Clarity vs. Obscurity: Eliot's Masks
T.S. Eliot means many things to many different people. Like Yeats he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the academy he numbers among the titans of twentieth-century poetry, with The Waste Land hailed as the epic of our age, the twentieth-century equivalent of Homer or Milton. No study of twentieth-century poetry or literature more generally would be complete without him.
Importantly, Eliot ranks unusually high in esteem among conservatives, more so than perhaps any other purely twentieth-century poet. Roger Kimball titled his conservative literary review The New Criterion after Eliot’s review. And Russell Kirk, the godfather of mid-Twentieth Century American conservatism, placed Eliot squarely within the tradition of conservative thought harkening back to Edmund Burke. Kirk calls Eliot “the dominant poet of the twentieth century – who, with reason, saw himself in the line of Vergil and Dante,” and who “stood up conspicuously as a defender of norms in culture and in the civil social order.” (Kirk, p. 494.)
There can be no doubt Eliot defended social order. In his essays he decried rejection of authority as “whiggery” and defended the idea of a social order founded on Christian dogma. (See, § II, infra.) And these views are manifested in his poems. The Waste Land, his magnum opus, is an extended lament for the social order and cohesion destroyed in the First World War.
But these sentiments as they appear in his poetry are just that: sentiments – impressions, not ideas. Indeed, Eliot the poet actively shunned any expression of ideas in his poetry. Eliot the critic affirmed this, writing “for a poet to be also a philosopher, he would have to be virtually two men; . . . the work is better performed inside two skulls than one.” (See, § II, infra.) Thus, Eliot the poet consciously structured his poems to convey only an image or impression, and one that would vary according to each reader. In addressing how to interpret his own works, Eliot the critic wrote, “I am no better qualified to say No! [to any interpretation] than is any other reader.” (See, § II, infra.) This is the essence of modernism: conveying value-neutral impressions for the reader to process, not conveying ideas to elevate the reader’s mind.
In this sense, Eliot the poet is a wearer of different masks, a projector of variegated images for the world to process as it saw fit. And the world obliges, seeing many things in each of his poems. This is what Eliot wanted. But what lies beneath the projections? What is the substance behind the images? Eliot in his essays is clear that a gnawing nihilism underpins his entire worldview. To say Eliot was a nihilist is not to say he embraced nihilism. Quite the contrary. Eliot gives the impression of one who deeply desires a transcendent truth, but is too erudite to bring himself to believe in it. He yearns for a transcendence that he knows all intelligent people do not believe exists. This conflict between desire and worldview plays out as irony, which Eliot wore as a sign of sophistication.
This essay will explore this aspect of Eliot’s poetry, first by a detailed analysis of his theories on poetry as detailed in his copious essays, and second by an analysis of how these poetics are manifested in the construction of The Waste Land.
But the purpose of this essay is not to tear down a revered figure. There is already too much of that these days. Rather, it is to pierce beyond the mask of individual images and impressions that Eliot constructed, and gaze into the void at the heart of his work. Knowing the truth of Eliot’s poetry and understanding it for what it is, we should neither deride nor dismiss him. Rather, we can learn from his example and more honestly approach his work, twentieth-century poetry, and poetry more generally, and determine what purposes poetry should serve and what ideals it should hold.
Eliot’s biography is of limited use in analyzing Eliot’s poetry. Eliot took great pains to keep his private life out of his work and even left instructions that a biography should not be written about him. (Spender, p. 15.) It would be wrong to read too much of Eliot’s personal life into his poetry when he consciously kept the two separate.
Eliot was, however, a prolific author of criticism, and left a copious amount of essays on poetic theory, style, and technique, in which he unreservedly outlined his opinions. Unlike his biography, these shed generous light on Eliot’s poetics, and from them we may gain a deep understanding of what motivated Eliot as a poet.
Most significantly, Eliot’s essays outline several analyses or “metaphors” for the process that creates a poem. (Spender, p. 70.) The first of these is Eliot’s famous theory of the “objective correlative” for the expression of emotion in poetry, and in art more generally:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
(Eliot, “Hamlet,” p. 58.) Although the older Eliot pretended not to know what the younger Eliot meant by it, the “objective correlative” holds that the process that produces a poem is no more than a mechanism of poetic inevitability. (Spender, pp. 70-71.)
A “mechanism of inevitability” is an apt description of Eliot’s theory – Eliot himself describes it as a “formula” that links the sensory experience created by external facts with an internal emotion. Eliot’s emphasis on the particularity of the emotion invoked is twofold: first, the emotion is unique to the person feeling it; and second, it is inextricably linked to the series of external objects or events producing it. Thus the emotion is not universal; it can result only from a specific person experiencing specific events. A poem, then, is either accidental or fatalistic depending on one’s conception of the universe, and cannot come into being except within a particular poet experiencing particular external stimuli.
Another such “metaphor” for the poetic process appears in his 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets.” (Id., pp. 74-75.) There, Eliot discusses the poetic style of Donne, Marvell, and more obscure poets of the early seventeenth century. But after discussing them he comments: “something . . . happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet.” (Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” para. 7.) He explains:
Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experience are always forming new wholes.
(Id.) “The poets of the seventeenth century,” Eliot argues, “possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience,” and “[i]n the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered . . . .” (Id.) According to Eliot, Milton and Dryden aggravated that dissociation by writing so well that the loss of this sensibility in their works went unnoticed. (Id.) Thus, “while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude.” (Id.)
Another effect of Milton’s and Dryden’s influence, Eliot posits, is that “poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected.” (Id.) Eliot finds in Shelley’s “Triumph of Life” and Keats’s “Hyperion” “traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility,” but flippantly concludes, “Keats and Shelley died, and Tennyson and Browning ruminated.” (Id.)
Here Eliot expounds on his fundamental desire to separate poetry from philosophy. For Eliot, poetry is as direct as possible an expression of the sensory experience, and the previous two-and-a-half centuries of English poetry were a continuing deviation from that ideal. This separation of poetry and philosophy is a recurring theme in Eliot’s essays. Indeed, Eliot in his critical essays repeatedly emphasized that poetry and philosophy serve different purposes: poetry transforms ideas into objects of language; philosophy presents the logic of an abstract argument, and is better stated in prose. (Spender, pp. 27-28.) For Eliot, poetic craft suffers at the expense of expression of ideas, and vice versa. The two are mutually exclusive.
