Forests have fallen to explain The Waste Land. And yet, many readers express frustration, which never fully goes away, no matter how many papers and books they read. Once someone begins to read the poem, it is difficult to know where to stop: the preface, the note on the text, the poem itself, the author’s footnotes, the editor’s footnotes, the sources alluded to, the literary criticism, the guides, the biographies, the bibliographies, the early drafts? There is no back cover to this book. One could go on reading The Waste Land until the Holy Grail was found.
Why do we need so much writing about The Waste Land? Because it is difficult, and, after shelves and shelves of books, we still don’t know the answer, we still can’t state clearly, at least so that everyone agrees, the answer to that urgent question, “What does it mean?”
The question itself is the problem. It is misleading.
A better question to ask The Waste Land would be “What does it express?” I will tell you: an infertile state of mind arising from a difficult relationship and modern times. Eliot expresses this fragmentary, disoriented state of mind through objective correlatives, or objects that correlate to some feeling, and by suggesting and evading various poetic techniques: rhythm, rhyme, form, image, narrative, and meaning. Relying primarily on Eliot’s own critical writing, I will suggest an experiential approach to “The Waste Land,” which examines meaning as just one of the poetic tools that Eliot uses for his complex poetic effects. This will serve as the basis of a practical series of lesson plans laid out in a separate post, “Experiencing The Waste Land: A Four Day Unit for Teachers.”
Before and After: Nine Suggestions
If you haven’t read the poem, you could just put down this essay and read it. That first experience, however, can be quite daunting, so some preparation is helpful.
First-time readers, or readers wishing to come at the poem afresh, can follow the first five recommendations and then read the poem, returning afterward to the final four suggestions. Later, if they wish to understand more about how this approach is grounded in Eliot’s own critical writing, they can read the essay below.
Busy teachers can read through the nine suggestions and then go directly to the lesson plans. Those who wish to understand the theoretical backing or to work out the contradictions in Eliot’s own critical writing should read on.
The nine suggestions presented here are not in the order that they will appear in the paper (which follows a thematic development), but in the suggested order for approaching the poem.
Before the first reading:
- Read certain traditional sources: “The Blinding of Tiresias” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (North 46), the story of the Fisher King from Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval (Troyes 417 – 422), and Canto III from Dante’s Inferno (Dante 23 – 31).
- Read selections of modernist poetry and descriptions of modernism: Baudelaire’s “To The Reader” (North 42 – 43), along with an overview of the French symbolists and early modernism (Lewis 45 – 49), “In a Station of the Metro,” by Ezra Pound and the major tenets of imagism, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” along with a reading about the effects of the Great War on modernist literature (Lewis 108-111).
- Learn some general biographical background to the poem (Southam 32 – 35).
- Steer away from the question “What does it mean?” which tends to mislead, and ask instead, “What does it express?”
- Draw attention to the musicality of the poem by reading it aloud or listening to recordings.
After the first reading
- Read Eliot’s explanation of the objective correlative (“Hamlet” 48).
- Consider the critical questions of what emotions Eliot expresses in the poem, how he expresses them, and how well he expresses them.
- Read Eliot’s approach to the suggestion and evasion of meter in his essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” (“Verse Libre” 31-36) and understand that this method of “fixity and flux” is similarly used with rhyme and even meaning (in the traditional sense of a paraphrasable idea).
- Consider, “What are the meanings of the poem?” (Don’t forget to use the plural.)
Meaning versus Expression
At the Museum of Modern Art, when confronted with Jackson Pollock’s Square Pouring, many visitors shake their heads and say, “I just don’t get it. What the hell is it supposed to mean?” Then they laugh and go somewhere that makes more sense, like a bar. No one need question the meaning of a beer. Well, it’s not the visitors’ fault they don’t get modern art.
Teachers have trained them to ask of art, first and last, “What does it mean?” Western culture has privileged meaning above all other aspects of art since the Greeks developed the theory of mimesis, the idea that art mimics — or more commonly, mirrors — reality, that it represents and comments on the world around it. It makes sense then that the primary task of a viewer or reader is to try to understand what the author’s comment is. Meaning then is the connection a reader or viewer makes between an artwork and life. If we cannot say what a piece means, we doubt our own interpretive skills or the piece’s quality.
