Discuss T.S. Eliot's point of view regarding the future in his poem "The Waste Land."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

T. S. Eliot’s poem "The Waste Land " is perhaps the most well-known and representative modernist poem. Published in 1922, the poem has five sections and numerous speakers. It is a difficult poem, chock-full of mythological, literary, and biblical references, and it is considered to be Eliot’s masterpiece....

Get
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

T. S. Eliot’s poem "The Waste Land" is perhaps the most well-known and representative modernist poem. Published in 1922, the poem has five sections and numerous speakers. It is a difficult poem, chock-full of mythological, literary, and biblical references, and it is considered to be Eliot’s masterpiece. The poet also alludes to the Indian sacred writings of the Upanishads and numerous famous works of world literature.

You will be able to understand and form your own descriptions of the author’s point of view on the future as expressed in this work, but I will help you by providing some important background as well as links to some excellent references that will give you more information and elucidation. Here is a link to T.S. Eliot’s own notes listing the sources of the many references in this poem:

https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-notes-on-the-waste-land-annotated

Also, here is a link to a superb essay, entitled “The Waste Land as a Modernist Text,” by Nasrullah Mambrol:

https://literariness.org/2016/03/29/the-waste-land-as-a-modernist-text/

T.S. Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri, though he later moved to England and became a British subject. The Victorian optimism of the era vanished quickly as World War I and its devastation began in 1914, when Eliot was twenty-six years old. It was at this age that he published his first verses.

"The Waste Land" appeared in 1922, just four years after World War I ended. The devastation of lives, civilizations, and landscapes left long-lasting scars and was a major influence on modernism. As if to add insult to injury, nature added to the world’s suffering a world-wide pandemic known as the Spanish flu, an H1N1 influenza that swept through and killed more than fifty million people, even as the war still raged. I do not doubt that this event also had an influence on T.S. Eliot’s outlook on the future. From his standpoint, it is easy to imagine that what he saw would have been bleak. I think the word “disillusionment” also well describes the modernist view, and we can certainly understand how the events of the world at the time contributed to this perception.

Another important thing to keep in mind when studying "The Waste Land" is an underlying theme based on the myth of the Fisher King from Authurian legend, which may go back to early Celtic mythology. The Fisher King (who is also known as the Maimed King or the Wounded King) is responsible for the safe-keeping of the Holy Grail (the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper). The Fisher King is unable to stand or do much of anything else because of his wounds. His only useful activity is fishing from a little boat. The Fisher King reigns over an infertile land that is stricken by drought. His physical state reflects the condition of the land. Only a noble and pure-hearted hero can heal him.

Literary critic and lecturer Dr. Oliver Tearle provides an excellent short lecture on "The Waste Land" in the following YouTube video:

https://youtu.be/NqWQ3Fe3p94

Dr. Tearle explains that the poem is about the breakdown of connections and relationships and that Eliot tells us that “life has become mechanical, empty of meaning” and that “death is perhaps the only real escape from the wasteland.”

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team