It is almost a hundred years since T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land and we now stand in a temporal relationship to him as he did to Byron, Shelley and Keats. One wonders if they sounded as challenging to his ears as he still sounds to ours. The Waste Land, first published in 1922, is a watershed in English Literature, standing out from everything that came before and everything that came after. But it did not appear ex nihilo; it was, like all literature, a product of its age and of Eliot's influences, however far he was able to go beyond those influences.
Eliot used the fragmented form of the poem to express his themes quite as effectively as the content. Understanding the sources of that form helps to put the poem into an historical perspective and see its relationship to literary tradition. While Eliot was an innovator, he also saw himself as a continuer of tradition as he explained in his 1919 essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. In 1922 he started his own literary magazine, The Criterion, with The Waste Land appearing in the first issue. Among the stated aims of that publication were, "the affirmation and development of tradition" and "the assertion of order and discipline in literary taste."
Eliot wrote The Waste Land in vers libre, although with some incidental rhymes. Free verse as a poetic form was still being approached warily at the time by English and American writers, even though it had been around for half a century. Formal rhymed verse, championed by younger contemporaries of Eliot -- major poets such as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice -- continued to be an important poetic form until after the Second World War. Eliot also wrote rhymed poetry, but with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) and The Waste Land he established free verse as the form of preference for the voice of the new, the innovative, and the future.
Among the daunting features found in the 433 lines of The Waste Land are the large number of original language quotes and obscure literary allusions. Fortunately, understanding the quotes and allusions is not necessary to grasping the intent of the work. Eliot's themes of despair, the living death of modern life, and the destruction of culture are effectively communicated in the English text.
The real impact of the original language quotes is to increase the feeling of alienation in readers unfamiliar with the source material. Eliot goes out of his way to make us feel like strangers in our own culture. Eliot was coming out of an age when a classical education separated the gentleman from the commoner. Public education had only come into being in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A common person, 'one of the low' as Eliot would disparagingly put it, might study "reading, 'riting, 'rithmatic," but a cultured gentleman would study, as Eliot did at Smith Academy in St. Louis, the essentials of Latin and Greek, Greek and Roman history, English and American history, elementary mathematics, French and German, and Rhetoric.
All this upper-middle-class erudition however did not prevent the senseless destruction and killing of the First World War. After the war, vulgarity took over and classical culture was destroyed. In 1920, journalist H.L. Mencken said, "The majority of Americans are tired of idealism. They want capitalism -- openly and without apology." The future of the world was in the hands of the ape-necked Sweeneys, the typists, the house agent's clerks and the Bradford millionaires. As Ezra Pound lamented in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), "The tea-rose tea-gown, etc. / Supplants the mousseline of Cos, / The pianola 'replaces' / Sappho's barbitos." Those who held onto the importance of the classics were shoring up the ruins with fragments.
In a work full of quotes and literary allusions, Eliot does not cite any of his contemporaries. He quotes from some nineteenth century sources: the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883); the French poets Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855); and makes oblique references to Walt Whitman (1819-1892). There has been some recent speculation that Eliot also used material from fellow American Madison Cawein's 1913 poem Waste Land.
Eliot quotes three French poets in The Waste Land and there is a strong connection between Eliot and nineteenth century French poetry. He especially admired the vers libre of Jules Laforgue (1860-1887). Eliot himself wrote poems in French, one of which, Dans le Restaurant, resurfaced as the Death by Water section of The Waste Land. Eliot studied nineteenth century French literary criticism while at Harvard and made his first visit to Paris to study at the Sorbonne in 1910. Paris, at that time, was the centre of artistic innovation. Isadora Duncan had set up her studio there and was introducing new forms of dance; Natalie Barney had begun her salons which later would become the centre for the Lost Generation writers; Paul Valéry was continuing the Symbolist tradition; Matisse and Picasso were painting; and Montparnasse was home to artists and writers such as Marcel Duchamp, André Derain, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie and Marc Chagall -- among many others.
The nineteenth century French Symbolist poets had redefined poetry. Their effects on English letters were felt primarily through the Bloomsbury Group, which initially gelled around 1905. It was Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press that first published Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917 and later brought out the first English printing of The Waste Land.