Yet a truly abstract painting, by definition, is non-figurative. This means an abstract painting does not represent something else. That’s the point. An abstract painting is usually about itself: the paint, the texture, the shapes and the process of painting. To ask “What does this mean?” is to miss the point of Jackson Pollock’s Square Pouring.
Of course, even abstract paintings have meanings. The abstraction itself is a rebellion against traditional modes of representation. Colors and shapes have meanings in Clifford Still’s painting called Untitled: the reddish brown and the brownish red look like blood soaked through a sheet. The black cuts through the canvas like a knife; the white could be skin, the yellow corruption. It is impossible to prevent a viewer from making verbal connections; it is what we do as language makers. The meaning of the colors, although open to interpretation, can help us understand why the painting has such an unsettling effect. But meaning is not what matters here, which is why Stills called the painting “Untitled,” to get us to experience the painting more directly as a painting, rather than through the interpretive filter of language. As an example of abstract expressionism, the painting expresses something, presumably an emotion.
Even more than a painting, anything written must signify. It’s what words do. It would be a mistake to ignore meaning in any form of writing. I am merely suggesting that sometimes other aspects of a work of art are as or more important than its ability to make coherent sense.
What “Meaning” Means
When a professor told Eliot that his students were having difficulty with The Waste Land, he was “informed that they were looking for what was ‘not there’” (Southam 38). Such statements by the author are very discouraging for readers struggling with the poem. Why should they bother to look for something that the author tells us is not there? But let’s step back a moment and ask: what were the students looking for? Presumably, meaning.
In his essay “The Music of Poetry,” Eliot tells us that “the poet … is always trying to defend the kind of poetry he is writing” (“Music” 107). Since Eliot invokes meaning throughout the essay, we can deduce that he intended his own poetry to mean something. But what does “meaning” mean? Normally, we think of meaning in terms of a dictionary definition: a stable, succinct statement of main idea or overall purpose. But is that what Eliot is talking about?
Eliot said William Morris’ “Blue Closet” was “a delightful poem, though I cannot explain what it means and I doubt whether the author could have explained it.” If the author cannot explain the work, who can? If the author is not the authority, who is? The traditional project of figuring out what the author meant is undermined. Some literary theorists discount author’s intention entirely and focus only on the text. For others, the reader is the authority. For someone lost in The Waste Land, neither approach is very helpful. Eliot suggests that no one, not even the most accomplished critic, may be able to summarize a poem: “It is commonplace to observe that the meaning of a poem may wholly escape paraphrase.”
Why is this so? Eliot tells us, “The poet is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist” (“Music” 110-111). Words are all we have in a poem. If “words fail” to describe those “frontiers of consciousness,” then how can meaning — or meanings — “still exist”? Poetry is difficult, Eliot is suggesting, because it is trying to say something that cannot be easily said.
When literary critics, professors, and students speak of interpreting literature, they are often thinking of the work as a kind of elaborately formulated word game, the reader’s task being to extract the main idea from the clues and distractions. Eliot warned against inventing “the puzzle for the pleasure of discovering the solution” (quoted in Southam 38). As a student of literature, I have often wondered — with bitter gall — why various authors bothered to hide the meaning behind obscure images and allusions. If they had something to say, why not just say it, why not shout it out, why not write an essay, instead of deliberately obscuring their intent behind mysterious symbols that few can decode?
But essays and puzzles do not have the literary richness of a poem. They do not do what a poem does. They cannot be experienced as a poem can, so it is a serious failure of teachers and literary critics to suggest an essay can replace a poem or a novel, can stand in for the literary work as a clarification of the author’s intent, as if the author was not able — or willing — to write clearly.
Eliot warned against “mistaking explanation for understanding.” The ability to explain a work of art, he says, does not imply that one has understood it. Understanding is something besides the ability to reduce a work to a statement of purpose. When people tell a friend, “I understand you,” they are not suggesting that they can explain what the friend’s life means. “Understanding” here means relating to the person. As we will see, Eliot thought of “understanding” in empathetic, rather than in mental terms.
What does The Waste Land Express? Even frustrated readers can describe many of the feelings it invokes, but the complexity of those emotions, ranging from utter despair to religious ecstasy, does not make that easy. In the clanging, prophetic, booming climax, the voice suddenly switches for a moment to one of apparent frivolity: “The boat responded / Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar” (419-420). How all these feelings relate to each other is even more difficult to describe. In fact, it would take a complex work of art to say it all, perhaps a compressed modernistic epic. So, a reader should not feel intimidated by the difficulty of expressing the emotional range of the poem when it was difficult for the poet himself.
