The Waste Land: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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      Introduction: The Waste Land first appeared in 'The Dial' and having won that magazine's poetry award for the year, was published in book form in 1922. It may truthfully be said that seldom has a poet created such a sensation in the American literary world. To many readers, it seemed a deliberate hoax; perhaps the appearance, in 1916, of Spectra, by "Morgan and Knish," had left some critics with an abiding fear of again being caught out on a limb. The most common charge hurled by those who took the poem seriously was that of wilful obscurantism: that the poet was deliberately making his work difficult for his readers when he could have written more simply. The eleven pages of notes appended to a poem of 433 lines only made matters worse; surely Eliot was pulling the reader's leg or he was piling obscurity on obscurity.

The poem opens with a picture of this modern world, a picture made up of broken fragments of idle conversation.
The Waste landers

Adverse Criticism on the first publication of "The Waste Land": There was hostile criticism when The Waste Land was published first time in 1922. According to some critics, it was a series of slightly related separate poems. Thus Alec Brown remarked in The Scrutinies: "It is a set of shorter poems tagged together." Louis Untermeyer considered it as a set of separate poems set of separate poems.... a piece of literary carpentry scholarly jointer's work.... a pompous parade of erudition." Again The Statesman called it several separate poems entitled The Waste Land. Other critics felt that T. S. Eliot looked at life not directly but through the spectacle of books. E.V. Lucas a distinguished critic, thought that the poet found his inspiration in literature rather than in life. The Statesman criticized this poem and asserted "The parodies are cheap and the imitation inferior." Similar view was supported by Times Literary Supplement which was of the opinion that the poem was nothing but parodying without taste or skill. Anyhow, we agree with most of the critics. We feel that this poem is lacking rural impetuous. The poet has stifled the lyrical impulse. He is morbidly attached with urban squalor and seediness. In fact, the poem has been regarded as a sort of scholarly nonsense. At the time of publication it was hoped that it would wane gradually and would sink itself.


      The poem opens with a picture of this modern world, a picture made up of broken fragments of idle conversation.


What are the roots that clutch, what

branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?"

      Nothing can grow from this sterile civilization, from these unreal great cities where the living seems already dead, where "I had not thought death had undone so many"...Dante's exclamation on first seeing the crowds of the Futile, rejected by both Hell and Heaven, for they had lived "without blame and without praise." This is the modern mass man. We then are given one of the several sharp contrasts between the past and the present: the deliberately rich description (with its echoes of Antony and the Cleopatra) perhaps of the Renaissance, set against the equally deliberately banal scene in a pub. In the third section, the same device is employed: the vulgar seduction of the typist by the "small house agents clerk" (love in the modern world reduced to a meaningless mechanical act) contrasted with the glimpses of Elizabeth and Leicester sailing on Spenser's "sweet Thames". all of this is seen by Tiresias who, Eliot tells us, is the most important personage in the poem because having experienced life both as a man and a woman, he can unite all the characters. In the last section, according to the author's note, the themes are: "the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous, and the present decay of eastern Europe"...that is, the disintegration of secular society which can be saved only by the King who scarifies himself so that his land may revive ("Shall I at least set my lands in order?), the Risen Christ who has died for his people, will bring them to a new life. Thus the poem ends on a profoundly religious note.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      The truth of the matter was that the "New Poetry" of 1912 had not prepared the average reader for Eliot's peculiar style. The poets of the preceding decade had expanded the subject matter and vocabulary of poetry and they had substituted free verse for traditional poetic form, but they had not greatly altered the conventionalities of poetic statement. To put it simply, their verse was not hard to understand, even though its form might be unusual. But Eliot, influenced by the English metaphysical and the French Symbolists had broken more sharply with nineteenth-century poetry than any of their contemporaries and had achieved a genuinely new, though very difficult style. The recent remark of A. Alvarez applies particularly to him: "a great deal of modern poetry seems often as specialized as modern science, both require a degree neither willing nor able to attain."

In the last section, according to the author's note the themes are: "the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous, and the present decay of eastern Europe"
Journey to Wasteland

      Eliot's verse has been subjected to such exhaustive critical analysis that the interested reader will find ample exegesis of almost every line, including translations of the phrases in half a dozen foreign languages and identifications of the quotations and echoes of English verse, all of which the poet used for their evocative effect. Eliot himself explained in notes that the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem came from the Grail Legend and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. This anthropological material deals with certain vegetation fertility rites in which the god Adonis, Attis, and Osiris must be slain each year so that by his death the land can again become fruitful; hence thee prevalence throughout the poem of images of drought and water, the dry sterile thunder contrasted with the rain that restores life to the parched earth. This theme of sterility is applied to modern civilization which is dying of spiritual drought.

      Just as one critic will write of the irony of the poem and another claim that its method is obverse of irony, so there are many interpretations of individual lines and, indeed of whole passages. Yet clearly The Waste Land is the great city inhabited by those for whom contemporary life provides only a heap of broken images and "fear in a handful of dust." It is a civilization dying of spiritual drought. The poem is an enormously complex one, making great demands upon the reader, yet the importance of its theme and the brilliance of its technique give it rank as one of the most significant literary works of our time.

      Conclusion: The Waste Land is still the most influential poem of our age: "nothing else so truly reflects the age and redeems it." F.R. Leavis, Matthiessen, and Cleanth Brooks, the distinguished critics of the present age, have penetrated into The Waste Land and have of opinion that The Waste Land is a highly condensed epic of the modern age.

      From 1922, T.S. Eliot showed that the thoughts of the philosopher, the moralist, and the reformer could be great poetry. His Waste Land (1922) is his most important poem, written in 433 lines. The Waste Land is an inter-war disillusion and despair, set forth by many and varied sequences of images constructed upon man's literary and cultural past. Eliot employs many different styles of verse and his impressions fly by as shifting scenes on a movie screen. A complete understanding of what he is saying is dependent somewhat on the reader's understanding of his many literary and general cultural references. But any reader of Eliot can feel his intensity and can gain his impressions of the social aimlessness of his age that he is symbolizing.

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