In another essay, Eliot stated directly: “for a poet to be also a philosopher, he would have to be virtually two men; . . . the work is better performed inside two skulls than one.” (Eliot, The Use of Poetry, pp. 98-99.) Combining the two was the source of what Eliot found to be defects in the works of the greatest poets. For Eliot, Coleridge was able to exercise the function of poet only at the expense of that of philosopher; Wordsworth failed to distinguish emotion from intuition; Shelley borrowed “shabby” ideas and “muddled” them with his intuitions; Goethe “dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.” (Id., p. 99.)
Here Eliot sees a fundamental conflict between craft and idea. For him, the former always suffers at the expense of the latter, and vice versa. And because philosophy dwells in the realm of prose, craft must always be the central concern of the poet to the exclusion of ideas.
Eliot’s special attention to Shelley and Keats in “The Metaphysical Poets” illustrates this view of craft and idea in further detail. While he acknowledged, “Shelley seems to have had to a high degree the unusual faculty of passionate apprehension of abstract ideas,” he concluded, “some of Shelley’s views I positively dislike, and that hampers my enjoyment of the poems in which they occur, and others seem to me so puerile that I cannot enjoy the poems in which they occur.” (Id., Eliot, The Use of Poetry, pp. 89-90, 91.) “And we must admit,” he added, “that Shelley’s finest long poems, as well as some of his worst, are those in which he took his ideas very seriously.” (Id., p. 93.)
In addressing “how far it is possible to enjoy Shelley’s poetry . . . without sharing his views and sympathies,” Eliot noted Coleridge’s remark that a “willing suspension of disbelief” accompanies much poetry and disapproved, saying that “the question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well.” (Id., p. 95.) However, if the question “unfortunately . . . does arise, either through the poet’s fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different activity.” (Id., pp. 95-96.)
He then concludes that his own “distaste . . . for Shelley’s poetry is not attributable to irrelevant prejudices or to a simple blind spot, but is due to a peculiarity in the poetry and not in the reader.” (Id., p. 96.) For Eliot, Shelley’s presentation of ideas in his poetry renders the poetry itself defective because the reader may find those ideas distasteful. In other words, the subjective reaction of the reader is an objective fault in the poem.
Eliot’s distaste for Shelley likely has less to do with what he would call Shelley’s obvious “whiggish” tendencies, but rather in their divergent views of the construction and function of poetry. In his introduction to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley describes his approach to composing the poem:
The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works (since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am willing that my readers should impute this singularity.
For Shelley, the power of poetic imagery derives from its universality in both the internal and external human experience, and finds its use among the Greek tragedians, Dante, and Shakespeare, whose tradition he seeks to emulate. To Eliot, however, such universality of ideas has no place in a poem. Poetry is strictly the individual reader’s impression of the written word. Ideas are not poetry, but philosophy. In this respect, Eliot is pitted against the entire Platonic tradition in both philosophy and art.
In contrast to Shelley, Eliot calls Keats a “great poet,” and distinguishes him from Shelley: “Wordsworth and Shelley both theorise. Keats has no theory, and to have formed one was irrelevant to his interests, and alien to his mind.” (Eliot, The Use of Poetry, pp. 100, 102.) According to Eliot, Keats “had no theories, yet in the sense appropriate to the poet.” (Id., p. 102.) Although he “had a ‘philosophic’ mind . . . [h]e was occupied only with the highest use of poetry.” (Id.) For Eliot, the virtue of Keats’s poetry lies in its supposed lack of any philosophic presentation and direct relation of the emotions stirred by sensory experience.
But elsewhere Eliot found defects in Keats’s poetry. Of the famous concluding line of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – Eliot wrote:
But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.
(Eliot, “Dante,” pp. 230-31.) The fault Eliot finds with this line goes beyond its mere presentation of a philosophical concept; rather, Eliot finds the line devoid of any meaning. But he deigns to “suppose that Keats meant something by it” and that Keats “would have repudiated” any accusation that it was a “pseudo-statement.” Thus he acknowledges that Keats was attempting to philosophize in the poem, but because he is unable to grasp the philosophy expounded, the poem itself is defective. This is consistent with his opinion of Shelley, except the individual reader’s incomprehension instead of his disagreement renders the poem itself objectively defective.
This assertion may also come as something of a surprise from an avowed Christian. Eliot’s religious views, however, are consistent with his professed unfamiliarity with truth, and merit some examination here. Eliot was raised in the liberal Unitarian faith, and after deep study and interest in Buddhism became a High-Church Anglican in 1927, to the ridicule of his literary circle, particularly Virginia Woolf. (Spender, pp. 7, 20, 48, 134.) “For Eliot, religion meant the submission of the individual to the idea of the absolute imposed as dogma,” and ritual was the means by which the past connected to the present. (Id., p. 7.) In his own articulation of his views on the role of Christianity in society, Eliot said:
To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion; and we may reflect, that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality—the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.
(Eliot, “The Idea,” para. 1.) Put in other words, “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” (Id., para. 6.) For Eliot, enthusiasm, or zeal, is divorced from faith. Indeed, religion itself is less about faith than about dogma. Dogma, not faith, regulates society according to a coherent, self-perpetuating natural order:
This view of universal order is utilitarian rather than transcendent. Truth plays into faith only insofar as it demands conformity in behavior. Belief in that truth becomes no more than an obligation, deviation from which has temporal consequences, rather than an ideal to which each soul should strive, with eternal consequences.
It is this latter view of truth that no less than Saint Augustine upholds as the poetic ideal in his De Musica. In its Book VI he writes:
The flesh wrestles with the mental part of us . . . [b]ut when the mental part of us is uplifted to attachment to spiritual things, the impulse of this intimacy is broken; it is gradually suppressed, and then extinguished. . . . If we with firm steps draw back from every lascivious thought, in which there must always be a reduction of the soul’s full existence, our delight in the Rhythm of Reason is restored, and our whole life is turned to God, not now receiving pleasure from the body, but giving to it a rhythm of health. This result happens because the outer man is consumed away, and the man himself is transformed into something finer.