My first suggestion to readers and teachers: instead of asking, “What does the poem mean?” which tends to mislead us into paraphrasing idea, ask “What does it express?”
The Objective Correlative
Meaning for Eliot is more emotive than intellectual. “If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something … if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless” (“Music” 111). In other words, for Eliot, a poem that does not move the reader lacks meaning, even if the reader can explain its main idea clearly. A poem that is easy to understand but does not move the reader would be something less than poetry, perhaps prose in verse form. When asked the meaning of a line in Ash-Wednesday — “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree,” — Eliot answered, “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’” (Southam 38). This does not mean the lady, the leopards, and the juniper tree do not symbolize anything, but that Eliot did not want his enigmatic line replaced by a prosaic explanation. After all, he chose the best words he could to express himself.
How does Eliot express emotion in the poem? Through objective correlatives. The phrase “objective correlative” sounds difficult, but Eliot was simply describing the use of certain poetic objects which correlate to a particular feeling: “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 the particular emotion” (“Hamlet” 48). The lady, leopards, and juniper tree then are elements in a formula that should produce an emotional response. It is interesting to note that the devices Eliot mentions here relate to narrative: “situation” and “chain of events.” In fact, narrative is one of the most common literary devices in The Waste Land. In a sense, the poem is an anthology of stories.
Stories in anthologies may share a theme, a genre, or a mood, but a unifying meaning is difficult to find. Acknowledging the competing narratives in The Waste Land naturally leads to an awareness of the many voices of the poem. (Mikhail Bakhtin called this multiplicity of voices heteroglossia.) Any reading or performance of the poem should accentuate the various voices, stories and meanings. This plurality of voices and narratives makes the search for a singular interpretation problematic.
Eliot calls the assumption that “there must be just one interpretation of the poem as a whole” a fallacy: “as for the meanings of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers” (quoted in Southam 37-38). We see then that Eliot is leaving meaning up to the reader. Although Eliot allows for variant readings, this permissiveness does not throw open the work to any reading. He validates only the readings of “sensitive readers,” readers who are paying close attention to the work they are reading and are affected emotionally by the poem. Eliot acknowledges that “meanings may differ from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better” (“Music” 111). Eliot’s repeated slippage from “meanings” to the singular pronoun “it,” quoted here from two separate sources, should put readers on guard against the temptation of looking for a singular meaning in his work.
Of Morris’ “Blue Closet,” he said, the poem’s “obvious intention is to produce the effect of a dream. It is not necessary, in order to enjoy the poem, to know what the dream means; but human beings have an unshakable belief that dreams mean something” (“Music” 110). Eliot suggests that we do not need to know exactly what the dream means to appreciate Morris’ poem. Yet Eliot was not saying that dreams do not have meanings, nor that we should try to suppress our “unshakable belief in meaning,” but that we should enjoy the poem for its dreamlike effects and allow the play of meanings to shift below the surface, just out of sight.
My second suggestion is that a reader should understand Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative, to support the idea of that poetry expresses feeling rather than idea, and to examine how he expresses those emotions. The third suggestion is to move away from trying to establish a single, unifying meaning for The Waste Land and search for a plurality of meanings.
Suggestion and Evasion
Poetic form itself carries meaning in the emotive sense. “The music of poetry is not something,” Eliot wrote, “which exists apart from the meaning” (“Music” 110). Sound, in other words, is an essential part of what a poem means for Eliot. Were the students who were looking for something that was “not there” thinking of sound? No, they were looking for a thesis statement, an expression of the main idea. It was the paper they had to write which led them away from the emotion and music of The Waste Land. A sensitive reading of the poem should focus on musicality, which is why first time readers should not go chasing footnotes, even if they do not understand a line.
Other poetic devices Eliot employs include meter, form, rhyme and meaning (in the traditional sense). In his essay “Reflections on Vers Libre,” Eliot wrote, “the most interesting verse which has been written in our language, has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it . . . It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse” (“Vers Libre” 33).
Eliot’s approach to rhyme is similar. Speaking of the modernist “rejection of rhyme,” he states, “And this liberation from rhyme might be as well a liberation of rhyme. Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed. There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood” (“Vers Libre” 36). Modern poets should not avoid rhyme, but use it where it is most effective.
