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“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1766
  • Category: Poems

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This essay describes how the juxtaposition forms of montage (which, as described by the Oxford English Dictionary as the technique of producing a new composite whole from fragments of pictures, text or music) contributes to the meaning of “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot.  In a nutshell, Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land is a social comment on the poor state that the world is in after the First World War, made up largely of quotations and comments taken from other sources.

  He breaks the work down into five sections, these being The Burial of the Dead, A Game of Chess, The Fire Sermon, Death By Water and What the Thunder Said. The lesson that this poem teaches us is that man’s worldly life is spiritual death, and that there must be renewal before this can be remedied (Maxwell, 1969).  This is one of Eliot’s earlier poems and shows clearly his acceptance of traditional literature as his poetic world, (Maxwell, 1961).  “The Waste Land” established Eliot decisively as the voice of a disillusioned generation, (Drabble and Stringer, 1996).  As the poem is rather long, I have chosen for the purposes of this paper to focus my discussion and analysis upon the last section of the poem, “What the Thunder Said”.

            In the first part of Part V three themes are employed: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous and the decay of eastern Europe (Eliotswasteland.com, 2005).   Much of this is portrayed by imagery, wording and commentary borrowed from other sources.

What Effect is the Author Seeking to Produce through the Use of this Form?

            I believe that through the use of this form, TS Eliot is trying to produce a mixed up, staccato effect that enhances the impact of the words that he is using in order to bring across a full composite idea. These different ideas from different sources are put together next to one another to produce this effect.

In “The Poetry of TS Eliot”, DES Maxwell tells us that the blending of traditional European and Eastern thought is the necessary background to Eliot’s interpretation of the contemporary problem in “The Waste Land,” and basic symbolism is taken from the Grail legend.  (Maxwell, 1961).   As Eliot succinctly puts it in the notes he wrote on “The Waste Land”, much of the plan and the symbolism were “suggested in Miss Jessie L Weston’s book on the Grail legend, entitled “From Ritual to Romance”. In the “What the Thunder Said” section of “The Waste Land”, Eliot introduces a well-defined feature of European legend, the journey feature.  We can therefore see why Eliot has chosen this form of montage in this work – it enhances and confirms the impression the reader is left with.

How does the use of this form contribute to the overall meaning of the work?

            I believe that the use of this form contributes to the overall meaning of the work by showing us that what is said and done by the people and commentators of the world can have a profound impact on what happens in the world.  With the writing of “The Waste Land,” TS Eliot’s poetry became an attempt to find meaning in the whole of his experience, to include all that he has known.  In order to do this, he looks inside himself and brings out all to which he has been exposed (Gardner, 1949).  Eliot may have considered himself as a microcosm of the society of his time, and therefore the drawing out of all of his own experiences, in forms and words used by others, is a very effective way of stating what he wants to state in a way that will be recognized and related to by all readers.  As that miniature representative of society, what Eliot himself has experienced and can related to is likely to have been experienced by other society members.

As a practical sample from the work, let’s take for example the following passage, lines 366 – 367, which I have retrieved from eliotswasteland.tripod.com:

               What is that sound high in the air                Murmur of maternal lamentation               Who are those hooded hordes swarming                Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth               Ringed by the flat horizon only               What is the city over the mountains               Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air               Falling towers               Jerusalem Athens Alexandria               Vienna London

            What profound imagery is brought to mind as one hears in one’s head the mothers crying, and what visual impact follows the reading of the line about the hooded hordes swarming!  This is based on an idea taken from Herman Hesse’s “Blick Ins Chaos”.  Already half of Europe, already at least half of Eastern Europe, on the way to Chaos, drives drunk in sacred infatuation along the edge of the precipice, sings drunkenly, as though hymn singing, as Dmitri Karamazov [in Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamazov] sang.

