T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

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.

Our Society at Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

At the first reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, I thought that Darwnism was not obviously present in the text. I had to think more about it to realize that this short story might actually be a sort of fictional practical application of Darwin’s theories about the evolution and the natural selection. Indeed, in this fictionnal city, most of the inhabitants are women, as it is underlined by the very first sentence of the text : “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons”. This reference to the mythological Amazons clearly puts the reader in a context of fight, of struggle, since the Amazons are a people exclusively composed of women, who were real warriors. This can be read under Darwin’s theory of natural selection influence, which involves a real struggle for life. We can thus suppose that the inhabitants of Cranford are strong women who survived the hardship of life and of natural selection.

But I think that what puts the most into practice Darwin’s theories in this text is the story of the family Brown. In many ways, this family seems to be the fictional example of the application of Darwin’s theories. Indeed, the three members of the family embody the phenomenon of natural selection as defined by Darwin. At the end of this extract, only one out of three members of the family survives. This is the youngest daughter, who is described from the beginning as a strong person, spoilt by nature : ” It was true there was something childlike in her face; and there will be, I think, till she dies, though she should live to a hundred.” In this sentence, we can notice that Miss Jessie seems really young, yet youth is associated with strengh and vitality. Plus, the narrator underlines the fact that she will live old : “a hundred”, supposed, “years” ; which is a very long life for a human being, especially at the time Gaskell wrote that short story. On the contrary, her sister is presented as a very weak person : “Miss Brown must have been forty; she had a sickly, pained, careworn expression on her face, and looked as if the gaiety of youth had long faded out of sight.”. Contrary to her sister, she embodies the old age. Moreover, the enumeration of pejorative adjectives such as “sickly, pained, careworn” insists on the fact that she is sick, and make the reader suppose from the beginning that she won’t live as long as her sister. Indeed, whereas her sister is spoilt by nature, she is not. She belongs to the “weak” beings, while Miss Jessie belongs to the “strong” beings, according to Darwin’s theory. Then, Miss Brown will not live long. Finally, even the last member of the family, Captain Brown, the father, is confronted with natural selection. He is, like his daughter Miss Jessie, appointed as a “strong” being, who is supposed to survive. However, he will die too, not because of weakness, but because of an accident. In other words, Captain Brown is victim of what we could call “random”. In a way, he is also a victim of natural selection, because nature is in someway made of randoms. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. To summurize it, family Brown is the practical application of Darwnin’s theory of natural selection : two out of three beings are going to die – one of them because he was too weak to survie, the other one because of random – and only one of them will survive – the strongest.

Furthermore, Brown’s family is also a kind of practical application of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In this city fulled with women, a man is obviously not going unnoticed. But Captain Brown appears to be a very attractive man, who answers to all the categories that makes a male individual attractive to the eyes of a female individual. We can read : “his excellent masculine common sense […]  had gained him an extraordinary place as authority among the Cranford ladies”. The words “masculine common sense” here refer to a sort of scientific language. These words added to the meliorative adjective “excellent” clearly show that he is a kind of model of what masculinity should be, according to women. So there is an obvious reference to Darwin’s sexual selection, and, globally, the whole family seems to be a sort of fictionnal application of Darwin’s theories of evolution.

“Mont Blanc” by Percy Shelley

     Edmund Burke defines the sublime as something that is provoked by a feeling of great astonishment, which is linked, in a way, to horror : “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, […] is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful). In his poem, entitled “Mont Blanc”, Percey Shelley puts this definition into practise. Indeed, the narrator of the poem is facing the natural element that is the Mont Blanc, that is to say the highest mountain in Europe. This simple contemplation turns itself into a huge flow of emotions and reflexion. Shelley defines his contemplation as a “trance sublime and strange” (L35). He uses here the word “sublime” itself, and associates it to the word “strange”. The latter is related, in a way, to fear, because it is unexplainable and unknown. Yet, it appears that, according to Burke, fear is one of the feelings that one needs to feel in order to reach the sublime. We can thus affirm that the poet is having the experience of the sublime.

