Arnold and Eliot

         T.S. Eliot’s fragmented and broken poem, “The Waste Land” contrasts greatly with Arnold’s notion of culture as the “study of perfection” (Arnold 1596). While Arnold’s view of culture is based in his idea of the perfection of man through the “idea of the whole community, the State,” Eliot depicts in “The Waste Land” that there is “nothing” that is able to hold culture together, the individual nor the state, in the face of war. Eliot demonstrates that Arnold’s idealistic views of a culture not in the “bondage of machinery” and rather immersed in “sweetness and light” are not able to stand in the face of “the agony” brought by the machines of World War I (Arnold 1596, Eliot 324).
         In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” Eliot illustrates the chaos and brokenness of England and English culture that has been brought about through the horror of World War I through a blending of high culture and low culture. Eliot takes lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night,” to illustrate  the insanity that has descended on the culture destroying the idealistic view that man should be in a constant state of striving for “sweetness and light.” Than Eliot also employs the low culture of an Australian war song, “O the moon shone right on Mrs. porter and on her daughter/ they wash their feet in soda water,” in his depiction of World War I’s trenches. Eliot’s blending of high and low culture contrasts with Arnold’s strong belief in the “lightness” of high culture.
         The contrast between Arnold and Eliot is also seen in their depictions of the individual. While Arnold believed that a subtle loss of individualism to form a more united state would spare the country from “anarchy,” Eliot’s poem suggest that the loss of individuality leads to anarchy and destruction.

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The Waste Land

Everything that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” describes the world to be  is completely opposite to Mathew Arnold’s notion as to what culture is. While Arnold preaches “sweetness and light” Eliot uses a fragmented, frenetic, style to show that the world is far from sweet and light, but full of darkness and deep despair.

A very important aspect of this poem is that there are several voices behind it which seems to project a schizophrenic, and paranoid feeling on to the reader. I wonder if Eliot is saying that we as people are culture-less in the fact that we can never achieve sweetness and light, or if he is simply redefining it and saying that darkness is our true culture. To me the best quote in the poem is at line 20-23 where he says, “Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 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,” This quote seems to describe the whole poem, a heap of dark, broken messages.

The Wasteland: Eliot and Arnold

The idea of culture proposed by Matthew Arnold is completely different than the kind of culture T.S. Eliot writes about. Arnold focuses on the lighter aspects of culture, while Eliot’s fragmented writing shows off the darker underbelly. Eliot writes of a desperate, hopeless time, that has no clear path. This contrasts wildly with Arnold who claimed that culture is sweet and light, and has one clear directional path. Arnold and Eliot have very different ideas on the culture of a society and how it should be written about. This is made known in the fragmented way in which Eliot writes. 

T. S. Eliot writes in what could be considered the opposite of Arnold. His style is fragmented with an unclear flow, showing the anxiety and hardship present in the people. Eliot’s use of references also calls to his exposure of the dark underbelly of the world. An example of this is shown, “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,/ Had a bad cold, nevertheless/ Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe”(lines 43-45). Clairvoyantes are thought to be suspicious and untrustworthy and certainly not what Arnold had in mind, but they are who some people turn to in times of trouble and uncertainty. This quote demonstrates both Eliot’s use of fragmentation and references as differing from Arnold completely and as a way to show how the people felt at the time. Eliot’s time was considerably darker than Arnold’s and it showed in his writings and fragmentation. 

the waste land.

Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, said that culture is “the pursuit of sweetness and light”. The epigraph of “The Waste Land” translates to Sybil desiring her own death. Before the poem even really starts, it is obvious from the title and epigraph that “The Waste Land” is not light reading. The images presented are all dark and broken, “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief” (lines 23-24). T.S. Eliot is not striving to find the sweetness and light in the world and write about it. Instead he presents the world exactly how it is: ugly and broken. 

Eliot embodies the brokenness that is pervasive in his world by filling his poem with fragmented images and language. There are several images of disconnection, “I can connect nothing with nothing. The broken fingernails of dirty hands.” (lines 301-302). The parallel images of disconnection and brokenness create a hopeless mood. The poem is narrated by several different speakers it seems. The first stanza is told in first person by a person named Marie. Lines 35-40 seem to be told by a male narrator who is reminiscing giving hyacinths to a girl. There are several “characters” in the poem and also many points at which the speaker is a third person narrator not connected with the poem. The various viewpoints add fragmentation to the poem. The several languages are another tool employed by the author to make the poem more broken. The fragmentation of the poem does not really fit into Arnold’s idea of culture because it is not striving for perfection. Eliot is trying to write a difficult poem. His poems are filled with allusions and use several different languages. Is this not culture? Its intellectual and without a doubt forces the reader to think and will result in them learning after seeking to understand the poem. Matthew Arnold was not aware of how the world was going to change when he wrote his definition of culture. The world was not filled with sweetness and light at the time of the composure of “The Waste Land”. Eliot writing about sweetness and light would not be reflective of the times. If Matthew Arnold read T.S. Eliot’s poems he would agree that it exemplifies high culture, even if it somewhat contradicts his narrow definition. 

