Universal Dilemma of Post-War Civilization in The Waste Land

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      Introduction: Eliot's The Waste Land undoubtedly had an immediate relevance to the atmosphere, mood and temper of the time in which it was written i.e, the years, following the end of World War I. Indeed, critics of the 1930's felt that the poem's importance lay in its reflection of the decay of the western civilization. However, the poem goes beyond the immediate situation to embody a universal dilemma. The poem has contemporary relevance; at the same time, it has also a visionary and timeless quality.

A social documentary of the post-war period. The Waste Land, to a large extent, epitomises the emotional, intellectual and psychological temper which constituted the "Decade of Despair" which followed the First World War. It reflects the disorder, disturbance and confusion of thoughts prevalent in that poem. It presents a picture of the post-war generation.
Post-War Civilization The Wasteland

      A social documentary of the post-war period. The Waste Land, to a large extent, epitomizes the emotional, intellectual and psychological temper which constituted the "Decade of Despair" which followed the First World War. It reflects the disorder, disturbance and confusion of thoughts prevalent in that poem. It presents a picture of the post-war generation.

      A panorama of the post-war civilization is to be found in The Waste Land. The characters in the poem amply serve to bring home to us all the symptoms of the psychic malady which had taken hold of post-war Europe. In that "waste land" it is but natural that we meet with boredom, hopelessness and depression, mental disintegration and nervous exhaustion, and pathetic efforts to find the fragments of a shattered faith. The waste land is peopled by characters who have lost the ability to live life fully, Madame Sosostris the fortune teller knows nothing of the mysteries of life; life has lost all variety and distinction for Mrs. Equitone; Lil at thirty-one, looks too old; the typist and her seducer have sexual intercourse in a mechanical and emotionally indifferent manner; the demobbed. Albert and the loitering heir of city directors want to have "a good time" not knowing what it is. In the poem we meet characters such as Cumaean Sybil with her death wish, Sweeney the crude client of Mrs. Porter the procuress, a victim of nerves and hysterical relationship with her lover in Belladonna. All these characters collectively represent the state of mind of the educated people immediately after the First World War.

      The poem has universal Significance: Having said that The Waste Land is a social document, one has to add that it is not merely that; the poem goes beyond its scene of origin to represent a universal dilemma. If it presents a picture of spiritual emptiness, a general lack of aim and sexuality devoid of emotion, it is reflecting not merely a set period of time but epitomizing of the history of mankind marked by such feature. Indeed, Eliot has brought the past and present together to create a vision of the spiritual barrenness characterizing ordinary human beings. There might be an occasional Buddha and a St. Augustine, but even the times of such saints suffered from a lack of religious faith and purpose, and the prevalence of lust and futility. Eliot has managed to give universality to his poem in a number of ways.

      Use of various myths: Eliot has told us that he got not only the title but the plan and a good deal of the symbolism of his poem from Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance, a book on the Grail Legend. He also acknowledges his debt to Frazer's The Golden Bough. Eliot uses his knowledge of the recurring pattern in many myths - the close union in all myths of the physical and the spiritual, and the basic relationship between sex and religion - to give a sense of timeless vision to his poem.

      Fear and sterile sex characterize all waste lands-ancient and modern. At the very beginning there is a 'Christian' attitude to Nature, as critics have pointed out  - "April is the cruelest month". It inverts the usual attitude towards nurture. The revival of natural life only bring fear. In the first lines of the 'Burial of the Dead', Eliot has given us the reactions of people towards Nature in various periods of history. The poem is dominated by a feeling of anxiety - a vague apprehension of danger. Marie is frightened at the moment of her sexual delight on her cousin's sledge; "Fear death by Water", says Madame Sosostris; the anxious crowd of Londoners (The souls of Dante's poem) keep sighing; Belladonna and her lover are anxious, so is Lil. The son of man must endure the vision of fear and mortality in the desert. The fear is linked to another aspect of human life in all periods of time - lust or unemotional sex, or 'passion'. Philomela's rape by the barbarous king is the keynote which brings the past and the present together. Sterility is the common theme linking the situation of Belladonna and Lil. This theme is linked with the episodes in 'The Fire Sermon'. The violation of the three daughters of Thames is a variation on the theme of Philomela's rape.

      Spiritual apathy characterizes waste lands of all periods of time. Stony rubbish, broken, images and no water recall the ancient waste land of Ezekiel. "Falling flowers, Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria. Unreal - links past and present Civilizations in their spiritual apathy.

      General truths are expressed in the poem. Aridity and sterility characterize the human situation. A life devoid of spirituality is a death in life but it is not particular to the modern situation. Thus Eliot seeks to point out that sterile degeneration is inherent in the human situation, and the need for regeneration has always been felt. Thus the poem cannot be called merely a representation of the decay of Western civilization. It reflects the Christian view that original sin has degenerated man and his salvation lies in faith and belief in God and religion more than ethical conduct alone.

      Conclusion: The Waste Land is not a poem which stops at being a 'social document'. Its framework of myth and allusive technique, its use of juxtaposition of the modern and the Elizabethan scenes, its presentation of characters and scenes of seduction and violation of women, the images of dryness and lack of water - all these give the poem a universal and timeless significance.

University questions also can be Answered:

Q. How far is it correct to regard The Waste Land as an expression of the disillusionment of the Post-war generation?
Q. Discuss the view that in The Waste Land Eliot is concerned with aspects of the decay of culture in the modern western world.
Q. How far is it correct to say that The Waste Land is a vision of desolation and spirtual draught.
Q. Critics in the 1920's and 1930's felt that The Waste Land was important because it reflected the decayed conditions of their civilization. How far do you think they were right?
Q. The Waste Land is not a poem for any given time; it not merely describes a local circumstance but reveals a universal dilemma". Discuss with illustration.
Q. "Its (The Waste Land's) aim was to convey, beyond one man's personal intuition, nothing less than the state of a civilization". Discuss.
Q. "The rich disorganization of The Waste Land is symbolic of the modern uprooted civilization". Discuss.

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