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:

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?”