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Reflecting Reality: Correlation Between Form and Intended Meaning in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

October 2001

“Do You know nothing? Do you see nothing?
Do you remember Nothing?”- (121-4)

T.S. Eliot, within The Waste Land’s overt and more subtle points of construction, reveals the distinct paradigm through which he views the post-war, modern segment of the 20th century. These aspects of the poem’s construction, lending to it an obscurity and a powerful remoteness, are deeply intertwined with the poem’s meaning. Through the use of multiple narrative voices and styles, obscure allusions and references, and isolated segments of narration, Eliot is able to make covert yet potent statements on the state of affairs and the generally unwell collective unconscious of the society in which he lived. This symbiosis between form and meaning is an undeniably influential one, and has contributed greatly to the poem’s prominence and long-standing significance in the literary canon.

This waste land is so compelling precisely because it is not utterly devoid of meaning or promise. There is unrelentingly violent and quietly persistent hope at work in this place of desolation and loneliness. Each character is living his or her individual story, in isolation, yet all of these stories and characters become a united representation of the collective disconnection of a culture as a whole. Paradoxically, then, the unified isolation and alienation of this waste land results in a community of sorts, yet a not desirable one.

Each of these pseudo-individual characters is ultimately only able to explain, justify and create his or her world through their own selves and perceptions, however weak and disjointed these “selves” may be. Through this restriction, humanity becomes isolated from a fiercely honest sense of community and connection with one another. Meaning has been stripped. Consequently, historical, societal, and personal existence began to be shaped by and filtered through seemingly individual perceptions, to a great extent. The internal and the external become one.

April, as the poem’s beginning attests, is “the cruelest month” (1), a paradox when contrasted with the traditional view of spring’s potential for regeneration and beauty. However, in the waste land, April is cruel because it brings lilacs, stirring “memory and desire” (3), bringing feelings of hope and possibility to those who were contented with winter’s sensations of death and dullness, feeding graciously off of the small yet unquestioned pittance of “dried tubers” (7). The lilacs burst through, whether or not they are consciously coveted or sought out, and, correspondingly, human emotions rupture forth, disturbing these characters’ preconceptions and the typical manner of life amongst the broken images and damaged spirits of the waste land.

Here is introduced the unexpected pain: it is more favorable, less lacerating and less destructive to remain in a metaphorical state of sleep, to abide under a covering of snow, literal or otherwise, than to be born into this land seemingly bankrupt of meaning and purpose. Here, there “is no water but only rock” (331), and “there is not even silence in the mountains/ But dry sterile thunder without rain” (341-2). The land’s dire lack of water and dying, infertile nature parallels its collective lack of meaning and soul; neither genuine human connection nor water are able to satiate The Waste Land’s characters. The descriptions of the landscape tie in with a sense of isolation. Ultimately, the metaphorical “birth” required by the regeneration of all literal and symbolic aspects of the waste land requires growth and openness to change, and the characters of The Waste Land, with nothing left in which they perceive they may believe or trust, have neither energy nor enthusiasm to spare. Complacency has become the comfortable norm. Very little remains in which to trust.

The land and its qualities are direct statements of Eliot’s/the speaker’s views on the collective condition of this waste land. Water, and what it symbolizes, is coveted yet simultaneously feared. The land is dry, “the sun beats/…the dry stone no sound of water” (22, 24). However, concurrently, a sense of hope, however faint, is detailed in the speaker’s directive to “come in under the shadow of this red rock” (26), where “something different” (27) is available. This difference is “fear in a handful of dust” (30), the recognition of and acceptance of the inevitability of one’s own mortality, and the human emotions such a recognition brings. It is this adaptation which allows for the true appreciation of life. “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” (404), represented in the speaker’s experience with “the hyacinth girl” (37), allows a glimpse of the “awful” sense of intensity and meaning possible when surrendering to human fervor, temporality, and the potentiality for growth. This “unreal city” (60), in which isolated characters walk “fix[ing] [their] eyes before [their] feet” (65), can only be disturbed by the abdication of isolation and the submission to intensity, if only for a moment. The final line in “The Burial of the Dead” has the speaker reminding the poem’s readers that they are being directly addressed: “You! Hypocrite lecteur—mon semblable, mon frere!” (76). This is a waste land each individual carries within and sees surrounding themselves. It is omnipresent but not finally inescapable.

