Positive and negative aspects of The Waste Land.

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       The Waste Land is indeed a complex poem. It got a mixed reception on its publication in 1922. It has produced different reactions among the readers. The critics have given different opinions about its literary and other qualities. Ezra Pound thought it was a 'sequence of poems.' Mr. Louis Untermeyer wrote: "It is doubtful whether The Waste Land is anything but a set of separate poems, a piece of literary carpentry, scholarly joiner's work, the flotsam and jetsam of desiccated culture...a pompous parade of erudition." The Times Literary Supplement commented: "It is parodying without taste or skill." Amy Lowel remarked: "It is a piece of trite (something worthless). These views reflect the range of opinions from good to bad.

The Waste Land: positive and negative aspects
Positive & Negative


      Undoubtedly, The Waste Land is an epoch-making poem, a landmark in twentieth century literature which sums up the trivialities and barrenness of modern civilization. It expresses the frustration and disillusionment of a generation - a generation which otherwise took pride in the advancement of science and provision of material comforts. It may be called the epic of the modern age. It truly reflects the spirit of the modern civilization. The following are the chief merits of this poem:

      (i) Symbolism: Its strength has a clever use of symbols taken fron Nature, the past and the present, world religions and religious folklore. A good deal about this aspect of Eliot's work will be found on page 194 of this book.

      (ii) Myths: Eliot has borrowed a number of vegetation and fertility myths from ancient literature. A full account ot the various myths is given at page 188 of the book.

      (iii) Universality: The tragedy of post-war generation is not peculiar to the twentieth century. Every age has its strong and weak points. The weakness referred to by Eliot - loss of high values, sexual perversion, business mentality, are not peculiar only to the twentieth century. These things arise out of man's basic weaknesses. It is the source of the tragedy at the heart of life in all ages. Eliot brings out the universality of man's facilities by comparisons of situations in the past and the present. Sexual perversions were common in ancient Carthage, in ancient India, in the Biblical waste land and in the Elizabethan age. Likewise, the remedy for these diseases is also the same transformation through suffering and practice of moral values in life. The message of thunder is the only way to man's salvation.

      (iv) New structure: The greatness of the poem lies in its novel structure. We need not bother regarding the pattern-whether it is progressive, spiral or circular. It digs, as it proceeds deeper into the maladies of the modern age. It is like a symphony of five movements. I. A. Richards calls it "music of ideas." There is, no doubt, that it has a central core based on the law of nature : birth-death-rebirth.

      (v) New style: The poet's artistic use of allusions, quotations, contrasts and parallelism is remarkable. Some call it "poetic short-hand." Its brevity and concentration and the use of touch-and-go method make it a rather difficult poem which has to be read a number of times in order to derive its full significance. I. A. Richards observes: "The Waste Land is the equivalent in content to an epic. Without this device twelve books would have been needed." A full note on the style of the poem will be found on page 200 of the book.

      (vi) Its vitality: The situation mentioned in The Waste Land, is relevant to the world of the seventies. The moral degeneration, the political chaos, the global tension among power blocks, the stock-piling of nuclear weapons, the mutual distrust and hatred among nations, the conflict between the white and the black, the apartheid, the conflict within the communist countries, the growth of fascism and the trigger - happy politicians bode evil for the present generation. So long as there is no going back to the fundamentals of religions and morality and the practice of two-three basic values - "Give, Sympathise, Control" mentioned by Eliot, the human dilemma will not be solved.


      To the post-war generation which had gone through the holocaust of war, the poem appeared most shocking and wholly negative in spirit. It only stressed the dark side of modern civilization. The barrenness and corruption was prevalent among all classes - the aristocratics, the middle class and the workers. Their commercial spirits and lust were over-emphasised. The positive side - scientific advancement, control over disease, schemes of the welfare society, aid to poor people and poor nations, the comforts of urbar life, quick and cheap travel, and growing literacy was totally neglected by T.S. Eliot. The old myths from the Bible, the symbols from Egyptian, Christian, and Buddhist literatures were borrowed to heighten the contrast between the past and the present. It was this negative spirit which made the readers, shy away from the poem. Undoubtedly, there is a positive side - the Christian impulse, the message of the Upanishads but it has a comparatively minor part in the Poem.

      (i) Pessimistic theme : The poem deals with the spiritual distemper and sexual perversity of urban life which makes it so uninviting and depressing. The theme is the spiritual paralysis of the civilised man. The theme is life-in-death, the decay and death of the modern waste landers. Religion and love which were and are the sources of man's good life and spiritual development have been corrupted. Sexual degeneration and Vulgarisation of sex is the order of the day. The poem also expresses the neurosis and boredom of the modern town-dwellers. Mechanical routine has made his life barren and meaningless. The depressing nature of the theme makes it rather negative in its impact and value.

      (ii) Obscurity : One of the main obstacles to the understanding of Eliot's poetry is obscurity and scholarly use of technical Poetic devices. Those who are ned in European literature and art find him extremely delightful and satisfying. But for the lay-man, it may be difficult even to appreciate the short-poems. The longer poems are more difficult than the shorter ones. A full note on the obscurity in Eliot's poetry will be found in the analysis of this poem.

University Questions also can be answered..

1. The Waste Land has been called a "disastrous failure" and also a "marvellous achievement". With which view would you agree? Give reasons for your preference.

2. Do you agree that The Waste Land is the greatest poetic achievement of T.S. Eliot. Give illustrations in support of your answer.

3. "The Waste Land is essentially the expression of an impulse." Examine and illustrate.

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