“Dust in the Wind”: Life is A Kansas Song in “Time Passes”

            Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse presents three different sections, spanning a decade, each told in a different way.  The second section, “Time Passes”, although rather short, makes its way through ten years including World War I, whereas “The Window” covers only an evening or so.  While the “The Window” addresses time as relative to one’s thoughts, emotions, and consciousness, “Time Passes” is told from the perspective that time is independent from human life.  That is to say that the hours, days, and years that make up time will continue to pass by at the same rate that they always have. 

            Throughout the passage, Woolf personifies inanimate objects such as the draft that sweeps through the house during the time when the family is away.  She describes the drafts as “smoothly brushing the walls, they passed on musingly as if asking the red and yellow roses on the wall-paper whether they would fade, and questioning (gently, for there was time at their disposal) the torn letters in the waste-paper basket, the flowers, the books, all of which were now open to them and asking, “Were they allies?  Were they enemies?  How long would they endure?” (126).  She also touches on the isolation and confusion which WWI wrought.  A sense of personal and national identity was lost during the war, especially in England.  Similarly, Woolf posits how the objects in the house have lost their identity because the people who give there lives meaning are gone.  Woolf elaborate continually through the section on how time infects all things such as “some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes- those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated” (129).  She also hints at the emptiness of the post-war world as all of the material items of the millions of young men lost to the war remain and how they are the only reminders of their lives.  While “Time Passes” puts a large emphasis on the role of time in nature and in aging the house, it gives very little consideration to the Ramsays and their friends.  References to them are given in brackets, such as “[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage.  What, people said, could have been more fitting?  And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]”  Human life is more or less an afterthought in the grand scheme of life.  Time continues to push forward, thrusting humanity along with it, regardless of whether or not people are ready for it.  People and things may fade, but time marches on.                    

“Eveline” and “In a Station of the Metro”

(I just remembered I forgot to do this one so here it is.)

One of the elements that most connected “Eveline” by James Joyce and “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound was the voyeuristic nature of them. In Pound’s poem, the speaker is reflecting upon “…these faces in the crowd” (Pound) and experiencing how it feels to view them. Similarly, in “Eveline”, the titular character spends the majority of the story staring out the window, reflecting upon her life while viewing others’ lives happening all around her. Both of these visual experiences seems to invoke a deeper emotion than one would expect. Pound takes a single moment in time, standing in a metro, and posits on the way it makes the reader feel, while Joyce uses the image of Eveline, sitting “at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” (2222) to relate to a multitude of past experiences in her life.

Furthermore, both pieces deal with dehumanization. At the end of “Eveline”, she stands, paralyzed, unable to get on the boat with Frank. As this happens, the narrator describes her composure: “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (2225). In this singular moment, Eveline loses her humanity and, in a way, ceases to be anything at all. The idea of dehumanization is echoed in the way that the face in Pound’s poem lose any sense of individualism: “Petals on a wet, black bough” (Pound). Here, the faces of strangers become plant material stuck to a tree branch, being stripped of all humanity as well. Both of these instances happen just for a brief moment, but neither author offers up any sort of explanation or deeper meaning; the reader is left to decide what it all means.

Time Travel in Virginia Woolf

In the chapters that compose “Time Passes,” Virginia Woolf seems to create her own timeline in which a number of gaps and holes appear. These gaps are not inconsistencies, nor are they inaccuracies when compared to the historical account of World War I. Rather, these holes appear when Woolf describes one scene that seems to exist on two separate occasions, yet are viewed simultaneously. An example of this is the description of Andrew Ramsay’s death. Woolf paints the picture of “ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt…then again, silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day…there seemed to drop into this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” (133). Each of these instances of bombings are viewed simultaneously by the reader though they could take place over a period of days, months, or even years. Similarly, Woolf mechanically mentions that in France, Andrew was killed when “a shell exploded” (133). Again, this event could have taken place at any time during the war, yet the gap in the timeline is completely jumped.

