The Waste Land (3000 Words)

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"The Waste Land" is a modernist poem by T. S. Eliot caused a sensation when it was published in 1922. It is today the most widely translated and studied English-language poem of the twentieth century. This is perhaps surprising given the poem's length and its difficulty, but Eliot's vision of modern life as plagued by sordid impulses, widespread apathy, and pervasive soullessness packed a punch when readers first encountered it. Pound's influence on the final version of "The Waste Land" is significant. At the time of the poem's composition, Eliot was ill, struggling to recover from his nervous breakdown and languishing through an unhappy marriage. Pound offered him support and friendship; his belief in and admiration for Eliot were enormous. Pound, like Eliot a crucible of modernism, called for compression, ellipsis, reduction. The poem grew yet more cryptic; references that were previously clear now became more obscure. Explanations were out the window. The result was a more difficult work -- but arguably a richer one. Eliot did not take all of Pound's notes, but he did follow his friend's advice enough to turn his sprawling work into a tight, elliptical, and fragmented piece. Once the poem was completed, Pound lobbied on its behalf, convincing others of its importance. He believed in Eliot's genius, and in the impact "The Waste Land" would have on the literature of its day. That impact ultimately stretched beyond poetry, to novels, painting, music, and all the other arts. John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer owes a significant debt to "The Waste Land," for example. Eliot's take on the modern world profoundly shaped future schools of thought and literature, and his 1922 poem remains a touchstone of the English-language canon.

Major Themes
Death
Two of the poem’s sections -- “The Burial of the Dead” and “Death by Water” --refer specifically to this theme. What complicates matters is that death can mean life; in other words, by dying, a being can pave the way for new lives. Eliot asks his friend Stetson: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

Rebirth
The Christ images in the poem, along with the many other religious metaphors, posit rebirth and resurrection as central themes. The Waste Land lies fallow and the Fisher King is impotent; what is needed is a new beginning. Water, for one, can bring about that rebirth, but it can also destroy.. Hence the prevalence of Grail imagery in the poem; that holy chalice can restore life and wipe the slate clean; likewise, Eliot refers frequently to baptisms and to rivers – both “life-givers,” in either spiritual or physical ways. The Seasons

"The Waste Land" opens with an invocation of April, “the cruellest month.” That spring be depicted as cruel is a curious choice on Eliot’s part, but as a paradox it informs the rest of the poem to a great degree. What brings life brings also death; the seasons fluctuate, spinning from one state to another, but, like history, they maintain some sort of stasis; not everything changes. In the end, Eliot’s “waste land” is almost seasonless: devoid of rain, of propagation, of real change. The world hangs in a perpetual limbo, awaiting the dawn of a new season. Lust

Perhaps the most famous episode in "The Waste Land" involves a female typist’s liaison with a “carbuncular” man. Eliot depicts the scene as something akin to a rape. This chance sexual encounter carries with it mythological baggage – the violated Philomela, the blind Tiresias who lived for a time as a woman. Love

The references to Tristan und Isolde in “The Burial of the Dead,” to Cleopatra in “A Game of Chess,” and to the story of Tereus and Philomela suggest that love, in "The Waste Land," is often destructive. Tristan and Cleopatra die, while Tereus rapes Philomela, and even the love for the hyacinth girl leads the poet to see and know “nothing." Water

"The Waste Land" lacks water; water promises rebirth. At the...
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