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The Waste Land As a Poem of Breakdowns: Analytical Essay

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The Waste Land is a poem of breakdowns, psychological breakdowns of marriages and relationships, breakdowns of poetry and language and evidently the entire world. The carnage of the first World War had laid waste to Europe and made a mockery of civilisation thus starting the evolution of modernism and new forms of expression. After the war, it was T.S Eliot who had to represent and sustain a culture that was on the brink of collapse. First published in 1922, The Waste Land is full of people sleepwalking through their daily lives. Life had become mechanical and empty of meaning where moral propriety was long forgotten. Eliot was heavily influenced by vorticism; a movement inspired by cubism and futurism on the continent and in The Waste Land he wanted to create a modern tradition which connected with the past and he did so by borrowing voices and cadences of previous poets.

The Waste Land is a highly complex poem organized on the principle of five sections which opens with a compelling epigraph of the ancient prophetess, the Sibyl of Cumae who longs to die. Her pessimism is the first indication of the idea which develops into the central theme of the poem; sterility and the decay of the human civilisation. The Waste Land is a poem of spiritual mourning for a world that is lost and will never be regained. The poem abandons the syntax of a narrative but relies on the collocation of images. One could argue it is a modified dramatic monologue with no unitary voice, but rather a series of characters coming on the stage of Eliot’s consciousness. The Wasteland was uncommon for its time as shorter poems where more frequent, the poem is divided into 5 main sections whereby the Eliot uses various poetic techniques to convey the theme of sterility. Robert Crawford notes, ‘lacking coherence this episodic structure moved closer to French avant-garde verse’ (Penguin 2015: 402). Eliot uses a vast range of allusions and references from religion, literature and blended quotations from several languages, mixing lyric moments with passages of direct speech to make the poem inaccessible to what he believes is the uncultured society of the modern world. Eliot himself states the narrative connectedness is not meant to appeal to logic of consciousness but the logic of imagination.

The Burial of the Dead

The theme of sterility is introduced with an image of death of vegetal barrenness, ‘April is the cruellest month… lilacs out of the dead land, mixing dull roots with spring rain’. Thwarted images of nature are marked by the conjuring of the seasonal cycles where one might associate springtime with fertility and love but here it is the season of death. The use of the word ‘winter’ provides an oxymoronic idea as winter is associated with cold and death but is the season that kept the reader ‘warm’. New Criticism states the life of the author ought to be irrelevant to the evaluation of a poem, however, The Waste Land is so tangled in biography and history it is impossible to separate the poet from the poem. Perhaps his perception of winter was in response to his own tribulations and privations during this time. By 1921, Eliot had split from his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Crawford remarks, ‘Tom’s creative endeavour and illness operated eerily in tandem’ (2005:402). Eliot ingeniously made is private grief into public grief without associating the two with each other. The tone of the poem shifts in lines 8-19 when we meet a new character, that of Marie Louise Larisch. Marie represents the superficial and sterile remnants of the old European aristocracy. The two experiences recounted by her could also well be seen as the dualistic nature of the world. From before the war – Marie and her cousin go sledding, that sense of elation and adventure, ‘in the mountains, there you feel free’, and then the reference to ‘drank coffee, and talked for an hour’, which could stand for the post-war world, one of culture adrift from natural seasonal values, monotonous and emptied of all nuance, unlike the pre-war world. Perhaps Eliot included the image of royalty here to symbolize the collapse of traditional forms of government and the blurring of class divisions. Eliot uses the technique of enjambment through the use of participles ‘ing’ such as ‘breeding, mixing, covering’, giving this section a sense of breathlessness, a sort of a quick slow pace which makes every thought seem unfinished.

Lines 19-26 see a shift in speaker where the theme of sterility develops further with an image of an imminent apocalypse. The speaker asks, ‘what branches grow out of this stoney rubbish’. This vision suggests the ‘branches of a tree’ represent the ordinary people and the ‘stoney rubbish’ represents culture, of which both are intertwined. Eliot who has influenced by Elizabethan and Jacobean culture viewed culture as a life stream to people and without it, it is impossible to make a civilisation worthy of fruitfulness if the environment in which it grows is empty. Eliot uses biblical imagery with ‘son of man’ to make this claim, stating you could not possibly understand as your life is, ‘a heap of broken images’, where you live a superficial and meaningless life without guidance and spiritual belief. The theme of sterility is further strengthened with the image of the desert with ‘dead trees, no sound of water where the only comfort is a red rock’. This emotive image reinforces the spiritual 'drought' and despondency in the modern world.

Eliot’s use of parallelism in lines 28 and 29 imply a certain mirroring effect with the two shadows, which gives you a disorientated sense of travelling into two opposite directions at once. The utterance of ‘dust’ symbolizes a human being’s presence here on earth, as we start as dust and end as dust, furthermore, representing sterility and lifelessness. The reference to the ‘hyacinth’ flower is another message of death, whereby a young prince caught the eye of Apollo and was mistakenly killed. Mourning the death of his love, he turned the drops of his blood into a flower, a hyacinth. The allusion to homosexuality would itself have been a taboo subject in early 20th century Europe, a topic rarely discussed openly.