     In this way, the one way in which Shelley’s poem exemplifies Burke’s ideas on the sublime that stroke me the most is the one of infinity. Indeed, Burke writes that infinity “has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delighful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime”. In this poem, infinity is indeed omnipresent: infinity of space and of time. We can read from the first line : “The everlasting universe of things”. Firstly, the word “universe” itself connotes the idea of infinity, both infinity of time and space. Secondly, the adjective “everlasting” insists on the idea of infinity of time. Moreover, this theme of infinity comes again and again all along the poem : “for ever” (L9); “eternity” (L29); “unremifting interchange” (L39); “the infinite sky” (L60); “perpetual stream” (L109) …  So, when the poet faces the Mont Blanc and the ravine of Arve (which is the spokesperson of the poem’s narrator), he becomes aware of the infinity of nature, and then experiences the sublime, as it is defined by Edmund Burke. And this engenders terror in the poet’s mind – as it is supposed to be, according to Burke’s theory. We can indeed read line 15 that the landscape is characterized as an “awful scene”. Plus, this terror is linled to a kind of malevolant spirit (an entity related to infinity, as immortal) who came to spread it on earth. So we can say that here, sublime is characterized by the paradoxal feelings engendered by the infinity of nature : at the same time marvel and terror.

      Other elements of the sublime as defined by Burke can be found in this extract. Some of them are directly related to the idea of infinity, such as power – a word we can find written with a capital letter line 16, as if it was a deity, which insists on his strength. We can also find the theme of vastness, thanks to the Mont Blanc; or even the theme of obscurity. So as a conclusion, I will say that Shelley’s poem is a good example of Burke’s ideas of sublime, because it uses many of his definitions and allows the reader himself to reach the sublime.



“Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree”, by William Wordsworth

This poem entitled “Left upon a seat in a Yew-tree” by William Wordsworth, is one of the first British romantic poems, a movement which was built in reaction against the Enlightenment. The first striking element which contrasts with the Enlightenment’s values is the emphasis on nature. Indeed, nature is in the center of the poem. First of all, the main character of this poem seems to be not a human being but a “yew-tree” on which the man is sitting. Moreover, the semantic field of nature is omnipresent in this text. We can actually notice that everytime a natural subject is mentioned, it is along with a meliorative adjective. We can quote, for instance : “No sparkling rivulet spread the verdant herb” (L3). The melioratives adjectives used here are “sparkling” and “verdant”. They are both used in order to underline the beauty of nature. But above all, nature appears as a supreme element with which humans are supposed to be unified to. Indeed, the final morality implies that humans are not supposed to be alone but to be in harmony with nature. In this poem, William Wordsworth condemns the man who saw nothing but himself, and who decided to live in his own lonely world, ignoring every other form of life : “Stranger ! Henceforth be warned ; and know, that pride […] is littleness” (L 46 and 48). The use of the noun “littleness” emphasises the greatness of nature, compared to humans. Thus, this general emphasis on nature contrasts with the Enlightenment’s values, which advocates the mastery of nature by human beings.

The second striking element which contrasts with the Enlightenment’s values is the emphasis on feelings. Indeed, many feelings are itemized, good ones or bad ones : “jealousy” (L16) ; “pride” (L20) ; “pleasure” (L28) ; “joy” (L39). But the supreme feeling, advocated by the author, is actually love. Indeed, it is the first feeling quoted, but also the last one. It is considered as the best feeling a man can have : “instructed that true knowledge leads to love” (L56). It is not only related to the good but also to the truth, as if William Wordsworth knew the truth about life. This is also a typical romantic point of view, which is that the writer is supposed to deliver a message to mankind and has to be a guide for the people. Plus, the feeling of love is seen here as a global feeling, that not only humans but also animals can have : “what if these barren boughs the bee not loves” (L4). Here, love as a universal feeling reinforcing the idea of a vital harmony between human beings, animals and nature. The flood of feelings created by the author clearly contrasts with the cold writing style of the Enlightenment writers, who advocates reason (brain, head, body), instead of feelings (heart, soul).