T.S. Eliot is one of the most significant modernist poets, particularly due to his use of vivid imagery in the exploration of social issues pertaining to the British community of the time. The Waste Land, written in 1922, is a long poem that has captured the attention of many scholars and critics. The poem explores the lives of British people after the end of World War I. The fragmentation and deterioration of the community are among the key themes evident in the work. In particular, Eliot explores the emotional and spiritual struggles faced by people in the post-war era, focusing on important issues such as death, apathy, and emptiness. These themes serve to form the basis for the exploration of emotional and spiritual barrenness that Eliot perceived to be one of the key issues of contemporary society.
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The Post-War Struggle
The idea of fatality is embedded in the very title of the first part of the poem, The Burial of the Dead. However, it also contrasts the content of the poem. The people described by Eliot are alive yet lifeless, following repetitive routines and activities while remaining emotionally empty. In the first lines of the poem, the author describes the changing seasons. In contrast to the Romantic poets, he portrays spring as cruel and disturbing: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain” (Eliot, 1922, 1-4). By bringing life to nature, the spring creates an opposition between the surroundings and the people, who are either unwilling or incapable of appreciating the life around them. In addition, Eliot (1922) contrasts spring with winter, which kept people warm and comfortable. As noted by Saleem, Ali, and Kousar (2015), such a portrayal of winter reflects the people’s preoccupation with physical activities rather than the spiritual ones. Being used to a particular seasonal routine, people are surprised with every new season that comes, as it prompts them to change their routine.
Arguably, the change of seasons is portrayed in a way that makes it similar to the war, which also changed the lives of many people, forcing them to accustom to difficult physical and emotional circumstances. Indeed, the first two stanzas of the poem create a comparison between past and present life.
For instance, in lines 13-18, Eliot (1922) recalls a happy past:
And when we were children, staying at the archdukes,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
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Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
Freedom and fear are both forms of emotions that are absent in the rest of the play. The post-war world is different, characterized by emotional barrenness, which is shown in lines 21-24 (Eliot, 1922):
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
By contrasting the past and present, the author draws attention to the period that was between the two, highlighting the emotional damage brought by the war. Both the land and the people are lifeless, and this idea is reinforced through the repeated use of imagery of death.
Apathy and Death
Although clearly stemming from the struggles brought by the war, the emotional barrenness of the people is tightly connected with death. Eliot (1922) portrays death as the primary source of emotional damage that has affected the community.
He writes (Eliot, 1922, 62-65):
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.
The collective damage experienced by the people is the primary characteristic of the Unreal Cities portrayed by Eliot (1922). The ghosts seem to be imprisoned in these cities, either incapable of escaping it or unwilling to try. The idea of imprisonment is further supported in the last part of the poem: “We think of the key, each in his prison/ Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (Eliot, 1922, 413-414). These lines suggest that the prison is built and supported by people’s own thoughts rather than enforced by external powers. On the one hand, this idea offers hope for a positive resolution. For instance, Gordon (2016) argues that, by depicting the current state of society, Eliot also affirms the existence of a better alternative. On the other hand, it is clear that people’s emotional emptiness would prevent them from breaking the prison and returning to normal life.
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The activities of people described in the poem are routine and monotonous. Even romantic pursuits lack passion and love. For instance, the third part of the work portrays a romantic encounter that, similarly to other actions depicted in the poem, is void of emotion: “Endeavours to engage her in caresses/Which still are unreproved, if undesired” (Eliot, 1922, 237-238). Eliot (1922) highlights the woman’s indifference to the man’s calculated actions, creating an impression of a sexual act that is neither emotional nor spiritual.
Both of the characters dwell on their unvoiced thoughts, seeing the encounter as another routine action rather than a spiritual experience (Eliot, 1992, 249-252):
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
The people’s inability to experience emotions, according to Eliot (1922) is one of the key issues experienced by his contemporaries. The exploration of this phenomenon, offered in the poem, makes the readers eager to discover a way of rebuilding society and bringing the Unreal Cities back to life. Nevertheless, Eliot (1922) offers no solution to the problem, choosing to explore its roots in great detail first.
Materialism and Spirituality
Another significant issue pointed out by the poet is materialism, or the people’s preoccupation with minor objects and events, which prevents them from overcoming their spiritual barrenness. For instance, the second part of the poem begins with a detailed description of a woman’s surroundings, including the furniture, light, sound, and smell (Eliot, 1922, 77-103). The poet concentrates on small details, yet the description is factual, stripped of vivid imagery and emotion. The passage also highlights the emptiness felt by the people that feel the need to surround themselves with material goods to add value and excitement to their lives. However, the author insists that their efforts are futile by marring the luxurious description with strong negative imagery (Eliot, 1922, 88-89). The futility of materialistic life is among the common topics addressed by Eliot in his writings, which often serves to highlight the spiritual degeneration of people and their communities (Abbas, 2016).
Other examples of materialism are also evident in the dialogues and stories presented in the poem. For example, lines 131-134 present a rushed series of casual questions that gradually grow in depth (Eliot, 1922):
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
What shall we ever do?”
The last line indicates the main question posed by the author throughout the poem. However, the question remains unanswered as the narrator disregards it in favor of smaller details and tasks at hand: “The hot water at ten./ And if it rains, a closed car at four” (Eliot, 1922, 135-136). The fact that neither the narrator nor the characters focus on important questions, instead choosing to commit to meaningless activities and thoughts also contributes to the exploration of spiritual barrenness in the work.
