“What was it like for you to read the first section of The Waste Land?“ I doubt that I’m alone as I answer, “I was confused.” However, upon reading and rereading the first section, I see that my confusion results from viewing Eliot’s wasteland through the prism of our own world that we know so well: a place we intuitively understand in the consistency of its space and time. This consistency of place and linear time is a phenomenon that Eliot largely deprives us of: within the first stanza, Eliot jumps from one speaker to another without warning. It’s unknown who spoke first, or exactly where they’re speaking. Narrators and perspectives rapidly change, disorienting the reader. We hear from the dead, the archduke’s cousin, and a tarot card reader with a cold, among others. Eliot, however, doesn’t leave us completely stranded in the wasteland, as we are given a consistent theme: death and the dead, as indicated by the title, “The Burial of the Dead.” The role of the buried dead in this theme is self-evident, the archduke’s cousin brings to mind his assassination, and the tarot card reader suggests secrets of the next world. Even her cold has implications of death. The lack of any coherent narrative is confusing, but Eliot’s collection of thematically interrelated images shows us the way. It’s like a mosaic created with extremely intricate and allusive individual tiles.
The mosaic method is essential to effectively depicting his wasteland because it clues us in to his theme of disorder. Eliot effectively shatters the glass through which we see the world with a hammer, creating a kaleidoscope of images. The reader is thus forced to feel the fractured nature of his world. It no longer makes sense to him; it feels broken and disjointed, and that’s the exact way he presents it to the reader in verse. “A heap of broken images,” begins line 22. And yet, these disjointed images are still all connected. Just like when looking through a kaleidoscope, the landscape is all there; it’s just mixed up. So, I’ve realized it’s important not to let the highly allusive nature of the poem threaten to pull our eyes in too close to the mosaic, unable to see the whole picture. To really perceive Eliot’s wasteland, one must look closely at each allusive tile of the mosaic, then step back and see the piece as a whole, only to dive back in again.