The poem The Wasteland provides a negative portrayal of the cultural and environmental state of the modern world. Through the use of polyphony, it compiles a shared sense of cultural doom, the landscaping which is utilized is often barren and dry, which indicates the view that Eliot felt pessimistic about the state of the environment. As well as this, the use of mythical allusion challenges the strength of modern society. The poem was published in December 1922, shortly after the end of the First World War. The pessimism within the poem therefore mirrors the discontent Eliot held towards the modern world specifically following the war. It highlights the disengagement which people had with society and humanity. This is shown through the cultural criticism by Eliot, but also environmental condemnation, following the mass destruction of natural habitats.
Eliot uses a compilation of different voices to narrate the poem, The Wasteland. The use of polyphony means that Eliot assimilates his plight with the plight of many, highlighting the reach of cultural disintegration. David Chinitz referred to this technique as, ‘a hopeless salvaging operation’ (T.S. Eliot: The Wasteland, 326), alluding to the fact that Eliot attempts to conjure up feelings from the past in the hopes of reintegrating a distinguishable and proud culture. However, according to Chinitz, the poem willingly falls short of achieving this in order to articulate Eliot’s hopelessness in the modern state. Historical referencing within these voices also adds to this feeling of detachment from the present. Eliot includes each reference as a commentary on the cultural state of the world. For example, the Shakespearian play, Antony and Cleopatra, is referred to in the lines, ‘The Chair she sat in like a burnished throne’. The use of this allusion draws parallels between the conflict within the play, and the conflict which occurred in World War One, as well as the personal tragedy which both events caused. The play presents a society in a cultural downward spiral that links closely to the reevaluation of society following the First World War. The inclusion of the opera by Richard Wagner incorporates the use of the German language to create a cross-cultural reference, signifying that the deformation of society is not just confined to America. The hyacinth garden offers apart relief from an otherwise environmentally and culturally barren landscape, however, by contrast, the story of Tristan and Isolde signifies the alienation of humanity from society. Therefore, by combining these two elements, Eliot warns of a positive misrepresentation of society. This allows the seeming refreshment from the hyacinth garden to be turned into a symbol of the doom of any idealization of civilization, giving a bleak view of not only the modern culture but also that of whatever future culture may or may not follow.
This message is mirrored through the use of mythical allusion, specifically that of the figure of Sibyl as well is used in the epigraph to Eliot's poem. A character who looks to the future and prophecies, while wanting to die. This illustrated Eliot’s negative view of the future and therefore a lack of hope for any improvements which might be made. The use of mythical allusion and imagery throughout is significant in challenging the strength of modern society. It equates the overwhelming culture from ancient history to the comparative emptiness of contemporary culture. The references used are both used to represent cultural and environmental decay. ‘The Fisher King’, story utilizes the imagery of a desolate landscape due to the downfall of men. The injury to the King can be assimilated with the injury caused to the soldiers during the First World War. Both instances caused disruption and devastation to the people surrounding them, but also to the natural environment which was damaged faultlessly at the hands of humanity.
The criticism of humanity is continued through Eliot’s representation of the environment. The settings within the poem lend themselves to the idea of a society barren of hope and renewal, as well as a devastated landscape caused by humanity. Gabrielle McIntyre comments on Eliot’s use of landscape, ‘he is both writing about a barren, post-war land’, (The Wasteland as an Ecocritique, 178), this supports the idea that Eliot is specifically critical of the humanitarian impact upon the environment. This is reflected within the use of predominately desert imagery and cityscapes, ‘dead tree…dry stone, no sound of water’ (Eliot, 00), the dryness of the landscape not only shows the disintegration of the environment but also the dryness present in the culture at present, lacking in any significance. The motif of water is often used to symbolize rebirth and renewal. However, Eliot’s poem is consciously lacking in fertile landscapes, as Chinitz commented on, the image of water is used throughout to represent danger and is preached as to be avoided. Madame Sosostris warns that ‘fear death by water’, the idea of death by water suggests a negative connotation to the renewal and fear of regeneration, which can either be attributed to the characters themselves as a commentary on the shallowness of attitude towards culture, or it could be attributed to Eliot’s pessimism that a renewal of culture will not create anything better and instead the future generations are doomed for a meaningless existence. As foreshadowed earlier in the poem, the chapter, ‘Death by Water’, describes the death of a man, ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’, by drowning. In contrast to the rest of the play and the representation of water, water in this passage appears to be kind and forgiving death, ‘passes the stages of his age and youth’, illustrating a calmness and meditation in dying due to drowning. This presents a sense of hope which is otherwise absent from the poem. Though the death by water is also ironic. Through this imagery, the world is presented as turning away from humanity, the same way that humanity is turning on the world and causing natural destruction. Water within the section represents freedom from the world. By presenting Phlebas’s death as graphic, ‘picking his bones’, Eliot highlights the pain caused by surviving in the modern world, however, Phlebas’ death offers him release from an otherwise empty world.