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“Mental Issues” by T. S. Eliot: The Effect on the Themes and Popularity of “The Waste Land”

Introduction

Being one of the most prominent poets of the era does not necessarily make one’s works the most understandable to the public. T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is a prominent example of such a paradox. Whereas critics consider the work outstanding and influential, many readers find it difficult to grasp the ideas reflected by the author. “The Waste Land” has been called “immortal,” and many attempts have been made to explain its essence (Lock 8). However, the most viable idea seems to be the one associated with the poet’s mental issues, which he was experiencing at the time of writing “The Waste Land.” While the poem is undeniably a masterpiece, its analysis cannot be performed without considering the personal circumstances under which T. S. Eliot created it.

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The Main Allusions and Problems Raised in “The Waste Land”

The poem dwells on several crucial themes, but it is not easy to understand them at first sight. The author frequently changes speakers without prior introduction, which makes it complicated for a reader to notice the shift. Furthermore, there are numerous allusions to famous cultural and literary activists and events from different historical periods. For instance, Eliot makes allusions to Ezekiel: “A heap of broken images, where the sun” (22). The question “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” (Eliot 19-20) resembles “the sharp putdown” of a teacher who wants his students to see that they know much less than they believe they know (Booth 43). Another biblical allusion is that to Ecclesiastes: “the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water” (Eliot 23-24). The lines from Ecclesiastes, where Eliot found his inspiration, are focused on the “confrontation of doubt” (Booth 48). Other significant allusions include Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Baudelaire’s “The Seven Old Men,” Dante’s Inferno, and Webster’s White Devil (Booth 49-72). All of these instances make the storyline entangled and hard to comprehend.

The second part of “The Waste Land,” which opens in a lady’s bedroom describing her furniture and accessories, is also rich in allusions to famous literary works. “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne” (Eliot 77) refers to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (Booth 79). The “laquearia” (Eliot 92) reminds of Virgil’s Aeneid (Booth 85). The “sylvan scene” (Eliot 98) is a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost (Booth 91). “The change of Philomel” (Eliot 99) resembles Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Booth 96). All of these allusions, as well as many others, demonstrate the poet’s extensive knowledge of the most influential works of literature from different epochs. However, at the same time, these instances make it complicated for the layman audience to read the poem without stopping to consult some additional sources to make it clear what Eliot meant.

Historical, pop culture and philosophical allusions made by Eliot add to the difficulty in reading the poem. The use of several foreign languages makes it impossible for English-speaking readers to grasp the meaning without resorting to a dictionary. Eliot uses Italian, German, French, Hindi, and other pieces in “The Waste Land”: “il miglior fabbro” (dedication), “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” (12), “hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère” (76), “Shantih shantih shantih” (409). These instances, along with the allusions described earlier, serve to disclose serious problems of religion, culture, and art, both of Eliot’s contemporary society and the previous ones. “The Waste Land,” hence, became the prominent modernist poem of the century. Still, the reasons for the authors’ choices of themes and allusions require a more thorough analysis.

Hysterical Discourse of the Poem

The most viable cause for the poem’s unsettling plot is its author’s disturbed mental health in the period when he created it. Koestenbaum calls Eliot’s masterpiece a “portrait of hysteria” representing Eliot’s mental breakdown (113). Various critics entitled the protagonist of “The Waste Land” “an international hero” and “a king” (Schwartz; Fowler, qtd. in Koestenbaum 114). At the same time, many acknowledge that the mental disturbances of the author made it difficult for the reader to form the poem “clearly and unambiguously” in their minds (Richards, qtd. in Koestenbaum 113). Critics distinguished between two important types of discourse in the poem: that of the high male modernism and hysteria. The discontinuities, absences, and disruptions signify the notes of hysteria in Eliot’s poem (Koestenbaum 114). Whereas it was believed that hysteria was feminine, “The Waste Land” was considered by critics to have affiliations with the female hysteric discourse. In early studies of this psychiatric problem, hysteria was used to mark “an affliction of women” (Koestenbaum 114). However, certain features of Eliot’s poem allow regarding it an example of hysterical discourse.

Scholars justify their treatment of “The Waste Land” as a piece of hysterical discourse due to the collaboration between Eliot and Ezra Pound, who edited the poem. According to Koestenbaum, the Eliot-Pound pair was similar to the Breuer-Freud collaboration, which gave way to the first comprehensive analysis of hysteria (115). Hence, Eliot’s and Pound’s collaboration is perceived as the male reaction toward female hysterical speech, which is represented by the “female hysteric” of the poem’s manuscript (Koestenbaum 115). For several years before writing “The Waste Land,” Eliot had been suffering from somatic and emotional disorders, for which no distinct and unanimous diagnosis was given. Having received treatment at Lausanne and Margate in 1921, Eliot wrote “The Waste Land.” Thus, the poet’s mental breakdown served as a prerequisite for the poem’s composition (Koestenbaum 115). Eliot’s first confrontation with hysteria, as Koestenbaum notes, occurred when he wrote his prose poem “Hysteria” (116). While confronting the illness in a female, Eliot simultaneously found it in himself.