(St. Augustine, p. 188.) The purpose of poetry is to elevate the soul from fleshly desires – the equivalent of sensory perceptions – and bring it closer to God, transforming it into something greater in the process. This echoes what Shelley says in existential terms, but the Christian context is appropriate to address Eliot the Christian on his own terms. And what Eliot holds poetry to be, both in theory and in practice, is diametrically opposed to Saint Augustine’s view. For the “outer man” to be “consumed away” and “transformed into something finer” by Reason, reference to an external transcendent is necessary. Reason, after all, is an external objective against which the subjective is measured. Yet Eliot explicitly rejects any such philosophizing in his poetry.
Returning to Eliot’s poetics, a third, and perhaps the most influential, “metaphor” for the poetic process occurs in Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which addresses the relationship between the heritage of past literature and present poetry. In the first part, Eliot examines this relationship and observes, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” (Eliot, “Tradition,” para. 4.) Instead, “[h]is significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists . . . for contrast and comparison.” (Id.) That he “shall conform” is “necessity,” as it is when a new work of art is added to all existing works. (Id.)
Two conclusions flow from this observation. First, the poet can neither “take the past as a lump” nor “form himself” according to a particular poet or period. (Id., para. 6.) Instead, “[t]he poet must be very conscious of the main current,” which is to be aware “that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same,” that
the mind of Europe — the mind of his own country — a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind — is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement.
(Id., para. 6.) “The progress of an artist,” therefore, “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” in which “art may be said to approach the condition of science.” (Id., paras. 9-10.)
Building on this conclusion, Eliot in the second part of the essay sets forth his conception of the purpose of poetry. For him, the mature poet is a mere catalyst, a “finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations” in the same way that platinum catalyzed the formation of sulfuric acid without itself being consumed. (Eliot, “Tradition,” paras. 11-12.) The elements that the poet catalyzes are “emotions and feelings,” and their product, “[t]he effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it[,] is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art.” (Id., para. 13.) This effect “may be formed out of one emotion, or may be a combination of several; and various feelings, inhering for the writer in particular words or phrases or images, may be added to compose the final result.” (Id.) Great poetry may even “be made without the direct use of any emotion whatever: composed out of feelings solely.” (Id.)
On examining the greatest poetry, Eliot perceives “how completely any semi-ethical criterion of ‘sublimity’ misses the mark.” (Id., para. 14.) Its greatness lies not in “the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” (Id.) Even though poetry might “employ[ ] a definite emotion, its “intensity . . . is something quite different from whatever intensity in the supposed experience it may give the impression of.” (Id.) The poet does not recollect emotion, but collects experiences, using ordinary emotions and working them through poetry “to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.” (Id., para. 18.) In concluding, Eliot calls this emotion in art impersonal and has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. (Id., para. 19.)
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot views both the poetic process and the poetic effect as impersonal. The successful poet must be attuned to the changes in society even as he adds to that society’s existing works of art, a process that requires a depersonalization of the artistic creation. At the same time, a poem’s effect on the reader is not emotion, but “feeling” created by words, phrases, or images, quite different than the experience that led the poet to creating the poem. In this way, the reading of the poem as much as its writing is an impersonal process, almost scientific in its application.
In his 1923 essay “The Function of Criticism,” Eliot extended the principles articulated in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to literary criticism. (Eliot, “The Function,” para. 1.) Eliot summarizes his view of literature as “not as a collection of the writings of individuals, but as ‘organic wholes’, as systems in relation to which, and only in relation to which, individual works of literary art, and the works of individual artists, have their significance” – then concludes that “it follows that a fortiori whoever holds them must hold similar views about criticism,” defined as “the commentation and exposition of works of art by means of written words.” (Id.)
Eliot denounced the tendency to disregard “Outside Authority” in favor of “the Inner voice” as “whiggery” – if nothing but the Inner Voice matters, common standards to apply in criticism do not exist. (Id., paras. 7-8.) The view of the creative writer as an unconscious creator was thus such whiggery. (Id., para. 9.) Rather, self-criticism forms part of the creative writing process, and criticism “finds its highest, its true fulfillment in a kind of union with creation in the labour of the artist.” (Id., paras. 9-10.)
But not all creative writers were critics, and not all insightful critics wrote creatively. (Id., para. 11.) Searching for an explanation of what made a competent critic, “the most important qualification” Eliot could find, and one that “accounts for the peculiar importance of the criticism of practitioners, is that a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact.” (Id., para. 12.)
Eliot identifies “a large part of critical writing which consists in ‘interpreting’ an author [or] a work,” in which the author “obtains an understanding of another, or a creative writer, which he can partially communicate, and which we feel to be true and illuminating.” (Id., para. 13.) But “[i]t is difficult to confirm the ‘interpretation’ by external evidence . . . [a]nd for every success in this type of writing there are thousands of impostures.” (Id.) Instead “‘interpretation’ . . . is only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed.” (Id., para. 14.) This is what Eliot means by a “sense of fact.”
Comparison and analysis, rather than “opinion and fancy,” are the proper tools of the critic. (Id., para. 15.) But they are tools to be handled with care, as the critic must know what to compare and analyze. (Id.) Hence, the place of scholarship; the circumstances of the work’s creation explicate it. (Id.) With this, Eliot seems to have reached a definitive standard for explicating a work of literature, but he explodes his whole thesis in his concluding sentence: “But if anyone complains that I have not defined truth, or fact, or reality, I can only say apologetically that it was no part of my purpose to do so, but only to find a scheme into which, whatever they are, they will fit, if they exist. (Id., para. 16) (emphasis added).
Despite his intentional failure to identify what “fact” is – let alone acknowledge that it exists at all – Eliot in this essay “germinated the New Criticism.” (Spender, p. 79.) For Eliot, the creation, enjoyment, and analysis of poetry was a cold, impersonal process. The poet’s process of creating was an almost scientific inevitability, heavily influenced on the existing state of art and contemporary societal trends. The reader’s enjoyment of a poem was not an emotional experience, but a more generalized “feeling” conveyed by its language. And the critic’s process of analysis was a forensic inquiry based only on hard evidence, with no room for creativity.
The quasi-scientific rigor of this approach, however, extended only to method, not substance. Addressing what a poem’s meaning is, Eliot balked thus:
[T]he poet does many things upon instinct, for which he can give no better account than anybody else. A poet can try, of course, to give an honest report of the way in which he himself writes . . . [b]ut what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning – or without forgetting, merely changing.