This pattern of suggestion and evasion also illuminates Eliot’s use of meaning, in the usual sense of an expressible idea. Throughout the poem, we may think this image or that allusion means something — and of course it does — and yet our interpretive efforts are frustrated by yet another strange line that seems unconnected to what came before. Meaning is hinted at then pulled away from.
Eliot uses surprise to shake our intellect free from the poem, so that we experience it on an emotional level, much as a puzzling zen koan, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, meant to unsettle our reliance on intellect. Eliot then entices our intellects back again with further hints of meaning. If readers are warned, as discussed above, that meaning for Eliot includes sound and feeling, and if readers understand that Eliot’s invocation and frustration of meaning as an expressible idea is part of his poetic technique, many of the more difficult aspects of the poem become easier and the experience of the poem richer.
The fourth suggestion is that a reader should read about Eliot’s techniques of suggestion and evasion by reading his essay “Reflections on Vers Libre,” and understand that this method extends beyond meter and form to rhyme and meaning (in the traditional sense) and may encompass other poetic devices as well.
A Personal State of Mind: The Waste Land
We do not need to know the details of Eliot’s life to sense the pain in The Waste Land, and Eliot would not have wanted his privacy trespassed; however, it is a mistake to ignore biography entirely. Eliot himself insisted on the personal nature of the poem: “The more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation’, which is nonsense … that did not form part of my intention” (North 112). Although there is ongoing debate about the importance and validity of authorial intention in literary studies, it is useful to note that Eliot insisted his poem was not social commentary: “Various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling” (North 112).
Eliot’s statements about his own poetry are often contradictory, and so we must examine comments skeptically. We can easily discount Eliot’s suggestion that his most famous poems was “wholly insignificant.” If so, why would he have gone to such lengths to justify his own poem’s inclusion in the cannon? The assertion that the poem was only “rhythmical grumbling” seems to be a deliberate understatement, yet it expresses both the musicality and emotion we have discussed above. What is “rhythmic grumbling” anyway? Simply, a complaint in verse.
What was he complaining about? Eliot, speaking of his first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, said, “To her, the marriage brought no happiness. . . . To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land” (Southam 34). Here, Eliot clearly identifies the source of the poem as a state of mind arising from his difficult marriage. Edmund Wilson said that “the poem . . . is nothing more or less than a most distressingly moving account of Eliot’s own agonized state of mind during the years which preceded his nervous breakdown” (Southam 33-34). Since the poem is more an expression of a state of mind than a statement of idea, it helps to know something about that marriage. Although we do not need to examine the bed clothes, we should know that the marriage was difficult sexually and Vivienne suffered from emotional troubles, sometimes behaving quite erratically, which must have been embarrassing for the proper, conservative Eliot.
Certain biographies contest that picture, presenting a more sympathetic view of Vivienne and laying more responsibility for the marriage’s failure in Eliot’s lap, who obviously had his own share of emotional problems. Examining this question is not the purpose of this essay. Many critics would say that it is unnecessary for the understanding of the poem, and I agree. It is only important to know that Eliot himself has said that he was expressing a personal state of mind that arose primarily from a relationship, difficult sexually and emotionally, since the theme of failed relationships is interwoven throughout the text and is the immediate cause of the infertility of the waste land.
Jewel Spears Brooker brilliantly summarized this theme as: “When love fails, a waste land develops.” A few examples of when the theme surfaces include the narrator’s dumbfounded reaction to the hyacinth girl (34-42), the story of Lil’s husband coming back from the war, (139-168), and the unsatisfying sexual encounter between the typist and the young man carbuncular (222-256). Even the story of Elizabeth and Leicester is one of infertile love, since their romantic relationship is a public act. All these narratives are about traumatic or unfulfilled relationships. I will leave it up to the reader to examine these and other examples, insisting only on the importance of the theme in the poem.
The second part of the poem, “The Game of Chess,” is more deliberately autobiographical. According to Edmund Wilson, “Eliot’s version of [Vivienne] is contained in ‘The Chair she sat in like a burnished throne’” and the pub scene “reflects the atmosphere immediately outside their first flat in London” (quoted in Southam 157). A female character says, “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. / What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / I never know what you are thinking. Think” (111-114). When Pound was editing the poem, he wrote next to these lines, “photography,” implying that it was a snapshot of reality, presumably of Vivienne’s own nervous condition and, revealingly, Eliot’s lack of communication within their relationship. In connection to the line, “You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember nothing?” Southam writes, “Possibly this line was an insult actually thrown at Eliot by his wife in anger or exasperation” (Southam 162).