It should be noted that, in the text, irreversible changes and transformations occur, and they capture the characters of the poem. The same individuals come to different places at different times. These transformations allow the author to emphasize relativity and conventionalism as well as the meaninglessness of being and invariability of suffering. It is interesting that the author adheres to the idealistic tradition in his choice of composition (Hühn, 2017). The chronology of events does not have a clear sequence, which coincides with the manner of poetic narrative and the uncertainty of time boundaries.
For instance, in the first part of the writing, the character is a man; however, in the next section, he is neither a man nor a woman. In the third part, the lyrical hero turns into the merchant Tiresias. Thus, the heroes of the poem merge into an image of a man. It can be assumed that the fates of people are similar, and they do not depend on epochs and times as they are always united by a single leitmotif. In order to show the general barrenness, the author of the work reflects on the fluctuation of time and space (Bîrsanu, 2014). He intentionally does not distinguish between days and living and inanimate beings to show that death dominates them. In particular, people walking through the bridge in the first part of the poem are perceived as faceless ghosts. Moreover, even when nature wakes up and comes to life in spring, the onset of death is inevitable.
In general, this work is a fragmented but a cohesive and continuous stream of memories and different settings. They permeate and embrace spatial and temporal perception and flow into one another (Bîrsanu, 2014). Despite the fact that each scene is not similar to the previous one, they merge under the unchanging image of death.
In Eliot’s work, the emphasis is placed on the fact that people tend to view the world in a sensual way, which forces them to become self-absorbed and does not allow humans to comprehend the essence of the world order. For this reason, a person cannot perceive space in its unity while human life is reduced to ordinary reality, in which forms replace each other. Nevertheless, the world is based on chaos and instability in which there is no common order. However, people tend to aspire to it (Wigand, Wiegand, Rüsch, & Becker, 2016). In an effort to streamline the forms in which people live, humans make their existence automatic and unconscious. Thus, the poem by Eliot reflects the concept of death-in-life.
In one of the parts of the poem, the author unfolds the being of the hero through his consciousness. It is crucial that this character does not reflect on the way time and forms mutually penetrate each other. Due to the fact that the character cannot perceive his being on a deeper level and discard common patterns, the past of this person becomes “a heap of broken images” (Eliot, 1922, 22). Values existing outside any timeframes are no longer a spiritual shelter for people. Through this section, the author wants to show the reader that humans have lost their divine spark and gradually degrade into mortal flesh. However, it should be stressed that the author does not seek to convince the reader of this idea and does not reveal his attitude to this phenomenon. Eliot stands aside from his poem and reveals an ethical comprehension of a human being. This way, he allows the audience to make their individual judgments.
It is curious that the author reveals this idea further through the choice of images and settings. For instance, at the end of the first chapter, the reader can experience the atmosphere of infertility through imagery. In this part of the poem, the author paints a picture of a phantom city in which barrenness and non-existence reign (Eliot, 1992). The presence of fog immerses the audience in the atmosphere of stagnation and death. Moreover, this image is a symbol of the borderline, when a person is frozen on the threshold between life and death; however, death inevitably dominates.
The poem also clearly exhibits the issue of the lack of individuality. A person no longer feels the need to distinguish between fundamental domains and performs automated actions (Eliot, 1992). The ethical system of the poem brings the problem of de-individualization to the forefront.
The complexity of the issue lies in the fact that contemporary society does not allow people to have a genuine connection with each other. The interaction of humans is of a mechanical nature and leaves no imprint in the spirituality of people. Consequently, death is inevitable due to the disintegration of culture in the inner world of humanity (Eliot, 1992). However, society aspires to be reborn, but it strives for achieving it through a hypertrophied feeling of passion. In their desire to rise, the suffering of people becomes more intense. Thus, the circle of death-in-life is continued. When a person seeks liberation, he or she continues to lock him or herself up in the prison of death.
On the whole, the poem serves to explore the themes of emotional and spiritual emptiness faced by the 20th-century British society, suggesting that it was mainly caused by the emotional damage brought by the war. However, the poet refrains from offering a solution to the issue; instead, he uses the description of regular events and activities to find the sources and effects of the problem. Therefore, Eliot leaves the readers with the main question, “What shall we ever do?”, which reflects both hopes for a better future and the uncertainty that such a future would ever come.
Abbas, S. K. (2016). Spiritual and emotional sterility in T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”. Misan Journal for Academic Studies, 30(1), 20-40.
Bîrsanu, R. S. (2014). T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a place of intercultural exchanges: A translation perspective. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Eliot, T. S. (1922). The Waste Land. Web.
Gordon, L. (2016). City of dead souls: The Waste Land and the modern moment. Web.
Hühn, P. (2017). The eventfulness of non-events in modernist poetry: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Bertolt Brecht’s “Vom armen BB”. Frontiers of Narrative Studies, 3(2), 319-335.
Saleem, M., Ali, A., & Kousar, S. (2015). The Waste Land by TS Eliot: A site for inertia in motion. Gomal University Journal of Research, 31(2), 182-193.
Wigand, M. E., Wiegand, H. F., Rüsch, N., & Becker, T. (2016). Personal suffering and social criticism in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and A. Ginsberg’s Howl: Implications for social psychiatry. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 62(7), 672-678.