This tactic of jumping through holes in the timeline allows Woolf to, essentially, time travel, and with stunning results. By utilizing obscurity of dates, Woolf is able to condense an entire decade into a mere twenty pages and shower her audience with experiences of World War I. This technique can even be viewed when Mrs. McNab is depicted cleaning the house. During her visits, she takes notice of all of the things in the house (the books, the cloak, the shawl, etc.) and their process of decay (135-136). As a reader, it is impossible to tell whether these descriptions are all from one visit, or whether these are observations of Mrs. McNab as she cleans the house over the course of an entire decade. Either way, time seems to exist all at once as the descriptions are absorbed by the reader. It is ironic that, though time passes, Woolf uses these elements of time travel to give the appearance of standing still.

Time Passes Slowly in War

The chapters in “Time Passes” directly reflect the mood of the English public regarding the Great War. The vivid imagery, like in all of Woolf’s work, is profound and penetrating even without reading the fine print that dealt heavily with the mindsets of the English during and after the Treaty of Versailles inked the end of the conflict. The section is aptly named, for Woolf’s portrayal of time passing simulates the same heavy, dragging trickle of time felt by the soldiers fighting [“Night after night, summer and winter, the torment of storms…”] on foreign soil, and certainly for their anxious and heartbroken families at home. “How long, she asked…how long shall it endure?” (p131) The question of Mrs. McNabb evokes the sentiments of all those involved in the war, longing with desperation for its end, however bleak it could be.

Woolf also writes of the agonizing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by the soldiers. Whilst many men lost their lives, the ones who returned were left with deep, cankerous scars, both mentally and physically, and had to endure the horrifying episodes of remembrance. Though they were covered in wounds and filled with terrorizing memories, upon returning they felt hollow and numb to the new post-war world. “What people had shed and left…those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated.” (p129) The visuals given by Woolf are terrifying, especially when one realizes soldiers, sailors, and pilots still go untreated for PTSD despite the sacrifices they made and were willing to make in the line of duty.

Times Passes

Yeah, “Time Passes” is a pretty weird section, a pretty stark contrast to “The Window.”  “The Window” takes 120 pages (in our edition) to tell us about the goings-on of one evening—3 or 4 hours pass, maybe.  “Time Passes” takes about 20 pages and spans 10 years.  In “The Window” there is lots of introspection and little action; we are constantly in characters’ heads, being made privy to layer upon layer of convoluted thought processes and distinct perspectives.  In “Time Passes” those same characters who we’ve come to know so intimately are abruptly, casually ripped away; they are literally a parenthetical thought, an aside—like “Oh, and I forgot to mention…”  Because what’s really important is that we focus on our attention on the house.  The building itself.  That’s what “Time Passes” is all about; we watch the house fall apart and decay and rot, and the maid thinks surely the Ramseys will never come back, and they couldn’t honestly expect her to keep up that whole big house by herself anyway, but then they are coming back, and she gets some help from her friend and her son and they clean up the house for the return of Lily and Mr. Carmichael and someone named Mrs. Beckwith (we don’t know who she is yet, right?).  So there’s not a ton of action in this section either.  There’s definitely just as much philosophical thought as there was in the first section.  It’s really a pretty interesting section.  Just a really innovative way of moving the story along; can’t think of anything I’ve read that has done something like that.  Certain parts are really beautiful.  The whole thing’s got kind of an eerie feel to it.  And it’s not insignificant to focus on the house, and on its decay!  I don’t mean to write about it in such a tone as if to say that I think it seems silly or unimportant.  Woolf (obviously) knew what she was doing.  Tara already talked about how effective it is to make the characters’ deaths so abrupt and how that reflects what it’s like living during war time and how common death becomes and how desensitized one can become towards those horrors.  So I think it’s appropriate to turn readers’ attention away from the characters and towards the house, which serves as a really powerful symbol, a poignant image.

