One of the cleverest attributes of T. S. Eliot’s iconic poem The Waste Land is the tension between the chaos of its textural surface and the order of its underlying structure. This tension perches the poem precariously between the World Wars, as on the one hand it frets over the loss of unity that art and mythology provide—focusing on the ruin of society, and the “modern” ascendency of meaninglessness—and, on the other, anticipates (some might argue overmuch) the “aestheticization of politics” tendered by fascism and the second World War. Perhaps this is the reason there is so much critical ambivalence toward the poem. The period between the wars, in Eliot’s estimation, resembles the blighted earth after trench warfare, psychologically barren and devoid of pleasure, for the poem’s characters certainly, but also, maybe, for its readers. But look closer: What appears at first to be a trash heap of the useless shards of Western Civilization—used in the deployment of a meaningless irony so in step with interbellum fashions—becomes, under scrutiny, the attempt to resurrect our old coordinating myths and belief systems. These fragments, “shored against [our] ruins” (Eliot 42), become a radical innovation: A Modernist clockwork that serves to reinstate a more organic cultural grand narrative—that advocates for a synthesis of tradition and modernity.
Many readers don’t—or can’t—get past the poem’s surface. In “The Waste Land Reconsidered,” Lewis Turco describes his first reaction to the poem: it “seemed obscure, confusing, pretentious, pompous, artsy-craftsy” (289). This perfectly describes my own initial reaction to it, and the reaction of students and critics everywhere. Why jumble all this high and low art into such a senseless mess? Why create this modern-day Babel of monuments, images, and languages unless to showcase one’s own erudition and critical (rather than poetic) sensibility? The young Turco describes his reaction to Eliot’s endnotes: “What kind of poem needed all these notes to explain it? If Eliot were a poet, not a scholar, wouldn’t he have put the information of the notes into the poem?” (289). Indeed. In similar vein, in “Withered Stumps of Time: The Waste Land and Mythic Disillusion,” R. V. Young writes that the poem strikes “most readers as a defiant, outré assault by a modish cynic on all the decencies of English literature and society” (24). But, like me, Turco and Young reappraise the poem from the vantage of greater age. Turco concludes that the poem’s power lies in its symphonic sweep, in the music of its syntax, a collaboration between Eliot and Pound that credits il meglior fabbro for the poem’s artistic success. My reassessment lies closer to Young’s. What coordinates this poem beneath its fractured surface is its almost Romantic longing for spiritual fulfillment and religious salvation. “Despite its ‘modernist’ techniques,” says Young, “the poem implies a prophetic denunciation of the secularism, rationalism, and materialism of the modern era” (25). Though Eliot’s own conversion to Christianity was years off, we can see his thirst for it here, exemplified literally by the emotionally sere, secular desert of post-war Europe, for “Here is no water but only rock… / There is not even silence in the mountains / but dry sterile thunder without rain” (40).
Yes, The Waste Land is barren and joyless. But Eliot encrypts the solution to this barrenness interstitially within the text. In virtually every passage, every image of the emotionless clinging to “winter,” deserts, and interior deadness is set against its antidote. The abovementioned quotation, for instance, though it comes later in the text, is reversed by this:
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising before you (Eliot 31-2).
A familiarity with the bible is needed to fully decode this passage. There is the Messianic prophesy of Isaiah as explained in the endnotes, but one might also know that “Adam,” in Hebrew, means “red earth/dust” and that Jesus Christ is known as the “second Adam,” and also as a “rock or stone.” Someone hidden is pointing the way out of our morass. Salvation is possible, but unavailable—indeed invisible—says Young, “to those who prefer winter to April” (27). Similarly, Madame Sosostris, “the wisest woman in Europe,” wields a “wicked pack of cards,” (Eliot 32) and her Tarot cards clearly contain wisdom. Her cards presage some events in the poem (such as the drowned sailor with pearls for eyes). But, slick and superstitious, she lacks the sight to read them, and her customers aren’t looking for truth anyway. She is ultimately blocked from finding “The Hanged Man,” the point of access to sight—and to grace. In Acts 5:30 of the King James Bible, Jesus is referred to as “Hanged on a Tree.” Unable to see beneath the surface of her cards to their emotional Truth, the cynical Modernist Madame Sosotris can nevertheless see the suffering around her: she sees people “walking round in a ring,” evoking the antechamber of Dante’s Inferno, where, in Young’s words, “those who were neither good nor evil spend eternity going around in a futile circle” (27). The characters that people this poem lack true sight, but the key to their salvation is all around them—all around us. Eliot himself backs up this claim in a later work, “Notes Toward a Christian Society,” in which he claims that industrialization creates men and women who are “detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob” (17), similar to the mob crossing London bridge in fog, or Sosostris’ shuffling circle (Eliot 32). Salvation is non-rational, bearing more in common with myth than fact. Modernism is concerned merely with fact and empiricism. If we blind ourselves to our non-rational traditions, we can see the world, but we can't feel it. We might gain some insight about how to read this poem if we harness some of Joseph Campbell’s observations about myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source” (4). Eliot makes observations about the dire, Godless state of postwar Europe, but he also alludes to the “germs” (or perhaps the “tubers”) that might save us, so long as we aren’t ruled solely by Modernist individualism and rationality.
