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 about 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. Also, 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 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 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, 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, 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.
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 (1922) 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.
Eliot, T. S. (1922). The Waste Land. Web.
Gordon, L. (2016). City of dead souls: The Waste Land and the modern moment. Web.
Saleem, M., Ali, A., & Kousar, S. (2015). The wasteland by TS Eliot: A site for inertia in motion. Gomal University Journal of Research, 31(2), 182-193.