Parallels of Contemporaneity and Antiquity - The Waste Land

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      Use of myth to manipulate a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity: Eliot in The Waste Land follows James Joyce in using myth to control, order and give shape and significance to "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history". In the process of using ancient myth, Eliot naturally establishes parallels between contemporaneity and antiquity so as to add meaning to his theme.

The Waste Land is a poem on the human condition. The use of the Fisher King myth universalizes the contemporary situation of spiritual barrenness. In Jessie Weston's work From Ritual to Romance, there is the concept of the land which has become arid because of the infirmity of its king. The curse of aridity can be removed only by the young knight who undertakes the quest for the Grail, reaches the Castle and asks the meaning of the symbols displayed there. Eliot uses this myth in combination with the fertility cults which he found in Frazer's The Golden Bough. Basic to the poem is the Christian material. The spiritual aridity and lust of the modern situation are sought to be represented in terms of ancient myth in order to universalise this situation.
Contemporaneity and Antiquity - The Waste Land

      The Waste Land is a poem on the human condition. The use of the Fisher King myth universalizes the contemporary situation of spiritual barrenness. In Jessie Weston's work From Ritual to Romance, there is the concept of the land which has become arid because of the infirmity of its king. The curse of aridity can be removed only by the young knight who undertakes the quest for the Grail, reaches the Castle and asks the meaning of the symbols displayed there. Eliot uses this myth in combination with the fertility cults which he found in Frazer's The Golden Bough. Basic to the poem is the Christian material. The spiritual aridity and lust of the modern situation are sought to be represented in terms of ancient myth in order to universalise this situation.

      Parallels for the modern city waste land: The crowd of people making their way over London Bridge are described in a line from Dante's Inferno: "I had not thought death had undone so many". The death-in-lie of the city waste land finds echoes in Baudelaire too. Each man in this city waste land fixes his eyes before his feet and sighs as he walks. The city is cut off from the natural as well as the spiritual sources of life. Mylae is where the protagonist meets Stetson. It is a place associated with the Punic war, which recalls the Second World War - as both were trade wars. Eliot is also suggesting by drawing the parallel that all wars are the same.

      Images establishing the parallel between antiquity and contemporaneity: The modern aridity of spirit is well conveyed through images which bring to mind ancient references. The 'stony rubbish', the dead tree which gives no shelter, the dry stone devoid of any sound of water, convey to us the terrible desolation of the modern waste land. The picture is a close parallel to the arid land as depicted by Jessie Weston. But parallels are drawn not on one but on many levels. The picture also recalls Christian sources. Ezekiel and the Ecclesiastes also refer to a waste land with 'dry bones'. The images revolving on dryness signify the drying up of spiritual faith in the world with the result that the life giving water is no more, and the people are experiencing a death-in life.

      Sterility and ugliness of modern sex relationships presented through ancient myth: Basic to the spiritual aridity of the contemporary waste land is its meaningless and mechanical sex relationship. In "The Games of Chess", the portrayals of two women recall the myth of the rape of Philomela. After her rape by the barbarous king, Tereus, Philomela was changed into a nightingale. The rape was followed by the land becoming arid. The victory of lust led to ruin; the modern waste land has also risen in a similar manner. When Eliot writes

And still she cried, and still the world pursues.

      He is apparently involving the world in the barbarous Tereus's action. Thus to 'dirty ears' the nightingale's song is not the 'inviolable voice but jug'jug - a coarse sound. In the two scense following the Philomela reference, the two couples presented have no meaningful love relationship, but a sterile and unsatisfying relationship. If one woman's life is aimless, the other's is threatened with the loss of domestic security. Lil is afraid of having more children - and this corresponds to the infertility or barrenness of the mythical waste land.

      There is also a parallel drawn between the present and the waste land of the Fisher King. In that myth, according to one version of it, the curse of aridity fell on the land as a result a some maidens frequenting the shrine being raped. The violation of a women symbolises the loss of spiritual and religious faith. Further, Lil's loss of any desire to bear children also corresponds to the Fisher King's impotence. The Lady of the Rocks and the Lady of Situations, both symbolic of the modern situation, represent the absence of the possibility of any fruitful relationship. The disastrous emotional aridity of the contemporary world and its spiritual emptiness is represented through the rape and violation of women in ancient myth.

      In "The Fire Sermon", we have two situations which by juxtaposing the modern and the ancient serve to emphasise the sterility and sordidness of sex in the modern age. The seduction of the typist by the clerk implies a mechanical physical relationship devoid of emotional connotations. It is more like the copulation among animals. A link is shown between the present and the past. The violation of the Thames - daughters recalls the rape of the maidens in the Grail legend when they visit the shrine. That brought a curse upon the land. The juxtaposition between present situation and ancient myth serves to stress on the damages caused by meaningless sexual indulgence. The third Thames daughter can 'connect nothing with nothing.' In the chaos of the present, there are no values left. The sheer physical plane on which people now live sounds like the rattling of bones to the poet: the laughter of the modern sensuality is as jarring to the ear as the clash of bones. All this emphasises the spiritual aridity, the waste land of the present.

      Modern decay is paralleled in the ghosts and ghouls of myth: In "What the Thunder Said", the parched earth lacking the life-giving water, symbolise both the modern and the mythical waste land. The falling cities, the empty cisterns, the bats with baby faces, all pertain to the desolation and decay of modern civilization, at the same time, there is a parallel drawn between this picture and the ghosts and ghouls of the haunted Chapel and Cemetery Perilous of the Grail legend. The dry bones starkly picturise the waste land.

      Suggestion of possible salvation, rebirth after death, purification of sin through the use of myth: The corpse planted in the garden is an obvious reflection of the ancient fertility ritual of the effigy of Osiris being buried to bring fertility to the fields. Only in the modern world, such burial is a sterile planting. The drowned Phoenician Sailor of the Tarot card in "The Burial of the Dead", and refered to in "Death by Water" is a parallel for the drowned god of fertility of ancient lore. There is another parallel with the death described in Ariel's song in The Tempest. These deaths in ancient myth were symbols of new birth and fresh life. They show the way to possible salvation, but the salvation is not worked out in the modern context by Eliot. The waters of the Thames and the waters of the ancient Leman are paralleled. Towards the end, the protagonist sits by the shore fishing with the arid plains behind him - and one recalls the impotent Fisher King whose fishing had become futile and barren. But man in the modern waste land born of lust and spiritual barrenness appears to have a faint hope of release only if he obeys the laws of discipline and continence as the references to Buddha and St. Augustine as well as the message from the Upanishads show.

      Conclusion: The modern waste land is intended to produce a sense of horror in us, and if it does so, it is mainly because of the continuous parallels Eliot draws between the present and the past, between contemporaneity and antiquity. Interwoven subtly with the parallel is also a sense of contrast; for in the myths with the parallels is also a sense of contrast; for the myths death was inevitably followed by rebirth, but the modern waste land is so deeply entered that the quest for salvation is more difficult than ever before. The parallels serve to enlarge the vision of the poem, add variety to its images and intensify its emotional appeal. The artistic skill with which Eliot constantly evokes the parallels is so subtle and spontaneous that we donot seem to be aware of any conscious effort in establishing such parallels.

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