The Symbolists paved the way for later philosophies of the absurd, such as the Dada and Surrealist movements. They made a bold turn away from the prevailing aesthetic of the day with their disgust for the false and sentimental. They described the world and their experience of it not in terms of objective, external events, but in terms of their subjective states, using images to symbolically, or metaphorically, reflect the poet's inner world. They uncovered what was hidden and showed the pestilent underbelly of life with all its horrors and flaws, a world where "Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice / possess our souls and drain the body's force. . ." Things such as flowers -- which a sentimentalist might contemplate as "purple mints and daisies gemmed with gold" -- became for Baudelaire Les Fleur du Mal.
This turning of the familiar on its head, viewing the world in new and surprising ways, can be seen in the very first line of The Waste Land, "April is the cruellest month. . ." April, usually rejoiced as the herald of spring, the time of new life -- "mud-luscious" and "puddle-wonderful" as E. E. Cummings described it around the same time -- becomes a scene of cruelty. The subjectivity of the Symbolists is evident in Eliot's anthropomorphic description of the month of April as cruel Ð and not just cruel, but "the cruellest," implying that other months are cruel as well, just not quite as bad as April. It is clear from the outset of The Waste Land that the journey Eliot is taking us on is an internal journey, a journey through a psychic underworld comparable to Dante's travels through The Inferno, or Ulysses' trip to meet Tiresias in Hades.
Eliot may have had good reason to think of April as cruel: his Parisian friend, Jean Verdenal, to whom he dedicated The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, was killed at Gallipoli shortly after the initial assault of April 25, 1915. Jean Verdenal was also associated with the lilacs 'breeding. . . out of the dead land' since Eliot remembered him, "coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac."
About the time the Symbolists were revolutionizing poetry, Sigmund Freud was delving into the subconscious and developing his theories of dreams and the mechanisms of the mind. Freud devised a model of the psyche in which our natural desires are repressed by social conditioning -- but they do not go away, they find a way out, expressing themselves through hysterical behavior and through dreams. In our dreams we symbolically act out our repressed desires. The effect on the art world was profound. Suddenly the wild and colorful events of the night weren't just random images, they were connected narratives filled with meaning.
The importance of dreams had been stressed in French poetry in the early part of the nineteenth century by Gérard de Nerval, a forerunner of the Symbolists. Baudelaire and his fellow writers understood that symbols are the natural language of the psyche -- as evidenced by our dreams. Symbolists like Arthur Rimbaud made effective use of the dreamlike association of images. By the time the impact of Freud's work was felt, the groundwork for the incorporation of the irrational in poetry was already laid. Freud confirmed what the poets already knew: that images, events and ideas could be associated psychologically even if there were no direct logical or experiential link between them. We are all products of our conditioning and there is only one place where we are free from our conditioning and can see the world for what it really is: in our dreams. Psychic events are just are meaningful as physical events and the subconscious is a viable source of experience and artistic subject matter.
The dreamlike quality of The Waste Land is evident as we are taken through the Unreal City, jumping from conversation to conversation, from locale to locale, without any logical transition or connection. The literary technique of parataxis, or juxtaposition of images, gained some legitimacy in English poetry through the translation work of Ezra Pound. Pound found sudden shifts in imagery in his translations of Chinese poetry and used it in his own work, for example, in the Imagist poem In a Station of the Metro (1916):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The mind is presented with two images and is left to provide a connection between them -- not a logical connection, but a connection that emerges from the natural symbolic language of the psyche, much as in a dream. Eliot's dedication to this technique can be assessed by the fact that there is not one simile in the whole of The Waste Land. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock opens with the comparative simile ". . . the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table. . .", but in The Waste Land, Eliot dispensed with comparisons altogether, relying totally on the reader's mind to connect the images.
Ezra Pound edited The Waste Land when Eliot visited him in Paris in 1921. There are many similarities between Pound's and Eliot's poetry: they were both based in images; they both wrote derogatory verses about those they considered uncultured; they both stressed the musicality of poetry; neither wrote directly about themselves, but assumed personas; both relied on literary allusions; both used quotations in the original language; they relied on classical literature for references, images and settings; they both incorporated conversations into their poems.
When Pound worked on The Waste Land, he had already begun to write his epic Cantos, which he started around 1915, a work rampant with obscure references and original language quotes from classical sources. Canto I is taken from Homer's Odyssey and depicts Ulysses meeting Tiresias in the Underworld. Around this time too, James Joyce was writing his epic Ulysses which, in 1918, began to appear in serialized form in The Little Review. Eliot, although he includes Tiresias in his own underworld epic, relies more on Dante than Homer.
