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).

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The Waste Land and WWI

The Waste Land is a very complex poem that uses multiple voices and quotations to connect with the reader and share a point about World War I. The entire poem begins with a Latin reference to an ancient Roman figure, Sybil, wishing she could die, which sets the dark tone for describing the aftermath of World War I. The poem then follows with rotating narration that cycles from a woman describing April with German quotations to the description of a hyacinth girl to a tarot card reading, and finally to a man walking through London who is able to see a dead man he knew from the war. The purpose of so many voices could be to show the vast impact of the War; it seems to me that what appear to be unconnected stories come together in the last bit of Part 1 with the French quote “hypocrite lecteur!- mom semblable,- mon frère!” This statement stood out to me most because I saw it as a way of bringing attention to how everyone was affected by the war. Particularly how it is not just the soldiers who have lost and carry the weight of many dead ones on their shoulders.

Another tactic Eliot uses is quotation for indicating speaking of characters in the poem. This stood out to because it is not something I typically see in poems. Particularly, the section in Part 2 where the woman wonders “Where the dead men lost their bones. What is that noise?” She seems to be going slightly insane and with the reference to dead men alludes to the fact that the war and the significant number of dead might be having an effect on her mental stability. This point is only further proven when she later wonders, “What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” The sentiment this woman expresses likely mirrors how must of Europe was feeling in the wake of this catastrophe as they questioned what now becomes of their lives.

Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Time

T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” expresses a preoccupation with the passing of time and the events that–ostensibly–fill it. The details and specificity which the narrator relates form a profusion of incoming data and information, and in these the modern individual struggles to find meaning. This can be seen in the lines “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions” (32-33). Youth’s transformation into maturity involves some kind of growth and progress, yet these things are precisely those which it is most difficult for the narrator to get a sense of.

Ideas in the flow of the “song” are ambiguous and slippery, and the momentous and the trivial intermingle in a way exemplified by the strange phrase, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” (122). These words illustrate the difficulty one finds in modern times when trying to decide which questions, challenges, and even basic aspects of life are important, and how one should invest in each of them emotionally–a theme particularly relevant to youth, as young people are most actively and of necessity involved in forming their own views about what is important and making connections between their world and their identities.

A New Culture

In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold states that culture is “a study of perfection,” and “the pursuit of sweetness and light.” However, if one applied that simple description to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” he would quickly come to the conclusion that Eliot’s poem is anything but an example of culture. Brokenness, confusion, and darkness reign in “The Waste Land;” this poem is certainly not a study of perfection. If anything, it is a study of the widespread imperfections in 20th Century Europe. The dark subject matter, fragmented language and use of quotation all contribute to the notion that though “The Waste Land” is far removed from Arnold’s idea of what culture should be, it remains culture.

Throughout the poem, Eliot quotes from a wide variety of famous literary works, writings that Matthew Arnold would certainly consider “culture.” For example, he often quotes and references ancient Greek and Latin stories, sometimes using the original language. Arnold absolutely loved the Greeks; in fact he considered the Greeks the grandfathers of all western culture, and their Hellenistic society something to be desired by Victorian English society. However, rather than using this classic culture to add clarity to his poem, Eliot uses it to add confusion and fragmentation. The epigraph is composed of a mash-up of Latin and Greek, giving the poem a jarring jumble of two different languages. The actual translation of the epigraph is equally unnerving; it consists of the Sybil’s request to die, a feeling mirrored by many WWI soldiers plagued with PTSD. Within the epigraph, Eliot sums up modern culture. He emphatically states that culture is not all about sweetness and light. Rather, culture is a fluctuating concept that changes with the prevailing mood of society. For post-World War I Europe, culture is darkness, fragmentation, and despair.

On reading BLAST

In reading through BLAST magazine, I was very impressed by how well the editors illustrated their revolutionary ideas throughout the magazine. As others have already commented, it is most interesting that  Pound and Lewis were striving for a literary revolution  through “violent” writing just months before the literal violence of World War I broke out.  

BLAST boldly demonstrates a push towards a revolutionary model of modernist writing through the individualistic, satirical style and the playful imagism employed. The “Manifesto” is primarily comprised of short, extremely satirical sentences, phrases, and words that fall under the authors’ characterization of “blast” or “bless”. I was pleasantly surprised by the comical value of the work, particularly seen in the manifesto. The style of the work clearly employed clever imagism in the concise, choppy writing style that still manages to flow and pop off the page from their revolutionary typography. The interesting typography of the magazine adds to their individualistic style and emphasizes the satire and imagism of their work. 

WWI Second Life Experience

I thought the most surprising thing I saw was the fact there even was a World War I Poets Exhibition in Second Life.  Additionally, the recordings and research of these poets in that section indicated quite a bit of effort was put into this exhibition.  I was amazed at the quality of the sound for being recorded from such a long time ago.  Hearing the words with images and sounds made some of the poems, especially “Dulce et Decorum Est,” more graphic than the words alone.  A gas attack must have been horrible to experience.

I have read about World War I and all the atrocious conditions the soldiers endured, and this site helped to remind me of that time as well as give me the British perspective.  Reading ahead, I was surprised at how many of the poets on the reading list were soldiers.  Only Teresa Hooley was spared the first-hand experience, but, being a mother, she felt the pain and sorrow of loss that war brings.  It was also surprising how many of the poets experienced what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It certainly affected the pessimism in their poems.  It was interesting to me how this pessimism was portrayed in Second Life.  The poems and the war exhibition remind me that most wars start out glorifying the reasons for the conflict, but the horror and loss always creates an alternate reality that eclipses everything.

World War I exhibit

I found the War Poets Exhibition on Second Life a very interesting technique to reach people with the stories of war and poetry. It works well for our technological world and I think it makes these war stories much more accessible than they might otherwise be. It was well done and I’m glad we experienced it.

That being said, exploring the camp, trenches and trench hospital was rough. It’s always hard to listen to war stories, feeling the hurt and wanting to help somehow even though it was so long ago. The stories of disease and amputation, mixed with the photographs, the sound of rainfall and animated rats scurrying across the screen brought to life the saddness indirectly described in Vera Brttain’s “The German Ward” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Does it Matter?”. I found in interesting that both these poems show a saddness for the war, and mourn the losses from it while not pitying the subject. The words are almost indifferent in the poems, while the underlying tone obviously feels much more regretfulness for the tragedy of the Great War.