There are all these questions repeated throughout: “When would it fall?” (126) “whether they would fade” (126) “How long would they endure?” (126) “Will you fade?” (129) “Will you perish?” (129) “How long shall it endure?” (131).  And we watch throughout the passage the house get worse and worse—we see boundaries crossed, sacred things defiled.  The “airs,” when they first enter the house as night falls, are initially barred from entering the bedrooms: “But here surely, they must cease.  Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast.  […] here you can neither touch nor destroy” (126).  And loveliness and stillness, they clasp hands in the bedroom, and say to each other, “We remain,” and “Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence” (129).  But of course the image is broken, and the innocence is corrupted, and by page 138, “Nothing now withstood [the airs]; nothing said no to them.”  So even those bedrooms we thought to be so sacred and incorruptible are now rotting, and Mrs. Ramsey’s shawl, having been loosened, now flaps in the wind, and the pig skull on which it hangs is exposed (which is a pretty creepy image).  And the maid laments, because surely the Ramseys would expect “to find things just as they had left them” (136).  But no; everything has changed.  Everything has fallen apart.  World War I has changed everything.  And the passage talks about dreamers down on the beach staring at the sea, searching for answer to their questions, demanding to know the meaning of all this suffering and horror, trying to find stability, wanting to believe that “good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules” (132).  We hear about “incorrigible hope” (131) and we hear that “dreams persisted” (132), and yet we have to imagine that those dreams were eventually tossed aside, and that that hope was corroded just like everything else.  Because the sea tosses like Leviathans playing an idiot game (symbolizing the destruction and meaninglessness of war), and Nature is cold and indifferent and unstoppable, and because God offers only a brief glimpse behind the curtain—and what we do see, “it seems impossible […] that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole” (128).  Just like Eliot!  Fragmentation.  How we gonna put the pieces back together?  And yet the house gets cleaned up, and people try to carry on with their lives, and well, maybe we can convince ourselves that “it all looked […] much as it used to look” (142).

“Time Passes” and WWI

While Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse deals heavily with the aftereffects of World War I, the novel does not really address the War until its second section, entitled “Time Passes”. This section consists of ten short chapters. “Time Passes” encompasses a decade’s worth of events in around twenty pages, in contrast to the first section, “The Window”, which consists of 125 pages and describes the details of a single evening. The effect of the severe condensation of time in the second section is disorientation for the reader. The section consists of mostly narration and very little dialogue; it also mostly mentions events after they have already happened: “[Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success…]” (134). This gives the reader the sense that the entire section was written in retrospect as the narrator reminisced on the things that happened to the Ramsay family between 1910 and 1920. The somewhat historical perspective that is therefore created in this section engages with WWI because it looks back on the War as a past event as opposed to experiencing it firsthand, which mimics the way the reader would be approaching the text as well.

Furthermore, the way that the reader is bombarded with death in this section parallels the chaotic and devastating way Woolf’s generation had to deal with the loss of loved ones. Interwoven with commentary about the passage of time, the narration notes that Mr. Ramsay reaches out for Mrs. Ramsay, although “Mrs. Ramsay [had] died rather suddenly the night before” (128). Additionally, “Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth” (132) and “Andrew Ramsay[‘s] death, mercifully, was instantaneous” (133) after a shell exploded during the War. All of these deaths, being mentioned one after another, allow little time for the reader to process what is happening. As opposed to the generous time given to many different perspectives during the first section of the novel, the narration moves on from each of these deaths with very few comments on their effects. The deaths seem to lose their importance due to the style of the narration, leaving the reader with a sort of numbness that was pervasive in English society following the end of WWI.

“Time Passes” in To the Lighthouse

In the section “Time Passes” Virginia Woolf addresses the atmosphere World War I created in England in a number of ways. Obviously, the section focuses on the passage of time, but it is the way Woolf represents this passage (she covers about ten years in about twenty pages), that reflects on the transience of life, especially during a time of war. Although there are certain symbols Woolf uses to indicate the overall feeling World War I caused (unhappiness, a desire to continue with normal life, uncertainty), the most overt way in which Woolf expresses the uncertainty of World War I and the years preceding it is the way in which she addresses the deaths of several of the main characters.

Up to this point in the book, the reader has likely become quite attached to several of the main characters. This is unfortunate, because three of them die over the course of the twenty pages of “Time Passes.” The one that jumped out the most for me was that of Mrs. Ramsay, “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” I thought this was extremely indicative of the atmosphere that a war creates, as soldiers can be here one day and gone the next (obviously this is true of all people, but it is more condensed in a time of war). The idea that Mr. Ramsay had yet to come to terms with Mrs. Ramsay’s death, to the point of semi-forgetting she was dead, is indicative of how volatile a situation war creates, even among citizens who are not involved in the fighting.

