The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: Critical Analysis

Eliot's The Waste Land is an important landmark in the history of English poetry and one of the most talked about poem of the 20th century. It is long poem of more than four hundred lines in 5 parts entitled: 1) The burial of the Dead; 2) A Game of Chess; 3) The fire Sermon; 4) Death by Water; 5) What the Thunder Said.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The Waste Land draws much of its symbolism and narrative framework from the mythological story of the quest for the Holy Grail, the sacred cup that Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper. The poem is dedicated to Ezra Pound. It was written during the autumn of 1921, in Switzerland, where the poet was just recovering after a serious breakdown in health caused by domestic worries and over work. The poem presents a bleak and gloomy picture of the human predicament in the twentieth century. Ina way it presents the "disillusionment of a generation." The gloom and despair of the poet are mirrored in this poem.

The Waste Land, a poem in five parts, was ground breaking in establishing the form of the so-called kaleidoscopic, or a fragmented modern poem. These fragmented poems are characterized by jarring jumps, in perspective, imagery, setting, or subject. Despite this fragmentation of form, The Waste Land is unified by its theme of despair. Its opening lines introduce the ideas of life's ultimate futility despite momentary flashes of hope. The poem goes on to present a sequence of short sketches following an individual's baffled search for spiritual peace. It concludes with resignation at the never-ending nature of the search. The poem is full of literary and mythological references that draw on many cultures and universalize the poem's themes. According to legend, only the pure of heart can attain the Grail. In the version of the Grail myth that Eliot draws on, a wasteland is awaiting a miraculous revival-for itself and its failing ruler, the Fisher King, guardian of the Holy Grail. The Waste Land appeared in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), which was the most destructive war in human history to that point. Many people saw the poem as an indictment of the postwar European culture and as an expression of disillusionment with contemporary society, which Eliot believed was culturally barren.

The theme of the poem is the spiritual and emotional sterility of the modern world. Man has lost his passion, i.e. his faith in God and religion; his passion to participate in religion and this decay of faith has resulted in the loss of vitality, both spiritual and emotional. Consequently, the life in the modern wasteland is a life-in-death, a living death, like that of the Sibyl at Cumae. According to Eliot's philosophy, in so far as we are human beings we must act and do either evil or good, and it is better to do evil than to do nothing. Modern man has lost his sense of good and evil, and this keeps him from being alive, from acting. In the modern desolate and, there is a life-in-death, a life of complete inactivity, listlessness and apathy. That is why winter is welcome to them, and April is the cruelest months, for it reminds them of the stirrings of life and, "They dislike to be roused from their death-in-life."

The poem thus presents "a vision of dissolution and spiritual drought". This spiritual and emotional sterility of the denizens of The Waste Land arises from the degeneration, vulgarization, and commercialization of sex. Eliot's study of the fertility myths of different people had convinced him that the sex - act is the source of life and vitality, when it is exercised for the sake of procreation and when it is an expression of love. But when it is severed from its primary function, and is exercised for the sake of momentary pleasure or momentary benefit, it becomes a source of degeneration and corruption. It then represents the primacy of the flesh over the spirit, and this result in spiritual decay and death.

The title "A Game of Chess" suggests that sex has become a matter of intrigue, a matter of moves and counter- moves, a source of momentary pleasure, a sordid game of seduction and exploitation of the innocent. There is the fashionable society woman who, despite all her pomp and show, despite all the luxury with which she is surrounded, is bored and hysterical as a consequence. Her love, too, suffers from mental vacuity and is unable to keep up even small conversation.

Sex- relationship in the middle is equally mechanical. This is seen in the mechanical relationship of the typist and the clerk. The typist gives herself to the clerk with the sense of total indifference and apathy. There is neither repulsion nor any pleasure, and this absence of feeling is a measure of the sterility of the age. It is just animal like copulation. The songs of three Thames daughters clearly show that they have been sexually exploited, but they can do nothing about it. They and their people are too poor and too apathetic to make any efforts of the betterment of their lot. Not only has sex been vulgarized and commercialized there also prevailed abnormal sex- practices of various kinds. Thus Mr. Eugenides is a homosexual and Hotel Metropole is a hot bed of homosexuality, a relationship which is essentially sterile. All Europe is burning with lust and sexuality.

However, it would be wrong to say that The Waste Land merely depicts the disillusionment of the post- war generation, and that it is a mere diagnosis of the distemper of the modern age without any solution or hope of salvation. It, no doubt, deals with the tragedy of the modern age, but it also shows that tragedy is at the heart of life, all life, in all ages. The past and the present are telescoped, and it is thus shown that what is happening in the present age did also happen in the past. For this reason, it will be wrong to call the poem "a sigh for the glories of a vanished past"; Eliot has not glorified the past at the expense of the present. Rather, he was revealed, the resembling contrasts between the past and the present. Sexual sins, perversion of sex, have always led to degeneration and decay. The sexual sins of the King Fisher and his soldiers laid waste his kingdom; and ancient Thebes was laid waste because its king was guilty of the sin of incest. Sexual violence has always been there: Philomela was raped and her tongue was severed so that she may not reveal the crime. Reference to Elizabeth and Leicester in the song of the daughters of the Thames shows the sex- relationship in the past also has been equally futile and meaningless. In all these respects, the present resembles the past. The only difference is that in the past, suffering and penance resulted in spiritual regeneration and return to health: Philomela was transformed into the bird of golden song and King Fisher was cured and his kingdom redeemed.

Thus, the poem also makes promise and prophecy. It suggests that regeneration is possible, as it has always been possible, through suffering and penance. In the last section of the poem, the thunder is already heard and the clouds are there. Thus a promise is held out of the coming of the rain of divine grace, only if man will repent and do penance as the King Fisher and the King Oedipus did. Eliot brings together the wisdom of the East and the West and shows that spiritual regeneration can come, if only we heed the voice of the thunder: Give, sympathize, and control.

It must be clearly understood that The Waste Land is a social document of our times, a poem which throws light on the problems and perplexities of modern civilization. Eliot is not enamored of the golden past nor does he heave a sigh for the vanished glory of the past. He is not an escapist or a romanticist; he is a stern realist who laid his hand on the pulse of the modern man. He does not believe that all was beautiful and glorious. At the same time, Eliot is not pessimist rather than despair it is hope that sustains The Waste Land.

The theme of The Waste Land is essentially the spiritual experience of man; it has to be related to its background. In the world of today, one cannot ignore the social, secular, commercial and technical compulsions of the modern world. Eliot has referred to the past in order to show the similarity of the problems of both ages and how the experience of the past can help in finding solutions of the problems of our time.

Moreover, the past has another advantage over the present. It showed the courage and vitality of the human spirit; it had the capacity to do things both good and evil. People then were not inert, lazy and bored. Elsewhere, Eliot wrote that the quality which distinguishes humanity is its capacity to do good or evil. Vigor and vitality are the secret of any civilization or a great period in history. In the modern age, spiritual paralysis has overtaken man. This is due to our secular democracy, commercial interests and mechanical and technological progress which has eroded man's faith in religion, moral values and individual development and achievement. Man may be an atom in this great universe, but he is an intense atom, capable of yielding energy and power. It is this latent power which needs to be discovered and utilized.

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Shrestha, Roma. "The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 25 Nov. 2013,