Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part III

So, today I continue my wander through T.S Eliot’s poem, after a short hiatus, and a busy period of reading. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times was simply screaming for my attention. Part III of the poem then, is perhaps the pivotal point; the point at which the meaning within the poem shifts, and begins to take on a more complex one, moving beyond simple descriptions of degradation and corruption, to a kind of death; a death of the spirit. The title itself, “The Fire Sermon”, is inspired by the Buddhist scriptures, something that Eliot himself was very familiar with, because of his excellent understanding of Sanskrit.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium (1)

The beginning of this section very much focuses on sexual degradation, a theme that began to emerge in “A Game of Chess”. There are some hidden references to the lifestyles of “the bright young things”, for example, “the loitering heirs of City directors,”; they lived lives of such huge excess, based around material happiness. This crisis of human nature emerged in the aftermath of the First World War; these young men saw their fathers and brothers die terribly, and in huge numbers, causing a crisis of character, to a certain extent, and therefore their indulgences can be seen as a social reaction in their memory; making up for lost time, even.

The following stanza contains more obvious references to the trenches and battlefields across Europe; an example of this is “White bodies naked on the low damp ground”. Alongside the references to rats, there is a feeling of damp, dank, desperate places. The graveyards of the First World War are somewhere that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. However, juxtaposed against this rather dark image, is the reference to prostitution; this returns the theme of the poem to sexual degradation, positioned against the images of the Great War.

At this point however, a drastic change of pace occurs, because alongside the reference to the secretary (at the time, a secretary was a lower class worker, subservient essentially to all authorities), there is the influence of mythology, and Tiresias, a mythological character caught between two genders. This detracts from the distinct realism of the passage, and gives it an almost divine quality; a shift from the obvious ramifications of promiscuity towards the spiritual ramifications, something Eliot was supremely concerned by.

The passage is classically full of allusions; we have allusions from Greek mythology, The Tempest, Baudelaire, and the allusion to Tudor England. The allusion to Tudor England is significant in that Queen Elizabeth I was a virgin queen; she allegedly never engaged in any kind of sexual activity, because decisions were entirely political, even the business of love and marriage. Therefore Eliot returns to this period as a kind of juxtaposition; the Elizabethan’s also lacked the spirituality he coveted, but in an entirely different way to the twentieth century. They were simply mercenary, not necessarily corrupt.

The final stanza instigates the beginning of the theme of death, in order to resurrected; the word “burning” is constantly repeated, and the speaker in the poem asks “pluckest me out” of God. This is significant due to the strong theme of realisation; it is as though he has realised the importance of the social change happening around him. The finality of “burning” is also a reference to the Buddhist practice after a death; cremation is said to release the soul, into another life. By destroying this shattered world, there is space for it to be rebuilt. At this point, this part ends, leaving us on something of a cliff hanger, waiting to see what the outcome of this burning really is.

I hope you’re enjoying the series so far; Part IV to follow!


(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/



Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part II

A Game of Chess (1)

So, today, our rapid little romp through T.S Eliot’s most complex and challenging poem continues, with Part II: “A Game of Chess”. To my mind at least, this part is far more focussed on one issue, when compared with the first part; in this part, chess can be considered as a metaphor for the strategic nature of the relationships between men and women which become strategic, mindless, and devoid of soul due to the demands of society, or one’s financial situation.

This part essentially divides into two; firstly, the relationship between the unnamed, but obviously affluent woman and her husband and surroundings. This relationship is described in lines 77-138. Many critics have suggested that this part, which essentially focusses on falsity, and surface values, was based on Eliot’s own relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, his first wife. The woman in the poem is described as being coated in “synthetic perfumes”, and concerned with the “glitter of her jewels”. This materialist attitude is something that Eliot was profoundly alarmed by, especially when he was married to the aforementioned; his issues with intimacy extended into his marriage, and slowly, Vivienne deteriorated mentally. It is however important to note that she had never been entirely mentally stable, often recognised as being a woman of fragile health. Despite her increasing instability, Eliot refused to divorce her; he put her into several care facilities, and only remarried after Vivienne’s death in 1947. Many have suggested that this was less out of love, than out of duty.

As this first section of Part II continues however, the density of allusion continues to increase; there are references to Philomel, a key character in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and also one of the Greek myths. The content of this myth includes rape and mutilation, specifically the removal of Lavinia’s tongue; this creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the idea that justice can never quite be accomplished, because nothing she says can be quite understood. As mentioned in earlier posts, the theme of miscommunication is central to Eliot’s masterpiece. An oblique reference to Vivienne’s interpretations of the world follow, during the somewhat disjointed dialogue that one can assume occurs between the writer, and the object of his writing; this could indeed have been a conversation between Eliot and his wife. Line 138 references “lidless eyes” which is a bizarre reversal of the previous interpretations of vision, and the ability to see; ‘lidless’ suggests something is not correct and despite the eyes being open, nothing is really being seen.

