How does the experience of the war inform the shattered and spectral world of T.S. Eliot’s postwar Wasteland?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Waste Land" is a complex poem. Essentially T. S. Eliot is using the actual ruins of World War I and the many deaths of soldiers and civilians as an extended metaphor for the spiritual desolation of the European people resulting from their loss of religious faith resulting from the growing power and prestige of science and technology. The poem is broken up into fragmentary scenes which suggest the ruins created by the war wherever it was fought, mainly in France and Italy. There are many beautiful passages in the poem. One that seems to express the main theme is the following:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no
And the dry stone no sound of water. 

Eliot is not talking about the actual ruins of war but the spiritual ruins of the people--frightened, bewildered, disillusioned. The glimpses of people seem to represent them as survivors living among the ruined buildings in a land where all the trees have been destroyed by artillery shells. The war came as a shock to many Europeans and Americans. It seemed to represent a retrogression to barbarism, one that had not seen its final result as yet but would culminate in a much greater war with bombing planes blocking out the sun. The number of deaths and the amount of destruction was shocking beyond words. It seemed incredible that civilized nations could behave in such an uncivilized manner. Poison gas was used heavily in World War I, and this seemed one of the worst possible atrocities. Yet what T. S. Eliot is most concerned about is the general loss of faith in the Christian religion which he blames for the horrors of the war itself. This condition is often referred to as "the crisis of faith." It is still with us.

It was a great inspiration for Eliot to see the ruins of civilization as symbolic of the loss of a sense of meaning in modern man. "The Waste Land" is by far his greatest literary work. He himself became a devout believer in traditional religion as well as a monarchist, an extremely conservative thinker and writer. This solution seems to be what he is recommending in these lines:

There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

The red rock, in his case, seems to represent the Anglican Church of which the English monarch is the head.