This is a poem about waste and the possibility of the collapse of civilisation, alongside an alternative possibility of regeneration through some recovered purity of feeling
The modernist experiment in writing, led by Eliot’s poems written between 1917 and 1922, followed the experiments in art, music and dance of a decade earlier. In the summer of 1921
he went to see Sacre performed by the Diaghilev Ballet in London. In his ‘London Letter’ for the New York Dial, he said that Stravinsky’s music seemed to ‘transform
barbaric noises of modern life’.
In some ways The Waste Land is a social document accumulating evidence against civilisation through the ages. At the same time the poem is a vision of sorts, a vision of horror,
‘The horror! The horror!’, taken from Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness
Conrad’s disturbed witness to savagery in the Congo finds an equivalent savagery when he returns to the ‘sepulchral city’ – a city of dead souls like the surreal London of Eliot’s great poem
nd ourselves imprisoned in the ‘Unreal City’.
Reality, undefined in this poem, is implied by its absence
to be inside The Waste Land is to experience this loss of what Eliot terms reality
Silence is central to this poem
comes to us as a counter to cacophony
Eliot often alludes to literary and religious predecessors – St Augustine, Conrad, Dante – who nerved themselves to explore a psychic underworld and to articulate their findings for those of us who don’t venture that far.
Eliot’s heroes of communication
The Waste Land’s opening statement, ‘April is the cruellest month’, knocks against the pleasurable anticipation of other Aprils in English literature, in which spring is a delicious awakening. Here, to come alive after the deadness of winter is a cruel ordeal,
How does Eliot define the condition of deadness? One way is with intermittent intimations of what is not dead: the hyacinth girl; the unworldly fishmen who live on the edge of mortality; the inexplicable splendour of St Magnus Martyr; children’s voices chanting in the chapel; and the thunder, oncoming rain and bells that command a pilgrim’s attention in the finale
leaves us in some interface between the horror of urban decay and the need for ‘Shantih’, the peace that passes understanding; between the Unreal City and unspoken reality. It leaves us haunted by momentary glimpses of reality and appalled by the fall into worthless schemes of existence.