When Eliot first published The Waste Land in 1922, it caused a colossal stir in the literary world and in society in general. Eliot’s use of nontraditional techniques, his gritty imagery, and the sheer incoherence of the work as a whole mystified, enraged, and enthralled readers and critics. As Helen Vendler notes in her 1998 Time article, “Modern poetry had struck its note.” In fact, readers had never seen anything quite this modern before. The poem seemed to have a little bit of everything, and was much meatier than the other literary offerings of the time, and not just in Europe. Vendler notes that “Whether or not Eliot had written down the Armageddon of the West, he had showed up the lightweight poetry dominating American magazines.” But even though every reference in Eliot’s apocalyptic opus has since been documented, and one can begin to draw parallels among the poem’s many pieces, most critics agree that these pieces will probably never be assembled into one cohesive whole. The poem’s structure defies that type of interpretation.
When one discusses the structure of a modernist work like The Waste Land, it helps to break it down into two types, structure on a large scale and structure on a small scale. On the large scale, the poem has a clear structure. It is organized into five sections, each of which is numbered and labeled, almost in the style of a traditional poem. Yet, in her entry on Eliot for Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jewel Spears Brooker says that these five sections, “by traditional standards, seem unrelated.” The key word is “traditional.” Part of the joy involved in modernist writing was in not playing by the traditional rules. Still, Eliot did not choose his structure on a whim. In fact, when viewed from a modernist perspective, one that emphasizes the rough sense of the poem, rather than its specific, objectifiable meaning, one can offer up an interpretation for Eliot’s choice of large-scale structure.
The first section is “The Burial of the Dead” deals mainly with issues of death. The second section “A Game of Chess” deals mainly with issues of sex. The third section “The Fire Sermon” also deals with sexual issues. The fourth section “Death by Water” deals with issues of death. The final section, “What the Thunder Said,” is mainly about resurrection or restoration, which may or may not be attainable. So, if one were to write out these general themes in order, it would go: death, sex, sex, death, possible restoration. One of the first noticeable aspects about this order is that the first four sections are symmetrical. The two sections on death bookend the two sections on sex, almost as if the second two sections are a mirror image of the first two. When a poet deliberately juxtaposes thematic material like this, it usually means something. This is especially true when a modernist poet imposes a distinguishable form on his or her poetry. This ordering of themes becomes even more suspicious when one looks at the length of the fourth section. When compared to the others, this is almost not a section at all. If Eliot had left it out, however, it would have destroyed his symmetry.
So what does this mean? Why is Eliot interested in this symmetry? To answer this question, it is first necessary to examine the small-scale structural techniques that Eliot uses in the poem. Again, if traditional analysis techniques were used, this reader would examine the poem line by line and stanza by stanza, searching for the connections among them. As James S. Torrens notes in his 1997 article on the poem in America: “How many undergraduates since 1922 have sweated their way through this labyrinth and come out dazzled, or completely dazed.” The fact is, applying traditional analysis to the poem is a fruitless effort, for the poem exists not in the logical world, but in a world of indefinite...
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