The Wasteland

The Waste Land draws on a wide range of cultural references to depict a modern world that is in ruins. The world of The Waste Land is one in which sterility and waste have replaced fertility and traditional order. The structure of the poem itself mirrors the chaos of the post-war world. Eliot’s use of fragmentation in the poem demonstrates the disordered state of modern existence.
This fragmentation is achieved through a collage of literary texts juxtaposed against one another. Most lines in the poem echo an academic work or literary text, complete with footnotes written by Eliot referencing his sources. Scenes appear and dissolve abruptly, sometimes seemingly at random. Characters appear, are prominent for a moment, speak, and then vanish. For example, a character named Marie appears briefly in the beginning of the poem: “And I was frightened. He said, Marie, / Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. / In the mountains, there you feel free. / I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”. Having been named, she disappears; the fragment ends abruptly and a new scene begins. This mix of bits and pieces of dialog, images, ideas, and languages represents the modern world, with its excess of sensory perceptions and chaotic, fractured society. Lines of the poem itself hint at its structure: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.
Another aspect of the fragmentation is the constant shifting of time. The past, present, and future are inextricably linked; the poem constantly shifts its perspectives, seeming to jump from the past to present and vice versa. Ancient myths, classical literary works, and landmarks in Western history are all frequently juxtaposed in the context of contemporary events, casting new light on both the past and the present. The echoes of literary works, often referenced in Eliot’s footnotes, are fragments themselves, mere pieces of full texts. These fragments emphasize recurring themes and images in literary tradition and link the contemporary state of humanity to past history.
This fragmentation also suggests the dilemma of the modern artist: how to find an adequate poetic form and expression to convey one’s inner experience. The poem suggests that the conflicted state of the world is so chaotic that traditional methods of poetry are inadequate to convey the modern experiences. The modern artist is forced to recreate old myths and draw upon past literature in order to sufficiently express one’s own meaning and experience, yet even this form of recycled poetry seems deficient; the use of literary allusion creates ambiguity in the meaning of the poem, thus poetry itself seems to fade into obscurity.
The Waste Land expresses the chaotic life of both individuals and society and reflects on the despair that seems to have overtaken the modern world. The poem uses fragmented scenes and literary allusions to lament the ruin of modern culture and seek renewal in the cultural past. The fragmentation of the poem’s form represents the disillusionment and fracturing of modern society.

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