Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part I

As promised, today is all about Part I of The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”. Even if you hadn’t read the poem, you’d immediately guess, from the title of the section that it was not to be all flowers, joy and rainbows. In fact, you’d probably feel somewhat apprehensive. The title itself however is not simply a title; Eliot disliked making superficial statements. Instead, it can be considered an allusion to the Church of England’s funeral service, and also the Cumaean Sibyl, whom we have encountered in the epigraph. The very phrase has implications of endings and rebirth outside  Christianity however, in various elements of life, including the idea of laying something to rest, and cleansing oneself of the past. The Wasteland is fraught with all manner of allusions, from religious texts to mythological ones.

Part I is broadly based on the idea of the elimination of the dead, and the deteriorating nature of society; an early example of this social deterioration is the scene in the Hofgarten, line 10. The statement of “drinking coffee” gives us the impression that the things that take place within the Hofgarten are irrelevant, and are superficial. This superfluous society is a theme that plagues the whole poem; a sense of spiritual degradation, and a lack of meaning in anything whatsoever plagues the society which Eliot describes, and is alienated from. This theme is further expanded upon in lines fifty to sixty; the idea of faux fortune was a profound departure from the fortune and path of a person as prescribed by the Church and scriptures of a number of religions. Eliot’s disdain for this falsity is portrayed in lines such as “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone/Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:/One must be so careful these days.”

An artistic interpretation of the first section of "The Wasteland" (1)

One of the predominant features of the poem as a whole, is the idea that people are blinded, or unable to see, and Eliot includes a number of blatant allusions; for example “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not see, and my eyes failed”, alongside others, including “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant/has a bad cold”. This would mean she’d be unable to ‘see’ into the future. “Those are pearls that were his eyes” could also be considered a reference to blindness, and the inability to see past riches, past opulence, to the ‘bigger picture’. This extended metaphor for the benefits of sight continues throughout the poem, and to Eliot at least, to be a very real concern.

Perhaps  the most important part of Part I however, is the final stanza, and the allusion to Baudelaire’s Parisian ‘unreal city’. Eliot however manipulates this allusion to symbolise the working masses in London, in what is to me, perhaps one of the most moving lines in the poem; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The second line in this extract is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno. The ‘dead’ whom Eliot describes are, to the author at least, a product of the Victorian Industrial Revolution, and of privatisation; they had become slaves to their jobs, and to the city; they lacked spirituality because they had become materially motivated, financially encouraged, as opposed to motivated by finding spiritual guidance, or absolution.

The theme of corruption and sexual exploitation is probably the predominant theme in the first three parts of the poem; it is not until Part IV, “Death by Water”, that a kind of rebirth seems to occur; the spirit has, to Eliot at least, be explored, and murdered for being corrupt before it can be reborn and made into something that can salvage the poem’s namesake, “the waste land”. This part of the poem however contains an almost imperceptible reference to salvation; “Here she said/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor.” Here, again, we find another allusion, to the ancient mythological world, and the character who finally represents the very preliminary stages of salvation, in Part IV.

The ‘deadness’ as represented in the title of the poem is a metaphor returned to in the final lines of the poem; “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”; the frozen ground which is described just before represents a natural deadness; a wasted land, through the lack of spirituality.

Elizabeth Harrison's copy of Dante's "Inferno", which has been an important literary text for centuries, influencing almost every significant author. (2)

In conclusion, the first part of the poem introduces a number of preliminary metaphors, concepts and allusions; the first being superficiality, and the exploitation of materialism. Added to this mixture in the succeeding section is the allusion to aesthetic and sexual exploitation. The idea of the inability to rejuvenate, and be reborn, is also introduced, as are a number of allusions to a variety of texts and concepts, including Greek mythology, Tristan and Isolde, Baudelaire, the Grail myths, Buddhism, Christianity, Dante, Petronius… the list goes on. Shakespeare also plays a significant role, later in the poem. The poet himself had two main works that influenced the writing of the plays; Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The poem is an almost endless web of allusions, and metaphor and is possibly one of the most complicated texts ever created.

The next post will be focussed on what is in my opinion, one of the most interesting parts, because it focusses on sexual exploitation and the way in which Eliot perceived it. Part II to follow!

(:

(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Peter_Paul_Rubens_082.jpg

(2) http://archon.nl.edu/archon/index.php?p=digitallibrary/getfile&id=11&preview=long

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2 thoughts on “Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part I

  1. I’m a huge Eliot fan! I fancy the Sweeney poems and Prufrock has a certain quit dignity but the Wastelands is an excellent piece to pick apart! I love the blog!

    • I agree with you there; Prufrock is quietly dignified, and possibly more reserved however The Wasteland has an edge to it, and is rather raw, and intense. It’s the intensity of allusion I think that draws me into this poem so deeply.
      Thank you for reading my little blog!
      (:

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