To the Lighthouse

Time is a recurring theme throughout Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In Part I (The Window), Woolf stretches time, devoting the first 124 pages to a single day. This reflects the desire of some of the characters for time, that day, to stand still.  Mrs. Ramsay in particular wishes for them to always be together as they are in the dinner scene and for her youngest children, Andrew and Cam, to never grow old and suffer as she has.

In contrast, in Part II (Time Passes) ten years are compressed into approximately 20 pages. The passage of time is reflected by the deterioration of the house on the beach. While only a few words are devoted to the lives of its former inhabitants, the house’s increasingly poor state reflects their own experience over this period. The series of tragedies in the background of WWI are sudden and confusing. Their presentation in a short, objective, bracketed form disrupts the narrative and generates this effect. These years and events are then condensed into a few pages as they are slowly processed over many years. This reflects the way in which the world attempted to process the events and implications of WWI. In its aftermath a strong sense of confusion, shock, and disillusionment was felt. Nature seemed disrupted, as it is around the abandoned house: “…(for night and day, month and year, ran shapelessly together) in idiot games, until it seemed as if the universe were battling and tumbling, in brute confusion and wanton lust aimlessly by itself” (134-5). This processing was extremely gradual. Likewise, Woolf’s compression of ten years into 20 pages suggests that little changed over the course of these ten years as the characters, most likely, grappled with these sudden tragedies and, to some extent, the disruption of nature itself (the loss of the constant, binding force of Mrs. Ramsay in many ways represents this disruption of nature in their lives). Time moved on, but many people did not and so the narrative focuses on the state of nature and the beach house as opposed to the characters.

The Waste Land’s Literary Devices

What I found the most fascinating about The Waste Land was Eliot’s use of literary devices. Eliot’s poem presents a story of what it’s like to live in the 20th century, which is an oversimplification of this poem at best. Much like the inconsistency and uneasiness of the 20th century, the Waste Land lacks any true structure. The poem will have flashes of structure and at most blank verse such as in the beginning of section two, A Game of Chess. In the end though, this all falls apart. Another element that Eliot uses is enjambment. In parallel with the time period, Eliot writes this poem with a lack of closure, conclusion, and confusion. The lines bounce too and fro and never truly connect. An example of this is when Eliot wrote, “Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (39-40). This style is Eliot emotionally influencing the reader to feel what the 20th century felt like; confusing, lacking closure, and despairing. On top of this, Eliot’s multiple voices provide a scene that leaves the reader perplexed, like in the middle of a crowd of unfamiliar faces. This isolation appeared to be a personal journey for Eliot and one that also encompassed the feelings of many people of the time.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

In T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, many aspects of the aftermath of WWI are present throughout. One of the first notable places is a questioning of identity in Line 12: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Because Britains felt that the war was waged unnecessarily (or for an unnecessarily long time), there’s a sense of displacement–they’d lost hope and pride in their country, so questioning identity becomes prominent. I also wonder if in this way, showing so many types of people/languages/age groups exemplifies just how widespread the first world war expanded. If that is the case, the poem is unifying the groups of people by their reactions to the war–despite their differing circumstances, many of the reactions are the same. This is displayed in different areas of Part I and II. The theme questioning states of living and of death (and of some sort of in between) present themselves. Lines 39-40 portray a girl and boy, and the girl describes herself as “neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing”, while line 126 shows a man asking “‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'” Eliot may be getting at the state in which soldiers from war returned. They were often described as “shell-shocked”, and these descriptions of living while dead reinforce that.

Another anxiety in The Waste Land–and probably the most obvious, is the fear and remembrance of death. So many British men lost their lives in WWI, which is exhibited in lines 62-63, where “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” The deaths were not only numerous, but many British citizens felt that the deaths were unwarranted. They felt that the deaths were unjustifiable. The overwhelming confusion about where to go from that point stems from this loss. Confusion also stems from other fears as well. Eliot incorporates fear of the unknown, where he shows something “different” from one’s “shadow at evening striding behind” them, or one’s “shadow at evening rising to meet” them, he plans to show “fear in a handful of dust” (lines 27-29). The media initially tried to play the war off as some glorious service, and as deaths grew and as publications came out with gruesome information, people didn’t know what to believe of the war.

