T. S. Eliot 

(Read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3)

“The Wasteland”, by T. S. Eliot, is considered by many to be the most famous modernist work ever published.  Within the chaotic lines of this poem Eliot seeks to portray the sense of decadence, decline, and despair that characterizes the post-war West.  This work was highly influential, and it injected its nihilistic themes into the cultural bloodstream.  “The Wasteland” would come to influence many subsequent works of literature; including the two novels which have already been addressed.

With his description of London as the “unreal city” (Line 60) whose population has been undone by death, Eliot clearly portrays the despair experienced by the British after the war.  The city is not only inhabited by the clotted river of sighing masses which flows through its fog-covered streets, but by the ghostly memories of soldiers like “Stetson” who lost their lives during the war.  What happened to the corpse planted in Stetson’s garden (the millions who died in the war)?  What ghastly fruit will come of it?  From his vantage point, Eliot saw Western culture crumbling into “a heap of broken images” (Line 22), yet within the fractured and fragmented lines of The Waste Land, Eliot at times seems to hint at an answer.

Similar to The Sound and the Fury, “The Wasteland” attempts to convey the nihilism of its day through its very form and style.  By its disjointed lines and multiple obscure references, the poem presents an age in which spiritual and existential certainty has been replaced by “a handful of dust” (Line 30).  I must confess that the first time I read this “The Wasteland” I was quite baffled and a bit annoyed by the sheer amount of references.  However, each time I read the poem the more I discovered that the references themselves convey one of this work’s most powerful messages.  

The Wasteland

Nearly all of the quotes and allusions are derived from renowned Western literature.  Shakespeare, Dante, St. Augustine, and the Bible all make appearances, along with many other famous works.  It is as though Eliot was seeking to gather the ruins of Western civilization and piece them back together again (however disfigured the finished product may be).  The numerous references of “The Wasteland” reinforce Eliot’s message that the modern age has lost its soul, and that the only redemption for it will be found in a return to the eternal truths to which these references adhere.

Standing in the background of this poem is the Fisher King, a mythical figure from Arthurian legend.  His impotence (see Jake above) represents the sterility of the age, and his only hope is that someone will ask him what it is that ails him.  In “The Wasteland”, Eliot is emphasizing the fact that the problem for modern man is not to be found in the lack of abundant answers, but in the lack of the proper questions.  The age that produced World War I could not fix its own problems; only a return to the wisdom that had preceded it offered any hope.

All of these works communicate a powerful truth: that in his rise to power and scientific prowess, mankind lost his way.  Confusion reigns and his tower is left to crumbleThis is nihilism: the disintegration of all value; the fatal mistake of forgetting that the most precious things that a man possesses are not those things which can be stuffed in a pantry, stored in a bank account, or measured in a test tube.  Yet, as Eliot perceived, there is hope: escape from the maze of meaninglessness is not found by pressing forward into the darkness, but by following the breadcrumbs of antiquity back to the entrance…and to escape.