The Waste Land

How might the techniques of fragmentation and quotation in “The Waste Land” form a critique of Arnold’s notion of culture?  At first, I had to actually go back to my blog about Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy.”  After rereading it, I could see the parallels.

To repeat, Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” was a response to the significant upheaval in England due to the effects of modernity.  Arnold advocated for retaining some elements of English culture while enhancing it with new ideas.  One of the issues I mentioned before was that Arnold viewed The Industrial Revolution as a means of financial upward mobility for the masses, but Arnold felt they lacked proper education and refinement when compared to the aristocracy.  Without more sophistication, Arnold felt England’s future ruling class would degrade England’s refined cultural standards.

Let’s move forward about fifty years.  The masses were now beneficiaries of a broadened public education system, which, according to the text, “meant that the reading class grew exponentially” (text 1930).  However, in T. S. Eliot’s opinion, they still lacked a sense of refinement that Arnold had written about earlier.  This is exemplified in their “complacent taste” for “easily consumable” entertainment (text 1930).  This separation in literature was termed high-brow and low-brow to denote the aristocracy from the underclasses. T.S. Eliot and his contemporaries responded by creating “difficult,” high-brow literature that would appeal to the “aristocracy of taste” rather than the masses (text 1930).

What better way to tell the story than to use many fragmented quotes or allusions to a wide array of classical works that only the well-educated and well-read (i.e. the aristocracy) would recognize?  There are a great number of quotations and allusions to the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, the legend of King Arthur, Greek mythology, and Saint Augustine’s Confessions to name a few.  The fragmentation in the poem’s form allowed for Eliot to combine many quotes in his poem, and it also seems to symbolize the splintering English society Arnold and Eliot recognized.

The one quote that intrigued me the most is a series of quotations near the end that at first glance is a juxtaposed jumble of ideas, but taken as a whole, provide a conclusion to this very “difficult” poem:

“London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon – O Swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine á la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (lines 427 – 431)

To preface, there is a figure on the shore thinking about how to “set [their] lands in order” given the destruction caused by WWI (line 425).  He answers this over the next five lines.  In the first line, Eliot draws upon a children’s nursery rhyme to clearly describe the destruction caused by war.  In the second line, Eliot jumps to the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy called Purgatorio to ask the reader to be aware that many are suffering from the aftermath of war.  In the third line, Eliot references Ovid’s Metamorphoses story of a Greek myth where a tortured woman escapes harm by turning into a bird and flying away, perhaps saying that good may come of the malaise that people are feeling now.  In the fourth line, Eliot pivots to a Romantic French poet who writes about a medieval lord who is isolated in a tower lamenting his misfortunes and loss, perhaps the same as Eliot sees England withdrawing itself from the world stage to heal its wounds.  Finally, Eliot unites all these thoughts into a final line that appears to bolster the demoralized English society by hinting that these works show that from the earliest times, people have suffered and survived.  He ends the poem a couple of lines later with a Hindu prayer for peace in a world of suffering and ruin.

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