(Eliot, The Use of Poetry, pp. 129-30.) Eliot boldly applies this to his own work: “when [I.A.] Richards asserts that The Waste Land effects ‘a complete severance between poetry and all beliefs’ I am no better qualified to say No! than is any other reader.” (Id., p. 130.)
Edified now with Eliot’s own views as expressed in his critical writings, we may now turn to his poetry, and no poem serves as a better showpiece for Eliot’s poetics and worldview than his epic masterpiece, The Waste Land, which catapulted Eliot to fame.
The historical context of The Waste Land is important to understand. Eliot wrote the poem in 1921 and published it the following year. (Spender, p. 48.) The poem addresses its own time, the aftermath of World War I, when memories of the war, its carnage, and the havoc it wreaked were still fresh in the popular imagination.
Before beginning the analysis, it is crucial to note the centrality of the Fisher King legend to the poem. Key to understanding its role in the poem is Jessie Laidley Weston’s 1921 study From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot cites in his footnotes as able to “elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do.” In her book, Weston connects the Grail legend to the more ancient traditions of the ritual murder of an old king to rejuvenate the land as identified in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. (Weston, Ch. I.) A common theme in the various iterations of the Grail legend is that the “Grail quester” (Percival, Gawain, or Galahad in different versions) has as his task healing the Fisher King, who is either old or sick or wounded, and whose lands consequently are wasted. (Weston, Ch. II.) Indeed, Weston uses the exact phrase “the Waste Land” to describe the Fisher King’s lands devastated as a result of his infirmity. From this, Weston identifies as “the basic idea of the Grail tradition”
the position of a people whose prosperity, and the fertility of their land, are closely bound up with the life and virility of their King, who is not a mere man, but a Divine re-incarnation. If he ‘falls into languishment,’ as does the Fisher King . . . , the land and its inhabitants will suffer correspondingly; not only will the country suffer from drought, . . . but the men will die in numbers . . . ; the cattle will cease to bear increase . . . and the people take drastic steps to bring about a rejuvenation; the old King dies, to be replaced by a young and vigorous successor, even as Brons was replaced by Perceval.
(Weston, Ch. V, para. 22.) Applying Weston’s interpretive scheme from medieval romances to then-current events, the poem relates the devastation caused by World War I to the weakness of society, specifically its rulers.
Important to the work, too, is its dedication: “For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro” (“the best craftsman” in Italian). This dedication is more than a mere tribute; it is key to understanding Eliot’s construction of the poem, for Eliot does not merely offer up the poem to Pound, but praises Pound not for vision or inspiration but craftsmanship. Pound’s construction of his Cantos consisted in quotation, allusion, and presentation in the original language. Eliot follows the exact same technique in The Waste Land. Indeed, Eliot was a protégé of Pound, so it should come as no surprise that he adopted Pound’s technique in constructing his own poem.
Turning to the poem itself, Part I – the first of five – is subtitled “The Burial of the Dead,” a clear enough reference to the tragedy of the war. Its first episode consists of the first six lines of the poem:
April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers.
This is a promising beginning. The flow of thoughts is coherent and the imagery vivid. Each line that does not conclude a sentence ends in a present participle, allowing a noun and therefore an image to lead the next line.
It could form the perfect first part to a strophic poem, particularly with the beginning of line 7: “Summer surprised us.” But it is deceptive. This episode’s poetic simplicity gives no hint at the roller-coaster of imagery, allusions, and quotations to come. Indeed, line 7 does form a turn of sorts, but not in the classical strophic sense.
Rather, this turn marks a radical shift in imagery, tone, and point of view, a complete disjunction from what precedes it. The entire poem is assembled from eighteen such variegated sections of anywhere from six to fifty-one lines, each a self-contained scene, often with a radically different narrative voice, not superficially related to those that surround it and usually standing in jarring contrast to the preceding and following episodes.. For our analysis, we will call each discrete section an “episode.”
In this second episode the reader encounters a jarring transition to a clearly unrelated scene marked by vagueness of the narrator, which gives the sense of being dropped into a conversation without having any context for hearing it. Instead, context must be supplied from the allusions that pepper the text. Here, the speaker, “Marie,” describing memories of leisure hours by Lake Starnberg and in Munich’s Hofgarten, alluding to happier times before the war.
Inserted here also is a German sentence: “I am no Russian woman; I come from Lithuania, pure German.” This is the first of many allusions to the displacement of peoples in the wake of the war, in this case of the Baltic Germans.
The third episode, lines 19 through 30, returns to a tone similar to the first, a third-person description of the desolation of the landscape and the inner desolation of those who dwell in it. It also contains the famous lines “you know only / A heap of broken images,” and “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” These aphorisms are slipped into a disjointed address to the reader punctuated with questions, an extended lament for the destruction wreaked by the war. The “heap of broken images” very will mirrors the poem’s construction, in the same way a fragmented image must be reassembled.
The fourth episode, lines 31 though 42, consists of a monologue framed by quotations in German from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The monologue, as before, appears without context. The female speaker recalls to an unidentified addressee – it seems a lover – of an intimate moment in the hyacinth garden. “Hyacinth” is conspicuously capitalized in line 37 – an illusion to Hyacinth, the lover of Apollo whose death mirrors the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde. The speaker could be the same as in the second episode – or not. Eliot supplies no context beyond the allusion. The quotations could just as well reference the tragic story of doomed love between Tristan and Isolde, which like the Hyacinth myth describes lost love as a metaphor for the loss of the pre-war world and its ideals.
The fifth episode, lines 43 through 59, presents Madame Sosostris dealing her tarot deck. Here the reader might be tempted to seek an occult reference, as he might rightly do with Yeats, but Eliot in his footnote denies any occult reference. Instead, he both invented and selected cards to reference the Fisher King legend and Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Of particular importance is the drowned Phoenician sailor, who will serve as the central figure in Part IV.
In the next episode, lines 60 through 75, Eliot conjures a haunting scene in London when the soldiers return, “undone” by death. Again, he inserts a monologue without context, but clearly one returning soldier speaking to another, called Stetson, whom he recognizes from past action together. The speaker almost tauntingly asks Stetson about a nameless enemy he killed, and concludes by quoting the final line of the opening poem of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil: “You, hypocrite reader! – my resemblance – my brother!”
