Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*London. Great Britain’s capital city, a place cloaked in brown fog, is populated by people who walk in circles without connection to anything or anyone. The walk from London Bridge down King William Street leads past a church to the financial district, which for Eliot represents spiritual and cultural emptiness. Although the street, named after William the Conqueror, the first king of England, and the church carry important names in England’s rich history and religious experience, the citizens take no note of them. Other scenes convey this spiritual emptiness: a tawdry sexual encounter between a clerk and a secretary in her shabby apartment and a conversation in a saloon involving an anxious pregnant woman concerned about how to deal with a pregnancy by another man now that her lover is returning from a tour of duty in the army.
*London Bridge. Historic bridge over the River Thames; a transcendental symbol of all that is good and promising in contemporary life, London Bridge leads to the city of the dead, to the loss of possibility and meaningful spiritual life.
*River Thames tehmz). England’s greatest river symbolizes a more romantic and joyful past and, in its present polluted condition, the spiritual emptiness of modern life. An elaboration of this symbolism comes in the reference to the Leman, the Swiss name for Lake Geneva, where Eliot was...
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World War I
While Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, it was widely acknowledged as reflecting the disillusionment in Europe following World War I. This global war started from a regional tragedy. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, made a fateful trip to Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina— two provinces under his family’s control—where he and his wife were assassinated. These murders reflected a regional tension among some residents of the two provinces, which wished to become part of Serbia once again. Serbia, which also wished to reclaim Bosnia and Herzegovina, helped stage the assassinations.
When this fact was realized by Austria-Hungary, the leaders of this nation state declared war on Serbia on July 28, exactly one month after the assassination. In times past this might have been a localized battle between two countries. But due to an extensive system of pre-existing alliances, most other European countries were pulled into the war, which escalated the conflict. Eventually the list of combatants grew to include the United States and parts of Asia, all of which aligned themselves with either the pro-Serbian “Allies” or with the “Central” powers, who supported Austria-Hungary.
When fighting began in August 1914, each side believed its modern weapon technologies such as hand grenades, tanks, long-range artillery, and poison gas would lead to a...
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The most important aspect of the work, and the one that informs all others, is the literary movement to which it belongs, modernism, which this work helped define. Modernism is the broad term used to describe post–World War I literature that employs techniques Eliot uses in The Waste Land. These techniques, and all the techniques associated with modernist literature, expressed a rebellion against traditional literature, which was noted by its distinct forms and rules. For example, in traditional poetry, poets often sought uniformity in stanza length and meter. Those poets who could work within these sometimes challenging rules and still express themselves in a unique or moving way were considered good poets. But particularly after World War I, as literature and other art shifted from a traditional, romantic, or idealized, approach to an approach that emphasized gritty realism full of discontinuity and despair, artists began to experiment with nontraditional forms, ideas, and styles.
Disillusioned by the war, artists and writers such as Eliot rebelled against the logical, traditional thinking—which they believed helped start and escalate the war. Eliot’s poem, in all of its complexity and obscurity, was like a catalog of modernist poetic techniques, including free verse, odd stanza lengths, snatches of dialogue, quotations from other works, phrases from other languages, indistinct transitions, conflicting ideologies such...
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Topics for Further Study
Find a painting, movie, or other visual artwork you think could serve as a companion piece to the poem. Explain why you think this pairing makes sense.
Research what life was like for soldiers during World War I. Imagine that you are a soldier in the trenches along the Western Front. Write a journal entry that describes your typical day.
Imagine that through time travel Eliot is able to visit your town for one day and that you have been assigned to give the poet a tour. Based on what you know of Eliot and what you know about your own society, write a story that describes Eliot’s reactions to modern life.
Read another work by a different author who became disillusioned by World War I. Compare this work to Eliot’s The Waste Land.
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Eliot’s The Waste Land and several other works were adapted as an unabridged audiobook in 2000, featuring narration by the author. T. S. Eliot Reads: The Waste Land, Four Quartets, and Other Poems is available from HarperAudio.
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What Do I Read Next?
Many critics highlight the fact that Eliot wrote The Waste Land while he was suffering a nervous breakdown. Another group of post–World War I writers disillusioned by the war, the surrealists, attempted to create literary works while their minds were in alternative states, a condition often reached by deliberate attempts to affect their consciousness, such as through hypnosis. The Magnetic Fields (1920), a series of prose poems by French poets André Breton and Phillipe Soupault, was created during one of these mental experiments, a marathon project that lasted eight days.
Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in the magazine Poetry (1915) and later collected in Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917), is considered one of Eliot’s most important works. Like The Waste Land, the poem mixes classical references with other modern images. The poem details the ramblings of the title character, a self-doubting man who is pessimistic about his future and the future of society.
In 1971, Eliot’s estate authorized the release of a facsimile edition of the poet’s original 800- line version of the poem, entitled, The Waste Land: A Facsimile of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. As the title implies, the book includes the original revision notes from Pound, but it also includes notes from Eliot’s first wife and Eliot himself. This landmark edition,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Aiken, Conrad, “An Anatomy of Melancholy,” in New Republic, Vol. 33, No. 427, February 7, 1923, pp. 294–95.
Brooker, Jewel Spears, “T. S. Eliot,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, First Series, edited by Peter Quartermain, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 150–81.
Cooper, John Xiros, T. S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of “The Waste Land,” UMI Research Press, 1987.
Eliot, T. S., The Waste Land, in The Waste Land and Other Poems, edited by Frank Kermode, Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 53–69.
Ellmann, Richard, “The First Waste Land-I,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 8, November 8, 1971, pp. 10, 12, 14–16.
Hargrove, Nancy Duvall, “T. S. Eliot,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale Research, 1981, pp. 151–72.
Torrens, James S., “T. S. Eliot: 75 Years of ‘The Waste Land,’ ” in America, Vol. 177, October 25, 1997, pp. 24–27.
Vendler, Helen, “T. S. Eliot,” in Time, Vol. 151, No. 22, June 8, 1998, p. 108.
Bloom, Harold, ed., T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (Modern Critical Interpretations), Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Bloom collects criticism on The Waste Land from...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bergonzi, Bernard. “Allusion in The Waste Land.” Essays in Criticism 20, no. 3 (July, 1970): 382-385. An important analysis of Eliot’s use of both high and low allusions in the poem.
Brooks, Cleanth, Jr. “The Waste Land: An Analysis.” Southern Review 3, no. 1 (1937-1938): 106-136. An influential New Critical reading of the poem that draws out the complexities and the ironic structure.
Canary, Robert H. T. S. Eliot: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982. A thorough bibliography on the poet and his works and a series of bibliographical essays that discuss various critics who have dealt with Eliot’s criticism and poetry.
Frye, Northrop. T. S. Eliot. New York: Grove Press, 1963. An analysis of Eliot’s works primarily the critical perspective of myth. Excellent conclusions on the archetypal aspects of The Waste Land.
Kenner, Hugh, ed. T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A useful collection of essays, part of the Twentieth Century Views series. Contains a number of important essays, including three on The Waste Land.
Williamson, George. A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot. New York: Noonday Press, 1953. A close...
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