to select automatically in his reading (from picture papersand cheap novels indeeded as well as serious books , and least likely from the works of an abstract nature, though even these are aliment for some poetic minds ) the material ———- an image ; a phrase , a word ——— which may be used to him later . And this selection probably runs through the whole of his sensitive life . There might be the expression of a child of ten , a small boy peering through sea-water in a rock pool and finding a sea-anemore ,for the first time : the simple experience (not so simple , for an exceptional child as it looks ) mighty lie dormant in his mind for twenty year , and reappear transformed in some verse context charged with great imaginative pressure’(Eliot  1949).

And these ‘ objects with imaginative pressure’ are in fact the ’Objective Correlative’ without which , according to Eliot , ‘ no emotion can be expressed accurately in art ’ (Rosenthal 1960), and which are in fact ‘ a set of objects , a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion ; such that, when the external facts , which must terminate in sensory experience are given , the emotion is immediately evoked’(Rosenthal 1960). In fact these were presumed to have the same effect on the mind as similar figures in painting. The importance of these for Eliot was such that he even gives credit to Shakespeare’s inability to find exact ‘Objective Correlative’ for the failure in Hamlet. He used these objective equivalents in The Waste Land, to create the sense of Actual condition of modern times, but he used them as symbols like that of Baudelaire and Other symbolists of his time, but in a peculiar manner. This peculiarity is in Conrad Aiken’s words:

‘[…] the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent. We cannot feel that all the symbolisms belong quite inevitably where they have been put; […]’ (Aiken 1968)

Again we can not feel that the relation between the more symbolic parts and the less is always as definite as it should be .For instance in the poem , there is the words Datta, Dayadhavam , Damyata and Shanti which according to Aiken, “say a good deal less for us than ‘Give : sympathize : control ’ or ‘ Peace ’ ’’. But Eliot’s answer on his such peculiar use of symbol is that ‘ he wants them not merely to mean those particular things, but also to mean them in a particular way ’(Aiken 1968),and in this case it meant for connecting Upanishads with these three human qualities .

So here comes into play, Eliot’s use of ‘Intertextuality’, the method in which he referred to various texts and literary works of different language and subjects across the globe.

Eliot’s use of allusions ‘ is related to his theory of tradition as to his exploration of the relationship of the past and present ’(36). Moreover Eliot used the allusions as I.A.Richards explains, as ‘a device for compression, for the poem is equivalent in content to an epic ’ without which ‘twelve books would have been needed ’(Jain 1996).

After analyzing the first aspect, we may find in us the anguish that Eliot wrote The Waste Land just to exhibit the available literary devices of his time. But V. A .Shanne answers to this:

‘ the mind of any poet would be magnetized in its own way ,to select automatically in his reading (from picture papersand cheap novels indeeded as well as serious books , and least likely from the works of an abstract nature, though even these are aliment for some poetic minds ) the material ———- an image ; a phrase , a word ——— which may be used to him later . And this selection probably runs through the whole of his sensitive life . There might be the expression of a child of ten , a small boy peering through sea-water in a rock pool and finding a sea-anemore ,for the first time : the simple experience (not so simple , for an exceptional child as it looks ) mighty lie dormant in his mind for twenty year , and reappear transformed in some verse context charged with great imaginative pressure’(Eliot  1949).

And these ‘ objects with imaginative pressure’ are in fact the ’Objective Correlative’ without which , according to Eliot , ‘ no emotion can be expressed accurately in art ’ (Rosenthal 1960), and which are in fact ‘ a set of objects , a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion ; such that, when the external facts , which must terminate in sensory experience are given , the emotion is immediately evoked’(Rosenthal 1960). In fact these were presumed to have the same effect on the mind as similar figures in painting. The importance of these for Eliot was such that he even gives credit to Shakespeare’s inability to find exact ‘Objective Correlative’ for the failure in Hamlet. He used these objective equivalents in The Waste Land, to create the sense of Actual condition of modern times, but he used them as symbols like that of Baudelaire and Other symbolists of his time, but in a peculiar manner. This peculiarity is in Conrad Aiken’s words:

‘[…] the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent. We cannot feel that all the symbolisms belong quite inevitably where they have been put; […]’ (Aiken 1968)

Again we can not feel that the relation between the more symbolic parts and the less is always as definite as it should be .For instance in the poem , there is the words Datta, Dayadhavam , Damyata and Shanti which according to Aiken, “say a good deal less for us than ‘Give : sympathize : control ’ or ‘ Peace ’ ’’. But Eliot’s answer on his such peculiar use of symbol is that ‘ he wants them not merely to mean those particular things, but also to mean them in a particular way ’(Aiken 1968),and in this case it meant for connecting Upanishads with these three human qualities .

So here comes into play, Eliot’s use of ‘Intertextuality’, the method in which he referred to various texts and literary works of different language and subjects across the globe.

Eliot’s use of allusions ‘ is related to his theory of tradition as to his exploration of the relationship of the past and present ’. Moreover Eliot used the allusions as I.A.Richards explains, as ‘a device for compression, for the poem is equivalent in content to an epic ’ without which ‘twelve books would have been needed ’(Jain 1996).