The Baudelaire quote appears independently of the preceding narrative, as a sort of envoi, closing Part I by summarizing its contents, rather than constituting part of any episode or an independent episode itself. The line is one of the most famous in poetry, brashly attacking the reader. Eliot, like Baudelaire, means to engage the reader directly, but while Baudelaire meant that he was not a performer, Eliot tells his readers that they are part of the society that plunged the world into the abyss of the war, and is therefore obligated to heed Eliot’s words.
Part II, subtitled “The Game of Chess,” consists of only two episodes: an extended description of a lady in her chamber in lines 77 through 110, followed by a dialogue in lines 111 through 138. Eliot’s thirty-four line description of the sights and smells of the lady and her chamber gives a strikingly vivid portrayal of gaudy luxury, but it is not clear from either this scene or the dialogue who the lady is or what her relationship is to the first-person speaker with whom she engages in the dialogue that follows.
But even what seems mere sensory description on examining Eliot’s footnotes is peppered with allusions to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. None of these references is apparent from the text itself to the untrained reader. Only Eliot’s footnotes make the allusions certain. Of particular importance is the myth of Philomela, as told by Ovid, shown in the tapestry that hangs on the lady’s wall. According to the story, Philomela is raped and mutilated by King Tereus, then avenges herself by killing the king’s son, cooking him, and feeding him to his father, after which she escapes by turning into a nightingale, along with her accomplice, who turns into a swallow. The nightingale’s call, “Jug jug,” appears throughout the poem.
The “dialogue” that follows is not really a dialogue, but the neurotic questioning of the lady punctuated by the narrator’s unuttered thoughts. The internal monologue of the narrator taunts the questions with nihilistic answers. “What is the wind doing?” – nothing; “Do you remember / Nothing?” – only death, referenced obliquely in a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s The Tempest; “Is there nothing in your head?” – the narrator congratulates himself on his Shakespearian allusion; “What shall I do now” – the narrator suggests only trivial pastimes. Here, in line 137, appears the game of chess that serves as Part II’s subtitle – not an actual, but an anticipated game, contingent upon rain. This game of chess is an idle pastime, and an ironic analogy to the strategic alliances that led to World War I, which began as a game of diplomacy and ended in carnage.
The next episode, the eighth, runs from lines 139 to 172, and bears no apparent connection to the preceding dialogue. Here the narrative voice is relating secondhand his exhortations to the wife of a returning soldier to groom herself to go out and greet her returning husband, which it is inferred she is reluctant to do. The narrator’s wish is fulfilled and the episode concludes in a series of goodbyes.
Part III at 148 lines is the longest of the poem’s five parts. Its subtitle, “The Fire Sermon,” evinced Eliot’s deep interest in Buddhism. In the Fire Sermon of the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha likens the passions of the senses to a burning fire and instructs his disciples to develop an aversion to the impressions of the senses to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. (Warren tr., pp. 351-53.) In his footnote to line 308, Eliot notes that in Buddhism this sermon “corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount” in Christianity.
This part consists of six episodes. In its first – the ninth episode overall – from lines 173 through 186, the narrative voice speaks in the present tense. It stands on the banks of the Thames in autumn observing a scene of desolation. The next episode, in lines 187 through 206, seems at first to continue the scene of the previous episode, but the narrative voice now speaks in past tense and describes a winter scene while fishing, an unambiguous reference again to the Fisher King. Eliot then concludes the episode with a quotation, in the original, of the final line of Paul Verlaine’s 1905 poem “Parsifal,” in which the hero of the grail legend in his Wagnerian manifestation has vanquished the sexual temptations of women – then follows with the birdsongs and related lines reprising the earlier reference to Philomela.
Eliot then abruptly shifts to a new episode in lines 207 through 214, which presents “Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant,” another reference to the diaspora forced by the war, in this case the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. The sense of displacement presented by a Greek from Turkey in London speaking French is what prompts the narrative voice to remark, “Unreal City.”
Part III’s fourth episode runs from lines 215 to 256, and presents the narrator as Tiresias the androgynous blind seer of Greek myth having a vision of two lovers – a typist and a “small house agent’s clerk.” The clerk arrives at the typist’s. They say nothing. She is indifferent. He is eager for gratification and takes advantage of her ennui – “makes a welcome of her indifference.” He leaves right away, and the typist remains unmoved: “Well now that’s done,” she says, “and I’m glad it’s over,” and she plays a record.
The next episode, occupying lines 257 through 307, begins with another quotation from The Tempest, then returns to the Thames, where the narrator contrasts the chatter of the fishermen lounging at the bar with the nearby “Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” of St. Magnus Martyr’s church. The narrator’s attention then turns to the river with oil, tar, and logs floating among the boats. Then without transition or even quotation marks Eliot writes, “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala,” the distinctive song of the three Rhine Maidens in Wagner’s operatic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Like the Rhine Maidens, each Thames Maiden sings in turn, mourning lost life, lost love, and lost consciousness.
Part III then concludes with four lines too short to be an episode on its own but clearly not part of the preceding episode – an envoi, similar to the ending of Part I. Here Eliot interposes “burning” repeated four times, from the Buddhist Fire Sermon, with two quotations from Saint Augustine’s Confessions, in what Eliot in his footnote calls “[t]collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism.”
Part IV consists of a single episode – the poem’s fourteenth – of a mere ten lines. Subtitled “Death by Water,” it describes the drowning death of the Phoenician sailor from Madame Sosostris’s tarot deck, now named Phlebas. This part, unfootnoted and lacking any quotations, is a simple, direct exhortation of memento mori – to mark the death of the young, handsome sailor who in dying “Forgot . . . / the profit and loss.”
Then follows the final division, Part V, subtitled “What the Thunder Said,” from a fable in the Upanishads. Its first episode, from lines 322 to 358, portrays a scene of absolute destruction and devastation: there is “shouting and crying,” “red faces sneer and snarl;” there is “no water but only rock” and a “sterile thunder without rain.” This “thunder of spring” places the reader back in the opening scene with its April showers. The narrative voice laments, “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With little patience.”
The episode then concludes with the following lamentation that presents a series of images in rapid series as a stream of consciousness, without even any punctuation, is pure modernism – the same technique used by Hart Crane and others.