The next death is that of Prue, who “died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well (132).” Prue’s death, and especially people’s reaction to it, seems to echo the death of a soldier. Prue is young, and according to everyone she had a bright future, and died unexpectedly, much like a soldier. Even in a warzone, I do not think anyone ever expects death, fears it maybe, but they do not expect it. They expect that they, or the soldier they know, will get to return home, and will get to continue living the life that they had been living before the war. But of course, that is never the case. 

The final death is that of Andrew Ramsay, who died alongside, “Twenty or thirty young men [who] were blown up in France…[and] whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous (133).” This certainly echoes the horrors of war, as unlike the other two deaths, Andrew is a soldier. The fact that there is uncertainty as to exactly how many men died alongside Andrew is noteworthy, as it indicates that so many men were dying that it was impossible to count. Andrew’s death, “mercifully, was instantaneous” which is interesting, because when instantaneous death can be described as merciful, the bar for what is merciful is set pretty high. It suggests that death is so certain, and likely to be so horrible, that the best thing that can happen is for it to be instantaneous.

Certainly there are many symbols in “Time Passes” that suggest the horrors of World War I, but I think that the more moving passages are those that deal so frankly with the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew. This is partly because of the nature of the deaths (although I do not believe that Mrs. Ramsay’s death is explained) and partly because the reader has likely grown quite attached to the Ramsay’s, after spending 100 pages in their heads, and to have them torn away so abruptly is almost startling. It suggests that if it is so hard to lose a character suddenly and without warning, it must be a million times worse to lose a real person. 

The Stylistic Chaos of T.S. Eliot

While reading and rereading all five sections of The Waste Land, I noticed how fragmented the poem’s language was and even the very structure of the poem was fragmented. First off, the poem is broken up into five different sections that have different subject matter. But to break it down even further, section one, “The Burial of the Dead”, has four different settings with four different narrators. The different settings almost seem like fragmented monologues that were copied from completely different poems and then pasted together in the first section of T.S. Eliot’s poem. Not only that, but in each of the sections the reader feels somewhat disoriented because it cuts in without letting you know what is happening in the scene, for example, “Looking in the heart of light, the silence./(translation) Desolate and empty the sea.//Madame Sostris, famous clairvoyante, had a bad cold…”(2299). The poem transitions from talking about Tristan dying and waiting the rescue by Isolde to a tarot card reading by Madame Sosotris. Also, there are often lines of the poem that are in different languages to further the fragmentation of the poem, “And drank coffee, and talked for an hour./Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” (2998). This line means “I’m not a Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.” While this does make sense in the context of the poem, it still fragments it and causes the reader some confusion, especially if they are not fluent in German.

But why would T.S. Eliot do this, weren’t we all taught that fragmentation was bad? Not in this case, because Eliot uses this fragmentation to perpetuate the chaos of World War I. Wars are extremely chaotic and often troops would be separated from their main platoon or formation during combat which would be disorienting to the soldiers, much like Eliot’s poem. But World War I was something completely different because of the 20th century technologies that were developed without updating the 19th century military strategy. The narrators of each section want to get away from the war, for almost seemingly selfish reasons. I’m not sure if this is an accurate interpretation, but when I was reading this I felt like the narrators from each section were interjecting or cutting each other so their voices would be heard. This could be a metaphor for the countries in the first World War trying to exert their dominance in the war, but all secretly wanting the war to be over. I know this sounds like a somewhat crazy extrapolation but I had an inkling that this is something that T.S. Eliot intended. 

Frag men ta tion (<– get it?)