While the enormity of what was happening in the trenches began to sink in at home, close to sixteen million soldiers died and with it so did the so-called ‘sophistication’ of the Western world. The war shifted the paradigms of what the educated and elite class were and reminded society of the sterility of death. From the tarot cards of Madame Sosostris, to the drowned Phoenician sailor (whose eyes have turned into pearls, hardened and dead), to the image of the Hanged Man, to the symbolic religious figures of Dante’s Inferno and the image of the Lady of the Rocks, the theme of sterility is littered throughout the poem much akin to the barrenness of the land itself. Eliot uses allusions as diverse as nursery rhymes to Dante’s Inferno to explain the human condition and emphasize just how little value is placed in culture anymore. By the 1920's, pop culture had unequivocally murdered high culture, and with The Waste Land, Eliot ensured high culture got the eulogy it deserved. In lines 60-68 the speaker paints a cynical picture of modern urban life that references the ‘unreal’, unauthentic and corrupt city that is bound by time. It is here Eliot reminisces on classical literature with repetition of the rhyming couplet of ‘many’ and ‘feet’ and ‘street’ which further strengthens the overall sense of fragmentation and loss of cultural inheritance.

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Game of Chess

Game of Chess begins with a steady meter and iambic pentameter which contributes to the sense of fluidity. In lines 111-114 the structure starts to break down just as the woman in this scene seems to be experiencing a mental breakdown. She begins the verse describing the decadence of pre-war luxury and ends it; a woman who lacks purpose and void of any meaningful cries. The second part of this section depicts two upper class women in a bar in modern day. They discuss their friend Lil’s infidelity and the nature of womanhood. Lil despite doing everything right, married her husband, bore children yet her aging body is no use anymore to her husband. The line ‘and if you don’t give it him, there’s others will’ implies how useless the nature of love is, it is viewed here as a duty rather than an act of love. It is interesting to see how Eliot has referenced historical female figures such as Cleopatra and Dido, both of whom were exemplary for their passion in love. In contrast to this we meet the modern couple, Albert and Lil, they are lacking passion and affection who use abortion as control over her fertility, ‘I took them pills to bring it off, she’s had five already’. The fact the women are discussing such a sensitive issue in a nonchalant manner in a public place further strengthens Eliot’s argument that the modern world is sterile and empty of reverence and respect for the wonder of life. The refrain of ‘HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME’ creates a sense of urgency throughout this section. The section ends with repetition of the words ‘good night’. This is in reference to the doomed Shakespearean heroine Ophelia, which is in stark contrast to the floating Cleopatra, both of which further develop the element of water. Perhaps Eliot might be suggesting that death is the only real escape from The Waste Land.

The Fire Sermon

In the third part, The Fire Sermon, London is described as a dirty industrial city where litter and dead bodies engulf the ‘Sweet Thames’. The motif of pollution, of moral and spiritual pollution is further characterised by the symbol of a rat, ‘dragging its slimy belly on the bank’, ‘White bodies naked on the low damp ground’. Eliot uses onomatopoeia, alliteration and cadences here with ‘twit’ and ‘jug’ to help this image flow. It is not only until we meet Tiresias, a hermaphrodite who has the ability to simultaneously see history past and present that the theme of sexual sterility is elaborated further. Tiresias offers one of his/her visions of a woman going about her everyday empty routine of doing chores before a young man arrives at her door. Eliot satirically uses this scene as an example of modern desires and while doing so uses a traditional end rhyming scheme with ‘rest’ and ‘guest’ and ‘guesses’ and ‘caresses’ to further emphasize the fantasy of heroic masculinity. Eliot demolishes the idea of modern love by describing the act of fornication as an obligation than passion with words such as ‘bored’, ‘tired’ and ‘assaults at once’. The man leaves almost immediately after their encounter but not before he gives her a meaningless, ‘patronizing kiss’. The unsatisfied woman exclaims, ‘I’m glad that’s over’ and slots back into her routine by turning on her gramophone. The scene conveys the emotional isolation of the modern world where nothing at all fulfils you, Eliot in a way is debasing vitality and sensuality. The sexual imagery throughout the poem is depicted as ‘squalid’, sleezy and never leading to reproduction. The theme of sterility is depicted through a variety of sexual encounters from homosexuality to prostitution to rape and abortion. From lines 266 onwards the form is shortened which impacts the pace of the poem. It is here also that the word, ‘nothing’ is repeated several times to further accentuate the barrenness of modern times.

The Waste Land presents a highly eloquent account of despair, its powerful vision of urban alienation spoke to a generation of young post war readers. It found a whole new language for poetry of the everyday world of motor cars, dirty canals, jazz records, he introduced into poetry words that everyone used in the streets. He deliberately chose sordid seeming subjects and in doing so creates a strange kind of beautiful. Eliot can’t accept change in society and his world and the world around him is echoing that change, he longs his old life personally.

‘If The Waste Land has come to being read as articulating Western civilisation’s sense of crisis, it can be heard also as a lasting cry, giving voice to darkness deep in the human psyche (2015:423).

The Waste Land it is called; & Mary Hutch, who has heard it more quietly, interprets it to be Tom’s autobiography- a melancholy one’ (Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolfe’ 2, 178).

One can not overlook Eliots personal circumstances when analysing this poem, his inherent lack of hope, optimism and wonder are undeniably destroyed much like the bombed of the buildings.

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