Lines 139-172 are in my opinion much more interesting, purely because they represent a more ‘realistic’ kind of social anxiety that would have been present among the working classes. The working classes of the time would have been affected by the changes that the industrial revolution, and changing attitudes towards behaviour had brought. This is represented by Eliot’s perception of the two women, discussing a husband; overall, the tone is highly derogatory towards the woman who has deteriorated in appearance, due to several pregnancies. The ‘friend’ (and incidentally, main speaker),  makes continual reference to Lil’s husband, and his attitude towards her physical appearance, whilst also alluding to the fact that “if you don’t give it him, there’s others will”. Whilst he has been away (as most men were, during the First World War), Lil appears to have been dreading his return somewhat. Line 164 however is the most telling, particularly of Eliot’s potential attitude towards the situation Lil finds herself in: “What you get married for, if you don’t want children?”. The idea that Lil is merely useful for fulfilling her husband’s sexual needs, and bearing him children, can be considered an enormous feminist statement, especially in conjunction with the degrading attitudes that surround it.

Oil Painting of T.S Eliot (2)

The final few lines present a bizarre ending to this second part; the friend, is asked to dinner with Albert and Lil, and the use of “get the beauty of it hot” suggests an underlying message contained within that social call. Philandering husbands have never been an uncommon phenomena, and post World War One was no different, because of the influence of “the bright young things” and the mantra of “carpe diem” that emerged as a reaction against the total destruction of so many young men. The final two lines of the section are also the final lines of Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; fundamentally, she drowns herself. Water, to Eliot is a key theme, representing spirituality and the ability to be reborn. The absence of water in Part I represent’s it’s corruption, and the final lines of Part II do begin to allude to the beginning of the end of this kind of corruption; the poem has not yet reached its true turning point, however the tension between the corruption and the resolution certainly begins to build, from Part III onwards.

I hope my T.S Eliot exploration is holding some degree of interest, although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a useful revision for myself too! Hope you’re enjoying the blog series. The next post will, of course, be on Part III, “The Fire Sermon”.


(1) http://nettonet.org/Nettonet/101%20Painting/Studies/gris.jpg

(2) http://www.independent.co.uk/migration_catalog/article5081860.ece/ALTERNATES/w380/ts+eliot.jpeg


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


T.S Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: Creating an Elite Literary Club

Since I began studying T.S Eliot for A level coursework last year, I have begun a long-enduring love affair with a man who could be considered modernism’s most reserved man. He belonged to the Bloomsbury group alongside others such as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell. These academics were renowned for being sexually liberated, and experimental in every approach to life and literature they took. They took the traditional and destroyed it, and reformed it to the style we now know as modernism, and in this sense, Eliot was no different.

File:T.S. Eliot, 1923.JPG

T.S Eliot: A Literary Hero (1)

His poem, “The Wasteland” is written in five books, describing the spiritual journey from corruption to the potential for being reborn and rejuvenated. The essence of Eliot’s genius here however does not lie simply in the poem’s construction, and continual changes in narrative; the true depth and substance of the poem is contained in the intertextuality which serves to create an exclusive club; Eliot uses allusions to Greek mythology, Roman mythology, the Bible, Buddhism, D.H Lawrence, James Joyce, Augustine’s writings, Spencer’s works, to name a few. And in order to understand all these allusions, then surely, you’d have to have read widely and voraciously for all of your literary life. The depth of these allusions show just how educated Eliot was; for all his personal and social misgivings, he was perhaps the most inspirational literary critic and author of his time, purely because he deigned to read everything that had ever been written; nothing that had been written was deemed too insignificant, because as Jacques Derrida says: “there is nothing outside of the text.” Everything is a part of the poetry Eliot created, in the same way that he became a part of everything he read.

A major part of Eliot’s poem is the allusions to religion; Eliot spent much of his life in religious turmoil, and in this way looked into many types of religion including Buddhism, and had a deep fascination with Christianity and it’s origins in Latin and Greek. He felt it was extremely important to read the original texts in order to connect with them on a personal level. He later converted to Anglicanism, which seemed to provide him with some comfort, despite his personal struggles with sexuality and human relationships.

The poem itself formed the beginning of my fascination with modernism; despite my interest in Renaissance literature, the poem seemed, to me at least, to transcend literary periods due to the density of allusion. The poem is hailed as one of the cornerstones of 20th century literature, and rightly so; the spirituality presented is rarely explored in poetry to the level that it is, and because of this, I think it relates to everyone in some way or another. The explorations of love especially fascinate me, because the poem rejects physical love as something some people need, however that spirituality and an understanding of faith is something that people crave more. The idea that those who read it belong to a ‘club’ of elite literature is also very appealing; there is the implication that you belong to something inspirational and special; it is not accessible to all, and for those who wish to, the reward of understanding is very much an intellectual and emotional one.

I’m hoping to look into T.S Eliot in more detail, and hopefully write a thesis one day on his life and works. It is not an exaggeration to say that “The Wasteland”, alongside Wuthering Heights is my favourite work of English literature of all time, and I implore those who haven’t had the pleasure yet to delve in, accompanied by Google and a companion to T.S Eliot, and enjoy the roller-coaster he writes, perhaps unintentionally.


(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/87/T.S._Eliot%2C_1923.JPG