T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land
T. S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land” a few years after the end of WWI while convalescing at the English Sea Shore after having a nervous breakdown. The world he saw was in shambles, both physically, spiritually, and intellectually. “The Waste Land” is a collection of fragmented stories, voices, and settings. It contains sixty allusions to forty different writers and six different languages. In a world broken by war, changed forever by industrialization and urbanization there can be no clear, singular meaning. In order to portray the crumbling world that he perceived, Eliot implemented an equally jumbled polyphonic narrative. If we perceive the world as ordered then ordered poetry will be written and understood, but if the world is broken and disordered then disordered poetry will be written. Eliot was dissatisfied with disorder. He wanted some Capital ‘T’ truths but there weren’t any anymore.
Through the many allusions Eliot illustrates the cheapening of high culture, and the erosion of literature. The old stories are still there, but they mean less. All profundity has been wrung out of the world, but the old stories lie beneath modern streets. Eliot paints London’s commuters, the industrial workers traveling through the city as souls entering dante's hell. These allusions, (though they are mostly undetectable to those who are not well read) remind us of a collective, ordered, meaningful past that has been lessened, lightened, and broken. Take the second part of “A Game of Chess” for Example. Two women sit at a bar after the war has ended and talk about false teeth, returning husbands, and abortions. The voice of the bartender forms a kind of refrain of: HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. This serves as reminder of the quick-paced nature of life compared to the recent past. This seedy bar scene ends with the two women being ushered out of the pub with a chorus of good nights. The last words of the section are “goodnight sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight,” the same words spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. But here they are just words tossed around in a closing pub, they are just, as mentioned earlier in “A Game of Chess” “that Shakespearean rag.”
Eliot winnows down his readers by filling “The Waste Land” with allusions that very few will understand. However, those who understand the references and allusions, those who speak sanskrit, German, French, and Latin will not only be able to more clearly understand the events of the text, but will understand the ideas at the core of the poem, the idea that art is in ruin, all of the old stories that lie beneath the modern word are have been, lightened, cheapened, lessened, obliterated.
Those who do not understand the allusions, will not not be able to understand the work on a superficial level, or grasp the ideas at the core. By not understanding the poem, the confused read enacts the disorder and literary erosion Eilot is responding to. “The Waste Land” is driven by the idea that there once was something whole, something truly meaningful that is broken and will not be put back together again.