APIII, Period 3
8 April 2013
A Convoluted State of Affairs
In his seminal work The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot attempts to describe the social conditions and ramifications of the post World War I human psyche. The poem is partly a self-reflection of Eliot’s own mental issues and emotional family situation in addition to his commentary on the downward spiral of society around him. Eliot employs a change in speaker amongst many different characters as well as allusions to other relevant and popular art, literature, and events of the day that preceded this poem. The Waste Land is essentially a cacophony of allusions and stances. While writing this poem, Eliot had entered a sanitarium as a result of several nervous breakdowns triggered by the ills of society that he condemns in this work (Bush 68). In addition to his mental health issues, Eliot was in the midst of his own journey toward Christianity, which is apparent in the poem’s themes of death and re-birth. The poem parallels Eliot’s brief recovery from his illness and his new spirituality in that the first part of the poem contrasts with the second part, the early anxiety and fear turn into relief from intolerable burdens. The poem flows from a stream of consciousness on the part of the poet, referencing important psychological and psychoanalytical themes, especially those of Sigmund Freud, such as primary desire, forbidden love, re-birth, and renewal. It may be Eliot’s own issue of mental illness reflected in this stream of consciousness that has rendered the poem to be over-interpreted for the past century. An appreciation of the poem lies in knowing that the poet wrote literally what was on his mind in his tormented and emotional state.
The main allusion connects to Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, where the land has been blighted by a curse and the Fisher King is rendered both physically and spiritually impotent (Brooks 59). The theme of psychological devastation and lack of personal character define each of the five parts of the poem. Each part appears to be framed as its own short poem with its respective illustrative characters, allusions, diction, syntax, and metaphors. Several contrasts are brought forth in the many comparisons of society versus the individual, man vs. woman, unconscious and conscious, and hope and fear. Eliot literally uses foreign languages and altered tones to invoke a feeling of confusion and despair in the reader. There are quotations, fragments, pieces of conversations, and broken images. These literary devices parallel the poem’s overriding premise of trying to achieve or find something meaningful in life, but not quite being able to achieve success in doing so even by the end of the poem. It is this incoherence and the broken imagery that lend themselves to the creativeness of the poem. In fact, Ward claims that the poem is “an indictment of the sterility and muddle of the contemporary world” (68).
The most prominent theme and the one first introduced in The Waste Land are emptiness from social and emotional isolation. “The Burial of the Dead” introduces the theme of death, dying, and emptiness with its evocative words of “dead land,” “dull roots,” and “dried tubers.” (Eliot 2615). Crowds of people are seen in the city streets flowing over the London Bridge. The city is dark and filled with despair and guilt, a reference to Dante’s Inferno. The people have meaningless lives, are oppressed by death, and do not find relief in happy memories, such as Marie and the sled or the promise of religious salvation. John Vickery claims that this first section of the poem, “links mankind more closely to its god whose demise is mourned,” further emphasizing Eliot’s position that society is in decline even with the promise of salvation (28). There is stability in death anxiety about change. The representation of Easter, the use of the color violet and new life during the month of April is important because after