A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The Waste Land is a postwar text written in a chaotic and fragmented global landscape. National borders had shifted; advances in weaponry and combat had killed soldiers and civilians alike at astonishing rates; and bitterness, disillusionment, and distrust littered the globe. The trauma of World War I is evident in this excerpt, as the multi-vocal nature of the text positions the reader within a postwar landscape that is "broken," sun-beaten, and barren. Such emptiness resonates in every section of the poem, from the speaker's wondering if "we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones" to the "decayed hole," "empty chapel," and "falling down falling down falling down" in the poem's final section.
I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
To be "neither living nor dead" is both an anesthesia of the heart and an extinction of the personality. Certainly, this shard of a moment may be read as an empty soul recognizing its hollowness, but it may also be read as an obsolescence and numbness of self that enables spectatorial distance and perspective. Amputated from its despair, this fragment of the text reveals its awareness of working in a literary tradition that historically brought closure and certainty, yet now seems to lead only to "nothing," to "silence"—as does, ultimately, literary modernism. Eliot almost seems to be chuckling at the idea that poetry once brought surety (think of Wordsworth's poems from Lyrical Ballads, for example); now, uncertainty is the new stability.
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
The Waste Land is saturated with allusions, and the average contemporary reader needs the lengthy pages of notes at the poem's end to realize all the allusions Eliot makes: to Shakespeare, Ecclesiastes, Tristan and Isolde, the Fisher King, Baudelaire, Dante, Milton, Ovid, Spenser, Marvell, Sophocles—the list goes on. What is ironic, then, about what Eliot is doing is the very fact that The Waste Land has a "different level" below its surface. Eliot's wasteland is a "rattle of bones," "the agony in stony places," a place where there "is no water." How can such a desert—such a barren, infertile, and stark landscape—contain a "different level" if it can't even support life on its own surface? The irony exists in the richness of the allusions, for they fertilize the poem's meaning.
Section 5, "What the Thunder Said," in which the speaker renders a detailed image of the wasteland's vacuousness, is, significantly, the...
(The entire section contains 788 words.)
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