One shared idea that Pound uses in his Cantos and Eliot in The Waste Land is the abandoning of a unifying narrator. The poems are free-flowing between characters and points of view. The changes of voice in The Waste Land are startling and jarring. In the opening lines Eliot writes,
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
The warm "us" under the snow is a different "us" than the surprised "us" coming over the Starnbergersee, but Eliot makes the shift without any preparation, deliberately confusing the two voices. This intentional blurring of the demarcations between the various elements of our experience, the overlapping of our inner and outer worlds, is central to the poem. Objective reality is reduced to a projection of our neuroses. The poem becomes a pastiche of stream of consciousness thoughts, feelings, memories, bits of songs, observations and anxieties.
Eliot, like Pound, uses extensive quotes and allusions, often incorporating lines from other writers. The purloining of other writer's material was one of Eliot's favorite techniques. This wasn't plagiarism, but putting the writing of the past into a new context. The idea of using existing material or "found objects" in art was a concept advocated by the Dada movement. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal turned on its side under the title, Fountain. The artist invited us to see the familiar in a new way.
In The Waste Land, Eliot quotes from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, also modeling a section on the song of the Rhine Daughters from Das Rheingold. The poetic techniques in The Waste Land bear notable similarities to the musical techniques Wagner used in his operas, especially Tristan und Isolde. The opening of Tristan und Isolde is so striking that it is often called The Tristan Chord, signaling a move away from traditional harmonies to a more atonal composition -- reminiscent of the startling "April is the cruellest month. . ." that opens The Waste Land.
Wagner also made extensive use of harmonic suspension, that is, beginning a theme, interrupting it only to bring it back to a resolution later on. Wagner often builds cadences, creating expectation in the audience, then deliberately introduces a discordance to destroy the anticipated completion. This technique of breaking something off and leaving the audience hanging only to resurrect it later in the poem is used by Eliot throughout The Waste Land.
Wagner also made advances in the use of counterpoint, the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm, but interdependent in harmony. Eliot, the dramatist, also weaves voices throughout The Waste Land. In fact, the poem is almost a play for voices with monologues and conversations fading in an out, as if we were sitting in a café or a pub listening to snippets of conversation all around us.
Ezra Pound, himself a composer of atonal music, was enamored of the medieval troubadours and the way they blended poetry and music. Eliot found his own musical inspiration in Wagner, resulting in a fragmented, atonal collage of a poem. Using a fragmented structure to augment his written message about a fragmented world is the perfect union of form and content.
This collage technique also owes a debt to Guillaume Apollinaire and his book Alcools published in 1913. The collection is uneven as Apollinaire moved in new poetic directions, mixing traditional forms with Symbolist influence and modern imagery. Some of the poems have the juxtaposed images and disjointed collage effect of dreams that would lead Apollinaire to coin the term Surreal in 1917. Apollinaire, along with other Dada and early Surrealist artists, explored the non-linear processes of the mind as opposed to the strict mechanistic rationalism of the nineteenth century.
In The Waste Land, Eliot breaks down tradition, chronology, and the expected associations of images and ideas. Events are re-ordered, not in the way they happened, but in the way they haphazardly relate to our current condition; not with a logical connection, but with a felt-sense that all these things, however disparate and strange, fit together into a unified whole. Our natural symbolic language becomes the glue that holds the world together; our internal sensibilities the principles that connect our scattered parts and structure our lives.
At the time of the writing of The Waste Land, Eliot was in a personal crisis: a failed marriage; nervous exhaustion; short of money and overworked; trapped in a job as a bank clerk in a row of other clerks in a sub-basement; The Egoist, a literary magazine he helped edit, had folded. He felt that he had run out of choices. That a change had come over him in the past few years is evidenced by the fact that in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock he wrote of taking a chance, of daring to disturb the universe. He muses that ". . . there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse." There is still the possibility of choice and a chance for change. In The Waste Land, however, we are told of "The awful daring of a moment's surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract. . ." Gone was the hope; he had heard the key turn in the door of his personal prison. One of the things that make the poem so powerful is that Eliot's internal condition mirrored the state of the post-war world; writing of one was writing of the other.
Eliot stood at the crux of a world of shifting ideas. He had grown up in the world of mechanistic idealism -- even writing his doctoral thesis on F. H. Bradley, the leading proponent of British Idealism -- and had seen the basis of all he held dear swept away by science, materialism and war. He wasn't the only one this happened to, but he put it into words better than anyone else. Whether The Waste Land is a poem of hopeless despair or a start at rebuilding a shattered world is something that each reader must feel within themselves.
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