There are times in history in which humanity struggles to retain a positive outlook on life. By the time World War I ends, the optimism that the Enlightenment engendered gives way to serious doubt as to the progress of humans. The world lingers in shock as to the brutality of the war and remains in disillusionment as to its consequences. In T.S. Eliot’s famous twentieth century poem, “The Waste Land,” the listener experiences different voices portraying the bleakness of post-World War I society. Throughout the poem, Eliot connects many different scenes, myths, and religious views together to work his theme of demoralization. By establishing a dark tone in the work, Eliot presents the state of society in all of its despair and uncertainty.
When the war comes to an end in Europe, numerous towns and cities lie in ruins due to all the battles raged there. In the poem’s first section entitled “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker asks “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?” (lines 19-20). The “roots” being spoken of are personified; the word “clutch” signifies a hand grasping onto something, possibly in desperation, as if there is an important message needing to be displayed, something eminent. “Rubbish” connotates a mess scattered all over the ground as a result of the bombs that the warring powers dropped onto the cities. All that the listener can view in the lines consists of a ruinous heap. The rubbish in question lies on the ground, ancient, for it is described as “stony.” Whatever old values that society held onto falter in the face of this new devastation. Europeans will not be able to recover the glorious past and ideals that they have lost to death and decay. What do people make of the chaos that surrounds them? The speaker says “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images” (lines 21-22). The ones who suffer in the aftermath of the war cannot understand the despair and destruction around them; they are so confounded by it that to even guess as to why it’s happened will not work. Instead of having a clear “image” as to what life means, the listener can only make out a “heap of broken images”, images that aren’t uniform but disjointed. Essentially, for the speaker, meaninglessness rules the atmosphere. The world in post War World I not only lies in physical ruins but philosophical ones as well.
Everyday Europeans, particularly Londoners, drudge along throughout the day in the after math of the Great War. The speaker describes a typical afternoon in London: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many/ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled/ With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (lines 62-64 and 68). As people go through their daily routines, life seems to have lost its flavor. The demoralization lingers on “many” and not just a select few. The effects of the war affect numerous people on a global scale. The terror that weighs them down consists of the fact that war leaves emotional scars; families will now endure the loss of their loved ones who have died in combat. The “death that undoes so many” refers to the casualties of the war; they rip apart a person’s sense of peace and stability, even their moral footing. Londoners “sigh, short and infrequent” because they sense the pain that lies within them. Line 68 speaks of a “dead” sound, signifying that death not only occurred in the war on a massive scale but that a sense of death also lingers in the world, bringing people down in despair. How can the world be based upon a sense of optimism if death exposes itself everywhere you turn? In commenting on London society in general, T.S. Eliot thought about the continuity of the human predicament: modern man in the city with its despairing noises; the mind of one the continuation of the other, the problem unchanging (qtd. in Martin 20). The “dead sound” in line 68 points to this reference. The “continuation of the mind” shows that modern man struggles with a universal sense of destruction, one that ceases to change and which is relevant to each age. In this sense, humanity continues to ponder the meaning of death and why it occurs.
Specifically, people suffer under gloom and depression in the institution of marriage. A lack of communication between husband and wife leads to a general feeling of confusion and boredom. In the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess,” a husband and wife are having difficulty communicating with one another: “’What are you thinking of? What thinking? What/ I never know what you are thinking. Think’/ I think we are in a rats’ alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones” (lines 113-116). The wife, curious as to what her husband thinks about, asks him directly, exasperated; apparently, she never receives a sufficient response form him regarding his true inner feelings. The husband never answers her pleas for clarity. Not only does a blurred outlook on life dominate society as a whole but it also reigns in the individual lives of citizens. In this case, the woman can never be sure what her partner is thinking about. She assumes that he thinks of nothing at all. Yet the husband seems to respond through lines 115-116. Yet curiously, the husband’s reply isn’t enclosed in quotation marks; this most likely means he, in reality, does not answer at all and only meditates his thoughts (qtd. in Cuddy 128). He tries to make sense out of the things that are happening around him. But because of the despair he feels, he refuses to let his wife know, probably out of fear of frightening her. Therefore, he chooses to remain silent; the truth hurts enough. The consequence lies in the fact that, because he will not communicate to her, their marriage no longer contains a mutual foundation. Without the ability to let one another know how they feel about certain issues, they cannot support one another during a time of great doubt and perplexity.