The next episode, from lines 359 to 376, begins with a question: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” Eliot describes this phantom: “Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded” – it is death accompanying the travelers. The narrative voice then asks further questions about “maternal lamentation,” “hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains,” and “bursts in the violet air.” Eliot’s footnote references the “chaos” in Eastern Europe following World War I, including the Russian Civil War, the Finnish-Soviet War, the Polish-Soviet War, the 1919 Revolution and Red Terror in Hungary, to name the most significant.
The episode then concludes: “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London.” Here Eliot references the fall of ancient centers of ancient Judaism and classical learning that gave birth to Western Civilization and hints that Vienna and London are next.” His final word, “Unreal” juxtaposed against London hearkens back to the eleventh episode and its description of the merchant Eugenides. The disruption in order is what makes London “unreal,” as it bears the consequences of the chaos in the rest of Europe.
The next episode, lines 377 through 384, presents an eerie scene of a black-haired woman who plays a violin, conjuring baby-faced bats, upside-down towers in the air, and voices singing out of dry wells. Nothing in this scene directly bears on what precedes or follows it, and the imagery is presented directly, without the usual self-reference of the narrative voice in the other episodes.
After this scene follows the eighteenth and final episode, the poem’s second-longest at thirty-eight lines (385 through 422), which presents the subject of Part V’s subtitle. The footnotes explain that the episode is taken from a fable in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in which the thunder’s onomatopoeic “da” stands for three Sanskrit words: datta, dayadhvam, damyata, which Eliot translates as “give, sympathize, control.”
Before the thunder appears, Eliot presents yet another scene of desolation: opened graves with dry bones exposed, an abandoned chapel with its windows blown out, all in the moonlit night, representing the devastation the war wreaked on tradition and faith. Then a flash of lightning appears and at last the rain arrives. Given the centrality of the Fisher King legend to the story, the arrival of rain to fertilize the waste land once again presents the solution to the problem.
The thunder speaks the three Sanskrit words. For “give,” the narrative voice asks, “what have we given?” and answers, “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this, and this only, we have existed.” This is Eliot’s civilizational self-criticism, his answer for the cause of World War I: rashness, imprudence.
For “sympathize,” the narrative voice now states, “I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only.” It also admonishes, “Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.” Eliot’s message here seems something from pop psychology: only one turn of the key is necessary to escape the prison, and recognition of the key requires recognition of the prison. But Eliot’s problem is civilizational, and it solution will require more than just one or even a few people to recognize the prison. Hence, “sympathize.”
Eliot’s footnote to lines 411 and 412 contains two references that shed further light on this meaning. First, he references Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Inferno, in which the soul of Count Ugolino famously narrates how he and his sons were locked in a prison and starved to death – an oblique reference again to the Fisher King, whose land no longer feeds his subjects. The second part of the footnote makes an infamous misrepresentation of the philosophy of F.H. Bradley, on which Eliot wrote his never-presented doctoral thesis. (Spender, pp. 24-25.) Eliot was well aware of his misrepresentation, and responded to criticism over it by asserting that his only responsibility as a poet was to “to transform ideas into objects of language,” as a sensory experience like any other image in the poem. (Id., pp. 26, 28.)
And for “control,” the narrative voice presents a peaceful scene of a calm sea, in which the boat responds “Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar.” The voice then addresses the reader: “your heart would have responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.” That is, the individual, too, must submit to “the hand expert,” to be guided as the boat.
The poem then concludes with a third envoi consisting of a pastiche of images and quotations. The first to appear references to the Fisher King, who now makes the decision to set his lands in order. Next Eliot quotes four disparate sources in as many lines: first, the well-known nursery rhyme, “London Bridge,” alluding to the fall of the “unreal city” portrayed in Part IV. The next line quotes in the original Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XXVI, line 148, which translates as “Then he hid himself in the fire that refines him.” The fire in purgatory purifying the soul for paradise is an analogy for what Eliot hopes the experience of the war will do – the fire that burns just as in the sermon in Part III. Then follow quotations, again in the original, from two obscure works. The first asks, “When shall I be like the swallow?” – again referencing the Philomela legend; and the second states simply, “the Prince of Aquitaine at the ruined tower.”
The narrative voice then interjects, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – indicating that the West should salvage what remains of its culture in light of the ruin of the war. Then in the next line Eliot quotes yet another obscure work, this time in English, referring to madness, anticipating perhaps the reaction he imagines his message will engender. But then he repeats the three words spoken by the thunder as an admonition and closes with “shantih” repeated thrice, the formal ending of an Upanishad, which Eliot translates as “the Peace which passeth understanding.” With this closing Eliot asserts that what he has said will indeed resurrect civilization from its ruin, and it surpasses the understanding of those who might think him mad.
But what does Eliot say in all this? Before arriving at the poem’s meaning, an analysis of its technique is crucial. The launching-point for analysis of the technique is the dedication. Eliot’s preference for craft over idea and his stated admiration for Pound’s craftsmanship evidences his regard for the process of constructing a poem, so nothing Eliot does in the poem should be taken as accidental or slovenly.
Two forces are at play in Eliot’s construction of The Waste Land. First, he creates a cubist visual pastiche, similar to what the Concrete Poets achieve, but less visually jarring, as it presents coherent scenes rather than uses the words themselves as images. Second, Eliot relies on a subtext to convey the true message of the poem, as Yeats used. Both techniques are hallmark features of modernism, and place Eliot squarely outside the classical tradition of poetry.
The cubist construction of the poem features most prominently in Eliot’s constant shifting of the narrative voice. In some episodes, like the seventh, the narrator is clearly male, while in others, like the second, she is female. The narration of Tiresias in the twelfth episode may be called “gender-fluid,” in keeping with the myth of the prophet. And in other episodes, the sex of the narrator is unclear. Unclear, too, is whether any narrative voice makes a repeat appearance. The narrators along the Thames, for example, in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and thirteenth episodes are all geographically proximate, but nothing indicates whether the voice itself is the same in any of these episodes. Also, several first-person references to the Fisher King appear, but Eliot clearly treats the Fisher King as a type rather than an actual person, so it is almost certain that the narrative voices that speak of fishing are different.
The overall result in this constant shifting in narrative voice and therefore of scenery is an assembly of multiple points of view, none of which contains in itself a message common to the entire poem, but which must be assembled and considered as a whole, just as a cubist painter constructs an object from varying points of view that looks very little like the object itself as seen from a single vantage point. In The Waste Land, the object Eliot is portraying is Europe in the wake of World War I. It is an assembly of scenes from London, Germany, Eastern Europe, and a fantasy word that taken together give a comprehensive view of the destruction wrought by the war.
