Tuesday, April 28, 2009

National Poetry Month: Prestwick House Recommends

The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot

As we approach the end of “the cruelest month,” we can’t let Thomas Stearns Eliot’s masterpiece of allusion, prophecy, and parody get by without a word, so my poem for the month is The Waste Land.

Link to full text.

I was a bit hesitant to choose it for the same reason that the college professors that put it on their syllabus all too often miss actually teaching it. The density of allusions, the shifting voices, and the changing styles all make this poem particularly difficult explore in a brief form like a lecture or two or a short blog post, so this will be far from a comprehensive look at the poem.

The title of the poem is taken from the myth of the Fisher King, in which a wounded king’s impotence spreads to his kingdom, rendering it a wasteland. Eliot’s waste land is the spiritual disillusionment of isolation and confinement in a modern world still reeling from the horrors of World War I.

With an original working title of “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” The Waste Land is told by a single narrator speaking in a variety of evocative voices, and at times it’s difficult to determine separation between the narrator and the voices that he speaks through. In addition to changing between voices, he often changes languages – speaking in Greek, German, French, Sanskrit, and Italian in addition to multiple English dialects. Each of those voices of the narrator tell a story of isolation, loss, and desire, from Marie remembering the loss of freedom of her youth to Tireseas’s recounting of a loveless affair.

The first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” opens with the famous lines:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain

The poem opens with an emotional reversal of the common poetic image of springtime regeneration and turns rebirth from a celebration into a lamentation.

When the narrator speaks directly to the audience, he speaks of the condition of the waste land and he invites the reader to see the world as he sees it—to watch the people coming over London Bridge like Dante’s dead walking into hell, to see selfish relationships and isolation, to consider that the audience is just as mortal as the drowned Phoenician sailor.

In the final section, we see London falling like ancient cities, dry rock with no water to quench the thirst of the traveler, images of hell and of the Castle Perilous, and mankind searching for divine interpretations, before the Fisher King finally asks, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?”

The poem’s final stanzas don’t bring much hope with them as they repeat the children’s rhyme of London Bridge’s collapse, a quote from Dante, a prince at an abolished tower, the madness of a father who’s son is murdered, are held as “fragments… shored against my ruins,” as the narrator repeats, possibly hopelessly, the dictum of the Indian advice of the thunder – Datta (Charity), Dayadhvam (Sympathy), and Damyata(Self Control) before signing off with a thrice repeated wish for peace.

While the poem has been criticized for being deliberately opaque, needlessly convoluted, and full of obscure allusions*, each time I come to The Waste Land, I find something new. By using rich allusions, the characters are given a depth that isn’t possible in just a few words and the hopelessness of the modern world is given epic proportions. Sure, The Waste Land isn’t an easy poem, but it’s not meant to be, and part of the joy is picking it up, time and time again, to find new details.

Find this poem and others in:

*See HP Lovecraft's parody, Waste Paper.

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