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The Waste Land and Interpretations and Representations of the Modern World

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”The finest tact after all can give us only an interpretation, and every  interpretation, along perhaps with some utterly contradictory  interpretation, has to be taken up and reinterpreted by every  thinking mind and by every civilization.”

— T. S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley

T.S. Elliot is considered to be a phenomenal writer. He is regarded as a great modernist writer and is considered a pioneer of that form of literature. Born an American in the early 20th century, he was witness to the dramatic change that occurred during his time and was arguably influenced by these changes. He went through the two world wars and these events left a clear impression on him and his work. He was a poet, a dramatist and a literary critic and received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his works in 1948 but of all these achievements and of all his works, his 434-line poem The Waste Land is most popular and perhaps his most seminal work –to the point that it is regarded up to today as a cornerstone of modern literature and a must read for anyone interested in literature.

            The Waste Land, written erringly at times as Wasteland by T.S Eliot is relatively his most well known poem and is perhaps one of the hardest poems one would ever encounter or at least one of the harder modernist poems. It is considered to be one of the most written about long poem of the 20th century and is alleged to be one the most obscure one at that. With its unannounced shifts between satire and poetry, abrupt change in speakers, location and time, it is considered a hard and complicated reading (Parker, 2002) even perhaps for the most hard core literary enthusiast. Nevertheless, it is a great work of art in itself and touches on a handful of subjects and issues that remain relevant to this day.

            It is believed that using The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot focused on his generation’s recurrent anxieties and doubts which is that art seemed to be impossible in the twentieth century and that the reason that art seemed impossible are many and complex  (Brooker & Bentley, 1990). T.S Eliot uses The Waste Land as a way of exploring the changes in his society brought about by the times he was living in and in a way succeeds through the use of multiple allusions, representations and interpretations as well as in drawing inspiration from a multitude of other literary figures before him.

            T.S Eliot’s starts with part one of his poem titled as the Burial of the Dead and the first line of which has become a popularly quoted line which is usually considered an allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. This first part is basically an introduction or introductory lyric which describe the essential features of the poem as well as a give a general overview of what to expect with the poem. It presents the five episodes of the poem and gives the general motif which will later be expanded.

            In the first verse paragraph he introduces the world where humans are out of phase with the seasons and other cycles, and then a personal voice emerges and substantiates life out of rhythm with nature (Brooker & Bentley, 1990). This presents a first, clear view of how T.S Eliot represents and interprets the modern world, alluding perhaps to how his generation has lost sight of what’s important and its communion with nature resulting in catastrophes such as the First World War or even the Spanish Influenza.

            Ultimately, T.S. Eliot uses the poems as a way of symbolizing his historical perspectives and personal issues. His concepts of death-rebirth, time, love, the metaphysical and the rest are represented in the poem and he continues this with the next part of the poem, titled a game of chess.

            In the second part of The Waste Land, he alludes to the classic works of Shakespeare and Virgil (Parker, 2002) and reflects on the different levels of love presumably towards women. This part of the poem speaks perhaps of how women are still considered a “commodity” and are not yet respected in the modern world. He represents and interprets these through lines such as “so rudely forced” and his references to Elizabethan crude sexual connotations and is perhaps further reinforced with allusions to the first world war with lines like “I think we are in the rat’s alley” referring to the rat infested battle trenches of the time (Parker, 2002).

            By the third part of the poem, title The Fire Sermon, it seems that T.S Eliot then rails on the impacts to the environment that the modern world is ushering, using lines 173-181, he points seemingly referring to rich people and how their trash is piling up over the rivers and defiling its beauty (Parker, 2002). T.S. Eliot then returns to the theme of love and represents women and children of the modern world using the characters Sweeney, Mrs. Porter and her daughter and refers to the poem Parsifal by Paul Verlaine. At this point T.S. Eliot has begun to represent the society of the modern world as a much more bleak and unforgiving.

            The last two parts of his poem, Death by the Water and What the Thunder Said reinstates his representation of the modern world and plays further on his themes. On the fourth part, he emphasizes that the modern world may be entering a whirlpool of death and decay and that whoever is “sailing the ship”, whether gentile or Jew should take heed of their history and avoid the possible ramifications of continuing the current path. The last part of the poem, T.S. Eliot touches on the subject of religion and uses them as a soapbox for his thoughts on the modern world. A lot of the lines by this part allude to biblical passages and religious cannons using them to perhaps imply that there is yet hope for the modern world and its future.

            In sum, The Waste Land remains to be a heavy though intoxicating read. It presents a vivid picture of the modern world through the eyes of someone who has not only lived through the time but in way, helped shaped it. This poem by T.S Eliot remains to be an ultimately interesting piece of literature and to this day, its meanings, representations, interpretations and even critical acclaim continue to be a hotly debated topic. Whatever the poem truly mean, perhaps T.S. Eliot said it best when he commented: “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” (Brooker & Bentley, 1990).

Works Cited

Brooker, J. S., & Bentley, J. (1990). READING THE WASTE LAND: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Parker, R. A. (2002, September 29). Exploring “The Waste Land”. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from http://world.std.com/~raparker/exploring/thewasteland/explore.html

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