Another fear would be of the future, but more importantly, of the now. Line 59 projects from a clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, that “One must be so careful these days.” So The Waste Land also introduces the fear that no one is safe any longer. The overwhelming rule of the British Empire had already been declining, but the first world war shut it so completely. The sense of power and importance that Britain once had was gone, and now people weren’t sure what protocol was for living, and for being. Eliot incorporates the stresses people had of future generations as well. Specifically, when Lil describes that she looks unappealing because of “them pills” she took, it is slantly referring to her aborting a child (line 159). Eliot the poet responded to Lil by asking “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (line 164). She may have gotten the abortion because she felt the world was unsafe to bring a child into, she may have been unfaithful during the war, or she may just be done risking her life for childbirth (as she’d had five kids and almost died with the last one) but as it isn’t explicitly stated, it’s hard to know.

The last thing I want to comment on is the return of the nightingale (in relation to John Keats). It’s interesting to see the nightingale return in lines 100-102, harmed but still singing with an “inviolable voice”, like how after the war people had to keep living. In Keats’s poem, the Nightingale sung, ignorant of human suffering, and here, the nightingale is singing despite her suffering. Yet there is a sense of deliberate ignorance of what was happening, a numbness to the aftermath of the war as an attempt to preserve oneself: “‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” / Nothing again nothing” (lines 119-120).

The Waste Land

Overall, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has a dark tone and confusing structure that mirror the aftermath of the Great War. Throughout the poem, different voices emerge unannounced, making the reader feel as confused as many people felt after the war. For instance, in Part II after line 110, Eliot begins using someone else’s voice as shown by the quotation marks. The lines ” ‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.’ ” (2301) sound jittery and psychotic; this could relate to the vast number of veterans with shell shock. Shellshocked men developed nervous ticks and exhibited strange, even paranoid behavior, so the fragmented sentences featured in Part II of “The Waste Land” show a concern for this new development of traumatized ex-soldiers. Another instance where a (new) voice in quotations reflects concerns of the time is located after line 130. The other voice worries ” ‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?…What shall we do tomorrow? / What ever shall we do?’ ” (2302). These lines address the same subject as Sigfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang”; although the soldiers rejoiced that the war was over, they lacked a sense of direction and purpose as soon as it ended. The voice in the aforementioned lines is frantically questioning what it should do, just as the veterans of the time were unsure of what to do after the completion of war. In fact, after the devastating results of an almost pointless war, many civilians also began to wonder what the point of their lives were. These two voices capture two very real anxieties from the aftermath of WWI.

In addition, Eliot uses many different allusions throughout “The Waste Land” to increase the insanity and depressing tone of the poem. Part I begins with a reference to Sybil who, after wishing for eternal life, claims she wants to die. This sets the dark mood for the rest of the poem and relates to the aforementioned questioning the purpose of life that became popular during this time. The selection of this particular scene could also indicate that mankind made a fatal mistake by starting the war and now has to live with the consequences of that mistake, just as Sybil is cursed to live with her mistake of not asking for eternal youth forever. Eliot also references a very different source, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, to end Part II of “The Waste Land”. In the play, the character Ophelia says “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.” (2303) and this is seen as a sign of insanity by the King. By ending the second part of the poem this way, Eliot is directly alluding to insanity to help characterize the lost, confused, and insane feelings many people had after the Great War. I believe Eliot’s many references to earlier works could be a search for meaning by exploring the thoughts of past writers and thinkers, but no matter how much he tries to use the past to explain the present, life in the aftermath of the first world war stays as dark and confusing as ever.

