Describe The Wasteland by T.S Eliot as a modern poem.

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot is one of the touchstones of modern poetry; it may even be the most widely-known modern poem. Its style and content both reflect the literary movement of modernism. A few features that I will focus on in my answer are fragmented style, allusions, and tone. 

First of all, modernist literature is known for its fragmented forms. The modernists tended to break from traditional forms of writing and invent new forms or, at the very least, break or fragment more common forms. "The Waste Land" is a long poem made of five titled sections. Within these sections, there is no consistent rhyme scheme or meter, so we can refer to this style as free verse. The sections are not consistent in terms of length, either. In other words, there is not a set form. Many modernist works focus on psychology or the inner world of characters or speakers rather than traditional narrative. We could not call "The Waste Land" a narrative or story in the traditional sense.

Allusions are an interesting feature of modernist literary works because the modernists believed in Ezra Pound's motto "make it new." So, you might ask how referring to older works of literature or to the Bible or mythology could be in any way new. Eliot is probably the modernist poet who most references classical texts in his work, and many readers need either a very experienced background in literature or some detailed footnotes to get through his works, especially "The Waste Land." One way to look at this conundrum is to think that in order for writers to break with the old and "make it new," they have to first know their literary history. Eliot certainly knows his. We can see in his varied and numerous references to classical Greek myth and tragedy (Tiresias in Part III), to Shakespeare, to Carthage and Phoenicia, and so on, that Eliot is well-versed in the classics. He does, however, put a modern spin on these texts through his allusions. Take the allusion to Tiresias, for example: Tiresias, the blind prophet from the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, is described as an androgynous figure who can "see" into the dissatisfied and dingy lives of modern Londoners. It almost seems like a "waste" of the prophet's powers: what is there to observe here?

Finally, the tone of the poem is consistent with the mood of the modernist era. After World War I, Europeans certainly lost faith in some of the more solid and reliable facts of their world. It felt as though their world fell apart in a sense. How does one go on after that kind of loss and trauma? Eliot begins the poem with the famous line, "April is the cruellest month . . ." and that is our first clue, along with the title, that the poem will be dark and dour. We normally associate springtime with rebirth, happiness, fresh starts, and beautiful scenery. Here, Eliot subverts that expectation in a way that reflects the modernists' perspective on the post-World War I world.

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I gave a brief description of some of the key points of modern poetry in your "Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock" question, but just to recap on the most significant highlights that would correspond with T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

Breaking the rules or conventions of more traditional, accepted forms of poetry:

The Waste Land veers in and out of different languages (German, French, even Hindi, to name a few) and obscure mythological references without clear focus or easily defined theme, without defined meter or form.  Eliot's enormously long poem does not fit any traditional structure, and in doing so, Eliot set the standard for modern poetry. 

Themes of Fear, Alienation, City Life, War, Ennui, Death

Alienation and the desolation of war are predominant themes in The Waste Land; Eliot originally writes this poem after he suffers a mental breakdown at his bank manager job in London; he felt keenly the destruction and decay of World War I and mourned the loss of innocence and spirituality.  He pours those feelings into The Waste Land, and the resulting poem is a dark journey through a broken, devastated kingdom, the perfect metaphor for post-WWI Europe.

The whole first section of the poem, "Burial of the Dead," is thick with references to death and a feeling of imprisonment or being trapped.  Multiple allusions to WWI and Germany lurk throughout, from references to Starnbergersee (in Germany) to including actual phrases written in German; Eliot's poem reminds readers of WWI and the bitter price of war:

"Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many" (61-63).