Symbolism overload






I took a look at a magazine called The Blind Man which can be found in full here.

I almost wrote about another piece in this issue, a letter apparently written by a mother from Minneapolis but then this small visual poem by Robert Carlton Brown caught my eye.

My mind instantly went to Act II of The Waste Land specifically the shell shocked veteran. “I remember / Those were pearls that were his.” (124-125) The parallels with “Eyes on the Half shell” are almost spooky. Both compare eyes with something related to oysters, the pearls being the product of the oyster and half shell referring to a style of oyster dish. Both also have an element of the upper class in them, pearls being an expensive jewelry item and oysters on the half shell being an expensive dish. Lastly both seem to be referring to the war dead. I’m not suggesting that the two lines have any concrete relation or anything (Eliot is obviously pulling the line from The Tempest) but Eliot and Brown do seem to be trying to present similar ideas with scarily parallel imagery.  My rational side wants to chalk this one up to probability and the capacity for the human brain to make connections where none exist but I can’t help but think this is just weird.

As far as how this line applies to Dadaism, I feel it falls under the Dadaist Disgust. The image of eyes on the half shell is reminds me of Lovecraftian horror. It is clearly meant to invoke a very physical reaction in the reader. The drawings of the eyes around the poem are unsettling at best. The pair at the top, although almost childish looking, are filled with more emotion than I think I’ve ever seen in most real humans’ eyes. They really set the tone for the poem. This tone seems to tear down the idea of classical artistic beauty and almost feels like an accusation of the reader. The fact that the poem is in handwriting, and not put to paper with the perfection (or apparent perfection) of printing also seems to rebel against the tradition ideas of art.


Sexuality in The Waste Land

All of the instances sex and sexual relationships in The Waste Land are dysfunctional, dispassionate, unnatural, and often times violent. From the horrific story of Philomela, to the two women in the pub, to the typist and young man, carbuncular, it is clear that The Waste Land trying to express that something is wrong or broken concerning the sexual act an physical passion. I believe that this was, at least partially, inspired by the sexual issues in the Eliots’ marriage. Both Eliot and Vivien had health problems that put strain on their sexual relationship. Vivian had “menstrual problems” and Eliot had “thin blood.” (66) However this issues were compounded by psychological problems. Ackroyd states that the Eliots both were “Ill at ease or unenergetic in sexual relations.” (66)

I would hesitate to make too direct of comparison between the Eliots and the sexual characters of The Waste Land. I believe the more important and appropriate parallel is upon the idea of unnaturalness that resonates in each story. Both the physical and mental issues that the Eliots faced involving sex would likely have caused anxiety about being abnormal or unnatural. The section between the typist and the young man express this anxiety the most directly. The interaction is passionless and meaningless as if the two were mechanized and unnatural. This is what Eliot feared his marriage would become.

The Gramophone has no soul.

I’m less interested in the lyrics of the Shakespeherian Rag as I am with how the song fits into the drama of The Waste Land. The quote pops up right in the middle of the dispute between the veteran and his wife. In fact it seems to cut right into the middle of the conversation, as if it was playing in the background during this scene and just happened to break through into the foreground. I believe Eliot was using this method to invoke a gramophone playing in the background. I think this can be supported by the extremely scene between the typist and the young man which explicitly includes a gramophone. Both couples are experiencing a similar breakdown of communication between the sexes which the inclusion of a gramophone comments on.

The idea of hollow voices, words without real soul or meaning behind them fits into the scene Eliot is building. The “canned voices” of a gramophone, especially when playing a fairly meaningless, or at least trivial, song like the Shakespeherian rag mirror the veterans words/thoughts well. The veterans thoughts and words are not in the present but rather a replaying of thoughts and words from the past. “I think we are in rats’ alley” is a thought which places the veteran back in the war.  The veteran, like a gramophone, is playing words from the past that have no soul or reality in the present and this causes a breakdown of communication between him and his wife.

Real Regular People

Eliot claimed Middleton to be “merely a great recorder.” He was impressed by Middleton’s ability to accurately reproduce a human being in words. This is reflected in Women Beware Women. The characters have done very little up through act III besides dance and play some chess. Most of the interesting aspects of the play come from the characters words. Eliot pointed out a passage of dialogue where Bianca describes her displeasure with the house to Leantio’s mother. However instead of complaining directly Bianca uses innuendo, “Troth, you speak wondrous well for your old house here; / ‘Twill shortly fall down at your feet to thank you.” This aversion to any real direct action or conflict make Middleton’s characters feel like real, normal people. (If one thinks about it, real people rarely actually do things, in the dramatic sense.)