A War Film

The poem “A War film” by Teresa Hooley represents many of the ideals of modernism. War films, a recent invention at the time of World War I, usually functioned as propaganda. They exhibited glorious battles where the enemy of the country that produced the film suffers a humiliating loss or an unfair victory. In a bitter sadness, common to modernism, the poem displays elements of imagism also typical of the movement. The poem opens with saying “I saw” and listing a series of images such as “The Mon Retreat” and “The ‘Old Contemptibles’ who fought, and died,” (1,5-6). The entire poem focuses on clear imagism as showcased by those lines, continuing onto the next stanza which speaks of “hearing machine-guns rattle and shells scream” (9). The imagery in the poem, sharp and broken off randomly from one another, exemplifies the use of imagism associated with modernism.

In addition to imagism, “A War Film” experiments with a new form. The poem’s structure closely represents a war film. The short introductory stanza and the quick stanza following represent the basic introductory elements in most film: the characters, setting, and situation are introduced, followed by a quick turn of events which sets the plot into motion. The next stanza is over twice the length of any of the others, representing the plot, or in this case, battle. The last stanza, medium length, occurs after the plot or battle similarly to the conclusion of a film or aftermath of a battle. The poem’s most intense words occur at the end of the long stanza, around the climax speaking of going “To War. Tortured,/Torn. /Slain./Rotting in No Man’s Land, out in the rain” (22-24). The poem itself mirrors its subject while using sharp and clear images, featuring the typical elements of modernism.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”and Decadence

The Decadence period was characterized by a decline in morality and increase in refined taste, luxury, and pleasure. “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” begins by setting the scene in a bustling city during the evening. The persona observes various elements of the scene such as the “one-night cheap hotels” and the “restaurants with oyster shells”, and his inclusion of these particular places hints at decadence. He specifically mentions places of self indulgence (food from the restaurant) and pleasure (one night stands at the hotels), and these ideas illustrate a transition from morality to luxury and self-centered concern. The idea of Decadence continues when the persona begins to talk about going to a party. The phrase “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” shows that parties centered around discussion of classical art and relates to the refined tastes of decadence. However, here the poem begins to diverge from decadent ideals. The previously mentioned phrase is repeated in the poem, implying a sense of redundant monotony. Prufrock is also extremely reluctant to enter the party, showing his aversion to that setting and his insecurity. Prufrock seems to disapprove of decadence, and his disapproval only strengthens throughout the poem. He keeps listing trivial, surface details of his life (“After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets”) to illustrate how dull and meaningless decadent life is. The persona has a deep love for someone that goes beyond the petty indulgences and beliefs of Decadence and, as he chooses not to act on his feelings, this voluntary abstinence from sex and happiness conflicts greatly with the beliefs of Decadent writers.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock”, contains elements that coincide with Decadence and that diverge from it. One commonality between the two can be found in Eliot’s attention to surface details. He writes, “Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;” so as to say that something as trivial as a coffee spoon is how he is counts his entire life. He says too, “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” This brings importance to things that are purely surface details. We  also see sophistication of taste when Eliot writes, “Talking of Michelangelo”, “the taking of toast and tea”, “the cups, the marmalade, the tea, among the porcelain”, and “my morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, my necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.” These kind of sophisticated appearances of taste is common in Decadent writing, but I believe Eliot is using them in a much different way than, say, Wilde would. Wilde would perhaps say that taste and pleasure are more important than morality, but Eliot is using these examples of taste as a way to say that not even taste matters. We can find this when he writes, “I am no prophet- and here’s no great matter.”

Contrasting with Decadence and the sophistication of taste, however, we see Eliot write of things considered ordinary or even low-class. He writes of “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells” and “the pools that stand in drains”. He also mocks those who speak with sophistication when he writes, “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-” and this is purposely meant to contrast with the examples of high taste mentioned above. He, like the modern age itself, is bringing “common” life into the “sophisticated” life. This is seen heavily through the food he mentions, alluding to the modern availability of varying kinds of food to the lower classes in cheaper ways.