T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is regarded as the high point of modernism as it was written at a time when the sociological and scientific theories from the previous century were making a tremendous impact on society. Like Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848), Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), The Waste Land (1922) has agitated people’s minds and has created different kinds of responses. At the same time, it is also known as the ultimate modernist poem as it radically breaks from the tradition of writing poetry.
The poem consists of many allusions and cross-references. It is also a series of fragments. As such, it has no single interpretation. Each fragment calls for many and various approaches. One way of reading The Waste Land is through its socio-political representation. Its take on the marginalized section of society and its lament on the loss of a young generation are among the reasons why it is one of the most important modernist poems of the 20th century. It has expressed particular themes such as alienation and lost generation, that traditional poems have failed to do. With these themes, The Waste Land seems to be a prophecy for contemporary society. Presently, the world has been experiencing political and social fragmentation as a result of the crisis of capitalism. Though The Waste Land is written in the context of the post-World War 1 era, it still presents a familiar picture of alienation of people and of young generations who are lost to wars in contemporary society.
The Political Significance of Modernist Poems
The political significance of modernist poems is defined by the developments surrounding the emergence of Modernism. From the root word, modern, Modernism is a term related to a period of revolutionary advances in science, technology, philosophy, and art and literature, which have created a new and modern society.
The term Modernism did not exist until late 1920s. In his book, The Origins of Modernism, Smith relates that the term “Modernism” came after the time “when writers everywhere inscribed themselves under a deliberate banner, this most momentous of movements should emerge anonymously, and wait more than a decade to be named” (1). In the same book, he mentions that authors Laura Riding and
Robert Graves “offered the formal christening [of the movement as Modernism]” (ibid) in their book, A Survey of Modernist Poetry in 1927, adding that “their discussion… makes it clear that the epithet had been in circulation for some time…” Here, Smith refers to writers already writing against the dominant literary traditions and against the ill effects of British colonialism. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) is one fine example of a modernist text written before the term Modernism was formalized. In the novel, Conrad depicts the cruelty and brutality of British colonialism.
Presently, Modernism is (broadly) defined as a term “widely used to identify new distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the twentieth century especially after World War I” (Abrams and Harpham 201-202). The emphasis made on the First World War shows that political events play an important role in modernist literature, including poetry. Examples of WWI-themed poems include Ezra Pound’s BLAST. As David Kadlec puts it, “Pound was not politically active before World War I, but his writings from the period around Marinetti and BLAST show that the flooding of his own art with such technological influences was accompanied by a layering of his aesthetics with political terms.” One of the issues Pound was raising is the mass production of dangerous machines used in the war, as in the first page of the manifesto, saying, “BLAST first ENGLAND…SO MUCH VAST MACHINERY TO PRODUCE” (899). Pound wrote more anti-war poems.
According to the The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia: “Put together in the beginning of World War I, Cathay also registers Pound’s antiwar sentiment. Originally, the sequence consisted of twelve poems of which only one, ‘Song of the Bowmen of Shu,’ was about war. Shortly before the manuscript was sent to press, probably because the war was getting worse, Pound added ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’ and ‘South-Folk in Could Country’ to the sequence to augment its antiwar theme.” (Tryphonopoulos and Adams 53)
Another poet who responded to the devastating aftermath of the First World War is T.S. Eliot. The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock is not directly an anti-war poem but it is a commentary on the isolation and desolation of man in a post-war modern society. The poem’s opening lines “LET us go then, you and I” (1) signals an invitation to the readers to join him. This technique of allowing the readers to explicitly participate with the speaker and uncover for themselves his message is a radical break from the traditions of literary poems where conclusions and resolutions are made for the readers. Eliot’s conscious breaking of the prevailing conventions of poetry is also evident in The Waste Land. Here, Eliot consciously creates fragments of stories into “a heap of broken images” (58) where readers are again invited to put together the pieces to make a sense out of it.
The Social Context of The Waste Land
In order to understand The Waste Land, it is important to contextualize it in the historical and social events of the late 19th century and 20th century. Before the poem was written, British society was moving in a fast pace. The wonders of the scientific discoveries and Industrial Revolution brought England into a new mode of production and a new mode of thinking.
