Literary Devotional: The Waste Land

Note:  This is officially my 300th post at Paperback Fool! Sorry it couldn’t have been more exciting…

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is the great nightmare landmark of twentieth-century poetry—a single work that encapsulates all the fear, alienation, and disillusionment that arose in the West after World War I.  Full of allusions to Buddhist and Hindu myth, Ovid, the Bible, St. Augustine, Arthurian legend, Dante, Shakespeare, and a host of other sources, it represents a fascinating intersection of ancient belief and ritual with the existential crises of the modern world.

Like many works of the modernist period, The Waste Land is largely a response to World War I.  The pointless loss of millions of lives left Europe reeling, as did the awareness that much of this brutality had been wreaked by manmade technology and machinery.  To many, the world had suddenly become inhuman and spiritually barren, with civilization seemingly collapsing in on itself.

In The Waste Land, Eliot asked how redemption and renewel can be found in a landscape of such desolation.  From its opening lines, the poem is filled with images of drought and sterility, countered by attempts by both nature and humankind to generate rebirth:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain

The poem’s narration jmps abruptly between different voices, disorienting the reader as if he or she has been dropoped into a crowd of strangers or marooned in an unfamiliar place.  Though these ominous voices are often aimed directly at the reader, the speakers’ identities remain unknown:

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

The Waste Land draws heavily from Arthurian legend and its references to the Fisher King, a once-powerful leader who has been wounded or disabled, leaving his domain a barren wasteland.  Only when the knight Perceval completes a series of tasks can the Fisher King be healed and his kingdom regenerated.  Eliot spends much of The Waste Land trying to to discern how the modern world can find similar renewal.  Ultimately, a glimmer of hope returns, seemingly at radnom, but it is a fragile hope at best—one to which the poem’s final speaker, like all of humankind, can cling only with a sense of resignation.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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