Friday, August 9, 2013

Social, Religious, Moral Decadence of the Post War World as Reflected in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is an epoch making poem that presents a complete break with 19th century poetic tradition in its style, diction, theme and versification and opens a new one. 20th century poetry experiences several ups and downs. It is the period when literary “modernism” comes into being, people’s life got shattered by world wide violence which ultimately created anguish, barrenness, fragmentation and alienation in every aspect of life. The new poetry is realistic and the poet’s consciousness of the grim realities of life has shattered all illusions and romantic dreams. The tragedy of everyday life has induced in the poet a mood of disillusionment and so the poetry is bitter and pessimistic. The Waste Land projects this tragic gloom, terrifying vision of modern chaotic times and troubled lives through social, religious and moral decays of modern people.  

T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, depicts an image of post-war modern world through the perspective of a man finding himself hopeless and confused about the condition of the society. Through its fragmented and allusive nature, The Waste Land illustrates the contemporary waste land as a metaphor of modern Europe.

Post-War Europe: The Real Waste Land:

The Waste Land is fundamentally a poem about Europe”. The connection between the poem and the historical context of the modern era reveals that the poem metaphorically illustrates the actual condition of modern Europe; the barren and lifeless waste land is a metaphor of Europe after World War I. Eliot uses this “dialectic of analogies” to metaphorically depict the condition of postwar European society, demonstrating the “disillusionment of a generation”.


Eliot chooses a technique that suits to his theme. As the theme of the poem is anguish, barrenness, fragmentation and alienation of modern people, so Eliot expresses this by employing myth, religious symbolism, juxtaposition, objective correlative, colloquial language and literary allusions. If we look at the structure of the poem, we see the first part of the first section of the poem is largely in unrhymed iambic pentameter lines, or blank verse. As the section proceeds, the lines become increasingly irregular in length and meter, giving the feeling of disintegration, of things falling apart.


The single most prominent aspect of both the form and content of The Waste Land is fragmentation. Eliot used fragmentation in his poetry both to demonstrate the chaotic state of modern existence and to juxtapose literary texts against one another. In Eliot’s view, humanity’s psyche had been shattered by World War I and by the collapse of the British Empire. Eliot wants his poetry to express the fragile psychological state of humanity in the twentieth century. Critics read the following line from The Waste Land as a statement of Eliot’s poetic project: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.

At the very beginning of the poem, we see the natural cycle of death and rebirth traditionally associated with the month of April appears tragic to Eliot’s speaker:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

For Eliot’s speaker, April’s showers are cruel, not sweet. The “us” in line 5—“Winter kept us warm”—seems to link the poet himself to the earth that is covered with snow. These opening lines, then, pose the question of the poet’s originality in relation to a tradition that seems barely capable of nourishing the “dull roots” of the modern poet’s sensibility. The poet lives in a modern waste land, in the aftermath of a great war, in an industrialized society that lacks traditional structures of authority and belief, in soil that may not be conducive to new growth. Even if he could become inspired, however, the poet would have no original materials to work with. His imagination consists only of “a heap of broken images,” in the words of line 22, the images he inherits from literary ancestors going back to the Bible. The modernist comes to write poetry after a great tradition of poetry has been all but tapped out. Despite this bleakness, however, the poem does present a rebirth of sorts, and the rebirth, while signifying the recovery of European society after the war, also symbolizes the renewal of poetic tradition in modernism, accomplished in part by the mixing of high and low culture and the improvisational quality of the poem as a whole.

Social Decay:

Closely allied to the central spiritual or religious theme of The Waste Land is Eliot’s concern with the socio-cultural scenario of post-war Europe. In the poem, relationships between people in the modern society are reduced to something that is sterile, lifeless, and dry. The various characters that appear in the poem are unable to carry a logical and coherent dialogue. As a part of the already fragmented whole, any attempt for conversations between people reflects the fragmented and incoherent structure and content of the poem. This impossibility of meaningful communication corresponds to the dismal and hopeless reality of the modern society and also intensifies and dramatizes the speaker’s anguish and frustration at the isolation and loneliness in the modern world. For example, the speaker’s attempt to have a conversation in the second part, “A Game of Chess,” demonstrates the impossibility of communication and thus relationship: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. / what are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / I never know what you are thinking. Think” (112-114). The speaker of these lines is unable to communicate with the person he is speaking to; this failure in communication reflects the isolation and lack of connection that characterize relationships within the disillusioned and dismal modern society.

Religious/ Spiritual  Decay:

The Waste Land  contains a troubled religious proposition. In the second episode the speaker describes a true wasteland of “stony rubbish”; in it, he says, man can recognize only “[a] heap of broken images.” The vision consists only of nothingness—a handful of dust—which is so profound as to be frightening; yet truth also resides here: No longer a religious phenomenon achieved through Christ, truth is represented by a mere void.

The speaker is very much pessimistic about the future of the world. He says that we cannot expect much from this modern world because

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow                           
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.  [The Burial of the Death]

In this segment one can hear again the voice of Tiresias, who depicts a sort of spiritual waste land. It portrays an agonized world filled with "stony rubbish," where "the sun beats" mercilessly down so that "the dead trees give no shelter" and the shrill cry of the cricket brings "no relief." In this desolate scenario "the dry stone" gives "no sound of water."

The second and third parts of the poem throw light on the failure of sex relationship in the modern waste land. Sex has become a matter of intrigue and has become a mere source of pleasure and lost its spiritual significance. The sexual life has lost spirituality and it has become a work without any real pleasure of both body and mind. The picture of the vulgar sexual life and low morality both of the higher as well as the lower classes are drown in the Game of the Chess part. The fire Sermon section also shows the lustful nature of the modern men. It also reminds one of the Confessions of St Auguustine wherein he represents lust as a burning cauldron. But the spiritually dead, modern humanity knows only lust and no true love. The sterile burning of lust is brought out by different sex experiences in the contemporary waste land.

To conclude, Eliot was deeply shocked by the moral, social and moral degradation of the post-war people in Europe as well as other parts of the world. The poem is a clear picture of that degradation. Here Eliot juxtaposes what the past was like and the present conditions in order to show how the world has undergone a radical, tragic change. The ending of the poem is a reminiscence of Coleridge’s concerns in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner i.e. the need for redemption through prayer, penance and self-abnegation after a life of sin.