Student Question

Is T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" better read as a piece of fragmented experience or as a coherent whole?

Quick answer:

"The Waste Land" is simultaneously a heap of fragments and a coherent whole. Eliot's technique is to present a series of images that appear disconnected from one another and yet are unified in the sense that together, they express the modernist theme of his poem.

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As with most modernist works, "The Waste Land" has evoked conflicting reactions from critics and general readers and commentators, in its own time and through to the present. Eliot's cousin, the poet Amy Lowell, famously said "it's a piece of tripe." More to the point of our question, the critic and poet Conrad Aiken acknowledged that the poem was fragmented and chaotic but asserted this as praise rather than as a negative criticism. The nature of Eliot's work is precisely designed to stun the reader with disconnected pieces of a kind of cultural wreckage, for this is his depiction of the modern world: a post-historical realm made up of the detritus of the past.

Prior to the twentieth century, it was not expected that a poet would compose a work containing a heap of quotations and bizarre paraphrases of previous works. What Eliot does is, to an extent, parody the past. To begin with, the line "April is the cruelest month" takes the well-known and hopeful sounding line from Chaucer and distorts it, expressing despair and transforming a positive past into a malign and despairing present. Eliot mixes other languages with English, expecting a level of erudition from his readers that is unprecedented. The English-speaking reader can be assumed to have some familiarity with Chaucer, but a few lines later, one reads:

Frisch weht der Wind

Der Heimat zu,

Mein Irisch Kind,

Wo weilest du?

This is a quote from Wagner's musical drama Tristan and Isolde. It has nothing obviously intrinsic to the material Eliot has already presented. Yet Wagner is part of the European cultural heritage. His works rethink mythic and legendary subjects in terms of his own nineteenth-century ethos. Eliot's point is that his own time, the twentieth century, is also rethinking of the past, but he draws on it as a kind of lifeline because the present age has nothing viable to offer. The deliberate lack of immediate communicability in "The Waste Land" enhances this sense of loss and confusion. Disconnected quotes and other apparently meaningless phrases are part of a technique that expresses a unified theme, a kind of agonized nihilism.

It is not simply fragmentation that conveys a feeling of negativity. Obviously one could create a poem filled with happy quotes, without distorting and parodying them, and the effect would be quite different. Not only is the work consistently-themed in its pessimism, but the entire poem represents a kind of journey through the modern world, a circular one ending with the primal mythic figure of the Fisher King pleading:

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

It's as if the poet explores the present, finds nothing of value, and then returns to the past and to legend as a refuge. This journey establishes a coherence within the poem it might otherwise have lacked despite its thematic unity.

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