Tuesday, 12 March 2013

"The Wasteland" by T.S. Eliot

The Wasteland is a post-war poem of 433 lines and was published in the year 1922. Eliot has chosen the themes of alienation, unfamiliarity, isolation and disillusionment with modernity, in this poem. Also, The Wasteland is a poem which is basically a passing juncture in one’s life and it portrays the landscape of dryness in human soul. The poem is divided into five sections and they are;
1.   The Burial of the Dead
2.   A Game of Chess
3.   The Fire Sermon
4.   Death by Water
5.   What the Thunder Said
The five sections are in a fragmented form and many lines, in the poem, have biblical connotations, have relations with different fables and plays – suggesting that the poem is a collective effort when it comes to stating the aftermath of the war.

The main causes that linger throughout the poem are the advent of scientific technology and the loss of human values. There are references to the elements of loneliness, meaninglessness and the idyllic life. The structuring of the titles of each section in the poem delineates a sort of pessimistic notion and simultaneously reveals a sense of sinister element attached to its meanings.

The poem begins with a highlight on the change in the seasons and it is seen as one of the major themes of The Wasteland. The poem opens with an invocation of April, “the cruellest month” – indicative of the fact that ‘what brings life into the world also brings death’. The seasons fluctuate; spinning from one state to another, yet in its own cycle maintains stasis and this is very evidently pictured towards the end of the poem where the ‘wasteland’ becomes almost season-less, devoid of rain, of propagation and of real change. The world hangs in a perpetual limbo, waiting for the dawn of a new season. Also, the arrival of a new season is sort of a mockery at the humans for no matter how high and evolved man’s thinking becomes, nature’s ways can never be challenged.

Deathis another theme which is seen as a very prominent aspect in the poem. The term ‘death’ has a synonymous meaning of ‘life’, in other words, by dying a being can pave way for new lives. Eliot asks his friend Stetson: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” Similarly, Christ, by ‘dying’, redeemed humanity and gave new life. The ambiguous passage between life and death finds an echo in the frequent allusions to Dante, particularly in the Limbo-like vision of the men flowing across London Bridge and through the modern city.

Themes like ‘rebirth’, ‘love’, ‘lust’, ‘water’ and ‘history’ also stand highlighted throughout the poem and these are not just words that stand alone, they too are interlinked with each other. The references to Tristan und Isolde in “The Burial of the Dead”; to Cleopatra in “A Game of Chess”; and to the story of Tiresiaus and Philomela suggest that love in “The Wasteland” is often destructive. A sense of ‘nothingness’ is brought out through this theme.

Lust, one of the seven deadly sins, is also discussed in the poem. The episode of a typist with a “carbuncular” man is a depiction of a scene as something akin to a rape. Sexuality runs through the poem taking the center stage as a cause of calamity. The act of sex is too easy and too rampant in Eliot’s London, what should be looked at as an act of reproduction, here is looked at in a perverted view, that is, sex, in other words is not sterile.

The Christ images in the poem, along with many other religious metaphors, posit ‘rebirth’ and ‘resurrection’ as central themes. Eliot finally turns to heaven to seek for the climatic change in the skies – Datta, Dayadhvam and Damyata – is the poet’s vision of a world that is neither dying nor living; to break the spell and a profound change is required. Hence, the prevalence of Grail imagery in the poem; that the holy goblet can restore life and wash away the wrongs. And this is another reason for which we see the constant references to baptisms and to rivers – both are seen as “life-givers” in either spiritual or physical ways.

The Wasteland lacks water and water is an element that promises rebirth. But we see water as a destroyer in the poem. However, when the ‘wasteland’ finally experiences the rain, it does suggest the cleaning of the sins, the washing away of the misdeeds, and the start of a new future. The hope is immediately shattered as with rain comes thunder and with thunder there is lightning and therefore perhaps the presence of ‘fire’ which becomes one of the harmful forces of the nature. Thus, the imagery of ‘destruction’ lingers throughout the poem.

History, as Eliot suggests, is a repeating cycle. At the time Eliot wrote The Wasteland, the First World War was definitely the first – “Great War” for those who had witnessed it; there had been none to compare with it in history. The predominant sensibility was one of profound change; the world had been turned upside down and now, with the rapid progress of technology, the movements of societies, and the radical upheavals in the arts, sciences and philosophy, the history of mankind has reached a turning point.

A reference can be made to The Second Coming (poem) by W.B. Yeats where a nightmarish scene is described in the beginning lines of the poem – the speaker asserts that the world is near a revelation and that the minds of the majestic living creatures (humans) are troubled and polluted. One cannot simply let go off the fear and have complete faith in the divine; instead the development of science has questioned the values of faith at the very first step itself.

Eliot, through works like The Wasteland and The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock, became the voice of Modernism and his poems use the “objective correlative” of symbolic, meaningful, and often chaotic concrete imagery. Eliot may not have as much influence on poets today as some of his contemporaries but he has had a far greater impact on poetry. And thus, in some way there is the presence of prophesying tone in his poem The Wasteland.


Arun said...

Interesting write up on Poetry of Eliot. I wonder all the artists (including Poets), whose sensitivity to the world makes them produce works, which I am sure provides their signature on their works when one looks in to their works. Good effort.

Suhasini Srihari said...

I believe there is more to learn from this poem in particular Sir as I haven't mentioned all the biblical connotations nor have I mentioned any links between other plays and fables, therefore, to me this write-up is a mere step taken to understand a poet of modernistic approach. Thank you for the reply Sir! :)

Yashaswini Madival said...

beautiful suu! I love reading this again.

Suhasini Srihari said...

Thanks Yash! I'm glad you feel that way and I hope to have an informative exchange of opinions on matters such! :)

yoganand said...

Good attempt...suggest you read Cleanth Brooks' "Wastleland : Critique of a Myth" ... Elliot was doing in this poem what James Joyce had done with the novel form ( Ulysses, 1912 - pls put this title on your "must read" list)

Suhasini Srihari said...

Haha.. First of all, your comment came as a real surprise to me! Well, thank you very much for reading through my blog post Sir. I shall take heed of the reference that you have mentioned. And about "Ulysses", I shall add it right away to the list. Thank you once again Sir.
Oh yes, I did read your blog post on 'Literature', and I have left a comment as well.

Prakrithi said...

Elliot's waste land is a compressed epic your endeavours to understand Elliot is worded precisely which is commendable.critics like Edmund Wilson, Helen Gardner,Mattheissen, I.A. Richards have poured in their estimation of Elliot's poem.such readings well educate us about Elliot's profundity of thought. the novelty of his poetry,innovative techniques, mythical method, are significant features which classify Elliot's poetry as modern.

Suhasini Srihari said...

Thank you Ma'am, for taking time out and reading through my write-up. And thank you for the inputs. Perhaps I could understand more about the poem once when you have finished teaching me.

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