Virgina Woolf considered Vivienne to be Eliot’s muse, and so have biographers (as suggested in the title of the book Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot and the Long-Supressed Truth about her Influence on his Genius). Eliot asked Vivienne herself to look over “The Game of Chess,” indicating that she had a higher stake in this part of the poem. She took out a line, “the ivory men make company between us,” which Southam suggests might have born “too heavily upon their personal situation” (Southam 163), and she wrote a line in cockney for the maid’s story.
Eliot criticized Shakespeare for trying to describe in Hamlet “a feeling which he cannot understand . . . an emotion which he cannot express in art. . . . Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him” (North 120-121). Since Eliot was so hard on Shakespeare for trying to express a difficult emotion, a key critical question is “How well did Eliot express feeling in ‘The Waste Land’?”
My fifth recommendation then is to learn some general biographical background to the poem (Southam 32-35). The sixth is to ask, “What are the feelings expressed in the poem?” and “How well does Eliot express them?”
A Highly Personal Impersonality: Traditional Modernism
Although Eliot said his poem was “a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life,” he clearly intended his poem to have universal significance. Writing about Shakespeare, he discussed “the struggle — which alone constitutes life for a poet — to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal” (“Tradition” 40). So which is it? Personal or impersonal? Eliot is saying that the poet translates his own “personal and private agonies” into something “universal and impersonal.” Over-emphasizing either side would be a mistake. Southam called this ambiguity “a highly personal impersonality” (Southam 35).
How does Eliot universalize his own “personal and private agonies”? Primarily through allusion. Speaking of the line, “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (62-63), Eliot wrote “Certainly I have borrowed lines from [Dante], in the attempt to reproduce, or rather to arouse in the reader’s mind the memory, of some Dantesque scene, and thus establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life. … And I gave the references in my notes, in order to make the reader who recognized the allusion, know that I meant him to recognize it, and know that he would have missed the point if he did not recognize it.” (North 113). Here, Eliot clearly states that he wants the reader to connect this important section to the “medieval inferno and modern life.” Otherwise, the reader would have missed the point.
So, we have caught Eliot openly contradicting his assertion that the poem was not about “the disillusionment of a generation.” It seems Eliot would have it both ways. If you said his poem was about modern life, he said that was not his intention. If you said it was merely personal, then you would have missed the point. The easy resolution: it is both.
Eliot called James Joyce’s Ulysses “the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted” (“Ulysses” 128). Many readers have noticed parallels between Ulysses and “The Waste Land” (Joyce even accused Eliot of plagiarism), but here Eliot acknowledges his debt. What was Eliot was indebted for? Primarily, a plurality of voices and narratives tied together with the “mythical method,” which Eliot described as being “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (“Ulysses,” 130). In other words, Eliot is identifying Joyce’s innovation as using a traditional source, in this case the story of Ulysses, to unify what is otherwise the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” of modernity. Only through tradition, he suggests, can we understand the modern world. Dante’s Inferno functions in the same way as the story of Ulysses in Joyce’s novel, giving “a shape and a significance” to the The Waste Land.
Some critics have brushed aside the theme of the Holy Grail and the waste land, because Eliot added these elements late in the composition of the poem. Eliot himself said that he had sent critics off on a wild goose chase looking for references to tarot and the grail. However, this view of the poem oddly takes all versions at once, rather than focusing on the published version. Even though the grail story was added late, it was an essential addition that gave final shape to the poem.
If the Grail story holds the poem together in terms of narrative, the character of Tiresias, is the central, unifying eye, or the ultimate observer, of all other events in the poem. I. A. Richards argued that Eliot’s most important note to the poem was, “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eye merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor … so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem” (North 23). All of the men in the poem are one and all of the women are one, and both genders are unified in Tiresias. So, all the fragments which “I have shored against my ruins,” merge under the ambiguous eye of Tiresias. It is important then to know something of Tiresias, as well as the grail story, before reading.
