T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – Can We Learn From the Past ?

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T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land – Can We Learn From the Past ?

And he is not likely to know what is

To be done unless he lives in what is not

merely the present, but the present moment

of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what

is dead, but what is already living.

--T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

When read for the first time, The Waste Land appears to be a concoction of sorts, a disjointed poem. Lines are written in different languages, narrators change, and the scenes seem disconnected, except for the repeated references to the desert and death. When read over again, however, the pieces become coherent. The Waste Land is categorized as a poem, but exhibited visually, it appears to be a literary collage. And when standing back and viewing the collage from afar, a common theme soon emerges. Eliot collects aspects from different cultures or what he calls cultural memories. These assembled memories depict a lifeless world, in which the barrenness of these scenes speak of a wasted condition. He concentrates on women, including examples of violence committed against them and the women's subsequent lack of response to this violence, to show how apathetic the world is. But The Waste Land is not a social commentary on the plight of women. Rather, the women's non-reaction to the violence against them becomes a metaphor for the impotence of the human race to respond to pain. Violence recurs throughout time, and as Eliot points to in his essay "Tradition and Individual Talent" in the epigraph, we can break this cycle of violence and move ahead only by learning from the past and applying this knowledge to the present.

Form often follows function in poetry, and in this case, Eliot uses this notion whe...

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...ing these fragments, he saw how asleep he used to be:

I have heard the key

Turn in the door once and turn once only

We think of the key, each in his prison,

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison (412-415)

These memories become his "key" to awken the rest of us who are still pretending. The reader is left with two choices at the end of the poem. S/he can either forget about the poem, and go back to living in a waste land, or s/he can stop repressing pain and feeling and leave the waste land. Eliot ends the poem with a man (maybe himself?) sitting on a shore, "[f]ishing, with the arid plain behind me" and asking, "Shall I at least set my lands in order?" (425-36) The man here, by facing his pain, has left the waste land, and is able to move ahead.

Work Cited

[1] Plato, Republic, in Great Diaologues of Plato (Mentor: New York, 1984), 313.

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