Let’s talk about fragmentation.  The first modern fragmentation grenade was invented in 1915 by a British man named William Mill.   They were called Mills Bombs and were used frequently by the British army during WWI.  The soldiers were instructed to throw the grenades as if they were “bowling” (a move performed in the game of Cricket).  I thought that was interesting, in light of that propaganda poster we looked at in class on Tuesday that said that the Army isn’t all work and had people playing sports.  Throwing a grenade’s just like throwing a cricket ball!  This is a great adventure!  It’s fun!  (citation: http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/grenades.htm)

I thought what Tara said about war literature often being told in a fragmented way was a good point.  I haven’t read The Things They Carried, but I have read Slaughter House Five, which is based on Vonnegut’s experiences fighting in WWII—in particular the Dresden Fire Bombing.  The protagonist Billy Pilgrim has come “unstuck in time” so the story is told in this non linear, fragmented format as Billy time travels randomly to different parts of his life.  That idea of being “unstuck in time” is I think a sort of commentary on modern society: Like Billy, we’ve lost our bearings, we’re wandering, aimless, confused, lost, unsure of our place in history.

What else gets fragmented in WWI?  Bodies get fragmented, blown apart and disfigured.  Families are fragmented; fathers, sons, brothers gone.  The ground is fragmented, torn up, scarred by trenches.  Souls are fragmented; there is trauma and stress and horror—hence shell shock.  Society is fragmented; people are disillusioned and hopeless, and feel alienated from one another (especially those with shell shock trying to readjust to normal life).  “Things fall apart” says Yeats.  They can’t be put back together, either.  You can’t unsee the horrors.  You can’t undo the deeds.  Billy at one point in Slaughter House Five watched a movie about WWII, but watches it backwards.  It’s too good; I’m going to post the whole quote:

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby.”

As if to say: You can never go back.  You can never go back to the innocence of being in high school.  These fragments can’t be put back together.

Well I’ve talked a lot about fragmentation, and zero about The Waste Land.  Early on in the poem, Eliot writes, “You know only/ A heap of broken images.”  That is modern life.  Broken images.  No sovereignty of God, no overarching, guiding plan or trajectory of society, no progress, no clear connection between one event and another—just a pile of broken images.  And that’s also what Eliot gives us in the poem: really disturbing, often paradoxical images that are cobbled precariously together, seemingly without any meaning or guiding hand.  It’s disconcerting—makes you feel like you’re losing your mind.  There’s the flash to this scene of childhood innocence right near the beginning—sledding with your cousin—then there’s vegetation trying to grow from a stony field, and there’s dead trees, and dry bones, and an unreal city full of specters, ghosts walking over London Bridge, and an old war buddy shouting at you about the ships at Mylae, which is a battle that took place during the Punic War between Rome and Carthage, back when people were patriotic, and he asks you if the corpse in your garden has bloomed yet—that is, has life sprouted from death, was the sacrifice worth it?  And later, there’s the mountains—rocks and water, where is the water? aren’t you thirsty? and it’s burning burning burning burning where is water? will God pluck us out of the fire or will we be consumed?; and there’s all these primal, meaningless sounds “co co rico,” “drip drop,” “weialala,” “DA,” “jug jug” and a little girl singing “London bridge is falling down” and then the repeated mechanical voice HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and what exactly is it time for? “What shall we do tomorrow?” she asks—that is, where do we go from here?  And “Do you remember nothing?”  Are you dead or alive?  “Why do you never speak?”  Alienation.  And there’s all these quotes from classics of Western literature, as if Eliot is searching for meaning in the past, trying to find some wisdom, some explanation—looking for bearings in the middle of the chaos.  And then the poem ends with the thunder of judgment, as if God is going to judge the world, as if it’s the 2nd Coming like Yeats says, and there’s this mantra from eastern mysticism talking about inner peace, and it’s over.  It’s a really chaotic, fragmented, unsettling poem.  Reflects the mindset of the time.  Uncertainty, anxiety.

Fragmentation and Disillusionment in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

T.S. Eliot’s fragmented poem “The Waste Land” epitomizes the modernist era and post-World War I England.  World War I tore down barriers like social divisions and Victorian idealism, but also changed the physical appearance of Europe.  The poem exhibits this deconstruction as constant shifts in location and narration.  Another result was the generation of young men lost to the war, which is often referred to as ‘the lost generation’ and the poem’s name itself, “The Waste Land,” is meant to symbolize the desolation and disillusionment felt by many upon the war’s end.  Additionally, Eliot’s use of fragmentation makes the poem that much more difficult to interpret due to the perpetual allusions and shifts; the difficulty mirrors the hardship of living in post-WWI Europe and incredible magnitude of the death toll.

