This poem, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” seems designed to overwhelm, launching its audience through a series of ultra-refined, mostly inaccessible allusions to both apocryphal and contemporary subjects. Elliot’s affinity for the subjects of yore has merited excessive attention from students and scholars, but I’ve found that this poem resonates more with me with respect to its immediate cultural impact in the late 1910s. I interpret the poem as Eliot’s address to a globally grieving population, his appeal for humanity to correctly process loss and ultimately unearth and re-administer Truth. Witnessing such a profound loss of life after the Great War, with countries having been split into factions and pitted against each another, the world seemed frozen in a permanent state of shock (“each man fixed his eyes before his feet”). People were unsure that they could rebuild or restructure, and while many felt the need to reorient themselves, in Eliot’s mind they did so without the benefit of a proper, objective vantage point from which to process the chaos. Folks like Eliot must have become mesmerized by both the occult and Eastern religions as old ideas of spirituality (i.e. Christianity) became increasingly insufficient (“the dead tree gives no shelter”). Yet all three cultures strongly influenced the composition and tone of the poem. With this in mind, I tried to understand why Eliot felt the need to divest himself from the old standards for managing Grief and Loss. In my mind, Eliot’s seems so taken by the Italians (Dante) and Greeks (“Mylae”), not merely to imitate or pay tribute to them, but as a valiant strike in the name of Truth, having researched and discovered that the old masters couldn’t comprehend the vastness of loss as the World circa 1918. Perhaps it also spoke to the idea of unity, or the belief that a basis for pain–one that is finite and generational–can be observed in many different nooks and crannies.
I’m not sure at this point what Eliot wanted to say: whether he eventually proposes a putative solution for his well-defined problem. I have a difficult time deciphering Eliot’s message, but a recent discussion with my friend Cameron helped me find some resolution. He saw the first section as Eliot’s advice for his audience to redefine Death, and to “tend to the dead as you would the living.” The audience is invited to linger within the metaphorical “Waste Land” in order to hear the Word of the poet, and as Eliot’s complex depiction of Death and Resurrection unravels, the two of us became keen on finding the practical advice Eliot provides in this moment. We saw that the various ceremonies of burial and mourning led the living to neglect themselves. How would Eliot have his audience go about resolving/inverting this crisis? Just as “in life, one can tend to a garden,” in death, “one also tends to a garden” by letting their corpse fertilize their vegetation (from Cameron, based on the final lines of section 1). I think that the audience ought to recognize how Death operates, and that, as with the Hanging Man, something significant must be sacrificed in order for the real healing to begin. Maybe this would require an audience member to abandon their confused search for facts v. fiction, to drop their burdens, accept their messy reality and continue forward. I honestly don’t know if I’ve managed to get at the right things here, but this second reading of the passage managed to give my some clarity (as well as some grief). I’m fascinated by Eliot’s journey to crafting this poem, and I’m glad to spend a whole semester with this material.