The Waste Land Critical Overview
by T. S. Eliot

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

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From the time it was published until the twentyfirst century, The Waste Land has inspired both passion and hatred. Jewel Spears Brooker sums it up best in her entry on Eliot for Dictionary of Literary Biography:The Waste Land was taken by some critics as a tasteless joke, by others as a masterpiece expressing the disillusionment of a generation. As far as Eliot was concerned, it was neither.” As many critics have cited, Eliot viewed the poem as a catharsis, a way to release much of his frustration and stress that had ultimately led to his nervous breakdown.

Yet, while this is what Eliot said, his decision to include extensive notes with the poem, which identified the source of many of the poem’s obscure or confusing references, seemed to ascribe great meaning to the poem. The author notes also invited negative criticism. Many critics, like Conrad Aiken, felt that Eliot’s notes—and indeed, many of the references in the poem itself—were unnecessary. As Aiken notes in his now-famous 1922 review in New Republic: “Mr. Eliot’s sense of the literary past has become so overmastering as almost to constitute the motive of the work.” Aiken sees this approach as involving “a kind of idolatry of literature with which it is a little difficult to sympathize.” As testament to the complexity and controversy of the poem, however, Aiken’s overall review is positive. He notes that Eliot’s focus on all of these references “has colored an important and brilliant piece of work.” Yet, Aiken says that, when these “reservations have all been made, we accept The Waste Land as one of the most moving and original poems of our time.”

In fact, the originality of the poem is key to understanding the divided reactions that it received. The poem is largely credited with helping launch the modern literature movement, a fact that cannot be understated and about which many critics speak in grand terms. For example, Nancy Duvall Hargrove says in her entry on Eliot for Dictionary of Literary Biography, the poem’s “originality shook the foundations of the literary world.” Likewise, in America James S. Torrens says, “A bombshell burst upon the world of modern poetry 75 years ago.” And in his New York Review of Books review of the 1971 restored and expanded version of The Waste Land , Richard Ellmann says of Eliot, “Lloyd’s most famous bank clerk revalued the poetic...

(The entire section is 626 words.)