For clarification about how the poem’s tension between structure and chaos works upon our psyches, we might look to Frederic Jameson’s genre theory. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Jameson proposes two approaches to genre: a semantic read of genre concerns the essence, or core, of that genre, the production of a set of feelings and sensations each genre sets out to create (tragedy makes us feel pity, terror, and catharsis; comedy makes us laugh; etc.) A syntactic read of genre concerns the surface trappings, the bells and whistles that signal to us, the readers and audiences, what kind of story we are reading or watching, conventions to which we are highly, if unconsciously, attuned (104). What distresses us is a discordance between these two generic categories. The Waste Land can be understood as intentionally throwing semantic and syntactic genre into the blender. The poem is semantically cohesive, syntactically fragmented. Built upon a bedrock of tradition, it employs Modernist tropes—not in order to advocate for Modernism but to combat it. Eliot’s realism does not serve to advance the cause of realism, as we have come to expect Modernist poetry to do. Rather, his opus harkens back to the lost and largely denigrated genre of romance. Where Modernism is cynical, romance is idealistic. As Jameson notes,
Romance is a wish-fulfillment or Utopian fantasy which aims at the transfiguration of the world of everyday life in such a way as to restore the condition of some lost Eden, or to anticipate a future realm from which the old morality and imperfections will have been effaced (110).
Why would Eliot blend categories like this, hiding a romance within Modernist trappings? Why might he create a text full of “The ruins of a monument, still noble and radiating significance” (Young 25) without explicating that significance? Eliot uses the idiom of his day to escape the trap of his day: his lost Eden is still out there, but we can't get back to the ignorance of the garden, and nor should we. But we also can't forget the garden. The waste land is real, but realism—mere observation—is not cutting it, spiritually: The City of Man, which worships human self-sufficiency, still cannot erase the old coordinating myths that allow us to see past our own shadows, that bubble up among the dry rocks if we do not blind ourselves to them. For, says Young, “To escape the waste land means learning to live in it without being its subject or citizen” (35). We live in Modernism, but we have the romantic tools all around us to forge a new way. Jameson, too, remarks on the insufficiency of realism as a Modernist tool:
The ideal of realism is a narrative discourse which in one form or another unites the experience of daily life with a properly cognitive, mapping, or well-nigh scientific perspective. Yet in the context of late capitalism, realism loses much of its ability to come to grips with various differential layers of the real. That is, it has undergone a gradual reification in late capitalism. It is in this context that romance, as often opposed to the realist ethos that has turned restrictive and repressive, comes to be felt as the place of narrative heterogeneity and of freedom from the reality principle (104).
Modernism is excellent at observing misery and deconstructing the human condition. But it has no power to reconstruct. The Waste Land argues that we should not abandon our old tools while integrating the honesty and brutality of Modernism into our way of thinking about our world. The syntactic and the semantic genres of the poem do not agree, but maybe they should. Maybe a synthesis of Modernist and traditional modes is what is required.
Modernism is a great observer. Emerging from advances in science, the rise of Darwin and Freud, it provides us to the tools to see the world as it is. But it doesn’t quite offer us a way to change our lot, and that, Eliot suggests, is what is hurting us. Perhaps this is why, as a product of my age, I have come to appreciate the tension between form and content in Eliot’s poem. While I still feel alienated at times by the obscurity of his references, by the vertigo-inducing non-sequiturs and mish-mash of high and low art, by his pretentions and digressions, I still see this poem as a largely idealistic and hopeful work of prescience and yearning. I, too, share Eliot’s longing for a coordinated world in which we can see past the shadow that rises out of men to the architecture of an older, more ordered universe. We can use those old fragments, it’s true, paired with Modernism’s keen observation and adherence to truth, to shore against our ruins.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton UP, 1973.
Eliot, T. S. Christianity and Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1949.
Eliot, T. S. The Wasteland, Prufrock, and Other Poems. Dover Publications, 1998, pp. 31-42.
Jamison, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1981.
Turco, Lewis. “The Waste Land Reconsidered.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 289-95.
Young, R. V. “The Withered Stumps of Time: The Waste Land and Mythic Disillusion.” Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2002, pp. 24-36.