Something Old: The Waste Land

In high school I made several false starts on a short story tentatively titled “Water, Water.” The longest version told the story of a dystopian United States plagued by water shortages and censorship—which began to experience floods that only some could see, accompanied by mythological visions and passionate longing. This flood, though it seemed destructive to the authorities, made people ill, and perhaps carried them into another world, was a great release. 

So maybe it’s not too much of a surprise that the imagery and premise of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land resonate with me even though I find the movements from fragment to fragment largely incomprehensible: a cultural desert waiting for metaphorical rain, water that can be either salvation or death. And I do find it incomprehensible, even though I’ve read it, heard lectures on it, reread it for this blog post, and read the essay on it in Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. It’s partly because of this, and partly because I don’t have time, that I’m taking the easy way out and not going into great detail. Even staying general, though, there is a ridiculous amount to be said about The Waste Land, and, to my regret, I haven’t done enough research to begin to know what to address, what the conversation about it swirls around, so I’ll keep this fairly personal.

The poem consists of five sections, “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Drowning,” and “What the Thunder Said.” Each contains a montage of scenes that flow into one another, using, as Vendler points out, a cacophony of different voices from different social classes, even different languages. A central inspiration (Eliot’s own notes suggest and I’ve read elsewhere) is the myth (from Arthurian legend, among other folkloric sources) of the king whose wound will not heal and whose land is drying up until the right deeds are performed.

The Waste Land is often read as an embodiment of postwar consciousness—including disillusionment with religious and aesthetic ideals. In Vendler’s words, 

In 1921, Eliot was the first modern poet writing in English to say, in a very broad way, ‘what happened’ to himself and to Europe during and after the Great War.

Disillusioned, yes, sordid, yes—but a sublimity I can thrill to and relate to hovers much closer to this poem than it does to much later poetry I’ve read (and much of the earlier). The sublime, something deep, nourishing, spiritual, is present in the negative space of The Waste Land, made visible through its very absence. (Though actually I would suggest that the poem contains two types of sublimity—that of the relief longed for, hinted at but never received, and a sort of negative sublimity of the spiritual drought itself in its stark power.) And I cannot help but hope that the thunder, in addition to offering wisdom, might—just might—offer the renewal hoped for. After all, there is renewal in the stories The Waste Land is modeled after.

In today’s poetry, there seems to be, to my (admittedly extremely uneducated) ear, less sublimity, or at least homelier sublimity, domestic sublimity that clings to objects closer to home than the sublimity of earlier poetry does, avoiding calling on lofty (now trite) Western mythological, philosophical, and religious sources. 

In addition, the comparison between a sordid everyday reality and a sublime ideal seems to have been largely lost—probably to a considerably greater degree than the sublime itself has been. This last, I think, reflects a cultural turn for the better: there’s a lot to be said for valuing more immediate, more physical, more contemporary parts of life, often connected to the more important goal of valuing historically undervalued categories of experience (and, by implication, groups of people). In short, what Eliot portrays as sordid others would consider sacred, and his waste land in need of renewal might be to people less attached to the tottering Western intellectual tradition, a jungle teeming with life and possibility. Today’s poetry tries to find meaning in contemporary life, instead of mourning the loss of meaning and praying for its return.

I see both sides of this. I think the real world is boundlessly complex and interesting and not nearly as depressing as the Chekhovs (and perhaps Eliots) of this world find it to be. But somehow, despite having a not-even-remotely classical education, I also find Eliot’s vision much more attractive, engaging, evocative, than a lot of the contemporary poetry I read, partly because I think that sordid is a thing, that large chunks of life are boring and depressing and morally disgusting unless you’re deeply engaged with them, which is hard and possibly not worth the effort if you can instead be engaged with things that matter more to you, even if those things are more distant or less real. 

It’s interesting, though, that Eliot didn’t claim to see much of cosmic import, pessimistic or optimistic, in the poem: according to Vendler’s article, Eliot wrote that The Waste Land was “‘only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.'”


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