“the Human Engine Waits”: the Role of Technology in T.S. Eliot's the Waste Land

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First published in 1922, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is a major work of modernist literature. Written in the aftermath of the First World War, Eliot’s poem describes the disorganization and collapse of society. In recounting this, the poet covers a wide variety of topics, incorporates many different images, and encompasses manifold languages and cultures. One major theme that Eliot treats in detail is the role of technology and industrialization in the downfall of Western civilization. Unlike earlier modern poets such as Walt Whitman, Eliot uses The Waste Land to draw connections between the mechanization and technological advancement in everyday life and the degradation of human dignity. In this way, Eliot’s poem can be read as a criticism of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on society. As Eliot radically juxtaposes these images of modern industrial society against allusions to mythology, he uses the disjointed and chaotic structure of The Waste Land to demonstrate the difficulty of finding meaning in the modern world.

The basic structure of the poem exemplifies this notion that technology has contributed to this fragmentation of society. Critic Juan A. Suárez argues that Eliot tries to mimic a sound recorder in his writing style in The Waste Land. Connecting Eliot’s poem to sound montages created by experimental artists in which various sounds from radio broadcasts and recordings were spliced together, Suárez writes that “Eliot’s poem itself is based on zapping through a sort of prerecorded literary archive which seems to be kept on the air at different frequencies” (757). The Waste Land’s structure is rooted in machines. The technology subverts the established social order; the frequencies of the high and the low are recorded side by side without any clear differentiation. As Suárez notes, “Once the channels are open they carry any and all sounds […]” (764). The voices of kings are equated with those of the working class; modern technology has broken down the traditional customs and social barriers. Through this, Eliot links the structure of the poem to its content. The lack of an apparent pattern in the images Eliot incorporates mirrors the lack of a pattern that he sees in his society.

Eliot’s views of the contrast between conventional and modern life can be observed through the contrast between the images presented in the first and subsequent sections of the poem. In “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot includes images of life prior to the war. He writes of the prewar upper class, who spend time at the “archduke’s, [m]y cousin’s […]” and have ordered lives in which they “read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” (Eliot 286). They find meaning in Madame Sosostris’ cards and in the mythology of the classical world. Eliot contrasts their lives against the lives of those in the modernized and mechanized world. These include the women at the pub in “A Game of Chess,” and the typist in “The Fire Sermon.” Compared to the leisure class who enjoy their vacations in the mountains, the typist is “named metonymically for the machine she tends, so merged with it, in fact, that she is called the ‘typist’ even at home” (North 98). As her mechanical work consumes her identity, the typist represents a figure who has been degraded by mechanization. The monotony of her existence furthers Eliot’s commentary on the extent to which the Industrial Revolution has eroded the sense of purpose in human life. The other mechanical images in “The Fire Sermon” further develop this point.

Indeed, “The Fire Sermon” is the section where Eliot makes the degrading effects of mechanization most apparent. The most striking example of this occurs in the lines preceding the introduction of Tiresias: “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits / Like a taxi throbbing waiting,” (Eliot 293). Here, Eliot is directly connecting the modern laborer to a machine. The human becomes...
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