For this week, I’ve decided to do a six part post on T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, possibly the most famous of the modernist poems, and certainly of Eliot’s own collection. Eliot’s position as a critic and essayist almost prevails over his reputation as a modernist poet. T.S Eliot however was distinctly different from his modernist counterparts, such as Woolf and Joyce, in that instead of embracing the rejection of tradition, he found the lack of spirituality and social values abhorrent, and he himself struggled with issues surrounding intimacy and his own faith. In time, he converted to Anglicanism, however his discomfort with faith led him to write extensively about the subject in The Wasteland.
The poem itself is also a product of Eliot’s extended intellectual life; he had studied Sanskrit at university and was well versed in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. An example of this is the title of part three, “The Fire Sermon”, which is a famous text in Buddhism. The final words of the poem, “Shantih, shantih, shantih”, also originate in Sanskrit, and translate to “inner peace.” Eliot was also very familiar with the Greek myths, and the Holy Grail myths. The Wasteland is primarily an inter-textual work, one that not only exists as itself, in its own right, but one that is deeply involved in texts spanning thousands of years.
Eliot believed that everyone should familiarise themselves with the myths and legends, especially spiritual and religious ones; The Wasteland is almost exclusive, because only those (at least at the time) who were well read would have understood the full implications of the poem. However, the poem is such that each time it is read, it is understood in a different way, and a number of literary critical schools have sought to examine the poem, however none particularly successfully; it stands alone, and is, in my opinion at least, unrivalled in terms of nature and style, by any other poem.
The poem’s creation was a lengthy process, because it was repeatedly edited by his long-term friend and renowned critic, Ezra Pound. The extent of Pound’s input can never be truly confirmed, however it is fair to suggest that to a certain extent, Pound’s style affected the way in which the poem was formed, and so could be considered not only a work of Eliot’s genius and intellect, but also in a small way, of Pound’s genius also. The poem and epigraph are dedicated to Ezra Pound.
The very beginning of the poem is the epigraph, an extract from Petronius’s Satyricon, and really summarises the nature of what is to follow. Petronius’s Satyricon is a Latin work of fiction, of both verse and prose. This in itself is a tumultuous combination and symbolises, at least to those who know of the text, that The Wasteland may also be tumultuous in style and structure. The epigraph reads:
“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Sibylla ti theleis; respondebat illa: apothanein thelo.”
Roughly translated, the Latin reads:
“I have seen with my own eyes, the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her “What do you want?”, she replied, “I want to die.”
The Cumaean Sibyl wished for eternal life, and neglected to ask for eternal youth, and therefore as time passed, she was unable to die, and simply withered away, caught in a jar, almost like a gilded bird. This summarises essentially a spiritual withering, in a metaphorical sense; without youth and beauty, there appears to be no reason to live, and so she is caught in eternal suffering, because of her great vanity. Vanity and the superfluous nature of beauty are themes that run throughout the poem, particularly in the first three parts of the poem. Eliot was repulsed by the obsession of beauty and vanity and so sought to move away from this, wherever possible, especially since it was very much linked to the sexual, something Eliot was uncomfortable with throughout his life.
The conflict of religion, of modernisation, of industrialisation and of reformed society as a whole were all issues that Eliot was deeply concerned with, however the most prominent of these issues was the issue of spirituality and sanctity of spirit. The issue of spirituality (something rather separate from religion) is explored in great detail throughout the following five passages. The poem is structured in five sections, although these sections can be considered poems of abstraction in their own right; they feed into one another and follow a progressive, reflective pattern.
It is however important, I think, to remember that The Wasteland is not just an intellectual work, and nor is it purely autobiographical. It certainly contains elements of autobiography, however like all texts, there are an infinite number of interpretations that can be applied to it, and it can translate in a number of ways for different people. It is also something fundamentally beautiful, poetic; something that can be enjoyed as well as analysed. It’s probably the poem that confirmed my desire to study English Literature, and the poem that confirmed my love of modernism.
Tomorrow I shall be writing about Part I: The Burial of the Dead, which is the beginning of the exploration of spiritual corruption as Eliot sees it.