Contrast of Past with Present in The Waste Land
Eliot contrasts the past with the present in several ways throughout his poem, The Waste Land. The simplest of these is the simple juxtaposition of one or more descriptions of the present immediately before or after one or more descriptions of the past. The most obvious of these is section two, in which two descriptions of the present (lines 111-139 and 140-172) immediately follow a description of the past (lines 77-110). In this case, the juxtaposition is used to hold the modern attitude toward sex and love next to an attitude from the past. In the first part
of section two, the description opens with a reference to the description of Antony and Cleopatra's first meeting in Shakespeare's play Antony
and Cleopatra, and Eliot's footnote explicitly refers the reader to that passage. The love and passion of Antony and Cleopatra was an event that changed the future of the Roman Empire and, through that, influenced the direction of the Western world. This passage is rich and seductive in detail, controlled in tone, and cohesive in structure.
In contrast, the passage immediately following can be seen as a conversation between Eliot and his wife, Vivian, who slowly went insane throughout the course of their marriage. Unlike the passion of Antony and Cleopatra, Eliot's love for Vivian was hopeless and without power. This middle passage of section two is Spartan in detail, distressed in tone, and disjointed in structure.
The last part of section two, which also contrasts with the first section, consists of what may be an overheard conversation in a pub. Two speakers discuss a conversation that one of them previously had, in which this speaker remonstrates another friend, Lil, for her attitude toward sex. In this section, the friend describes the sexual relationship between Lil and her husband Albert, who "wants a good time" after four years in the British army. (line 147) The sexual relationship described here is lacking in both love and passion; Albert only wants a good time, but is displeased with the appearance that Lil's teeth give her. As pointed out before, Lil rejects a part of the life cycle and the natural result of sex, the continuation of the life cycle through the creation of a new life in childbirth. Lil suffers a quicker aging as a result of this rejection. The non-sexual relationship between Lil and Albert is also crystallized by the friend's question of what Lil did with the money. Lil's use of the money, which was perhaps used to pay for the abortion, implies a lack of honesty between the couple. The rest of the story told in this passage gives no impression of a meaningful relationship between Lil and Albert. This last passage of section two is random in detail, vulgar in tone, and seemingly unregulated in structure.
Another way that Eliot contrasts past with present in the poem is the insertion of references to the past into sections describing the present. The section which seems to be richest in this technique seems to be "The Fire Sermon," and these references sometimes are distortions of past works of literature and seem to be intended to call to mind the way in which the inherited influences past have influenced the present. One of these distortions occurs in line 182, which reads "By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept ..." This is a distortion of the opening stanza of Psalm 137, which describes the mourning of the exiled Hebrews for their lost homeland. Eliot suggests through the unnamed speaker in this section that, like the exiled Hebrews before, the people of modern Europe have been cut off from the roots that had given their lives meaning. There is also a reference in this line to an illicit lover, or leman, implying that illicit love is one of the causes of this rootlessness. Another example, which is not a distortion of a phrase from another literary work, is furnished by the phrase "the nymphs are departed" in lines 175 and 179. This phrase alludes to the lack of a cohesive, all-encompassing way of viewing the world. The Thames River is described as containing only trash and oil, not figures of mythological significance.
Finally, another way that Eliot contrasts past with present is through symbols with multiple implications that refer both to the past and to the present. The fifth section of the poem, "What the Thunder Said," is rich in this type of symbolism. Eliot's own note at the beginning of the section points out that the three themes associated with the first part of "What the Thunder Said" are "the journey to Emmaus," a historical reference to one of Jesus' travels; "the approach to the Chapel Perilous," a part of the Grail Quest tradition; and "the present decay of Eastern Europe," which is a modern reference. (note 5, 2157) Another example is furnished by the question about an unseen member of the knight's expedition in line 360 ("Who is the third who walks always beside you?") and in line 366 ("--But who is that on the other side of you?"). This question recalls both an Antarctic expedition, a modern reference, and the journey of Jesus to Emmaus, an ancient reference. An early example can be found in the first section, in which the (presumably modern) character Stetson is described as having been present at the Battle of Mylae in 260 BC. (lines 69-70)
In general, Eliot compares the present with the past to provide a significant contrast in details and to make a point about some way that the reality of the present falls short of the cohesive and life-giving reality of some part of the past. This failure of the present is frequently, but not always, sexual in nature.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Abrams, M.H., et al. Footnotes to "The Waste Land
" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume 2. General Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Abrams, M.H., et al. Introduction to "The Waste Land" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume 2. General Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Footnotes to "The Waste Land" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume 2. General Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. "The Waste Land" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, Volume 2. General Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.