The premiere character in “A Game of Chess”, the lady with synthetic perfumes who awaits her lover, is draped in a portent of potential rape. The use of the Philomel story (99), illustrates the isolation and danger in her situation. Because of the blatant miscommunication between her lover and herself, nothing is resolved or analyzed. These characters will not say what they truly feel, and, consequently, the barrier between their selves is never removed. Similarly, in “The Fire Sermon”, the “unreal city” (207), is again invoked and symbolized through the blind prophet Tiresias’ vision of the typist and her distanced and apathetic encounter with the “young man carbuncular” (231). Although engaged in superficial intimacy, each remains isolated within their individual “prison” (414), in which “indifference” (242) is welcomed. When their moment is finished, she can only think “well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (252). This is a desire devoid of emotion, reciprocation, or connection; each refuses to join with the other, out of fear of what the potential emotions might change in their lives.

The most distinct warning of the poem, addressed both to these characters and to the poem’s readers, occurs in “Death by Water”. The tale of Phlebas the Phoenician works to illustrate the inevitability of death; the speaker wishes to remind the readers that they, too, are like Phlebas, “who was once handsome and tall as you” (321-2). Yet, even if these characters were able to accept their own mortality and open themselves up to the awareness and intensity of life such an acceptance could help bring about, there is still an external wasteland with which they must grapple.

The alarming nature of this external reality is impossible to escape: “there is not even solitude in the mountains/ But red sullen faces sneer and snarl” (343-4). When rain finally arrives, it immediately becomes impossible to return to the previous state of total aridity and emptiness. Each individual “thinks of the key, each in his prison” (415), illustrating the only kind of community permitted in a state of collective isolation. Yet, it is a sense of fellowship, however fragile and warped it may be. Miniscule reflections of optimism and potential abound.

Yet, nothingness resonates throughout The Waste Land. The chapel at which the speaker finally arrives is “empty…only the wind’s home” (389). Yet, there is, within this land, an inescapable and ultimate sense of hope. Hope, like rain and lilacs, comes whether the characters consciously desire it or not. Although fragmentary and disconnected, Eliot could not have constructed or presented this poem any other way. Allowing an almost miniscule but undeniably present sense of expectancy and longing to peer through the cracked and fragmentary experience that is reading The Waste Land, Eliot is able to intrigue its readers and illustrate hope in the face of ultimate, yet changeable, vacancy and emptiness.

Eliot conceived and produced this poem amid the bizarrely new and disjointed world of post-war world, of revolution, skepticism, and collective paradigm shifting. It was (and perhaps still is) a world in which the unquestioned becomes questioned and the metaphorical “chapel” for which we have been searching throughout our entire existences is, finally “empty” (Traversi 50). The readers are left, ultimately, with a feeling of nothingness: a nihilistic and existential dilemma only ameliorated by each individual’s theoretical possibilities for personal control and order. A small yet persistent hope for the future bursts through the symbolic land like lilacs, seemingly unwanted but simultaneously comforting and staggering, none the less. It is this prospect and expectancy which keeps the characters of this waste land and our waste land existing through times of flood and dry seasons, always waiting for the next hyacinth girl to appear from the garden.

Extended themes and allegorical explorations typically involved in Eliot’s poetic work are also present in The Wasteland, including isolation, desolation, the use of the external to explain and reflect the internal. However, The Wasteland takes these themes and inquiries further and towards a new end, using their subtexts and atmospheres of desolation and isolation as an impetus for and as the ingredients in a seemingly necessary and new mythology within which the poet of Eliot’s cultural landscape can operate and create. Eliot, aware that, unlike in earlier literary and sociocultural periods, a common mythology upon and in which a poet could create and flourish did not exist, Eliot decided to author one.

However, he understood that the few potent symbols that remained accessible and available to the modern individual were both subjective and painfully and particularly personal, not external and widespread, but internal and intimately one’s own. Instead of the common acceptance of the previous assumption of external objectivity and truth, the outside world is now fundamentally shaped and transformed and created by each individual’s internal world and perceptions. Yet, a cyclical and seemingly inescapable pattern emerges: the inner world shapes the outside, yet it is impossible for an individual to be unaffected by the culture and soul of the society in which he or she lives. Reflecting the theme of the external reflecting the internal, this waste land is primarily dead, yet lilacs burst through, perhaps unwanted, yet not unneeded. It is easier for these characters to live without hope, beauty, or regeneration. To admit the existence of hope and potentiality would require the abandonment of the utter desolation that has become a comfortable if stifling blanket under which they may exist. The internal and external world of these characters combine to create a compelling realm, one with which we are able to empathize and hope for primarily because it is not entirely filled with desolation. There is hope, inside and outside. If there were not, this created world would not be nearly as interesting to its readers. In a like manner, Eliot, laying bare his vision of the world surrounding him, is able to reflect his reality without expressing utter pessimism on the topic. It is the hope, not the waste, that makes us return to this poem again and again.

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