Eliot uses a similar method in part II. A Game of Chess with the two women in the pub. Nothing actually happens in that scene. However many things are suggested to have happened. “And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will ,I said.” (149) In fact the dialogue isn’t really even occurring in the present but is instead a retelling of a past conversation. This lack of action and focus on suggestion and double meaning make the women in the pub feel normal, real, maybe even bland. The conversation sure seems like something Eliot could have just overheard in a bar and this is due to the methods he borrowed from Middleton.

Burden and who bears it.

An interesting connection between the readings that I noticed was the inclusion of an unfair or misplaced burden. The story of Tiresias has him settling a dispute between two gods, a clearly unfair burden for any mortal to carry. In the story Philomela, the burden of Thereus’ rape of Philomela are misplaced unto Itys, an innocent child. In the Grail legends often the hero is charged with curing the king (sometimes by asking a question he may not be aware he must ask)  and thus saving the country from turning to waste. This burden is far more than any one person can be reasonably expected to bear.

I believe these instances of unfair or misplaced burden can be connected to The Waste Land by paralleling them with the war dead and war survivors. The younger generation at the time, these men and women sacrificed their childhoods, their dreams, and often their lives in the war because of the wills of the older generation. The burden they carried was both unfair and misplaced.  This parallel can be further seen by noticing the power dynamic in each story and how they are similar to the power dynamic between those who started the war and those who fought in it. Tiresias, a mortal, bears the burden of the gods, Gawain bears the burden of his king and his entire country, and Itys bears the burden of the sins of his father. Itys strikes the closest chord with The Waste Land due to the age and power difference between him and his father.

Nature, Weather, Seasons, and the Waste Land

Humans, from any time period, present or past, and for any time period in the perceivable future, depend upon what Weston calls “the regular and ordered sequence of the processes of Nature.” (24) While adaptability provides some protection, for the most part any change in these processes, sudden and drastic, will likely cause mass devastation. This fundamental stressor to the human animal manifests in both the Grail Quest stories and in the story of Rishyacringa. Drought in particular is a problem in these stories. Drought is a failure of the seasons, the regular ordering of weather, to properly prepare the earth for its purpose (at least its purpose for humans) to grow food. This lack of water turns the land to waste (note that too much water is also a problem.) The term waste here refers to the uselessness of the earth. Soil, without water, cannot perform its purpose, therefore it is useless, it is wasted.

Eliot is also concerned with the order of nature and the land. The first stanza in Burial of the Dead starts “April is the cruellest month.” (1) The poem starts in spring time. However instead of being a false spring that will bring to life-water like in the Grail  and Rishyacringa stories, Eliot’s springtime has rain. In fact this rain is “stirring / Dull roots” (3-4) getting the ground ready to produce life. Eliot’s waste land is quite different than the waste lands of the kingdoms in those ancient stories. Eliot’s waste land is not useless. It is most likely perfectly capable of growing food. Instead of being turned to waste by nature the land in Eliot’s poem has been tarnished by us humans. We have wasted it by shelling it, and filling it will dead bodies. The land is not unfruitful, crops could grow. However we won’t plant any because the ground is sullied, unholy. Nature didn’t turn this land to waste, instead humans wasted the land.

The Burial of the Dead

Burying the dead is a ceremony which is suppose to both help with the deads’ transition to the afterlife and comfort the living, helping them to move on with their lives. The first section of The Waste Land presents a failure of this ceremony to do either. In the first 7 lines of the poem, the souls of the war dead are hanging around their buried bodies, seemingly unable to tell that they are dead. Maybe this is because life in the trenches is so similar to being buried. From either the trenches or their graves, soldiers can look up and see “A little life with dried tubers.” (7)

The burial ceremony also fails to adequately comfort those who survived the war. This causes many to suffer insomnia (“I read, much of the night,”(19)) and PTSD which can be seen in the interactions between the two veterans at the end of the section. This failure could be because the ceremony does nothing to address the underlying problems of why the war happened in the first place.