As was the general atmosphere after World War 1, this poem by Eliot, The Waste Land, is really confusing. We, as readers, can feel, by reading this poem for the first time, that we are wandering in a world that we don’t understand anymore. In the beginning of the poem, we can find some faithful points of reference, but they always are or distorted, or reversed. For example, we can read on line 5 “Winter kept us warm”. This seems not natural : winter is about cold, not warm. The “normal” values are reversed and the characters of the poem are as lost as the reader is : “I knew nothing” (L40), “What shall I do now?” (L131), “What shall we ever do?” (L134). In these extracts, the characters confess their confusion and seem desperate and lost. The repetition of these different questions higlights the fact that they don’t know what to do with their lives, because they are living in a world that is strange to them. Their confusion is even so strange that we do not know, as readers, whether we have to deal with one character or of many of them, because of the multiple voices and of these different languages used in one poem. This confusion and this lack of comprehension can thus make the reader feel anxious about this twisted world – especially when an emphasis is made on death.
Indeed, the theme of death is the main one in this poem. World War 1 was a real slaughter, and thousands of people died in terrible conditions. This gave birth to a general feeling that everything was dead – people, nature, joy… – and that it will never be alive again. This anxious feeling is omnipresent in this poem. From the very begining of the poem, Eliot express this feeling by using as a heading a quote from Petronious’ Satyricon, in which a Sybil tells her wish to die. This pessimistic point opens the poem and lead many other pessimistic literary references, which deals with this anxiety. The references to Tristan and Isolde, for example, connotes death, since both of the characters die in the end, and the specifical passage Eliot quotes here in German is extracted from the end of the story, when Tristan is about to die. The reference to Dante’s Inferno also connotes death : “So many, / I had not thought that deah had undone so many” (L63). Here, Eliot makes a clear reference to the high number of people who died during the war, highlighted by the repetition in the end of verse of the syntagma “so many”. The Part II’s final reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet also connotes death, first because it references the character of Ophelie, who dies at the end of the play ; but also by the verses themselves : “Ta ta. Goodnight. Goodnight. / Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night” (L171/172). The repetition of the word “good night” here implies the death, this sort of eternal sleep. Ophelie says goodbye to the world, and it seems that also does Eliot here. So the emphasis on death, especially thanks to the different literary quotation, express this general anxiety that is one of the main characteristic of the World War 1’s aftermath.
In comparison to this, another anxiety is here expressed by Eliot : the one of witnessing the nature’s cycle working again. No one thought that anything would ever come to life again, but nature does not stop, and this is a shock for the characters : “Summer surprised us” (L8). Thus, it seems that all that is about life became a terrible thing, as if it was disrespectful after all that happened. “April, the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land” (L1/2). In this sentence, April embodies the season of fertility, spring, a season that is usually appreciated, and seen as a regeneration. But here, it is qualified by the superlative “cruellest” : fertility is no longer seen as something positive, especially because it happened on a “dead land”. And so humans, who stood between this era of death and the one of life, are even more confused : “I was neither / living nor dead” (L39/40). The character is confused and this connotes anxiety : I am dead or alive? What future do I have in this weird world? Is there any future? Nature’s cycle shows that yes, life does not end, but the past showed that no, because the apocalypse had happened. So, The Waste Land seems to translate the century’s general atmosphere of confusion and of anxiety that the World War 1 gave birth to.