The offended bourgeois laughs at the songs; the saint and the seer hear them with tears. (Eliotswasteland.tripod).  This is indicative to some extent of the breakdown that society has already gone through.  It shows the impact that what one person does can have on another – the actions of one can have an effect on the actions of another and there is a chain reaction throughout society.  If the half of Europe had not been “on the way to Chaos”, then they would not be singing drunkenly, if they were not singing drunkenly then the offended would not laugh at the songs, and the saints and the seers would not hear them with tears.  There are five cities listed in the last line of this section – meaning that this decay of society is not limited to one location, or one people – it makes us realize that ALL members of society are susceptible to this.

            Another example is the line “Datta: what have we given?”  Loosely, this refers to a Hindu fable that of gods, men, and demons each in turn asking of their father Prajapati, “Speak to us, O Lord.” To each he replied with the one syllable “DA,” and each group interpreted it in a different way:  ‘Control yourselves; give alms; be compassionate.’ Therefore one should practice these three things: self-control, alms-giving, and compassion. (Eliotswasteland.tripod).  The image used here contributes to the spiritual form of the work.

What is the relationship between this form and the content of the work?

            I believe that the relationship between this form and the content of the work is intricate. The form and content are inextricably involved so that the full meaning is brought across – the world is in a state of chaos.  One almost thinks of a patchwork quilt – a hodge podge, rather chaotic affair of colors and squares sewn together to form one whole – and if the stitch work is not good, the whole thing will come apart.  I believe that the metaphor that Eliot is drawing here is that the whole world is a rather shabbily put together quilt that is in fact falling apart.  The form that he has used here is clearly indicative of this.

            In this work, Eliot’s aim is to present temporal human affairs in a direct setting, while leaving their spiritual significance intact, with imagery and allusions to past literature.  (Maxwell, 1961).  The form that Eliot has chosen in this work enhances and backs up the message that he is trying to get across to his readers.  In the final section of the poem, Eliot uses imagery and quotations to show the first divergence from direct insistence on the surroundings – his  method now operates away from the contemporary settings, (Maxwell, 1961).  Using the line “revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus” (eliotswasteland.com), he refers to the character Coriolanus, the Fisher King and the lost father from Dante’s Inferno.  This conveys a notion “of a focus towards which the instability and flux of material affairs should converge”, (Maxwell, 1961).  It follows that, if there is no stable centre to this, then there must also be a lack of meaning to it.

            In the closing lines of the poem, Eliot quotes from an anonymous late Latin poem “Pervigilium Veneris”, or “Vigil of Venus” a phrase which in English means “When Shall I be As the Swallow?”  In the last two stanzas of “Vigil of Venus” with a recollection of the Tereus-Procne-Philomelna, the poet’s mood changes to a combined one of sadness and hope for renewal  (eliotswasteleand.tripod.com).  In “The Wasteland,”  the poem ends by focusing on the quester again. His quest has achieved nothing that was a positive goal.  His search for love has been unsuccessful, he has only begun and must still continue with the search for spiritual knowledge and understanding, not only via formality of religion, but also by an internal overhaul.  But he has recognized and acknowledged humility. He can at least expect to experience some form of liberation.  (Smith, 1950).

The imagery and montage method employed in the writing of this both reinforces the continual feeling of desolation for the current state of mankind which has been carried right through – but it also infers that there may be hope for society if action is taken now.


            By reading the comments and discussion above, it can be seen how the use of the juxtaposition forms of montage are effectively used by TS Eliot in The Waste Land to convey spirituality, imagery and meaning.  The poem, by the use of a composition of thoughts and ideas both from Eliot and from those members of society who were a part of the world around him, is a thought provoking social comment on the way that the world is now, that ends with the somewhat overwhelming implication that it is us, the living, who must take responsibility for the future of society as a whole – but it can be done.

Works Cited

Drabble and Stringer, 1996. “Oxford Companion to English Literature Revised Edition”, Oxford

            University Press, Oxford, New York

Eliot’s Wasteland, 2005, retrieved 28 January 2006 from the website http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com/

Maxwell, DES, 1961 “The Poetry of TS Eliot,” pp 35, pp 36, pp 97 Routledge, Great Britain

Smith, Grover, 1950 “TS Eliot’s Poetry and Plays A Study in Sources and Meanings”, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London

The Oxford English Dictionary, Collins, 2nd edition, 2005

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