Such cubist use of point of view on its surface seems to align with the philosophy of F.H. Bradley on which Eliot wrote his thesis – that each individual’s consciousness is but an extension of a greater collective consciousness. But Eliot’s repeated exhortations to distance philosophy from poetry should give pause to anyone considering such an interpretation.
Instead, Eliot presents images in the same way Hart Crane does in “Voyages,” as sense-objects for the viewer to take in as he pleases. Eliot in his essays states that this is exactly how poetry is to be written and read, with the poet as little more than a vehicle for expression and the true meaning of the poem materializing in the individual reader’s reception of the images presented. In some passages, like the inner monologues in lines 8 through 18 and 111 through 138 and the extended descriptions in lines 19 through 30 and 322 through 358, the stream-of-consciousness assembly of images seems almost random, like a collage assembled from completely unrelated pictures.
Yet despite its disjointedness at the micro level, Eliot’s technique is anything but haphazard. There is a remarkable cross-reference between the episodes: Madame Sosostris’s cards appearing as characters in later episodes; the reappearance of the Fisher King role among the narrative voices; the similar reappearance of the Philomela myth in the guise of avian references; the direct and indirect references to both Wagner and Ludwig II; the repetition of London’s epithet, “unreal.” While this achieves the effect of consistency, it does not achieve unity. Instead of a coherent narrative or discourse, the reader is presented with a coherent universe in which disparate visions appear and facially unrelated action occurs.
It is up to the reader to construct an all-encompassing image from these fragments. Yet reading Eliot’s essays makes it clear that any central image or message that he might have meant the poem to have when he wrote it is irrelevant. The poem is what the reader makes of it. Indeed, the same can be said for each of the eighteen self-contained episodes and three envois that comprise the poem.
Yet Eliot does not give a completely free rein to the reader. Instead of creating a pure image, Eliot anchors every episode to a literary or historical allusion. This limits the universe of possible readings.
Eliot in his use of this technique resembles Yeats. Like Yeats, he imbues the poem with a meaning that can only be discovered beneath the surface of the text. But while Yeats derives these deeper meanings from the occult by means of symbols, Eliot derives them from history or from other works of literature by means of either allusion or direct quotation. Without a knowledge of the works, persons, or events Eliot is referencing, the meaning of the poem is not apparent to the reader. Given the obscurity of some of the texts he cites and the detailed knowledge required about certain myths, Eliot’s poem is only fully understandable by a reader who either has the same post-graduate level of exposure to literature as he, or who has taken the time to locate and examine the texts referenced (no small feat in the pre-internet age). Eliot graciously (and helpfully) supplies footnotes, but, as with Yeats, the allusions supply a meaning that it is not clear without the specialized knowledge by the reader. Eliot’s meanings, however, are not as definite as the ones Yeats conveys through his occult imagery. Rather than supplying a definite meaning, Eliot’s allusions and quotations instead restrict the range of possible meanings, but do not themselves supply a definite meaning. For example, the many references to the Fisher King legend can be read in any number of ways, but only in ways that are consistent with the texts of the legend, and with Jessie Weston’s interpretation of that legend as Eliot makes clear in his footnote.
Eliot uses these allusions as anchors of definition to tether the reader loosely, limiting the possible range of interpretation. Yet Eliot never goes as far as Yeats does to supply a definite meaning. Reading Eliot’s critical essays, he clearly intended that. Eliot the former philosopher was at odds with Eliot the poet, and Eliot the poet considered anything even approaching philosophizing a detraction from the poetry.
In this sense, Eliot the poet is the consummate modernist. Ideas have no place in the poem, and therefore neither does classical metaphor, which is the conveyance of an idea through a poetic image. Indeed, Eliot deliberately works to transform ideas into mere sensory impressions. Philosophy appears in the poem, but by Eliot’s own admission, it is not there to convey an idea, but a sensory impression. Hence his deliberate misquoting of F.H. Bradley to give an impression opposite of what Bradley’s philosophy actually holds. Hence also his juxtaposition of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu philosophy without regard to the inconsistencies between them. Ideas in the poem are no more than images for each reader to derive not a lesson but an “effect” individual to that reader.
It would be wrong, then, to search for a central message or meaning in The Waste Land. Eliot would consider any such thing as philosophy, with no place in poetry. And his construction of the poem was too deliberate to allow for an accidental seepage of ideas into it. Yet the limitations on the impressions on the reader imposed by Eliot’s collection of allusions are narrow enough to glean some central message – a theme, if you will – from the collection of images presented throughout the eighteen episodes.
The centrality of the Fisher King legend, augmented by Weston’s and Frazer’s interpretations of it, illuminates this theme. The Fisher King’s lands are wasted because of his infirmity, and his return to strength will restore his lands to fertility. The health of the realm is tied to the health of the ruler. The message of The Waste Land, then, is one for the ruling class: the war was their doing, and it is now their duty to salvage what remains and restore their realms to health. The educational background required to delve into the poem fully emphasizes that the poem is for the elite.
The poem on its face seeks to rebuild from the heritage of Western cultural tradition that yet remained in the wake of the upheavals of World War I, even though the West’s traditional political and cultural institutions had been destroyed. But is this really the theme? The poem itself does nothing to restore the Western cultural tradition. Instead, it rejects the classical heritage of the West, reducing its ideas to mere imagery and displaying them as exhibits alongside similar “images” lifted from India. It does not build on tradition, but splices snippets of it into a cubist pastiche for the reader to imbue as he sees fit. The poem itself does not rebuild, but only assembles fragments.
But must the reader not rebuild civilization in the same way he constructs meaning from the images in the poem? Not if Eliot expects the coherent, stable society that he idealizes in “The Idea of a Christian Civilization.” Meaning arising only in each individual reader’s mind transmits nothing across generations or between individuals in a society. Each mind is as atomized as the individual images in the poem. Coherence cannot exist in such an environment. It is the antithesis of society and culture. There again lies the great contradiction underlying Eliot: the champion of stable society and dogma who denies the existence of a transcendent truth, or even a truth in his own writings.
