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TS Eliot's "The Waste Land," published in 1922, is an intensely personal poem, despite Eliot's theory of impersonality. The text is loaded with references to the poet's own anguish, and it is a more "human" document of himself for just this reason. There is evidence of the poet's convalescence at both Margate and Lausanne. The subject of nervous breakdown is central to both the poem and the poet. Even here, in these notations of anomie, we come across Eliot's favorite technique--which is ambiguous for so many readers: embedded quotations.
"The Waste Land" is understood to be a metaphor of cultural pessimism and sterility. It depicts a culture that is dying and longs for vitality or rebirth. The legend of the Fisher King, apparent in this poem, is interwoven with other myths and legends of wound, sterility, and rebirth. The story of the Grail relates, therefore, to other sacrificial myths. Eliot's brilliance is to present this situation as a landscape, a landscape of drought and ruin, a heap of stones. We see here the very iconography of broken belief systems; the recurring question is: Can they be made whole?
Early and late in the poem, Eliot offers us direct references to the Fisher King The references to sacrificial myths include the Hanged Man, as well as deaths by fire or drowning that might be restorative. Christ himself is evoked in this series, first at Gethsemane, then at Emmaus. Eliot also includes images from the modern world in his purview. He borrows explicitly from Baudelaire's rendition of 19th-century Paris as both infernal and the place where modern redemption must be sought. Using Baudelaire, Eliot depicts modern London as a place of the living dead, with specific reference to London Bridge, finally cited in its nursery rhyme version as "falling down." This reference to falling cities is symbolic of Eliot's pessimism and apocalyptic sense of modern culture, with revolution and anarchy everywhere.
The central technique of "The Waste Land" is its use of fragment and allusion. These matters bear scrutiny. What is a fragment? Because all fragments come from "wholes," how much of the "whole" must we know to understand the fragment? A modern interpretation presents a view that culture exists in the form of texts, and education consists in becoming acquainted, if not with the texts themselves, at least with their titles or key quotations.
Also culture itself, the past itself, may invariably exist in this textualized form. Inside our own minds there exists a series of fragments, of ruins, consisting of titles or one-liners that we have retained (or that we have never gone beyond): To be or not to be, etc.
Eliot's strategy is to boldly allude, but also to contrast, to refer to charged references to the past, while commenting precisely on our degraded, "unredeemed" present. This is the "mythical method" Eliot celebrated in Joyce. Consider Eliot's treatment of the "departing nymphs" in "The Waste Land" as representative of this strategy. Eliot achieves a great economy and a strange music by conflating Spenser, Sydney, Day, and Marvell and a contemporary description of sexual abuse and indulgence on the banks of the Thames.
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