The Waste Land (1922)

Laura Lopez on “The Waste Land: A Fragment of the Whole”

T. S. Eliot thought about The Waste Land for quite some time before actually transcribing it. The spring of 1917 shocked Eliot as America declared war on Germany, April 6. The first line in his poem, “April is the cruellest month,” proved to be a part of that shock. During that month, he wrote to his father, “to me all this war enthusiasm seems a bit unreal, […] I see the war partly through the eyes of the men who have been and returned” (Miller 304). The first section was titled “The Burial of the Dead,” because America entering the The Great War made it become a World War, leaving plenty of burials for the dead. The second line, “breeding Lilacs out of the dead land,” represented the grieving men and women leaving flowers at the cemetery. The “mixing memory and desire” was the realization that the past was forever gone and desire created “dull roots with spring rain.” The “dull roots” was to signify the idea of place in the world of chaos- “spring rain,” the raining of fired weapons in April. The sense of place was a major theme, not only in this poem, but for American expatriates: Ernest Hemingway, Gertude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay. Because of the “process of accelerating technological change” in the 20th Century, there was an evolution in the ways of American thinking, “an alteration of consciousness […] needed to grasp the conditions of contemporary life,” (Gray 309). America’s growth also meant the expansion of ideas, the exploration of oldness with a new perspective. The changing America made the younger generation question the whole idea of being American, “individuals who underwent it individually,” leaving in quest for their sense of place, had “an intensely personal experience,” (Perl 32-33). Malcolm Cowley commented in Exile’s Return that out of all the Americans exiling themselves from the country, “the author who seemed nearest to themselves was T. S Eliot” (110).

Eliot finished The Waste Land in Switzerlandsupposedly because of a “feverish frame of mind” set off by “a psychoanalyst’s opinion (reported by Conrad Aiken) that ‘all that’s stopping him [from his writing] is his fear of putting anything down that is short of perfection. He thinks he’s a God.’ Eliot was literally speechless with rage” (Mathews 71). The poem that had been in Eliot’s head for a long time was published in the1922 issue of Criterion. The complexity of his poem was as if it were written in Antiquity, “he greatly admired the lucidity, correctness, anonymity of voice, and professional craftsmanship of neoclassical work” (Perl 87). During Eliot’s philosophical years at Harvard, he learned about romanticism and classicism, combing parts of those ideas into his poetry. He consorted fragments of Dante’s Inferno, Anthony and Cleopatra, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Middleton’s Women beware Women, and Warren’s Buddhism in Translation, just to name a few, creating a wholeness of The Waste Land itself. Eliot once said “I wasn’t even bothered whether I understood what I was saying,” (Worthen 107). He even insulted his own work by saying that The Waste Landwas simply “a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” but these words only added to the poem’s complexity involving meaninglessness (Mathew 71). His intentions with that statement was primarily because The Waste Land was his personal emotional outcry of his own sense of place.

Searching for that sense of place was a theme throughout The Waste Land, “what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow,” questioning the location and the self. Most of the poem is written in English. Eliot sporadically used German, French, and Latin throughout, creating the “poem [that] can be read as the construction of reality,” meaning that the 433 lines of the five sections must be interpreted through the individual’s own projection of the poem (232 Habib). Theepigraph contained Latin and Greek, two dead languages; it was about the mythological story of Apollo granting Cumean Sibyl her wish; she wanted “as many years of life as there are grains in a handful of sand, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth.” The part written in The Waste Land was translated, “For I once saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered, ‘I want to die.’” This entrance into The Waste Land, the epigraph, was a warning for the reader- once the pages were turned, there was no turning back.

Works Cited

Perl, Jeffrey M. The Tradition of Return: The Implicit History of Modern Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1984. Print.

Matthews, T. S. Great Tom; Notes towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Print.

Cowley, Malcolm, and Donald W. Faulkner. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. New York: Penguin, 1994. Print.

Worthen, John. T.S. Eliot: A Short Biography. London: Haus Pub., 2009. Print.

Habib, M. A. R. “Irony as Form: The Waste Land.” The Early T. S. Eliot and Western Philosophy. United Kingdom: Syndicate of the U of Cambridge, 1999. Print.

Miller, James E. T.S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet, 1888-1922. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State UP, 2005. Print.

Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 308- 462. Print.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.


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