These changes, to the men of that time, were visible evidences that society had committed itself in a certain direction – that it was working by means of scientific and rational knowledge to the ends of extension and economic growth. It meant expanded intellectual opportunities, growing social reforms; but the consequences ran deep in the texture and nature of all human experience. These were that life would alter, habits change and beliefs could be transformed, the complexes of power and influence in society change, and culture acquires a different temper. This would require new ethical systems, new modes of thought, new attempts at an overview. (Bradbury 60)
These machines transformed urban cities into a new and exciting habitable space for people. It also created a new kind of relationship “between the self and society, and between man and history” (58). However, these same machines have wreaked havoc on people’s lives. The (over)production by machines and the need for a new market and raw materials led to First World War which has changed Western societies and people’s faith in the promise of industrialization: The real point of change was a truly apocalyptic moment for western civilization – the First World War, a very recognizable point of transition in ideology, mores and social change, and possibly the mark of the collapse of an entire civilized order. (86)
From these social contexts arises T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The effects of the war have inspired The Waste Land. Written in 1921 and published in 1922, the poem presents the chaos of modern society, death, disillusionment, doubts, and alienation. Its form and structure as already mentioned is one that is radically different. It is not surprising that when it first came out, people had mixed reactions and it was even called “a piece of tripe” by Amy Lowell (Cox and Hinchliffe 11) as it is not a simple poem, and it made people anxious and uneasy.
On the other hand, the poem elicited many positive criticisms despite the negative responses. In his review, Edmund Wilson “praises the poem as a mirror of post-war society, with a new music, even in its borrowings…” (12). While in Conrad Aiken’s equally positive review of the poem, he argues: “The Waste Land is unquestionably important, unquestionably brilliant. It is important because its 433 lines summarize Mr. Eliot, for the moment, and demonstrate that he is even better poet than most had thought, and partly because it embodies the theory just touched upon, the theory of the “allusive” method in poetry. The Waste Land is, indeed, a poem of allusion all compact. It purports to be symbolical; most of its symbols are drawn from literature or legend; and Mr. Eliot has thought it necessary to supply, in notes, a list of the many quotations, references, and translations with which it bristles.” (94)
Indeed, The Waste Land is a significant literary piece of the time, as it has never been done before Eliot and never been replicated after, though many poets have tried. Moreover, many writers were disillusioned by the war and they felt that The Waste Land was written to express their disillusionment. However, Eliot points out: “When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land, some of the more approving critics said I had expressed for them their illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention” (qtd. in Mizener 16).
Additionally, it is important to note that The Waste Land is not about the war itself, but the result of it. In his essay, “Does The Waste Land have a Politics?”, Levenson argues that because it was “written so soon after the carnage of the war, the poem has naturally been understood as an engagement with the civilization of violence…” (3). However, he claims that it is more about the war’s outcome: “The urban destruction in The Waste Land – London bridge falling down, the collapsing towers of the European capitals – takes on a peculiar valence: a tone of perceptible relief that lives within the catastrophe. What the poem both dreads and desires is the annihilation of the city as apparatus, what Eliot calls ‘the postwar machinery of life’ with its ‘horrible waste, the city as the relentless wheel” (3-4).
In other words, the poem is echoing the effects of the war in urban cities in modern society, and the poem’s or poet’s mixed feelings about the city’s destruction.
Parallels between The Waste Land and Contemporary Society
Two of the themes represented in The Waste Land are alienation of people in modern society and the loss of a young generation because of the First World War. The brilliance of the poem also lies in its timelessness. These particular themes serve as a timely response to the present condition of society – fragmented and scarred. In this capitalist modern society, people have been continually alienated and young generations have been lost due to wars.
Undeniably, capitalism as a new mode of production at the turn of the 20th century freed people from feudal bondage, and offered new insights on the rights and capabilities of humans. At the same time, it also destroyed the collective sense of community, which in turn promoted individualism. It also supports the old and creates new standards of morality, beauty and aesthetics. All of these together lead to man’s alienation from others that is prevalent up to the present. In his 1945 essay, “Why Socialism?”, Einstein clearly articulates the relationship between the capitalist mode of production and human beings:
“It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society… his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life.” (n.p.)
Einstein affirmed what Eliot has been echoing in his poems in the early 1920s.
