The principle aim of this paper is to discuss Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land‘which was written in 1922. The paper will relate the poem to some literary movements in the English Literature by discussing the context, themes, cultural value and authors profile to establish the significance of the poem in its time.
T. S. Eliot is an intellectually sensitive writer whose works very few scholars can see that it’s a typical reflection of his life experience and imagination embraced in the happenings of his troubled society during his era and century. He was born on 26th September 1888 and died on the 4th of January 1965. He was a poet, critic, and editor born from Thomas Stearns Eliot in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Henry Ware Eliot, president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company, and Charlotte Champe Stearns, a former teacher, an energetic social work volunteer at the Humanity Club of St. Louis, and an amateur poet with a taste for Emerson, Bush (1991). Eliot was the youngest of seven children, born when his parents were prosperous and secure in their mid-forties and his siblings were half grown. Afflicted with a congenital double hernia, he was in the constant eye of his mother and five older sisters. In 1905 he departed for a year at Milton Academy outside of Boston, preparatory to following his older brother Henry to Harvard University, Wilhelm (1990). Eliot’s attending Harvard seems to have been a foregone conclusion. His father and mother, jealously guarding their connection to Boston’s Unitarian establishment, brought the family back to the north shore every summer, and in 1896 built a substantial house at Eastern Point, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. After writing for so long, Eliot married and ironically, after 1925 Eliot’s marriage steadily deteriorated, turning his public success hollow. During the tenure of his Norton year at Harvard he separated from Vivien, but would not consider divorce because of his religious beliefs, Bush (1991).
The author of the waste land poem is associated to many literary movements considering the features common in his works. He has those features that include movements from medieval to Renaissance literary periods in the history of English literature. Ancient and medieval legends like the Holy Grail, classical mythology; symbolic representation of cycles of life and death; theme of sick “Fisher King” and loss of fertility which produces a corresponding drought; replenishment of land and healing of Fisher King by re-discovery of truth encoded in the images of ancient myths and rituals. Most of these features fall in different literary movements, Gordon (2000). The themes and subject matters of Eliot’s waste land poem is helpful for curricula or anthologies that have evolved over time. The waste land poem also has features that define group writers who are often loosely associated with or belonging to different literary movements. Eliot has features that also belong to movements like metaphysical poets, Dada and Beat literary movements, Bush (1991).
Eliot’s works and particularly the waste land poem has features of realism of the late-19th century movement based on author’s simplification of style and image and an interest in poverty and everyday concerns. There is also aspects of naturalism falling in the late 19th century. Proponents of this movement believe heredity and environment control people and this movement clearly reflects in the works of Eliot.
The context of the ‘waste land poem’ is that it is addressing the issues of the day characterised by description of the events as unfolded which also apply in the modern day and therefore, it can be described as a modernist poem. In justifying the context of ‘The Waste Land’poem, Gordon (2000:27) says:
…..this 434-line poem is probably one of the most important poems of the 20th century full of vigour and energies. Despite the poem’s obscurity its shifts between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures. The poem has become a familiar touchstone of modern literature. Among its famous phrases are “April is the cruellest month” (its first line); “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”; and (its last line) the mantra in the Sanskrit language “Shantih shantih shantih.”
This quotation clearly indicate that the context of the poem is addressing and describing the ills of that era blended with voice of prophecy that one would probably relate with as the poem is also touching personal life.
The context of this Modernist poetry is portrayed in a number of ways. The poem has irregular verse, at times free, at times reminiscent of the blank verse of Eliot’s plays. The poem is divided into five sections and features multiple voices and a deliberate attempt at creating a sense of fragmentation, discontinuity, and decay each of these section may represent different themes and to some extent subject matters.
Waste land poem has a lot of themes as shown in sub headings while others are just in the text. According to Gordon (2000), Some themes include westernisation as described in a number of lines, theme of prophecy, theme of the useless ideas should council themselves as portrayed in the section “The Burial of the Dead,” there is also conspiracy of life, water is life and theme of indifference on the part of the character Wilhelm (1990). For example, under theme of westernisation, the characters in the poem are in a continues state of meditation on the state of Western civilization, especially regarding the sense of depression, waste, and futility of the post-World War I era; the poem mixes descriptions of contemporary life with literary allusions and quotations, religious symbolism, and references to ancient and medieval cultures and mythologies, vegetation and fertility rites, as well as Eastern religions and philosophies; the poem emphasizes themes of barrenness and desolation and portrays a dying society, but the ending suggests hope of redemption through concepts and images grounded on the synthesis of Christian and Eastern (Hindu/Buddhist) spirituality, Bush (1991). All these are aspects that constitute themes in this poem.
This poem a typical commentary on problem of modern society as lacking a sense of community and spiritual axis. The” waste land” in the poem as modern culture having drifted away from its spiritual roots; trope of destructive repetition controlling human history; loss of touch with cycles of life and nature, Gordon (2000). It is characterised with images of desolation, sterility, dryness, waste (as a byproduct of utilitarian attitudes and capitalistic and mercantile forms of production and exchange); image of a society that feeds upon itself and also lies mired in its own waste, Wilhelm (1990).
Themes in the poem are embended with cultural background and orientation by hinting at possibility of production of new life and redemption of humanity from the by-products of decay; construction of truth from the nearly lost fragments of ancient thought and the wisdom of various cultures. Truth encoded in both the imagery of Christianity and the sacred words of ancient Eastern religions and philosophies; religious syncretism implicit in the poem, Gallup (1969).
The poem reveals a number of cultural matters that are directly associated to the author himself. For example, language used in lines 430, the last line and many more others as shown below may be difficult for one to understand without fully understading the background of the author and the languages he has interacted with. Check at this;
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe, Eliot (1971).
This is difficult to decipher with understanding the background knowledge of the author and the cultural associatoions he has associated himself with.
It can be concluded that Eliot’s poem ‘the waste land’ has been discussed in detailed. The paper has related the poem to some literary movements in the English Literature by discussing the context, themes, cultural value and authors profile to establish the significance of the poem in its time with respect to the question.
Bush, R. (1991). T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eliot, T. S. (1971) The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound Edited and with an Introduction by Valerie Eliot, Harcourt Brace & Company,
Eliot, T.S. (2001). The Waste Land. New York: W. W. Norton.
Gallup, D. (1969). T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
Gordon, L. (2000). T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Wilhelm, J. (1990). Biography of T. S. Eliot, (1888–1965). Pennsylvania State University Press.