The Waste Land: An Overview

Topics: The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot, Modernist poetry in English Pages: 12 (4388 words) Published: May 6, 2013
In brief, The Waste Land is a 433-line modernist poem by T. S Eliot published in 1922. It has been called “one of the most important poems of the 20th century.” Despite the poem’s obscurity which it shifts between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures has made the poem to be a familiar touchstone of modern literature. The poem has been written in five parts. The five parts of The Waste Land are titled “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, “The Fire Sermon”, “Death by Water”, and “What the Thunder Said”. 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, 1963).

The question of literary value is complex. We must distinguish, first of all, between the importance of literature in our lives and the importance of any specific text. Literature defines and creates our world. In poems, plays, novels, and stories we imagine and recognize our world and ourselves. In Othello we see our own capacity for irrational anger, or, perhaps, more accurately, in reading Othello we discover that anger in ourselves. Literature is essential because it constantly recreates and extends our understanding of humanity. We do not, however, treat all literature as equally important. Some works have seemed to speak more profoundly or movingly rather than others, and some have sustained the interest of generation after generation. This has been true of The Waste Land. Many have considered Eliot to be the most important poet for his time, and although this judgement has also been questioned, his poetry continues to be read, studied and admired. To evoke and sustain such a response, a work of art must be both a source of pleasure and a way of knowing the world.

In its vivid imagery and complexity of form, The Waste Land has been found by most readers to be visually satisfying at a very deep level. Moreover, in its own time it seemed highly and technically innovative. While we have become accustomed to such poetic techniques as allusion, ironic juxtaposition, and sudden shifts in imagery and style, Elliot’s use of them seemed strikingly new in 1922; they are added to bring the idea of an unfamiliar style. The effect of these techniques has retained its value. Reading the poem carefully, one is rewarded by unexpectedly rich associations. In the opening passage, for example, the summer shower of rain is more emotional for its link to the disturbing rain of April. And the wet hair of the hyacinth girl picks up the memory of spring rain again to associate her anticipation of love with the yearly resurgence of life and growth.

The rhythms and images of The Waste Land draw in and absorb the reader. But the poem would not be so important if its excellence were technical only. Its immediate and sustained value rests on the manner in which poetic skill reveals a way of thinking and feeling about the world. The poem addresses itself to fundamental issues of life and death and to human longing for meaning and value. In the years between the wars its fusing of loss and desire seemed to capture the essence of modern experience. But because Eliot grounded that sense of loss and desire in ancient myths, the poem seemed also to express a permanent human condition and thus to have a broad and continuing appeal. The psychological and spiritual experience presented in The Waste Land may...

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