After analyzing the first aspect, we may find in us the anguish that Eliot wrote The Waste Land just to exhibit the available literary devices of his time. But V. A .Shanne answers to this:

‘ In composing The Waste Land , Eliot not merely drew upon a number of past masters and contemporaries, but also tried to borrow ideas and methods from different literary genres and from variety of fine arts ; from music , painting , the theatre , the drama , the novel and even films . But the composition of The Waste Land has not been governed by the desire to demonstrate the use of these devices . On the contrary it is clear that Eliot’s use of all these devices is subjected to the prime necessity of exploring the basic theme and articulating his vision of a waste land ’(Sahanne 1999).

Now this leads us to the second aspect on whose ground we will now analyze the poem’s validity to be called a modern poem and of course this aspect is concerned with the theme and how it represents the contemporary modern world . ‘ The first world war in its later phases opened the eyes of the poets like Sassoon , Owen , Rosenberg , who suddenly saw the modern world in all its naked horrors unmasked by the impact of the war , and were shocked into the creation of vital poetry’(Pinto 1972). But ‘Eliot was not ’, as Prof. P .K. Mohanty puts it, ‘bothered about physicality of war nor even bothered about economical impacts of war’ (Mohanty 2003). In fact Eliot thought that ‘ it was necessary to find expression for a new sort of sensibility arising out of conditions that were wholly different from those of agricultural , class dominated society from which the old traditions of English poetry had sprung ’(Pinto 1972). The result was that people found The Waste Land as ‘unpleasant ’ and this was because The Waste Land and the other poems of Eliot was burn out of the society which was in Pinto’s words ‘ in a state of progressive degradation ’ (Pinto 1972).And this degradation was only due to the fact that ‘ man looses his essence of humanity ‘ (Mohanty 2003), when a war is fought . Eliot did what Conrad just started to expose in his novels like Secret Agent , where he has not ‘ merely reported the hideousness of the scene ’(Pinto 1972)., but tried to find which is a poet’s function to find exact words for this purpose . Eliot was a marvel at this ; for instance he even quoted the exact lines of his first wife ——

” ‘My nerves are bad to-night , Yes , bad .Stay with me ”

——- so as to express the reality at the point where the man’s personal condition acts as a mirror to the existing situation of the society .So , what is the theme of The Waste Land ? Of course it is more complex than referring to the ‘ horror ’ which Eliot had once decided to borrow from Conrad’s phrases —— ‘ Horror ! Horror! ’ ——– from The Heart of Darkness , as ‘ the quotation would have emphasized the theme of self scrutiny in the poem ’ (Jain 1996).

In the new ‘ Epigraph ’, Sibyl is saying : ‘ I want to die ’, which was selected by Pound to express what is more appropriate to the condition of modern man ——- ‘ life in death condition ’. It is the death and rebirth on the skeleton of which the poem is built , and this is expressed with the help of vegetation myths and anthropology .

‘ In the volumes to which Eliot refers in his notes Adonis , Attis , Osiris , Frazer describes the myths and rites associated with Adonis […] , Attis and Osiris who for the people of Egypt and Western Asia , represented the yearly decay and revival of life , which they

 

personified as a god who annually died and rose again from the dead ’(Jain 1996).

And this is appropriately applicable to modern man’s condition as his every action is mechanized. The modern men have become more like a ‘Zamboi’ of the Phantom comics, who are like the living-dead, moving over the London bridge as if in a mechanical process:

“Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn

A crowed flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had not undone so many”

The city has become unreal , lifeless , with the living-dead crowd, who don’t understand what they are doing ; they don’t have the time to stop and think either . The modern man has lost his sense of thinking:

“What are you thinking of? What thinking?

What?

I never know what you are thinking. Think’ ”

And even when one gets a chance to think he finds himself ——–

“[…] in Rat’s alley

Where dead men lost their bones”

Man has lost everything, even the existence of true humanity is lost by loosing ‘ love and faith which makes us human’(Mohanty 2003),like the dead skeleton lost their last pieces of bones .

The fear of death which is promised to be shown in ‘ a handful of dust ”  , prevails all through the poem , symbolizing metaphysical death of human spirit . The impotency of Fisher King becomes impotency of mankind to give ‘ rebirth ’ to the human emotions , feelings which are lost . Symbolizing this the women at pub talk about the birth control pills .

‘ The cockney woman narrates Lil’s life history especially her marriage and her use of the pill , which has resulted in her emaciation . The key symbol, according to Grover Smith, is provided by the act of abortion which epitomizes the woman’s life experience […]. Lil, in spite of her five children or because of them, is seeker after sterility, an inversion of ancient – fertility rites and processes ’(Sahanne 1999).

And suddenly the voice asks:

“What you get married for if you don’t want children”

——- which represents the futility of mechanized , impotent existent of humankind .

“HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME

HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME”

                                                               

, but nothing happens symbolizing the same fact that man has reached the dead-end.