The Confusion of T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot writes in a style that greatly contrasts with Matthew Arnold’s notion of culture.  In “Culture and Anarchy,” Arnold describes what culture really is in his eyes.  He claims “Culture is then properly described not as having is origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection, it is a study of perfection.”  He also says that it is not just “the scientific passion, the sheer desire to see things as they are,” but a perspective in which the “desire for removing human error” make the world a better place.

When first reading “The Wasteland,” my immediate reaction was to think “T.S. Eliot’s poem makes no sense at all.”  He constantly jumps from idea to idea which makes it very difficult to even know what he is talking about.  Although the language itself is much simpler than what we are used to reading in this class (shorter sentences and less complex words), it is just as difficult to understand because of the constant change in plot and the lack of description of what is actually going on.  For example, in the second section, Lil says, “I can’t help it…It’s them pills I took, to bring it off.”  Eliot does not describe her situation any further and the reader is supposed to understand that Lil is talking about getting an abortion.  It is this style of writing that throws me off.  I had to look up online what the story actually talks about, and even that was confusing.  Much of this confusion is due to the fact that the story is broken up into five different sections or fragments, many of which are composed with quotes from other writers.  “The Wasteland” is far from Arnold’s idea of perfection and “seeing things as they are” as it is not a complete piece of literature, but rather a combination of different pieces, much like Frankenstein (the character, not the story).  In my opinion, it is much more enjoyable to read something that is concise and complete rather than something that looks like it was thrown together from five different stories.

When one associates something with “culture” often what comes to mind is something which connects or brings a group together. It is the notion of allowing many smaller pieces to connect and form something much larger. T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” exemplifies this sense of a culture in the way in which the pieces make up its entity. However, in comparison to Matthew Arnold’s perception of culture, Eliot’s poem could not be more drastically different from his claim.

Arnold views culture in a way that it is thought to be full of perfection where as Eliot sees it in more of a dark and broken sense with a primary focus on death. It is as though Eliot stresses the idea of death because it plays a key theme when associated with the idea of renewal and growth. Although much of his poem is in a sense dark, the theme of renewal is found when he discusses the idea of something blooming. Going back on the theme of culture, ultimately something must lose all of its feature before it can be renewed.  

The Modern Waste Land : Eliot’s Perspective after WWI

“The Waste Land;” a difficult read indeed! I was driven up a wall by the amount of times I had to read it just to get a vague sense of its meaning. It is to be expected, however—after all, Eliot did say “it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results” (2297). This civilization, “our” civilization, is complex because of the effect that advancement, progress, technology and the like has had on humans, not the advancement itself; WWI, using modern technology in a world that was still behind a century or so in its thinking, decimated a people that were not prepared for the dramatic effects progress and advancement had on them. The loss, the confusion are all evident in Eliot’s poem, as is the change that has occurred between his time and Arnold’s.

Matthew Arnold, when he wrote his Culture and Anarchy, was working in a time where machinery, progress, and technology were becoming more and more prevalent. Arnold told us that culture is “properly described” as “having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection,” and “The pursuit of perfection… is the pursuit of sweetness and light” (1596). Arnold states that the use of machinery is a means to an end “which machinery is valuable,” and end to “put in practice an Englishman’s right to do what he likes” (1598). This, Arnold says, “tends to anarchy” (1598), and men must “find our centre of light and authority there [in the state]” (1599). “We want authority, and we find nothing but jealous classes, checks, and a dead-lock; culture suggest the idea of the State” (1600). The use of machines as a means to an end, that end being freedom, the ability to do what one wishes, results in anarchy, which is in opposition to his idea of culture, the “sweetness and light,” the “study of perfection.”

What does Eliot’s “The Waste Land” say about Arnold’s “culture”? In “The Waste Land,” Eliot describes the destruction of culture, the removal of “sweetness and light” that results from the “anarchy” associated with machinery. The technology and progress that WWI implemented for such destruction resulted not in anarchy, however, not in freedom to do what one wants, but rather in a destruction of the “sweetness and light” that Arnold calls “culture.” Rather than doing whatever one wants, the use of machinery has resulted in a kind of indifference among people. We see this in part three, the Fire Sermon. After a sensual scene between a typist and her lover, the man leaves and the woman says “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (line 252). There’s a mechanization of people, where they go through the motions of their lives, the pursuit of machinery resulting in a machine-like trance for those that pursue it.