Dr. Jake York
13 May 2004
They forget to breathe. They are paralyzed. They scoff. They are grinning cryptically. They are confused. They exhale. They are the readers of The Waste Land. They have heard much, know less and depending on their state of mind desire more or keep Eliot’smasterwork (so some have said) far away from their hands and eyes. Much has been written on The Waste Land and the old phrase “it has all been done before” rings some seriously loud bells. However, while many criticisms and analyses of Eliot’s poem have, in my opinion, hit home in a variety of ways there is something left untouched, unlit. Eliot’s work often presents to us an implicit searching oran explicit journey. Between these works many delightful connections can be made, but the works as a whole can be seen as one continuous journey for Eliot himself; an arc that sees the poet searching, discovering and persevering. This arc, simplified, starts with Prufrock, turns at Waste Land, and ends with the Four Quartets. When viewing Eliot’s work in this fashion, each work consequently canbe realized as a step before or a step after other works.
The Waste Land is certainly the most popular of his works, and with popularity has come difficulty. I do not wish to discuss at length the seemingly endless interpenetration of Eliot’s poems (from beginning to end), but only to examine The Waste Land as it may be understood through various connections with Prufrock and The Four Quartets.The Waste Land is divided into five sections, each of which present one aspect or point on that arc/search/journey that lies solely within the poem itself; a sort of micro-arc as compared to the macro-arc that covers all of Eliot’s works. Examining these fives sections, their relation to each other, and their relation to other TSE poems, we dig up the realization of The Waste Land’s appeal foran imposition of order upon a disordered and fragmented reality so as each self and voice will understand (or begin to understand) the necessity that all desires be suspended except the desire for self-surrender, bringing the beginning of peace and what Eliot calls the “painful task of unifying.”
“The Burial of the Dead” begins the plunge into Eliot’s wasteland. It is a wasteland of voices,characters, realities, memories and experiences. It is a wasteland of disorder. It is a wasteland, of desire. This first section of the poem presents the idea of a world remaining in a disordered reality. Even in the first line we see the reversal of the world and reality: “April is the cruelest month.” Spring is not, as Cummings referred to it, the “omnipotent goddess,” and winter takes itsplace as that season which “kept us warm” (l. 5). Winter also is the season that causes the inhabitants of the wasteland to forget (l. 6) about the real reality; a reality of order.
The reality, which Eliot presents to us, lacks order in one sense because of it being fragmented and disorganized. It begins in the present tense (“April is the cruelest month”), then shifts to the past (kept,surprised, went, stopped etc.), then shifts back to the present, “I read, much of the night” (l.18). The characters and voices change at random, and through this fragmentation Eliot brings us into the poem and the wasteland. We are faced with disorder, not knowing who is who, where is when and when is what. All we know is that there are voices and “a heap of broken images” (l. 22).
As the sectioncontinues we see that these people are “neither/ Living nor dead” (l. 39-40), and that death has undone them (l. 63). As Eliot and those tiny friends we call footnotes tell us, this refers to Dante’s Inferno (particularly to the first circle of Dante’s hell, Limbo). Now our perception of the wasteland is furthered and we see it as an inferno or hell of sorts. Dante and this idea specifically...