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 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.

Mont Blanc.

Percy Bysshe Shelley speaks so romantically of the sublime in Mont Blanc. He speaks of things that are so powerful and strong and writes as though they are dancing.

“In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, where waterfalls around it leap for ever, where woods and winds contend, and a vast river over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves” (Shelley  776).

He paints a picture of such a grand scene as though each moving part is working together to demonstrate it’s power and beauty. Some of his description seems to me picturesque in nature, because he speaks so vividly of the color and sounds involved in this place such as the “solemn harmony” and the “earthly rainbows” (777).

When Shelley speaks of nature, he is speaking as I said in the previous paragraph of things that are by design powerful and potentially dangerous. This idea is paralleled with Burke’s idea of the sublime on page 37.

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain and danger… whatever is in any sort terrible… or operates in the manner of analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime… It is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” – Edmund Burke

To me it is the idea that he is at the mercy of all this that surrounds him and yet through this he can more vividly see its beauty. He talks about the “veil of life and death” when he realizes the “unknown omnipotence” of his surroundings (777). He speaks of mankind and about the “frost and the sun scorn of mortal power” (778). These things reaffirm the point Burke makes about the dangerous nature of the sublime.

“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.



Nature and sensibility in “Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree”

In the poem “Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-ree” written by William Wordsworth, it is noticeable nature and internal working are the appropriate terms to describe the man and his own way of living; this features consist of the Romanticism  and are completely the opposite of what  Enlightenment sensibility is all about.

Nature can be seen throughout the poem in scenes like this ones, “Far from all human dwelling” (line 2) showing us readers the first point; the man is not in the city, he is just by this tree with no pressure to run anywhere else in the search of money or work or any ‘greed’. “Went forth, pure in his heart, against the taint” (line 15) is a clear representation on how economy has no place next to the Yew-tree; he is prepared for the world but in his own thoughts, ways and reflections. Finally “whose eye / is never on himself” (51-52), is the best way to explain how the man was not attached to anything else rather than its communion with nature instead of its manipulation; in other words it is a pure description of his love and way of survival within it.

The man’s way of  learning was by experience rather than by critical reflection, making his connection with nature, emotion and humanity much more powerful, rather than just an insensible and systematic way of seen things that represent the Enlightenment.


“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).

Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree.

After reading William Wordsworth’s “Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree” I noticed several different ways this piece contrasts the enlightenment sensibility. Even by looking at the tittle of this piece you can see that nature is a prevalent theme. The man that Wordsworth writes about is a man who rejected society after it turned his pure heart as he grew up. “He to the world went forth pure in his heart, against the taint of dissolute tongues.” He leaves mankind and takes to the river one that is “great as any sea, and was never heard of more.” Unlike the ideals of the enlightenment he goes to be one with nature. Upon arriving where the river took him he is overwhelmed with it’s beauty as he sheds tears of joy. He embraces it to give peace to his mind and life. This is a direct contradiction to the scientific and systematic way of life that he rejected.
He found solitude and happiness in that, but it did not last long. He began to feel lonely and regretted the idea that he could not experience a relationship with another human being.”Then he would sigh, inly disturbed, to think that others felt what he must never feel.” He grows sadder and sadder, “his eyes streamed with tears,” and he eventually dies alone. This piece is driven by emotion and and the desire for solidarity within Nature.