T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land As A Modernist Poem

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The era of modernism is a response to societal shake-up, the belief of a fragmented life, the sense of isolation, and a time for artistic challenges. I believe that The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot is a perfect manifestation of the tendencies of this era. The Waste Land explores the turmoil in society following World War I that include society’s sentiments of fragmentation and loss. The poem also structurally challenges art by defying traditional writing methods which were held by the Victorians. The Waste Land is considered one of the most quintessential poems of the modernist era and is the epitome of modernism. As stated by Ezra Pound, an infamous and influential poet who helped revise The Waste Land, “Eliot’s Waste Land is I think the justification of the ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment, since 1900.”

The Waste Land would prove useful in discussing how modernist poets were beginning to respond and what they were feeling following World War I. The poem additionally introduces various themes like sex, fertility, and rebirth, all of which could be included to the modernist topic. The poem provides an interesting way in analyzing the effects of war with its inclusion of multiple perspectives and voices so that fragmentation and loss could be expressed in different ways. One example that could be used to show this is in section two, A Game of Chess, starting at “My nerves are bad tonight…” to “…waiting for a knock upon the door.” This conversation, between what we assume is man and wife, illustrates the confusion and emptiness that was brought by the war. The war left many questioning “what shall we ever do?” in their lives in the face of existential crisis. This example is one of many throughout The Waste Land that clearly portrays an ideal representation of fragmentation and is enough to prove The Waste Land’s effectiveness for expressing modernism.

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The Waste Land would also prove to be an idyllic poem to include for the modernist topic because it challenges tradition of art. Not only does The Waste Land thematically relate to modernism, but the structure of the poem also represents modernist ideology. It does so by challenging traditional writing structure carried over by the Victorians. Instead of a strict and concise structure, the poem follows the structure of the mythic method which served as a newfound way in which writers could narrate their literature. As Eliot said, it was “a step toward making the modern world possible for art…” in a time where the role of art in society was questioned. The mythical method was used in Ulysses, another famous modern work, by James Joyce, and mentioned in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. Both were influential writers in the modernist era who contributed to Eliot’s inspiration for The Waste Land. This structure is a large reason as to why the poem is considered a revolutionary modern work. I believe that in general, with its addition to structure, the mythic method would be a relevant topic to talk about because, in this era “the task of the modern artist is to convert the individual and the bourgeois in to the typical and the mythical.” Without the mythic method, the entire structure of The Waste Land could have been completely different and, maybe, not even as modern as it is.

Furthermore, another way The Waste Land could be used to show how tradition was being challenged would be through the poems inclusion of language using Italian, German, French and Sanskrit. In relation to modernism, the poems inclusion of different languages played on the fact that the readers had forgotten the past and were left without the knowledge to understand because of World War I. This further emphasized the themes of modernism. The Waste Land also has a variety of allusions to other literature. Using the amount of allusion that Eliot did, The Waste Land again defies traditional structure. An example here can be found in A Game of Chess. Here, The Waste Land alludes “Metamorphoses” by Ovid in the lines “yet there the nightingale filled all the desert with inviolable voice…’Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.” By alluding this text Eliot further emphasizes loss of knowledge, the inability to understand or speak and is able to connect a past occurrence with a present occurrence.

I think that reading The Waste Land gives us a deeper understanding of the modernist movement and what challenges society was facing. There is a lot more that can be unpacked from The Waste Land than what I mentioned in this paper. The Waste Land allows us to see how Eliot, as a leading modernist and influential writer, integrated allusions, mythology, parallels to past and present, religion and more to highlight the effects on society and man from World War I.


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