Contrast between Past and Present in 'The Waste Land' by T.S.Eliot

“The Waste Land” has generally been criticized as lacking structural principles. The work has been regarded by some people as a collection of some separate poems. The Waste Land is a very important landmark in the 20th century literature. In the careful study of the poem it has been found that there is a thin and subtle thread which runs throughout the poem and gives it a sort of unity. In the poem, Eliot describes the barrenness of city life in modern civilization. He describes London as an “unreal city.”

The poem gives us an authentic impression of the mentality of educated people in the psychological stump that took place immediately after World War I. It makes us aware of the nervous exhaustation, the mental disintegration, the exaggerated self consciousness, the boredom, the pathetic groping after the fragments of a shattered faith-all these symptoms of “the psychic disease which ravaged Europe mercilessly like an epidemic.”   Eliot takes us into the very heart of the wasteland which was post war Europe and makes us realize to the full the plight of a whole generation. It vividly illustrates the complexity and machine like activity of modern man comparing with the glorious past of spiritual and moral highness.

The figures who inhabit the unreal city are like the inhabitants of Baudlaire’s Paris. Eliot clearly points out the aridity of the modern urban civilization.

  Besides the modern waste landers consider April as the cruelest month because they have no desire for re-birth and spiritual life.
The dead-routine of the office goers shows the futility and the emptiness of civilization. The city-dwellers have no faith in any religion. The offices and factories in London begin at nine which is the time of Christ Crucifixion. In the modern civilization, the world of commerce is entirely different from the world of God. In the big city, one will come across the evil of gambling in different forms. In the poem, Madame So Sostris exemplifies the worldliness and unspiritual outlook of modern world. She is a society. Under the low, fortune telling is a criminal and undesirable business. So Madame So Sostris is afraid of police. (She has a pack of seventy eight ends through which she tells the fortune of her customer.)

We may regard “The Wasteland” as an epitome of the “Decade of Despair’, which followed World War I. The poem aims at presenting to us the various cross-current, emotional, intellectual and psychological which together contributed to the general atmosphere of that unhappy period. In the past the source of inspiration for life and achievement was faith. But values have bee changes now-a-days. Spiritually the people all over the world have become barren. In the poem, Eliot shows that the conception of family and of human relationships is being shattered down day by day. The people of upper class capacity are suffering from various types of mental illness. The fashionable society women called the lady of situation are bored with her urban wasteland. They do not feel comfort in their houses. For example, Mr. Eugenides, modern businessmen, is fond of home sex, and he fulfills his desire with hotel boys. Psychologically, the modern people are no satisfied with their getting. They seemed frustrated. For example, Lil is frustrated because she is a woman of thirty one ad fails to fascinate her husband who wants to enjoy life. Similarly, the fashionable society woman, the lady of Situation is bored with her own life.

The Waste Land is timeless; it is valid for all ages. It deals with a universal dilemma. The theme of the poem is the spiritual emptiness, the unemotional sociality and the general aimlessness which have characterized all periods of history. In addition to the myth which serves to link the present with ancient times. Eliot has introduced a multitude of reminiscence of other poets into the fabric of his poem. By this method he is able to suggest the extensive consciousness of the past and to reveal the sameness as well as the contrasts between the life of the present and that of the past. 

There is a general feeling of fear in Waste Land-modern and ancient. April inspires fear. Marie is frightened in her moment of sexual delight on her cousins’ sledge. The “Son of Man” is urged to endure the vision of fear and mortality in the desert, and the lover in the garden is neither living nor dead. Fear is common to all times ad periods of history. Unemotional sea or lust is a feature of all ages too. It has become a source of moral degradation. For instance, we find in the poem the picture of three Thows daughters who live on being the objects of sexual enjoyment in exchange of money. Cleopatra was, of course, an exception. But Philomel’s rape by the barbarous king is “Game of Chess” strikes the keynote of this section linking the past and the present.
Thus, Eliot in “The Waste Land” has cast his vision of the contemporary erotic and spiritual aridity into a general perspective beyond berries of historical time or national or geographical boundaries. The framework of the myth and  the recurrent allusions the portrayal of characters, the presentation of scenes of seduction and violation of women, the literary reminiscences and quotations all the contribute to giving the poem a permanent and universal quality.