And the solution is tried to be achieved through love and religion . As Grover Smith explains, the first initiation was love , which failed and then the attempt of second initiation through religion(Smith 1974). The first initiation failed because in the modern civilization the love has also become mechanized. The typist girl tries to experience the classic passionate emotions of the hyacinth girl who

“Came back, late from the hyacinth garden,

With arms full and hair wet”

Typist girl also returns late when

“Her drying combinations touched by the

Sun’s last rays”

  But  

“She is bored and tired”  

She experiences in the name love what Tiressias sees and fore-suffers as:

“He assaults her at once ;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response.

And makes a welcome of indifference”                                                      

This is the love in modern man’s definition which makes the girl glad only when it is over :

“Well now that’s done: and I ‘m glad it’s over”

The love episode fails not because of Eliot’s inability who as ‘ it is often argued is incapable of depicting love in his poetry’(Das 1999), but because Eliot was from the very beginning was in doubt at the validity of love’s capacity to provide a solution in the world where ‘everything exists , nothing has value .So in the first part of the poem , there is among the ‘stony rubbish ’, the Red Rock with the invitation:

“(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),”

                                                                                                                                which M.L.Rosenthal believes as ‘ultimately a symbol of church ’ (Rosenthal 1960).But more prominent references appear at the end , when love has already become a failure .

“There is always another one walking beside you”

                                And this ‘one’ is the Christian spiritual guide Jesus. But Eliot is not satisfied ; in search of solution , with the Christianity of the west , he moves over to the Upanishads and finds the eastern mode of finding path to escape from the spiritual degradation in three ‘ DA ’s :

“Datta, Daydhvam, Damyata”                                                  

i.e. to give, sympathize and control.

But Eliot as a complete modernist never wrote anything which would be far from reality. As he knew it would be much long before modern man utilizes these solutions if at all these are utilized. So, he uses irony . The cloud spreads over the sky of the waste land representing the fact that the possible solution is in sight, but it never rains even a single drop .And that’s again reference to what Eliot tried to portray in the pub-scene with the warning

“HURRY UP PLEASE IT IS TIME”                                        

After listening to this second aspect of The Waste Land , i. e. its quality of being a social critique , many may wish to argue that this aspect is an imaginative one created just to prove the poem’s validity as a modern one , with citing Eliot’s words :

“When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land, some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned […] “(Bradbury 1989).

And to this I should say that every poem is first generated inside the mind and heart of the poet which is then extended to the external world. Among all the poetry written, the one that becomes successful is in Malcolm Bradbury’s words , ‘ through an act of separation and angularity and it was this way that Eliot became the masterful modern poet ’(Bradbury 1989).

In the end ,I must conclude that though no amount of criticism can ever do justice to any piece of work , it is clear from our analysis of the poem The Waste Land , which Pound came to call us ‘ the justification of the “movement ” of our modern experiment since 1900 ’ (Bradbury 1989) , is the poem without which ‘modern poetry could not have been the same ’ (Bradbury 1989).

 

 

References

Abrahams, M.H. ed.                 A glossary of Literary Terms, Harcourt Asia Pte .,India,1994

Aiken, Conrad                          .‘An Anatomy of Melancholy’, T.S.Eliot:TheWasteLand(CaseBook), EditedbyDyson,macmillan,London,               1968

Bradbury,Malcolm.                   The Modern World Ten great Writers, KalyaPublishers,New  Delhi,1989

Brooks, Cleanth.                      Modern Poetry and Tradition, Oxford University Press, New  York, 1939

Das, Dr. Bijay Kumar.              Critical Theories and Literary Texts: a Correlation, The  Critical Endevour,

                                                (Research Association,Cuttack), vol.8,  December 2002

Das, Dr.Bijay Kumar.               ‘The Universality of T.S.Eliot’, The Ravenshaw Journal of  English Studies,vol.9, no. 1-2, 1999

Drew,Elizabeth.                        T.S.Eliot:The Designs of His Poetry, Doab Publication, New Delhi,1993

Eliot,T.S.                                 The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, Faber and    Faber,London,1949

Gardener, Helen.                      The Art of T.S. Eliot, Faber and Faber,London,!949

Jain,Manju. Ed.                        T.S.Eliot:The Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, New Delhi,1996

Mohanty,Prof. P.K.            ‘Eliot’s The waste Land’, (Seminar Lecture), P.G. Department of English,    venshaw                                      (Autonomous) College,  Cuttack, Orissa, 15 February 2003

Pinto, V. de S.                          Crisis in Poetry: 1880-1940, Hutchinson & Co. , London, 1972

Rosenthal, M.L.                       The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, Oxford   University Press, USA, 1960

Rudra, Arup.                             ‘The Structure of The waste land’, Journal of Department of English (University of Calcutta),                                                      vol.15,no.2,1979-80

Sahane, V. A. Ed.                     The Waste Land-T.S.Eliot, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999

Smith, Grover.                         T.S.Eliot’s Poetry and Plays, 1974

Tamplin, Ronald.                     T.S.Eliot, Pearson Education (Singapur) Pub. Ltd,Delhi,2003

 

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(c) Samir K. Dash, 2003,

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