Eliot employs fragmentation to remark on Europe’s existential crisis and it’s need to find an identity.  Each fragment hints at one of the work’s underscored themes including death, despair, and disillusionment.  At the very start of the poem, he hints at the ‘the lost generation,’ or the generation of young men who died during the war when commenting how “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land” (2298).  April during the month of spring symbolizes renewal, but as many nations’ young men have perished, re-cultivating their populations is a sad and difficult task.  National identities had been shaken up a great deal due to the dissolution of dynasties and the creation of new ones.  Upon the war’s end, Europe appeared as “a heap of broken images, where “you know only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats” (2298-2299).  The war saw the destruction of four great European empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian.  A form of renewal and resolution is described in the last section of the poem when after a period of drought, “a damp gust [brings] rain” (2309).  This scene signifies England and the other European nations attempting to survey the damage the war has wrought and come to terms with the desolation, so that they can rebuild and renew their lost culture and populations.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

“I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love…”

This is line from the W.B. Yeats poem about an Irishman fighting in the war for Britain. Despite the fact that Ireland was rallying for independence at the time, Irish soldiers still did their duty and fought, if not for king and country, at least for a bit of pride. I found it interesting and complementary to this week’s reading. 

It’s also my dad’s favorite poem :]

The Waste Land

In “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot’s fragmented structure makes the poem an anxious and almost curt read. The fifth section, What the Thunder Said, is a prime example. “After the agony in stony places; The shouting and the crying… We who were living are now dying.” This is a potent assault of imagery. Picturing the desolation of beautiful, historical cities—London, Vienna, Jerusalem—and its people is a devastating image for the reader.

Eliot’s unusual and unpoetic syntax draw on the ruggedness and grit of the time. His inclusion of sporadic German replicates the confusion felt by the soldiers fighting in foreign lands and their isolation as many of them come to terms and foresee their eminent death. In terms of the frankness of dialogue, the women in the last part of the second section, A Game of Chess, and their discussion are particularly disturbing. Topics of infidelity, abortion, and family disfunction strike the reader along with the state of the English lower class during the war. “I can’t help it… It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said… What you get married for if you don’t want children?” Interspersed with the last call of the barman, it paints a drab picture of life for the women of the lower class during that period.

The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” deals with many of the emotions facing the disillusioned survivors of World War I. The poem is heavily interested in the isolating result of the War, as well as other themes such as death, rebirth, and emotional trauma. Written in five parts, the narration of the poem quickly shifts from story to story, weaving in numerous allusions to texts mostly situated within the Western Canon. The fragmented nature of these allusions and quotations is intentionally difficult for the reader to comprehend; when read without footnotes, very few modern scholars would catch every reference. This fragmentation gives the text a chaotic feel, which mirrors the chaotic, uncontrollable character of War. For instance, in the second part of the poem, titled “A Game of Chess”, the narration skips abruptly from mentioning the ancient female characters of Cleopatra, Dido and Philomel to a conversation between a shell-shocked man and his girlfriend: “Above the antique mantel was displayed / As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced… Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, Then would be savagely still” (97-110). The quick switch from subject to subject leaves the reader feeling somewhat lost and confused while he/she struggles to catch up with the new characters. It is not until the two characters begin a dialogue that the reader is given any sort of indication of who these people are or what their role is within the poem. Eliot’s switch from stories of antiquity to stories of traumatized soldiers and wives indicates the general desire after WWI to create a new history in face of the devastating aftereffects of the loss of so many young men.