In regards to the male/female relationship, the speaker relates to a scene of illicit sexuality, which occurs in the third section of the poem entitled “The Fire Sermon.” A man makes his move on a vulnerable mistress: “Flushed and undecided, he assaults at once/ Exploring hands encounter no defense/ His vanity requires no response/ And makes a welcome of indifference” (lines 239-242). The woman lacks the moral strength necessary to reject the man’s advances, and even if she did, she would not win the battle. The male “assaults” her, violently trespassing his boundaries. His actions, being as nonconsensual as they are, break through so easily since the lady no longer believes in standing up for herself. Not even the man is sure as to what to think of his actions. “Vanity” connotates a sense that nothing is of any value anymore, that nothing can have lasting substance in an era of pure degradation. Nobody wonders as to why the sexual advance should be seen as an issue. “Indifference” captures the tone of society as well as the individual. Whether or not people should respect or love one another no longer pertains to the world. Because the war drove people down into the ground through despair, humans have lost the will to be rational, moral beings. They no longer have a standard of right and wrong by which to judge their actions.
The center for knowing right from wrong in the traditional sense, the church, also suffers under the demise caused from World War I. Religion, powerless, cannot give man a sense of hope. In the poem’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” presents the listener with the vision of a chapel: “Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel/ There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home/ It has no windows, and the door swings/ Dry bones can harm no one” (lines 388-391). The “tumbled graves” indicate the deaths of the soldiers who have passed away in the fury of the war. They also point to the deaths of regular people in society. Since the chapel surrounds the symbols of death (the graves), the speaker shows the auditor how religion has played a role in explaining how to best endure death: faith. Having a deep conviction in an afterlife allows on to face death. Yet faith, being based on what a person does not see, is less effective than the demise that presents itself up close to humanity. The chapel is described as “empty”, symbolizing the fact that people have abandoned faith in God during the aftermath of the war; no longer does a community of humans gather under the banner of religion in order to understand the world. The despair in Europe oppresses any sense of religious hope. The bones from the chapel can “harm no one” in that religion has lost its power to have an important base in the human mind.
From the beginnings of the Enlightenment, humans believed that reason would give humanity a framework in which to base all their actions in regard to the world and themselves. In the era of Romanticism and Transcendentalism, people began to find the meaning of life within themselves and in Nature (or all the experiences of life). By becoming self-sufficient and reasonable, they could solve the world’s issues and establish permanent peace on Earth. However, once World War came, death occurred on such a large scale that the world now began to realize just how base humanity can be in its treatment of others. The world apparently is not ready for harmony and cooperation. The despair in the world prevails to the point where individuals are bewildered as to what it even means. There is no way to make anything out of it. T.S. Eliot’s conclusion to the modern dilemma presents itself in the final line of the poem: the word “Shantih” is repeated three times. According to Eliot, the word is translated as the “Peace which passes all understanding.” The only solution to the bleak and confusing mood of post-World War I society consists of a peace of mind that cannot be grasped by the world. Yet it is just as real as death and has its own way of inspiring hope even in the darkest of circumstances.
Cuddy, A. Lois and Hirsch, H. David eds. Critical Essays on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. G.K. Hall & Co. Boston, Massachusetts, 1991. Print.
Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Introduction of American Literature. Eds. Nina Bym Shorter Seventh ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008. 869-881 Print.
Herbert, Howarth. “Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot.” Martin. 20. Print.
Jr, Grover Smith. “Memory and Desire: The Waste Land.” Cuddy and Hirsch. 128. Print.
Martin, Jay eds. A Collection of Critical Essays on “The Waste Land.” Prentice Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1968. Print.