This alienation of man in urbanized cities, which comes in varying forms, is not only evident in The Waste Land, but also in Eliot’s other poems. For instance, in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” the speaker’s alienation is fanned by inhibitions and self-doubt. In the poem, he doubts, as he feels insecure about himself:
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”] (40 – 44)
In this passage, Prufrock’s alienation is expressed in his doubts about his physical appearance which modern society values too much. Likewise, The Waste Land expresses alienation. In part II, “The Game of Chess,” as the couple lacks communication, their relationship with each other is thus alienated:
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.” (111-114)
This clearly illustrates that they do not talk to each other. They have no intimacy.
Similarly, in the case of Albert and Lil, love is absent as well. Obviously because of Albert’s years of absence serving the war. The emotional alienation between them, this time is due to the war inflicted by the crisis of modern society. Lil’s husband has given her money so that she looks good for him when he gets home from his service in the army:
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with the money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it to him, there’s others will, I said. (142 – 149)
It is shown here that for Albert to have “a good time” is for Lil to look good; and if she does not, there are other women who are willing to take him and please him. Due to his long absence because of the war, the husband’s (and probably the wife’s as well) love, desire and vitality are lost.
As illustrated in The Waste Land, the lack of communication, and loss of love, desire and vitality, are recognizable kinds of isolation in present-day modern society. For instance, while spontaneous interaction between people in public places is becoming less and less in terms of communicating with others, work and material gains have become more important than feelings with regards to sexual and intimate relationships. In effect, this all boils down to the individualistic nature of modern society.
Loss of a Generation
Modern society’s wars have caused human destruction and death. During the First World War, a significant part of a young generation was lost. Similarly, the recent wars such as in the Middle East and Asia, in effect, also diminishes a significant part of today’s generation. The Waste Land’s reference to death throughout the poem signals a suggestion to the war’s death toll. For instance, the allusion to the Fisher King can be interpreted as a response to the loss of a generation. In Arthurian Legend, the Fisher King “was wounded in a battle and completely crippled, so that he’s helpless now…” (Matthew Annis). When he becomes a crippled man, his land suffers and becomes barren. The Fisher King can be a symbol for any country that was part of the First World War, and the war made him lame, and the deaths symbolize the barrenness. The land has become infertile, as people are now dead. The poem’s another response can be found in “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker is in the city, which for him is not real as it is swarmed with ghosts, or dead people:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (Eliot 60-65)
This passage illustrates the speaker’s disbelief with the big number of death casualties, a terrifying image causing the speaker and anyone to give a moan, probably of grief and sadness. This is reminiscent, for instance, of a modern city of Fallujah in Iraq, which was bomb in 2004, where more than 700 people were killed, including women and children (Mass Action Group). Though today’s war is of different nature from the First World War, the amount of fatalities is equally horrifying and depressing, and again, causing a lost generation.
The continuing alienation of people and loss of young generations in modern society today are recognizable in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The rapid innovations in science and technology brought unprecedented changes in society, which at the turn of the 20th century entered a new stage of development – capitalism. This newly modernized society also brought Modernism to life, which is a reaction to the traditions of the old system.
Dialectically, the greatness of the Industrial Revolution has two faces. On the one hand, it is a movement of growth and progress, while on the other hand, it is about degeneration and decay. One of the most shocking effects of modernization was the eruption of the First World War, as it was the first colonial war that took place inside the colonizer’s own soil during the advent of modernity. No country could remain neutral, as all countries in the world were involved directly or indirectly. Nobody had thought such an event would happen.
More so, nobody had thought of the appalling, grimy and destructive outcome of the war, not to mention the psychological aspect of it. As modern capitalist society continues, so is the dialectical process of growth and decay of capitalist society. In effect, the alienation of people as a result of individualism and the death of young generation due to wars are still occurring today.
Suffice to say, society is still in the wasteland, a barren land, with which Eliot was conveying in his poem as something that needs to be fertilized so it will breed a new kind. Moreover, The Waste Land, its prophetic element, that is, presenting a familiar sense and fragmented image(s) of contemporary society, makes it, in the words of Pound, “A masterpiece; one of the most important 19 pages in English” (2005). Truly, The Waste Land is a great work of art that continues to provoke and evoke various responses from its readers.
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