Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Edition: The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions)
The Waste Land was published first in October 1922 in Eliot's own monthly, The Criterion. The poem subsequently appeared in November in the American literary magazine, The Dial. A hardcover version was published by the New York's Boni and Liveright in December, and a handprinted version was generated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Hogarth Press in 1923. Lawrence Rainey suggests that this tripartite publication of The Waste Land--in journals, as a limited edition, and as a wider commercial edition--reflects Eliot's desire to produce a complex relationship between The Waste Land to a public greater than just the literary elite.

Epigraph: Reference to Sibyl in a jar wanting to die, she had asked for as many years of life as grains of sand, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. This is followed by a dedication to Ezra Pound (il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman, what Dante said to Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio).

I. Burial of the Dead
The poem begins with images of April, the winter, and the summer followed by snippets of conversation between Marie (the Countess Marie Larisch, friend to Eliot) and her cousin the arch-duke who took her out on a sled when they were children. In the second stanza, the voice of God interrupts, following with images of a wasteland: "Son of man, / You cannot say or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water." Excerpts from Tristan und Isolde interrupt. A famous scene with Madame Sosostris follows, there are descriptions of her Tarot cards: some characters on the cards are actually in the Tarot deck, and others are not. There is the drowned Phoenician Sailor, the Lady of the Rocks (Da Vinci), the one-eyed merchant, and the Hanged Man. The next stanza details images of London as an "Unreal City," where a crowd of dead people flow over London Bridge. The poet sees one he knows, and asks him about the corpse he planted in the garden last year.

II. A Game of Chess
An opulent scene with Cleopatra in her chair opens this section. A "sylvan scene" with Philomel appears above an "antique mantel" (the story is that Philomel was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus who then subsequently cut out her tongue so that she could not tell the story; some versions say that Philomel was transformed into a nightingale, which sings a sad song). A fragmented conversation between lovers (?) follows, one voice anxiously asking questions like what the other thinks, if he is thinking at all, what noise there is, what he knows, and what they shall do. The lover, who is in first-person, answers that they will play a game of chess. He then begins to talk about a woman named Lil's husband, who got "demobbed" or demobilized (released from armed services). In conversation with Lil, the first-person speaker callously tells her that she better give him a good time, because "if you don't give it him, there's others will." This conversation is interrupted by the pub announcement at closing time, "Hurry up please its time." The section closes with a string of goodnights merging into Ophelia of Hamlet's "Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night."

III. The Fire Sermon (title from Buddha's sermon against things of the world)
This section begins with an image of the Thames and a reference to Spenser's Prothalamion ("The nymphs are departed") juxtaposed with a bunch of modern, mundane images: "The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights." Another brief reference to Philomel interrupts, the "twit twit twit" and "jug jug jug" sounds of the nightingale. The famous Tiresias scene is in the middle of this section: Tiresias is an all-seeing seer, both male and female. S/he sees a typist at home awaiting "the expected guest," "the young man's carbuncular," "a small house agent's clerk." This young man seems to rape the typist; it is a rape in the modern city in the same poem as a classical rape. The rest of the section includes fragments from Das Rheingold, fragmented images of the river and what flows down it, another reference to a rape structured like an epitaph drawn from Dante ("Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me"), and finally ending with Augustine's "burning" which in Confessions refers to sensual temptations.

IV. Death by Water
This very short ten-line section brings together images of the sea's rising and swelling with profit and loss, age and youth. Phlebas the Phonecian's death is a central image, whose bones were picked by currents under the sea, and who rose and fell passing the "stages of his age and youth."

V. What the Thunder Said
This final section begins with people present at Christ's crucifixion, followed by a lengthy description of mountains of rock where there is no water. Three people are walking, and one of the men don't recognize the third person--this is a direct reference to how in Luke 24 two men on the road to Emmaus do not recognize the resurrected Christ. Cities fall down and are destroyed; the poet levels all of the great cities to the same status by including them all together: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal." The penultimate part of the poem explores three different interpretations of a syllable God presents ("Da") in the Upanishads to three different disciples. "Datta" means "give to men," "Damyata" means "control for the gods," and dayadhyam means "compassion for the demons." The final section of the poem mixes "London Bridge is falling down" with references to the swallow (sometimes Philomel is a swallow and not a nightingale), a sonnet by Nerval, Kyd's Spanish Tragedie and the three words from the Upanishads. The final three words, centered and apart from the rest of the poem are "shantih    shantih    shantih" which means peace, rest, or tranquility.

Michael North's introduction to Norton edition of The Waste Land divides critical reception into basically two camps: formalist, New Critical readings which seek to crack the "code" and provide coherent explications of the work, and readings beyond the New Critics which seek to undo the integrity of some of these readings. Not having the space or time here to offer a more extensive survey of the criticism, I'll focus here on two that I like in particular, and which sort of go together, despite the one being a New Critical reading and the other a Marxist critical reading.

F.R. Leavis's formalist reading is a good example of the former - according to Leavis, The Waste Land was an effort achieve an "inclusive human consciousness" in the face of Machine Age fragmentation. Because the development of technology and mass culture led to an increased pace of life--a "breach of continuity" and "uprooting of life"--alternative forms of coherence were needed. The Waste Land is Eliot's solution to this problem of fragmentation because its organization is one which is based on something other than traditional notions of historicity or narrative continuity, namely, something analogous to musical organization. The different fragments of culture from different times and places exist together in the poem and are related to each other in the way that musical notes and phrases relate to each other in a single piece.

Franco Moretti complicates Leavis's formal reading by contextualizing what he refers to as the mythic arrangement of The Waste Land in a Marxist account of history. Prior to the modern age, the novel was supreme because the novel gets its form from the culture that it springs from. If there is a sense of rootedness and coherence in the culture, so too will there be in the novel. The rise of capitalism loosens the system linking of referents and signs; thus, a new genre is required which is independent of such relationships of historical reality and form. This genre is poetry, which subsumes past and present, far and near, under a new mythos.


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