Poems can describe society; they cannot change it. Discuss this in relation to two poems; one by WH Auden and one by TS Eliot.

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The Waste Land by T S Eliot, in the title, invites images of a desolate place, devoid of human emotion or involvement, a place where there are only remnants of life and a suggestion of what may have been. Instead of April being the epitome of Spring and new life, it has become "the cruellest month." Although the title was not Eliot's first choice for his work, it is his intention to create an image, among others, of a Europe ravaged by war and in desperate need of rejuvenation, "as death has undone so many." It commences before the war, when the narrator of the first section "drank coffee and talked for an hour." There is no real self- awareness. "Are you alive or not? Is there nothing in your head?" continues this theme as life continues in a pointless round of "what shall we ever do?"

The dry landscape, such as is expected of a waste land, where "there is no water,"will become central to the poem which is significant and prepares the reader for the disillusionment to follow and, unfortunately, the ultimate realization that lessons can be learned but often are not. "Dry, sterile thunder, without rain," paints a conflicting picture as usually the rain brings relief.  

W H Auden in The Unknown Citizen, has the ability to reveal much to the reader just from the title, just as we have seen T S Eliot do in The Waste Land. Being an "unknown citizen" immediately prepares the reader for visions of the more recognizable "unknown soldier," who would have died an anonymous death, away from his family, alone and unclaimed in a hostile environment. The unknown citizen, however, has no redeeming qualities. A soldier gives his life for his country and his life represents the ultimate sacrifice. However, far from extolling the virtues of "The Modern Man, it becomes clear to the reader that, in fact, all that this citizen has to show for himself is that "he never got fired." His life is so unremarkable but the poem suggests a celebratory atmosphere but masks the real sentiment. The fact that he had "everything necessary to the Modern man," is said in an apparently mocking and scornful tone as, he clearly has no distinct personality and even his opinions are "proper." This citizen then highlights everything that is wrong with the modern concept of life. Why should everyone conform.This only perpetuates what T S Eliot says, "Do you see nothing? Do you remember nothing?"

Eliot makes reference to Tiresias, the ancient seer, who "perceived the scene and foretold the rest." However, man has still not learned sufficiently to adapt society and, as Eliot says, "set my lands in order," or even more recently, in Auden's The Unknown Citizen, to improve the situation other than to "be for peace" simply because there is peace and to go off to war simply because it is expected.

The common thread that unites these poems is the lack of commitment of mankind towards itself and its common good. These poems expose man's inability to see his likeness in others and to recognize that serving "the Greater Community," requires so much more than being "normal in every way." (Auden). Indifference is apparent in both instances and is even "welcome" (Eliot). 

Both poems give apt descriptions of society and attempt to draw attention to the possibility for change although being powerless to effect the change because, "Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard." (Auden). Even the "hyacinth girl" (Eliot) cannot effect change. There is however some hope- "bringing rain."

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