The epigraph should also help prepare the reader for the fragmentation of the poem, although it needs translatation, explained and put in context. The note to it in the Norton critical edition is useful for this. Readers should also know the Sibyl’s prophecies were written, torn up and scattered. In order to understand the prophecy, the fragments had to be pieced together, much as “The Waste Land” seems pieced together. This fragmentation is so central to the poem that it is mentioned both at the beginning in “A heap of broken images” (22) and the very ending of the poem, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (430). Readers should be ready for the poem’s fragmentation.
But do we need to get all of the allusions to appreciate the poem? “In his ‘Dante’ essay, Eliot wrote that we do not need to know precise meaning of the imagery in Dante, ‘but in our awareness of the images we must be aware that the meaning is there’” (Southam 29). In other words, Eliot is suggesting that we do not always need to know exactly what an image means, in order to understand it emotively. Reading the poem line by line with all the notes and commentaries would be a serious mistake at a first reading.
Allusions are important in the poem, of course, but we should think of them as adding depth and texture. No reader will miss the musicality of “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag — / It’s so elegant / So intelligent” (128) or the emotional impact of the first line, “April is the cruelest month.” A reader does not need to know the popular song from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1912 to appreciate the Shakespeherian line, nor catch the allusions in the opening line to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Rupert Brooke’s “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” and Gautier’s “Claire de Lune Sentimental,” in order to sense that these words seem to echo with other voices.
It is enough then to set some background to modernism and traditional sources before beginning reading. Later, a reader can wander off into the various allusions and their explanations. The poem is like the sprawling castle of the fisher king. Some rooms are open and full of light and others are dark and crowded with furniture, each piece having some significance. There are hidden passageways, dungeons and towers, but a first reader does not need to see all of them on the first visit. I. A. Richards says, “Allusion in Mr. Eliot’s hands is a technical device for compression. ‘The Waste Land’ is the equivalent in content to an epic. Without [allusion] twelve books would have been needed” (“Poetry” 171). It would take many books to explain them all and how they work together with all the other aspects of the poem.
Unfortunately, instead of making the poem easier to read, the allusions only add to the difficulty. Difficulty in modern writing, according to Eliot, is to be expected: “We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect” (“Metaphysical” 65). In order to write about the “great variety and complexity” of modern civilization (and Eliot is again confirming his intent to do so), writers like Joyce and Eliot must use “various and complex” techniques. In order to be comprehensive, they must be “more allusive, more indirect.” It is a helpful to know that the difficulty of The Waste Land was intentional, a poetic device for describing the difficult modern age. Preparing readers for difficulty with some discussion and readings about modernism will help them cope with the complexity of the poem.
Eliot said, “… tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required” (“Vers Libre” 32). The difference, or “violent stimulus,” of a modern poem, however, is only possible in terms of tradition. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists” (“Tradition” 72). In short, a writer cannot create a new form, unless there are older forms to react against. Even the most extreme modernism affirms tradition by defining itself against it. The Waste Land defines itself against tradition, in terms of form, yet unifies itself thematically with traditional allusions.
The seventh suggestion then is to foreground certain traditional sources by reading excerpts. I recommend these: “The Blinding of Tiresias” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (North 46), the story of the fisher king from Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval (Troyes 417 – 422), and Canto III from Dante’s Inferno (Dante 23 – 31), in that order not only for chronological reasons, but also thematic ones.
The eighth suggestion is to discuss modernism and read some typical selections: Baudelaire’s “To The Reader” (North 42 – 43), along with a discussion of symbolists and the beginnings of modernism (Lewis 45 – 49). “In a Station of the Metro,” by Ezra Pound and a discussion of imagism. Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” and a reading about the effects of the Great War on modernist literature (Lewis 108-111).
Reading the poem cold, without any help, is hard. Some biographical, traditional, and modernist background make the poem more accessible, as well as preparation for the difficulty and fragmentation of the poem. Most importantly, “What does it mean?” is the wrong question, because it is misleading. “What does it express?” is much more helpful. The Waste Land expresses through poetic techniques, which Eliot approaches and backs away from, a state of mind arising from a difficult relationship and modern life, universalized through allusion and unified through Tiresias and the Grail Story.
(I wrote this essay while taking Emily Merriman’s graduate course on T. S. Eliot at San Francisco State University. I owe a great deal to her excellent teaching.)
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Dante, Alighieri. The Inferno of Dante. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.
Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
—. “Reflections on Vers Libre.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
—. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
—. “from The Music of Poetry.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
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