T. S. Eliot has often been criticized for his poetry’s inaccessibility to the average person, and “The Waste Land” is no exception. It’s easy to read and think, “this guy is really just showing off how smart he is”–his Latin inserts, obscure Shakespeare and ancient Greek references and highly abstract ideas just seem like a pretentious work of art, which may very well detract from the emotions of the piece. I felt this way the first time I read “The Waste Land.” I had no idea what was going on and no clue as to what separated one section from the next. If you’re an average level reader like me, I would recommend the method I had to adopt for this one (I did the same thing with “Paradise Lost”). Go to either Shmoop (my personal favorite) or SparkNotes and read the chapter or section summary, then turn around and read the book’s same chapter or section yourself. I know, websites like these are blasphemy–but if the alternative is getting lost in language beyond my grasp, I choose to read the notes of those that had studied it first and catch up a little.
Whether you use the help that I needed or you figure it out on your own, you’ll quickly see how the poem relates to war. If you have ever seen “Peaky Blinders” from Netflix, they depict these feelings on screen too: a whole society has been shattered by World War One. It feels as if a great blanket of depression has been laid upon the entirety of human civilization.
The obscure nature of “The Waste Land” could be attributed to T. S. Eliot’s well known style, but it pushes further than that. At times it reflects the shattered psyche of the world, as Britain alone had seen over 700,000 of its own killed. They often enlisted people together, banding young men from home towns in the same unit most likely for ease of documentation and to promote unit cohesion. This led to entire towns of young men getting wiped off the map, groups of boys that grew up together dying all in the same day. Families were devastated, and the British poet Eliot simply said, in his own way, what everyone across the globe was feeling. Where you might get a feeling of combat from Hemingway here and there, or even J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis, you get the civilian side from T. S. Eliot. The weeping mothers and the broken orphans.
Here, we’ll just look at one particular, more straightforward example in “The Waste Land.” At the end of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker is looking at London and calls it an “Unreal City,” describing the London bridge under heavy fog, inhabited by a crowd of zombie-like people. He says, “I had not thought death had undone so many” as the living seemed just as “undone” as the dead.
In this crowd of death, he spots a familiar face–a man named Stetson. He calls out to him, and asks him an odd question: “The corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? / Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?” Like most poetry, the meaning is flexible (to a certain degree). But these passages show how almost everyone is just planting dead things in the ground, hopelessly wishing it would grow into something this time. We plant societies and hope for a better future, then something like World War One comes around and shatters those seeds of hope and positivity–Eliot is suggesting that maybe those seeds were always just corpses to begin with.
You begin to see the profound despair the people of the world were feeling around World War One. “The Waste Land” arguably has kernels of hope at the end, but the purpose of the poem–like many despairing works of art at the time–wasn’t to always cheer people up. It must have been cathartic for readers to have known that even the brightest were feeling the gut punch they just all took. Sometimes you just want to read something that illustrates how you feel, and that’s what a lot of these works did. Articulation goes a long way, even in the obscurity of Eliot’s work.
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