Hysteria was not only the reason why Eliot’s poem turned out so complicated and disproportionate. The disease was also the cause of the poet’s delay in completing the literary work. Eliot was entirely “deprived” of words and could not get his thoughts together (Koestenbaum 116). He started writing poems in French to “outwit his paralysis,” which was the so-called hysterical conversion from one language to another (Koestenbaum 116). Because the doctor ordered Eliot to stop writing for several months, it is possible to speak of treating the poet as a female artist with hysteria. There are opinions that “The Waste Land” would not have been what it is without the intrusion of the psychiatrist. Although Eliot was enraged by the doctor’s demand, in the end, it turned out to be quite beneficial advice, which helped the poet to “fertilize” his imagination and allowed him to compose “The Waste Land” (Koestenbaum 117). In a way, the illness was inspiring, and without it, Eliot might not have gained the fame he had.

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The literary outcomes of Eliot’s mental breakdown draw scholars’ attention due to the fact that the poet made the initial diagnosis by himself. As Harris remarks, Eliot’s “psychological troubles” were confirmed by the Lausanne doctor, Vittoz, who thoroughly analyzed the causes of previous treatment’s failure (44). The researcher argues that it was due to Eliot’s communication with and observation of people from different cultures that led to the inclusion of such a variety of cultural and linguistic aspects in “The Waste Land” (Harris 45). Furthermore, the physician served as a “poetic catalyst” by strengthening Eliot’s self-control and willpower (Harris 45). Finally, in contrast to Koestenbaum’s argument of Freudian effect on Eliot’s writing, Harris notes that both the doctor and the patient rejected such a notion (45). The rationale behind such an idea was that the premises of Freudianism involved a romantic ethos of expressing one’s thoughts, whereas Eliot’s writing did not correspond to such a definition.

At the same time, although he refuted Freud’s impact, Eliot admitted having some expressivist impulse, which gave power to his words. Expressivist discourse, in contrast to the hysterical one, is known to give so much significance to the words that people tend to forget about the author who wrote them (Harris 45). Additionally, the luminosity of words has some power over one’s mind. Thus, Eliot’s treatment by Vittoz involved a “merger” between the ego-driven subjectivity and the philosophically-schooled personality (Harris 47). As a result, there was a sense of alterity in Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The linguistic peculiarities of the poem are believed to be the reflection of Eliot’s positive response to treatment. Specifically, the final words “Shantih shantih shantih” (Eliot 409) are considered to have the “healing” power (Harris 45). Both the chronological and physical ending of the poem sounds like a meditative piece, which inspires the reader to think that the poet gained relief by the end of creating his work.

Eliot’s Reflections about “The Waste Land”

Finally, in the context of analyzing Eliot’s poem, it is necessary to take into consideration the author’s position and scholars’ interpretation of it. Humbly enough, Eliot found his creation to be nothing more than “only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life” (qtd. in Unger 158). Eliot mentioned that critics had done him honor by viewing his poem as “an important bit of social criticism” (qtd. in Unger 158). Even in these words, one can notice how modest the author is about his talent and people’s admiration of “The Waste Land.” One of the goals pursued by Eliot’s reaction, according to Unger, was to show the existence of daunting irony (158). The irony was in the gap between the world’s “extremely high regard” for the poem and Eliot’s “considerably lower” opinion of it (Unger 158). Even the choice of Eliot’s words for expressing his gratitude is an understatement since it was not merely “an important bit of social criticism” but “a sustained sensation” and an “incomparably famous and influential” piece (Unger 158-159). Along with being significant, the poem was also controversial, which still did not take away from its value.

There are several possible explanations why Eliot was so modest in reacting to a critical response. He might have felt modest because of the unexpectedly overwhelming success of his work. The poet could have also felt guilty due to an extensive disparity between the expected reaction and the real one. Another suggestion is that Eliot might have developed “arrogant contrariness” as a result of colossal success (Unger 159). Finally, there is a possibility of Eliot feeling disappointment and scorn toward the readers whom he found to be “wrong-headed” and unable to criticize his poem (Unger 159). Each of these suggestions is possible, and some of them can be deducted from Eliot’s reaction to critique. For instance, he refuted the idea of expressing “disillusionment of a generation” in “The Waste Land” (Eliot, qtd. in Unger 159). Instead, he said that people might have seen in his poem “their illusion of being disillusioned” (Eliot, qtd. in Unger 159). Hence, it appears that in his reactions to critics, Eliot humiliated both the readers and himself, and it is difficult to make a unanimous conclusion as to what had driven him to such opinions and statements.

Conclusion

T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” justly occupies a prominent place in the world of literature. Despite being hard to comprehend, the poem has raised a number of vital themes and questions for discussion and analysis. The author included a variety of allusions to prominent historical events and characters and utilized a variety of linguistic approaches. Whereas Eliot himself did not view “The Waste Land” as a masterpiece, one can only assume that it was due to his excessive modesty. Some scholars consider that the poem was written under the influence of hysterical discourse, while others argue that it was not so, although they admit the presence of the expressivist impulse. No matter what psychological theory the poem is related to, researchers unanimously agree that the poet’s mental issues constituted the most crucial part of its success.

References

Booth, Allyson. Reading The Waste Land from the Bottom Up. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web.

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Harris, Amanda Jeremin. “T. S. Eliot’s Mental Hygiene.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, 2006, pp. 44-56.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. “The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s Collaboration on Hysteria Winner of the 1988 TCL Prize in Literary Criticism.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 34, no. 2, 1988, pp. 113-139.

Lock, Charles. “Editorial.” The Powys Journal, vol. 26, 2016, pp. 7-10.

Unger, Leonard. “T. S. E. on “The Waste Land”.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 1972, pp. 157-165.

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