20th century British literature owes a huge gratitude to the contribution of T.S Eliot through his poetry and prose works, which characterized the key ideas of the movement called Modernism. Tired of the angst and trauma caused by the World War, writers, intellectuals, artists and the common men of Europe rose as one to express their sentiments against the futility of war. Many movements in philosophy and art like Existentialism, Absurdism and Impressionism emerged as a result of the dramatic changes that the Western world encountered during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Genres like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘kitchen sink drama’ originated in literature, which toppled traditional notions of writing.
T.S Eliot, although born and educated in America, migrated to England in 1914, and settled in London as an editor of The Egoist and The Criterion. He established himself as an eminent writer of the Age, deriving inspiration from philosophers like Ezra Pound, Dante and the influence of French Symbolism. In his masterpiece work The Waste Land, Eliot laments over the degenerate state of the western world, with its over indulgence in materialism and its loss of spirituality. The poem is a deep and complex network of allegories, symbolic representations and mythical allusions. A thorough analysis of the poem offers to us a comprehensive understanding about Modernism, literature and the anxieties and expectations of the Age.
The poem is divided into 5 cantos. In the first canto, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, Eliot talks about the spiritual barrenness in England. Seasons of summer and winter act unlike their usual selves, winters bringing warmth and summers bringing rain and sleet. Man has upset Nature with his wayward activities, and the entire world has been turned topsy-turvy while men languish in unholy thoughts and deeds. The entire poem critiques the profanity and selfishness of human beings; acts which have led to the death of purity and chastity. The poet exclaims that with the death of the soul, which thirsts for spirituality, humanity is merely sustaining on earth and not truly living. They have buried their dead intelligence and identity and lowered themselves to the level of animals, merely seeking to improve their individual merits.
Death here also signifies rebirth. As Christ was reborn on the third day, after he was crucified for the sins of mankind, here the poet urges man to reawaken from this deathly stupor. True hope lies in resurrection from one’s mortal sins.
It is only towards the end of canto 1 that we realise that the protagonist here is not Eliot himself, but Tiresias, whose voice we hear throughout the poem. Thus, Eliot cleverly distances himself from the opinions in the poem.
In the second canto, ‘A Game of Chess’, the poet talks about the debauchery and hypocrisy in society; especially the forced abduction of women and the indifference of women to chastity and morality. The poet has been criticized for his sexist remarks in this part of the poem, where he blames women for their immoral and lascivious behavior.
The third canto, ‘The Fire Sermon’, talks about how fire can purify the evils of greed, lust, anger, envy and other passions that consume men. Tiresias again refers to the over-indulgence of the people in immorality. In this part, Eliot draws our attention to the fluidity of the point-of-view in The Waste Land. Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character”, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. Immorality is the substance, and the theme is spiritual sterility, and its salvation or regeneration.
In the next canto ‘Death by Water’, the forces of the mighty oceans and rivers are invoked upon to cleanse the tainted souls of men. The poet refers to the religious act of Baptism, and how it symbolizes rejuvenation and rebirth of the soul.
In the final canto, ‘What the Thunder Said’, Eliot borrows from Hindu mythology the Sanskrit words Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata which mean giving, compassion and control respectively. Only if man foregoes his evil manners and adheres to spiritual life, would he be redeemed of his sins. This requires him to be compassionate and empathetic towards his fellow human beings, and believe and strive for the greater good of humanity. Self-control and self-discipline will aid men in their pursuit of true happiness and peace. The thunder here stands for God’s voice that promises the arrival of rain, which will rekindle life in the deadly wasteland of the modern era. Let there be peace in the world, says Eliot.
“Shantih, Shantih, Shantih!”
Intertextuality, Mythology and Symbolism
The Waste Land is an excellent example of intertextuality in Modernist literature. Eliot, being the quintessential Harvard educated, Sanskrit proffering intellectual, makes it a point to weave the poem with a rich and intricate thread of textual, mythological and symbolic references. He borrows characters and ideas from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Aldous Huxley’s famous fake fortune-teller Sosostris, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Buddha’s preaching, Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, Dante’s Inferno and Webster’s White Devil. Quotes and instances from the Bible are aplenty while Eastern Mysticism provides (probably the first time in Western literature) a fitting conclusion to the poem.
Stories from Greek mythology provide a symbolic undercurrent to the poem. It serves as a guide to the thinking intellectuals of Modern Age, who, disgusted with the sordid and materialistic world, should imprison themselves in a cage and yearn to end their lives, like the sorceress Sybil. Stories about the transformation of Philomel into a nightingale and the feud between Zeus and Hera point towards the poet’s sympathy for the downtrodden and helpless victims of power, women.