Furthermore, the fragmentation in the poem plays into the general theme of isolation within the text. The reader himself/herself feels wholly removed from the action because of the jumpy nature of the narration, which mimics the isolating feeling that pervaded the lives of those who lost loved ones during the War as well as the soldiers who managed to survive. While this is present throughout much of the text, it is quite explicit in the final section: “…I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison…” (411-4). This quotation evokes the isolating nature of grief after the War. While the War itself was initially thought of unifying, the process of emotional trauma is incredibly personal and isolating; because each person much go through the grieving process due to differences in personal loss, it is hard to comfort anyone because it is impossible to understand how they feel. This quotation sums up the image of an entire nation in a sort of prison of trauma– but each person is locked in his/her own cell.

Fragmentation and War

T.S. Eliot employs a great deal of fragmentation in his work, “The Waste Land.” The poem is divided into five sections, each given their own titles and each containing some form of independent theme/idea. This structure automatically establishes divisions—or fragments—in Eliot’s work. However, even within each designated section, the fragmentation continues. From stanza to stanza, there are evident shifts in focus, whether that focus be a theme, a work to which Eliot is alluding, or even a language that Eliot is writing in. For the most part, each stanza seems to be pretty unified. It is when each stanza is put together, however, that there appears to be no logical ordering to these ideas. For example, in Section I, near the end of the second stanza, Eliot is alluding to Tristan and Isolde (42). In the next stanza, Eliot abruptly jumps topics to discuss “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” (43). These two topics are completely unrelated, and it is very hard to see Eliot’s reasoning for leading from Point A to Point B in these lines.

The experience of reading “The Waste Land” is quite difficult because it appears to be nothing more than a stringing together of semi-related events; it is very hard to see the bigger picture while only experiencing one scene at a time. This structure of poetry strikes an interesting comparison to the structure of war. For instance, while studying WWI, it is fairly easy to understand the significance of individual events because history allows for a perspective that includes the “big picture”—the war in its entirety. For a soldier fighting in the war, however, this perspective would be impossible. This soldier may not feel like he was experiencing the “war,” but rather that he was experiencing nothing more than a stringing together of semi-related events (battles). The fragmentation of Eliot’s poem invokes the obscurity and meaninglessness of individual experiences that lack proper context. This could very well be a demonstration of the confusion of soldiers caught up in an event so much bigger than they could understand at the time. Eliot’s poem, like war, leaves a feeling of confusion about the past and questions about the future. Ultimately, both experiences leave the individual who endured the experience asking “what was the point?”

Fragmentation in “The Waste Land”

It has been my experience that literature that discusses war is often written in a fragmented style. Books like The Things They Carried and Slaughterhouse-Five are written in such a way that they bounce around from incident to incident, often with very little explanation of where they have jumped to. Certainly, this is apparent in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as the narrator jumps from moment to moment, moments that are seemingly completely disconnected. I think it is interesting that war literature tends to be kind of disjointed, because I think it echoes the chaos of war. War can never be planned or organized or simple, and I think it makes sense for this to be reflected in literature that concerns war.

The poem starts with a very fragmented idea, “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land (1-2)…”. Generally people see spring as a time of birth and life, but Eliot sees the rebirth as a negative, as new things take the place of the dead. There is a jump in the second stanza to “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” and the “Pheonician Sailor.” In part II, the poem remains disojointed, with a theme of nothingness. The poem quotes, “’Do/You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/Nothing? (121-123)”’. The nothingness seems to indicate the idea of death, as it seems the people in the poem are unsure whether they are dead or alive. The names in part II indicate that there has been a jump to present day, as the narrator discusses, “Lil” and “Albert” and “Bill.” The poem gets particularly fragmented in part V, as the scene does not seem to tell a story, so much as it is descriptive of a particular place or feeling. It is interesting that the poem ends with “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata./Shantih shantih shantih (line 433-4)” which according to Eliot is “The peace which passeth understanding,” a Hindu idea. The poem ends on a note of transcendence, which, to me at least, brings to mind the idea of the human condition. The idea, in this case, being that the only way to overcome war, as well as the other miserable aspects of human existence, is through a sort of spiritual transcendence.


