Stability versus Change and Metamorphosis in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
When one reads The Waste Land for the first time, it may be difficult to extract some clear meanings out of the poem. The common reader is used to expect some uniformity and wholeness, some kind of unity or continuity in one or various aspects in any piece of writing he or she comes across. Therefore, when one has to face a poem like this one, the sensation of puzzlement, confusion and powerlessness is unavoidable. Even scholars who may perfectly know and feel familiar with all the allusions and intertextuality present in the poem, have often felt outraged at the obscurity and apparent lack of cohesive meaning in it. We have to bear in mind that the element that links the different parts of the poem is none other than the constant struggle between stability and change, the “proper” and the “improper”, fertility versus barrenness. If you realise this, you may approach the poem in a different way, and even if you fail to meet the “erudition requirements” that TWL seems (at first) to expect from the reader, you may extract some deeper meaning out of this Modernist masterpiece.
It has often been argued that T.S. Eliot’s poem lacks a theme or argument, because there is no spatial or temporal continuity in it. However, the whole poem may be seen as a series of sequences of dreamlike (or nightmarish) situations in which we may find a constant in the opposition between two juxtaposed worlds. First, a world full of order in which we can find a clear voice, a world where we may find a reference, a “proper” world; and then a chaotic one which expands into a whirlwind of voices and images difficult to comprehend, a world where the speakers are expressing their desire for reference and stability, the “improper” one. The tension which creates the desire of stability and the constant and inevitable change is what makes the poem flow rapidly from one image and situation to another, as we will see later on.
As Harriet Davidson points out in her article “Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land”, the proper side of the poem shows itself in “its scholarly apparatus, its respect for tradition, and its recoil from the chaos of life”, while the improper side manifests itself in “its equally apparent lack of respect for tradition and poetic method and its fascination with mutation, degradation, and fragmentation” (p. 2). Davidson accurately specifies that this “proper” quality does not only have to do with “propriety”, but also with the concept of “property”, as well as the “jealous guarding of boundaries”. As said before, what keeps the poem running is this constant tension between two opposing forces, one which intends to keep things clear, separated and fixed, and another one which brings chaos into it, fragmentation and the eruption of desire.
These two conflicting and yet necessary tendencies are displayed throughout the poem in the juxtaposition of fragments related with myths, history, art or religion (all of which imply the need for references and stability) with other pieces related to the “contemporary wasteland” we are living in. These tendencies are used to contrast the “proper” order of the previous world and the “improper” chaos modernity brings to the modern one. The poem constantly moves into a seemingly glorious past in order to find some clues to meaning, a meaning that is nowadays lost. In this “modern wasteland”, everything seems futile, everything seems corrupted to the very roots. We will not deal with the allusions to WWI because it exceeds the scope of our essay, but we have to bear in mind that this poem was written just after one the most pointless and extensive (geographically speaking) conflicts in the history of mankind. Another aspect of this “modern wasteland”, which is closer to the surface, is the depiction of sexuality as empty, barren of meaning, progressively detached from fertility (consider the “pub scene” of the poem in...
References: Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume D, 7th edition, 2007, pp. 1587-1599.
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