Fragmented Echoes of Modernity

By: Michael Schmalz

Fragmented Echoes of Modernity

The Historical Undercurrents in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste

T.S. Eliot’s poem "The Waste Land"
is a complex and multilayered work that defies straightforward interpretation,
featuring a fragmented narrative structure, a dizzying array of literary
allusions and references, and a range of voices and perspectives. Void-less,
grasping rubble that resembles once-greatly erected halls, T.S. Eliot scours
the inarticulation which endures in the experiences of ‘The Lost Generation’
that subsequently arrive in London after the First World War. Embedded within
the landscape of urban alienation is a reluctance to change, rooted in a weary
and decaying cultural framework whose fragments form the very fabric of this
new generation. The only viable solution suggested by Eliot to the societal
malaise and disillusionment is personal evaluation. 

Eliot situates the poem in five stages, each
a progression of the latter that thoroughly calculates the extensive effects
and real repercussions of WW1.  The
Burial of the Dead, Eliot’s first stage, enters readers into a paradoxical
nature, exclaiming that “April,” a traditional symbol of rebirth and renewal in
nature, “is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
/ Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain" (Eliot lines
1-4). To Eliot and many others during this time, April reintroduces painful
memories, recognizing that blossoms no longer hold a place in a world dominated
by the bleak ‘dead land’ and wishing the ‘dull roots’ would remain concealed.
Later, the speaker hauntingly inquires how “death had undone so many” as they
gaze at a crowd, discerning immovable inertia, an industrialized and
disillusioned society shattered by the war, left questioning the ideals of the
Enlightenment and the fundamental values of Western civilization. (63).
Exploring the devastating effects of war, Eliot elicits historical
ramifications, particularly the scourge of post-traumatic stress disorder, as
illustrated in a scenario where the speaker encountered a fellow soldier and,
in a desperate attempt to connect, “stopped him, crying: Stetson! / You who
were with me in the ships at Mylae” (69-70). Despite their shared experiences,
the soldiers are unable to bridge the chasm of trauma that plagues them,
highlighting the profound psychological toll of war. 

The second, third, and fourth stages of
Eliot's “The Waste Land” serve as a transitional interlude between the initial
devastation of war and the buoyant future, delving deeper into the initial
themes of societal decay and the drowning out of cultural norms. “A Game of Chess”
centers primarily on the erosion of masculinity and the breakdown of
interpersonal relationships and communication within society. As two women
engage in a heated argument about their respective marriages, the bartender
interjects with an innocuous announcement of "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS
TIME," serving as a dual-purpose prompt for the women to depart while
simultaneously functioning as a symbolic catalyst for personal awakening and
self-expression, elements conspicuously vacant in the climate of the Lost Generation.
(141). The bartender's descent from the scene, punctuated with a polite
"good night" to the "sweet ladies," alludes to the tragic
figure of Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet, evoking a sense of a timeless, yet
futile, struggle for identity and meaning in a society that lacks room for such
pursuits (172). "The Fire Sermon" delves into the themes of sexuality
and desire, presenting a fragmented and disjointed series of images that
reflect the emotional emptiness and alienation prevalent in modern relationships.
Drawing from Buddhist philosophy, Eliot utilizes the concept of the "fire
sermon" to emphasize the fleeting and unsatisfying nature of all human
experiences. Conversely, "Death by Water" presents a brief and
ambiguous contemplation on the inevitability of death and the power of the
natural world, symbolizing the futility of human endeavors in the face of
mortality.  The interplay of the five
stages culminates in a striking and poignant representation of the
disintegration of society and the existential turmoil that followed the
catastrophic upheavals of World War I.

 In a
world characterized by "a heap of broken images" and "a dead
tree giving no shelter," hope is nonexistent (22-23). All constantly seek
release from this wasteland, yet the solution remains eluded. However, Eliot
introduces a triangular notion, "DA," through the symbolic thunder,
which offers a means of escape from the despair of the wasteland (401). The
thunder initiates his message: 

Datta: what have we given?
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms (402-410)

The concept of "Datta" espouses the idea that
the act of giving should extend beyond the transitory and superficial exchanges
of modern society. Eliot emphasizes the necessity of bestowing something of
lasting value, free from the fleeting and ephemeral nature of everyday
encounters. A life of prudence and calculated caution yields little lasting
significance, thereby urging individuals to contemplate the mark they leave on
the world. Through this thunderous proclamation, intangible experiences remain
superior over the accumulation of material possessions. The thunder continues: 

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus

The concept conveyed by Dayadhvam is one of empathy,
suggesting that individuals are often confined by their self-imposed
limitations, and continuously reinforced by our persistent fixation on the
notion of a key as a means of escape. However, true liberation can only be
achieved through a deep understanding and connection with one another rather
than the mere acquisition of material objects or individualistic pursuits. The
thunder serves as a prophetic call to action, urging individuals to break free
from their barriers and engage in a more profound sense of social connections,
thereby transcending the limitations of the modern world. The thunder

Damyata: The boat responded
to the hand expert with sail and oar
sea was calm, your heart would have responded
when invited, beating obedient
controlling hands (419-423)

In advocating for surrender, Damyata urges us to
relinquish our perceived control over our lives and trust in the guidance of
external forces. This trust calls for a sense of resignation and acceptance of
fate, allowing us to be led on a path that we may not have chosen. Such
surrender may seem counterintuitive, but it ultimately liberates us from the
limitations of our individualistic mentality and opens the possibility of a
greater collective consciousness. Only through this extraneous navigation can
we be led to freedom and fulfillment. As the thunderous message of Eliot's
triptych reverberates through the wasteland, the poem's themes of
disillusionment, decay, and despair become susceptible to reconstruction. With
his final utterance of "Shantih shantih shantih," Eliot beseeches a
higher spiritual plane that dissipates the deleterious encounters of the
physical world (434). The poem concludes with a call to the rediscovery of the
path of faith and asceticism in order to triumph over division and
estrangement. By emphasizing the importance of inner transformation and the
pursuit of spiritual fulfillment, Eliot suggests that redemption and healing
are still possible, even in a world that seems irreparably mangled.

Conclusively, T.S. Eliot's "The Waste
Land" is a masterful and intricate work of poetry that delves deeply into
the modern world’s societal, cultural, and psychological dislocation. Through
its chronological structure and variance of literary allusions and references,
the poem evokes the disillusionment and despair of a generation traumatized by
the devastation of World War I. Despite the destruction and chaos of the
wasteland, Eliot introduces his notion of “Da” as a means of escape from
despair. Ultimately, Eliot calls for introspection and personal transformation
as a means of confronting disillusionment.

Work Cited

Eliot, T.S. "The Waste Land." The Norton
Anthology of English Literature,
edited by   Stephen
Greenblatt, 10th ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp.           1326-   1339.