C.S. Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen: Three Veterans’ Perspectives on World War 1, Modernity, and Loss of Value

C.S. Lewis fought in World War I.  Doubtless, he too was exposed to the horrors of that time.  Some twenty years later, right smack in the middle of World War II (his timing was not by accident), he gave a series of lectures that eventually became the book The Abolition of ManThe Abolition of Man deals with the loss of a standard of objective value in modern times.  In one example about patriotism, he writes, “When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said.  He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgment discerned in noble death.  He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him” (22).  In this quote, Lewis is alluding to the Roman poet Horace, who wrote, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”  According to Lewis, fathers in the past taught their sons how to discern value—in this example, the value in a love of one’s country.  Today, however, we have philosophically destroyed the concept of a standard of objective value—that is, we say that values are relative to individuals—yet we still demand that our sons value their country enough to die for it.  We no longer educate our children in such a way as to teach them what is proper to value—that they ought to work hard, that they ought to love their country, etc.—and yet we still expect them to be patriotic and willing to sacrifice for their country.  Lewis says it’s like castrating a horse and then bidding it be fruitful.  You cut out the foundation, the philosophical basis, the motivation for performing certain actions, but then still expect people to perform the actions without that foundation.

Wilfred Owen also fought in World War I.  In his poetry, he describes graphically the horrors of the time.  Throughout the war, he too had in mind Horace’s line about dying for one’s country.  And he despised it.  In his poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” he calls it the “old lie.”  This poem recounts the death of a soldier in a gas attack, an experience that haunts the poem’s narrator.  Here’s the end of the poem:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Having witnessed the atrocities that humans are capable of, how can we still hope in societal progress?  Having seen the new level of horror that technology brings to warfare, how can we continue to celebrate that culture and to send our sons off to the battlefield?  Things are too awful now for there to be any glory or pride in military triumph, like there was in the time of the Roman Empire.  

Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in WWI, and wrote A Farewell to Arms based on that experience.  The main character Henry expresses similar sentiments to those of Owen: “I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  […]  Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one” (Hemingway 184-185).  Henry is no patriot.  Patriotism, in such a time as World War I, seems grotesque and meaningless and outdated.  Sacrifice is not honorable; it is absurd.  Men are butchered systematically, en masse like cows.  War is more gruesome than it was in the past.  Soldiers do not march proudly off with honor and glory.  Rather, as Owen writes, soldiers are, “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags.”

All three veterans express in their writing the crippling effect the world wars had on society.

Contrast between “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “The Soldier”

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Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” indicate that there was certainly more than one idea about World War I in England.

“Dulce et Decorum Est” makes very clear the atrocities of war as the men are gassed, and quickly put on their helmets, but one man, “still was yelling out and stumbling/and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime (11-12).” The narrator of the poem goes on to say, in reference to the man who could not get his helmet on, “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning (15-16).” The theme of the poem (although it has been extremely clear that the theme is the atrocities of war up to this point) is spelled out as the narrator mentions, “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori (27-28).” In these final lines Owen makes it obvious that he is not only against war, he is against the traditional propaganda that has not only condoned war, but also glorified it.

Owen’s message is totally contradicted in Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” as Brooke indicates how proud he would be to die for his country. Unlike Owen, Brooke does not touch on the deplorable conditions of war, instead shying away from making any controversial statements. Brooke’s poem has hints of the imperial British attitude, as he says, “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England (1-3).” As far as Brooke is concerned, it is totally cool if he dies, because he is English, and, as a dead person, will be staying (inhabiting, taking over) some portion of a country that is not England. Unlike Owen’s view, that war is a travesty, and that the people back home cannot understand how terrible it is, Brooke suggests that war is wonderful, and allows the glory that is England to spread around the globe.

My grandmother was born in England in 1923, and collected (hoarded) postcards her entire life. Several of her postcards, which are now in my possession, are even from before 1923, and many of them come from the World War I era. I think it is interesting that in one particular postcard I have seems to embody the ideas of both “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “The Soldier.” In the postcard, it is clear that the soldiers depicted are cold, and they look tired. However, they also seem to be hopeful in receiving letters, presumably from home, as they gather around while the letters are distributed. I think the contradiction between the seemingly unpleasant conditions the soldiers are experiencing, and the pleasantness of receiving letters, is indicative of the contradictions between the two poems. While “Dulce et Decorum Est” is very anti-war, “The Soldier” is very hopeful about war.