First Impressions

I really cannot wait to understand this poem. At first blush, this poem is entirely overwhelming and impenetrable. Eliot makes it actually impossible to read and comprehend the poem the first time through—unless I’m alone in lacking a casual knowledge of several languages and a plethora of obscure allusions. There are so many characters introduced so quickly, with no helpful introductions, and often the antecedents of the pronouns shift with only context to indicate the change. The “we” in the first stanza is especially protean and shifts between corpses underground, German people chatting in a café, the arch-duke’s cousin, and an unidentified insomniac.
These violent and abrupt shifts in perspective are common in the poem, destabilizing the narration and the boundary of individual identity. The reader too is drawn into the poem, as “In the mountains, there you feel free” destroying any sense of safety and removal from the poem. There is no margin between you, the reader, and the dead in the ground.


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