Fragmentation and Coherence in The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is an intricate poem that is intentionally difficult to understand; it contains a myriad of allusions to other texts, it has a fragmented narrative structure, speaks in various languages and utilizes surreal imagery. These features, amongst others, contribute to the poem’s complexity. I wish to examine, in detail, how these features create or suppress meaning. In The Waste Land the reader is presented with a series of stanza’s from several different speakers. These different speakers give a disjointed, elusive account of The Waste Land forcing the reader to deliberate on what The Waste Land is and if a cure for this barren land is suggested, or is it merely enjoining the reader to despair in a nihilistic vision of the twentieth century.
The poem is ‘not a seamless narrative, but a set of lyric moments’(Donoghue, 121). These moments are broken up by different narrators, in different settings, that seem unrelated. However, this series of disassociated tales creates the desire to somehow discover the underlying narrative. ‘The Waste Land seduces the reader into a search for the linear progression of conventional plot, for a structure more logical and unified than simply the "felt relationship" between focal points of emotional intensity.’(Kinney, 273) This suppression of a complete and understandable narrative could be interpreted as form subverting meaning. The poem is disjointed and incoherent in other ways that could also be seen as form subverting meaning.
There are various uses of imagery throughout the poem. These images resist definition; they refuse to represent a unified idea or concept. They often seem to represent a set of opposites. For example, a recurring image within The Waste Land is water. However, water seems to represent both life and death. ‘Fear death by Water’(55) and later it is water that is longed for to give life in the barren land ‘If there were water we should stop and drink’(335). The various symbols resist simple interpretation. ‘They explode and proliferate. They turn themselves inside out, diffuse their meanings, and collapse back again into disarticulated images’(Nevo, 356). Much of the imagery within the poem is also surreal and strikingly out of place within the narrative. For example, such lines as: ‘”That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout?”’(71-2) or ‘in memories draped by the beneficent spider’(408). The surrealism within the various narratives is another immediate obstacle in the way of coherence. However, with closer inspection these literary features, that appear to suppress meaning and coherence, the surreal and elusive imagery and the fragmented narrative, are actually being utilized to create meaning and explore ideas in a complex and meaningful way. As I have said this poem resists interpretation. It is only as the reader understands the allusions within the poem that a hint of narrative structure begins to appear. The title itself, as referred to in Eliot’s notes, is an allusion to ‘the Grail Quest mythos [that] was to form the fabula or the "groundplot" of this poetic fiction’(Kinney, 273). The allusions within the text reveal details that expand the poem, while also reinforcing the tone and impression Eliot has created. ‘The work's very compression, its dense short hand of allusion which collapses into the text world history and literary history, gives the poem some of the epic range of, for example, Paradise Lost.’(Kinney, 276) Eliot went to the trouble of publishing notes on the various allusions to assist the readers’ interpretation. The opening epigraph is written in Latin and is an allusion to Sibyl, from Petronius’ Satyricon, who has the ability to see into the future; she is immortal but not eternally young. In the epigraph she is trapped and telling people she wants to die. This opening epigraph sets the tone for the poem. It also makes the reader aware...
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