Analysis of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land
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T. S. Eliot
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Thomas Stearns Eliot, author of The Waste Land, has been called the most influential poet of the twentieth century. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but became a British subject in 1927. For this reason, his works may be studied in British or American literature courses. In 1906 he attended Harvard, where he was influenced by student groups who were interested in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, the humanism of Irving Babbitt, and Indian mystical philosophy. He received additional education at the Sorbonne and at Oxford. In 1914 he moved to London and took a position at Lloyd's Bank. He held this job until 1925, when he joined the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer. The firm became Faber and Faber in 1929, and Eliot was appointed a director. In 1948 he won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Waste Land first appeared in October, 1922, in the Criterion, a periodical founded and edited by Eliot. In November of the same year it was published in the Dial, an American publication. At a later date it was published as a book with notes added, and it has also appeared in numerous anthologies. The Waste Land is an allusive and complex poem. As such, it is subject to a variety of interpretations, and no two critics agree completely on its meaning. It may be interpreted on three levels: the person, the society, and the human race. The personal interpretation seeks to reveal Eliot's feelings and intentions in writing the poem. At the society level, a critic looks for the meaning of the poem in relation to the society for which it was written. Finally, the human level extends the societal level to include all human societies - past, present, and future (Thompson 144). Since the human level is an extension of the societal level, the basic themes are the same for both. The main theme is "modern life as a waste land." Eliot supports the theme by showing what was wrong with society in the early twentieth century. These shortcomings include lack of faith, lack of communication, fear of both life and death, corruption of the life-water symbol, and corruption of sex. There are two kinds of people in the modern waste land, according to Eliot. These are seen in the crowd that flows over London Bridge (62-65). He states, "I had not thought death had undone so many." This is a reference to Dante's description of the people in Limbo. They were the dead who were neither bad nor good, just secularized. This is one category of people in the waste land (Williamson 133). The other is given by another reference to Dante: "Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled." This is descriptive of people in the first level of hell, those who were born before Christ. They have no knowledge of salvation and cannot be saved (according to Dante.) The reference shows that there are also people in the twentieth century who have no faith (Brooks 13). Eliot illustrates the lack of faith at several points. In lines 301-302, one of the Thames daughters states, "I can connect / Nothing with nothing." Because she has no faith, there are no connections and no meaning in her life (Wheelwright 97). There are several references in the poem to "hooded hordes walking in a ring." Madame Sosostris sees them, and the protagonist meets them as he journeys to the Perilous Chapel. The hooded hordes are hooded because they cannot see the hooded figure, the "third that always walks beside you," who represents Christ (Brooks 26). They are walking in a ring, with no sense of purpose or direction, because they have no faith (Williamson 149). Another indication of the people's lack of faith is the story of the merchant. Traditionally, the merchants carried the secrets of the vegetation...
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