Monday, March 7, 2011

The Waste Land

I hardly feel adequate to discuss T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway.  I haven't addressed poetry very much in my blog, and the truth is that I don't think I can always appreciate it.  When I first attempted The Waste Land by Eliot, I didn't understand it at all.  I read it quickly and finished simply with, "Huh??"  If you've read it, maybe you can understand the feeling.  But I later invested a lot of time and thought in the poem and grew to have a great respect for it.

When approaching this poem, I think it helps to view it from a Modern perspective.  Eliot was one of the founders of the Modernist movement in literature, and there are a number of features in The Waste Land which illustrate that. The poem famously opens with, "April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land." In much of poetry preceding this, the language was often filled with beauty and romance. Right at the start, Eliot takes the traditionally most romantic season and turns it into one of melancholy. He then drapes each line with an "ing" word at the end, creating a sense of hanging and incompletion. With the accompanying images of cruelty, death, and dullness, the theme of the poem seems to be a reaction against romanticized description.

Another thing that I find interesting in this poem is the repeated use of the word "nothing."  It pops up ten times and is always at the beginning or ending of the line, emphasizing its significance.  This concept of nothingness is crucial to the social despair he conveys throughout the poem.  Eliot doesn't allow any of his characters to form an impression on the readers.  He writes with an indefinite narrator and without any sense of an individual, which is often very confusing.  But the purpose of his poem was not to reveal the thoughts and emotions of one or two fictional characters; it was to create the sense of a disillusioned society in the modern world.  In one of my favorite scenes, Eliot describes a faceless crowd immersed in descriptions of death and despair passing over the London Bridge.  They all avoid eye contact, and the narrator is unable to break the group's anonymity.  This powerful lack of individualism creates a hovering isolation throughout the text.  In a way, it reminds me of some of the apocalyptic literature I talked about recently.

Adding to this effect, there is not a strict timeline in the poem, nor do the events appear to occur chronologically.  Moreover, at times it is difficult to even decipher whether the narrator’s thoughts and experiences are occurring in the present or the past. Eliot's frequent lack of specificity creates a new kind of emotion, one which is prominent in Modern literature. The sense of detachment and uncertainty becomes a writing aesthetic, one that is often known as stream of consciousness.  Many authors in the Modern period, such as Virginia Woolf, use this writing method in their work as well.

These are just a few of the things I picked up on in The Waste Land, and I am certain that there are many more levels of meaning I haven't discovered.  The poem is quite baffling and yet undeniably brilliant.  It amazes me that people can find so many different themes and techniques in this poem through careful examination.  Eliot included so much in such a small quantity of writing, and I believe that "genius" is just about the only word to describe it.

No comments: