Many critics highlight the fact that Eliot wrote The Waste Land while he was suffering a nervous breakdown. Another group of post–World War I writers disillusioned by the war, the surrealists, attempted to create literary works while their minds were in alternative states, a condition often reached by deliberate attempts to affect their consciousness, such as through hypnosis. The Magnetic Fields (1920), a series of prose poems by French poets André Breton and Phillipe Soupault, was created during one of these mental experiments, a marathon project that lasted eight days.
Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in the magazine Poetry (1915) and later collected in Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917), is considered one of Eliot’s most important works. Like The Waste Land, the poem mixes classical references with other modern images. The poem details the ramblings of the title character, a self-doubting man who is pessimistic about his future and the future of society.
In 1971, Eliot’s estate authorized the release of a facsimile edition of the poet’s original 800- line version of the poem, entitled, The Waste Land: A Facsimile of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. As the title implies, the book includes the original revision notes from Pound, but it also includes notes from Eliot’s first wife and Eliot himself. This landmark edition, which includes an introduction by Eliot’s widow, his second wife Valerie Eliot, gave critics and readers insight into the process used to create the 1922 version.
In his original notes to The Waste Land, Eliot states that he was inspired by Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, which Frazer released in two volumes in 1890, then revised into a one-volume edition in 1922. Although popular in its day, this book, which attempts to explore the origins of magic and religion and their relevance to his modern world, came under critical fire in later years.
Ernest Hemingway is probably the best known of the Lost Generation group of American writers. Like The Waste Land, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) explores the post–World War I sense of disillusionment. In the novel, the protagonist, Jake Barnes, a World War I veteran, suffers from physical and psychological war wounds that greatly affect his life and view of the world.
While Ezra Pound is considered one the twentieth century’s great writers, he never had a wide reading audience, in part because he spent much of his time helping nurture the fledgling writing careers of Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Robert Frost, and others. Yet Pound did produce one series of works, his Cantos, published in various pieces from 1917 to 1968 (for a total of 117 sections), which some consider a masterpiece. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, however, this ambitious work relies on chaotic, disparate techniques that turned off some critics and readers.
In his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot also cites the influence of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), a book that explores the Grail legend of King Arthur and its relation to the recorded myths of ancient mystery cults and their fertility rites.