T.S. Eliot’s Powerful Use of Fragmentation in The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is an elaborate and mysterious montage of lines from other works, fleeting observations, conversations, scenery, and even languages. Though this approach seems to render the poem needlessly oblique, this style allows the poem to achieve multi-layered significance impossible in a more straightforward poetic style. Eliot’s use of fragmentation in The Waste Land operates on three levels: first, to parallel the broken society and relationships the poem portrays; second, to deconstruct the reader’s familiar context, creating an individualized sense of disconnection; and third, to challenge the reader to seek meaning in mere fragments, in this enigmatic poem as well as in a fractious world.
On the most superficial level, the verbal fragments in The Waste Land emphasize the fragmented condition of the world the poem describes. Partly because it was written in the aftermath of World War I, at a time when Europeans’ sense of security as well as the land itself was in shambles, the poem conveys a sense of disillusionment, confusion, and even despair. The poem’s disjointed structure expresses these emotions better than the rigidity and clarity of more orthodox writing. This is evinced by the following from the section "The Burial of the Dead":
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade
And went on in the sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt Deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
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...ze anything other than the awful finality of despair. The sense of healing and salvation at the end of The Waste Land indicates that there is hope for meaning, even in fractured worlds and obfuscated poems. But it is up to each of us to discover it.
1. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, in Selected Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962).
2. In his preface to his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot writes, "Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail Legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it . . . to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble" (68).
3. See Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land.
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Kimberly Tsau, for example, follows De Quincey's lead in her analysis of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, suggesting that among the violence, apathy, and disjointedness of the poem is a call to face and learn from suffering. Her essay, "Hanging in a Jar," examines how Eliot collects a variety of "cultural memories," cutting and pasting them together to form a collection that is both terrifying and edifying.
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Rhys, Jean, and Judith L. Raiskin. "Wide Sargasso Sea." Wide Saragossa Sea: Backgrounds, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 3-112. Print.
T. S. Eliot drafted The Waste Land during a trip to Lausanne, Switzerland to consult a psychologist for what he described as mild case of nerves. He sent the manuscript to Ezra Pound for editing assistance. Between them the draft was extensively edited and published in 1922. As a modernist poet, Eliot struggled to remove the voice of the author from his work but the work is still a reflection of the author’s interpretation. He paints the picture as he sees it for the readers to view and interpret from their own perspective. The Waste Land could be viewed as a chronicle Eliot’s difficult and not quite successful journey to confront his own unconscious or spiritual reality. “Viewed psychologically, Eliot’s juxtaposition of scenes of sterility, fecundity, and sacrifice represents the speaker’s conscious awareness of a sterile society, and his abortive attempt to experience the unconscious” (Jones 22). Eliot’s depiction of a spiritually empty and lost society is a reflection of his inner search for a life-defining spiritual faith. Eliot’s message is that modern man leads a very hollow and disconnected existence because he has abandoned his spiritual values in pursuit of material wealth.
T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" is considered by many to be the most influential work in modern literature. First published in 1922, it captures the feelings and sentiments of modern culture after World War I. Line thirty of "The Waste Land," "I will show you fear in a handful of dust," is often viewed as a symbol of mankind’s fear of death and resulting love of life. Eliot’s masterpiece—with its revolutionary ideas—inspired writers of his era, and it continues to affect writers even today.
Faced with a world lacking variety, viewpoints, vibrancy, and virtue- a world without life- a fearful and insecure T.S. Eliot found himself the only one who realized all of civilization had been reduced to a single stereotype. Eliot (1888-1965) grew up as an outsider. Born with a double hernia, he was always distinguished from his peers, but translated his disability into a love of nature. He developed a respect for religion as well as an importance for the well-being of others from his grandfather at a young age, which reflected in his poetry later in life. After studying literature and philosophy at Harvard, Eliot took a trip to Paris, absorbing their vivid culture and art. After, he moved on to Oxford and married Vivien Haigh-Wood. Her compulsivity brought an immense amount of stress into his life, resulting in their abrupt separation. A series of writing-related jobs led Eliot to a career in banking and temporarily putting aside his poetry, but the publication of “The Waste Land” brought him a position at the publishing house of Faber and Gwyer. His next poem, called “The Hollow Men” reflected the same tone of desolation and grief as “The Waste Land.” Soon after, he made a momentous shift to Anglicanism that heavily influenced the rest of his work in a positive manner. Eliot went on to marry Valerie Fletcher, whom he was with until the end of his life, and win a Nobel Prize in literature. T.S. Eliot articulates his vast dissatisfaction with the intellectual desolation of society through narrators that share his firm cultural beliefs and quest to reinvigorate a barren civilization in order to overcome his own uncertainties and inspire a revolution of thought.
Ceremonies are prevalent throughout T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot relies on literary contrasts to illustrate the specific values of meaningful, effectual rituals of primitive society in contrast to the meaningless, broken, sham rituals of the modern day. These contrasts serve to show how ceremonies can become broken when they are missing vital components, or they are overloaded with too many. Even the way language is used in the poem furthers the point of ceremonies, both broken and not. In section V of The Waste Land, Eliot writes,