The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

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The temptations presented to the speakers in Eliot’s poems are the grim physical satisfactions of ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’ or the inert acquisition of a kind of no-mind, that is one safe from any emotion at all, and twice compared by Eliot to a crab, with its pincers and shell (‘a pair of ragged claws’ in Prufrock and ‘an old crab with barnacles on his back’ in Rhapsody on a Windy Night ). Like the moon, the speaker wants subconsciously to lose his memory, lose his youth, lose his mind – even lose his gender, if this desire for oblivion is suggested both by the moon in this poem and Tiresias (‘old man with wrinkled dugs’) in The Waste Land .

The path away from ‘life’ represented in Prufrock , Portrait of a Lady and Rhapsody on a Windy Night leads inexorably to the ‘little life with dried tubers’ of The Waste Land . In this poem, however, composed, in part, during Eliot’s stay in a mental asylum on Lake Geneva, the poet’s focus turns to the ordeal as his major theme. This is nothing new in his poetry. Prufrock’s question is his ordeal, imagined both as metaphysical impossibility – to squeeze ‘the universe into a ball’ – and as martyrdom – his ‘head…brought in upon a platter.’ In The Waste Land , the ordeal is objectified as something archetypal in human existence – a mythical reality as inescapable as the anthropologist Frazer’s ritual killing of the sacred king, or the Quest for the Grail, or the death and rebirth of ritual baptism, or the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The personal, here, is objectified into the general. The whole social milieu of 1920s Europe is ‘The Waste Land’ desperate to avoid a repeat of the ordeal of the First World War which lurks hidden behind Eliot’s text. The inhabitants of the Waste Land are desperate to live life by halves: by tarot readings not religion; by casual sex not marriage, and they are trapped, too, in unhealthy relationships; scarred by the recent war, and wanting not the self-giving of pure love but the taking required by neurotic, fearful personalities desperate for another to support and provide an identity for them.

The ordeal is avoided, of course. It is, actually, unthinkable. No one in the Waste Land could really be Parsifal or Christ or Elizabeth Tudor or the Buddha. When the symbolic rain finally comes, and the thunder speaks, it is again in terms of relationship failure: how those in the Waste Land have avoided the ‘awful daring of a moment’s surrender,’ how they have dodged the moment when, in those simple but terrible words of failure, ‘your heart would have responded/Gaily’ (italics added).

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T.S. Eliot