Eliot's Use of Symbolism in The Waste Land

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       Symbolism is a literary device through which comparisons are established between certain things. When an abstract idea is concretized through a physical object, the comparison becomes meaningful and vivid. For example, the rose is a symbol of beauty. Generally, symbols represent conceptions or ideas through things which can be seen or felt through the fine senses of man. Symbolism is very handy method which enables the poet to use myths and images to bring out the resemblance between two different things.

Eliot compresses his ideas and impressions through poetic shorthand.
The Waste Land

      Poetic Shorthand: Eliot compresses his ideas and impressions through poetic shorthand. It is a device which brings together places and events, and history and legends through the use of words and lines written by writers of different countries and times. After all, human experience is practically one and the same throughout the ages. Fashions may change and modes may alter, but human nature essentially remains unchanged, in spite of passage of him. All wars are due to human vanity and ambition all cities are alike; human civilizations have sprung up with the inspiration of great men; human civilizations have decayed through the loss of moral values. London city-called Unreal City (lines. 60 and 207) represents life in different metropolitan cities-like Athens, Alexandria and Vienna (line. 373-374) is full of crowds; people lead a life of hectic activities; they engage themselves in sexual orgies; crime and prostitution reign supreme at night. In this way, the decay of culture, the vulgarity of city life, the mechanical routine of office and factory workers are common to all big cities and acquire a universal significance. The use of quotations and allusions from different books is a part of the poetic shorthand used by Eliot.

      Examples are available in plenty. The sound of horns and motors (line. 197) brings up before the mind the sound of hunting horn of Diana in the forest-an embodiment of purity and virginity, she is contrasted with Mrs. Porter calling her lover, Sweeney with her motor horn. Similarly, the easy virtue of typist-girl stands in contrast with the remorse of the raped girl mentioned by Goldsmith in The Vicar of Wakefield (line. 253).

      Mythical Symbols: The recurrent mythical symbols are taken from the cycles of seasons. Winter stands for death, spring for re-birth, drought for spiritual barrenness, rain for spiritual re-birth and productivity. Rocks represent spiritual barrenness, fire is used in two opposite senses, fire stands for lust which is destructive. Again, fire stands for purification and spiritual progress. Planting of corpse (line. 71) stands firstly for death and secondly for re-birth. Water is used in two senses. Water is an agent of destruction. It also means purification and production. Fishing stands for spiritual re-birth and regeneration. Use of symbols adds to the clarity and significance of the poem.

      Unusual Symbols: Eliot uses his own personal symbols in very meaningful way. The 'dog' (line. 74) is a symbol of human conscience. Red-rock (line. 25) stands for Christian Church which offers a place of refuge for the lost soul of man. Broken Coriolanus (line. 416) stands for moment of inspiration, when the ego disappears temporarily. Similarly, the images and patterns on the Tarot pack of cards are entirely Eliot's own. There are certain symbols invented by Eliot from the facts of modern life. Eliot makes a reference to "a taxi throbbing waiting" (line. 217) which symbolizes two things-firstly impatience for returning to her home and secondly her willingness to be hired as Taxi for sex purposes. "The broken finger nails of daily hands" (line. 303) represent the aimless and cheap life of three daughters of the Thames river. "A silk hat on a Bredford millions" (line. 2-4) represents the unbecoming self-confidence of the young clerk. These new symbols had a dimension to the originality of the technique of the poem.

      Extended Symbols: Eliot uses certain symbols which have an extended significance. For example, the journey of the German Princess to the different places stand for rootlessness of modern persons; her visit to the South in winter stands for her love of fun and sensuous pleasure (line. 18). The Thames river is full of oil and tar (line. 267) reveals the squalor and pollution of water. The well-known symbol of rats alley (line. 115) stands for the monotony and emptiness of the city life. The falling of the London bridge does not refer to an accident, but is symbolic of (line. 26) the political and spiritual decay of modern Europe. Reference to "Jug, Jug" (line. 103) stands for indifference of the modern man to the inspiring and spiritual significance of the nightingale song. The typist's playing a record on the gramophone after the sex act represents the indifference of modern people to sexual purity. All the symbols stands for much more than what they represent. It is for the reader to understand their comprehensive significance.

      Use of Language: Language is like a tree which grows and decays. Just as the leaves drop down dead, in the same way words become obsolete and are excluded. Like fresh leaves new words are coined by poets. Eliot believed that language must be renewed and revitalized. As a modern poet, he picks up current colloquial words and down-to-the earth words of daily conversation. There is realism about his language when you compare it with the works of romantic poets. How succinctly is the famine scene summed up in apt words: "The jungle crouched, humped in silence." (line. 398).

      Borrowed Phrases: Eliot draws largely on the words of other writers and weaves phrases and lines into the body of The Waste Land. Sometimes he changes or modifies the words of other writers to fit it into the context. His style possesses literary flavor for the scholar and reminds him of the works of the writers of the past and the present. There are quotations from Wagner's Opera which offer an instance of guilty love. There is another quotation from Baudelaire in the end of the first section. Lines which are reminiscent of Keats, are found in the description of the magnificent drawing room of the lady.

      Choice of Words: Eliot was a painstaking poet who revised his language from time to time. He particularly selected words for their economy and adequacy and most of them appear inevitable in the context. You cannot replace them without damaging the sense and the rhythm. Some of the words are quite suggestive and have rich associations, for example, the words 'synthetic perfumes' (L. 87). Similarly, the pollution of the river Thames is brought out very vividly in the poem.

      Juxtapositions: Eliot uses a stylistic device of using contrary words which almost look like a paradox as for example:

"April is the cruellest month, breeding

Winter kept us warm, covering

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee"

      The rapid shifting from the scenes of the past to the present and the exploitation of the myths helps in producing a sense of the continuity of time, but in the process, the sequence of tenses is thrown into the wind. The past mixed with the present as in the following line:

And still she cried, and still the world pursues

      There is a feeling of pathos in Eliot's final words at the end of the poem which he compares to the maddening cry of Hieronymo of The Spanish Tragedy. There is an artistic use of the word 'prison' in L. 413 and line. 414 where each prisoner while thinking of finding the lost key of the prison door only thinks of his own personal freedom and is confined within his own ego cell:

"We think of the key, each in his prison,

Thinking of the key each confirms a prison."

      Conclusion: Eliot's originality can be found not only in his choice of words and in his use of current colloquial meaning but also in the modification of quotations and "naturalizing" the diction and images of the ancient past.

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