And here, finally, we see the sardonic irony that underlies Eliot’s persona. In his essays his ideas are always punctuated by an underlying nihilism. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he denies that he is any better qualified to say what his works mean than anyone else. In the same work, he asserts that belief and disbelief should never arise during reading, and if they do is a fault in either the writing or the reading. In “The Function of Criticism,” he argues that only “fact” should form the basis for literary analysis, only at the end of the essay to refuse to define the term and to question whether or not fact or truth really exist. And this was not mere posturing; in “Dante” he is literally unable to grasp the meaning of Keats’s line, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” He does not see the line as trite or sentimental – he is absolutely befuddled by it. Only a nihilist who denies the concept of truth would be unable to grasp its meaning.
In The Waste Land we see Eliot the nihilist desiring to salvage Western civilization from the war’s destruction. Eliot did not seem to struggle with this contradiction. Indeed, he quite comfortably professed his nihilism while at the same time decrying “whiggery” and praising Christian dogma. In his personal life, Eliot eschewed the “aggressive and flamboyant poses” of poets like Yeats and Pound, and instead out of a sense of irony took the persona of the poet as an ordinary man. (Spender, p. 22.) In his writings, Eliot adopts the same irony: the modernist who loves tradition, the nihilist who believes it is worth saving.
But as with all irony, one element of the contradiction is the reality and the other is an image. In his essays and in his poetic style and technique, Eliot’s negation is more sincere than his affirmance. For all its richness of allusion, apparent mourning of the war’s destruction, and urging to rebuild civilization, the overriding structure of The Waste Land is a cubist pastiche that declines to assert any absolute truth, leaving each individual reader with only his own impressions. Tradition is a chimera imprisoned in the modernist milieu.
Eliot, then, is not the preserver of civilization as much as a mourning spectator. Just as Eliot the Christian desperately yearned for a transcendent Truth in which to believe but was left only adhering to dogma, Eliot the preserver mourns the loss of western culture and tradition swept away in World War I but mourns its loss as a modernist in modernist technique with a modernist – that is, a nihilistic – worldview. A classical poem constructed around the expression of an idea would have stood as an act of defiance in the face of the war’s destruction, a statement that the lost world yet lived and, though blasted, was rising once more. But Eliot could not bring himself to such a feat. Instead, he remained rooted in the modernist present, looking wistfully backwards at a world he mourned but dared not revive. And while his mourning is sincere, it does nothing to perpetuate what it mourns.
But Eliot’s failure to make The Waste Land a classical poem should not be seen as an act of cowardice; it was inevitable. Eliot’s essays reflect an inner contradiction: a profound desire for yet pervasive discomfort with transcendent truth. He at once proclaims the need for dogma and tradition to regulate human society and questions whether anything such as fact or truth exists at all. He is a prisoner of nihilism that desperately wants to escape, but has grown comfortable in his prison. Writing as a classical poet was impossible from that prison.
This brings to light another irony. Eliot’s formation as a poet occurred in the decades before the war, yet even he, so sympathetic to the pre-war world, was so firmly rooted in modernism that he could only watch and mourn as a modernist. He was formed in that world, but neither he nor anyone else in the arts sought to revive it after the shock of the war. In this respect Eliot personifies how western culture was weakened it to where it could be so easily shattered by World War I. It had ceased to believe in itself because it had ceased to believe in anything.
The cubist modernism of Eliot was born from and responded to events of that time, and they deserve to be studied in their historical context. But that historical context also dates his work. What was cutting-edge in the aftermath of World War I is now a historical curiosity. The classical tradition, meanwhile, remains timeless because it grappled with the ideas that Eliot and the modernists shunned.
Eliot, at the end, is a tragic figure, worth studying but not emulating. He is best understood as a prisoner of modernism gazing longingly out of his prison yet not bold enough to escape. It would be later poets like Frost where the classical tradition that Eliot mourned ultimately would find new life breathed into it. Where Eliot mourned, they resurrected, seizing, even unconsciously, the torch of tradition and writing as classical poets themselves.
And indeed, a new generation of poets is continuing the work of resurrecting the classical tradition, who seek to drag poetry from the superficial realm of images alone back to its proper place in the realm of ideas – as a means of access to the absolute and eternal. The legacy of Eliot and the modernists is a chain fixing the gaze of poet and reader alike at the shadows. Freeing themselves of it, these new poets dare to face the light that casts the images. If this continues, and it must, the future of poetry will be truly bright.
Augustine of Hippo, St. De Musica. Tr. W.F. Jackson Knight. Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Select Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger. Eds. Albert Hofstadter & Richard Kuhns. The University of Chicago Press, 1964.
Eliot, T.S. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. Faber & Faber Ltd., 1944.
-- “Dante.” Selected Essays. Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1932.
-- “The Function of Criticism.” Criterion, Vol. II No. 5, October 1923. Available at, https://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2018/08/eliot-function-of-criticism/ (accessed July 25, 2020).
-- “Hamlet and His Problems.” The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. Dover Publications, Inc., 1998.
-- “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Christianity and Culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 1976. Reprinted in Humanum, Issue 2, 2016, available at, https://humanumreview.com/articles/the-idea-of-a-christian-society (accessed Sep. 1, 2020).
-- “The Metaphysical Poets.” The Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 1921. Available at, https://www.usask.ca/english/prufrock/meta.htm (Accessed July 21, 2020).
-- “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Egoist, Vol. 6 No. 4, September 1919. Available at, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent (accessed July 31, 2020.)
Kirk, Russell. The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot. Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1985.
Spender, Stephen. T.S. Eliot. The Viking Press, 1975.
Warren, Henry Clarke, Tr. Buddhism in Translations. Vol. III, The Harvard Oriental Series. Harvard Univ. Press, 1896. Available at, https://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/bits/bits073.htm (accessed August 2, 2020).
Weston, Jessie Laidlay. From Ritual to Romance. Macmillan, 1919. Available at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/From_Ritual_to_Romance (accessed August 5, 2020).
 It has been observed that such a notion of scientific inevitability contrasts sharply with Eliot’s professed rejection of rationalist materialism of his friend and early benefactor, Bertrand Russell. (Id., p. 51.)
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Indiana, where he practices as a civil and appellate litigation attorney. His poems have appeared in print and online publications, and he has published two volumes of poetry: The Spring's Autumn (2013) and Inquietude (2016). He also composes music, which may be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives with his wife, Ivana, and their son.