Thursday, December 8, 2011

About The Wasteland

Eliot's The Wasteland is a complex poem, obviously. It has a difficult time in the master's literature classroom. It comes from an era of war and turmoil, which is hard for the reader to imagine vividly today.

At that time, the old European order seemed on the verge of a drastic change, perhaps dissolution, to be replaced by a new politics of military warfare. The aristocracy was putrefying and war was propagated by "Democracy", "Imperialism" and "International Wrong" (Auden). Never had so many lives been sacrificed to war before the beginning of the twentieth century. WWI was the first time that aeroplanes were deployed for combat; it was the first war in which the convention of no-fighting-after-sunset was disbanded; the world had never seen such weaponry before. Everything changed in the inter-war period and human life was uncertain like never before. The Wasteland comes from this uncertainty, this lack of solid ground. No reader today can trace that terminal feeling in the inter-war years.

What I dislike about The Wasteland is its obscurity and its allusiveness. What I like about The Wasteland is the subtle morbidity with which it brings alive the spectre of certain death. Death is so ghostly, so intangible in the poem, and yet so certain. Death is not an idea, it is people. Marie, Stetson, Lil, Albert, Ferdinand, Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician Sailor, all embody death in their own ways. What I also like about the poem is its treatment of the frustration of desire. Desire, in an age of mortality and war, is impotent. Tiresias, the old visionary with wrinkled female dugs, the futile meeting of lovers - Eliot's images of desire in the time of war are overshadowed by the threat of failure.

I thought The Wasteland was complex when taught in class, because of the focus on annotations, but looked at otherwise, in the privacy of your reading time, as a poem emerging from the anxiety of living in a time of unprecedented violence, it is a very emotive poem.

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