“Both the hysteric and the mystic transgress
the linear syntax and logic governing the established
It is perhaps part of the unique genius of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” that both critics and lay readers have repeatedly felt forced to look outside the published text of the poem for clues as to its meaning. The text’s fragmented, seemingly violated body seems to exhibit wounds through which its significance has slipped, creating a “difficulty caused by the author’s having left out something which the reader is used to finding; so that the reader, bewildered, gropes about for what is absent…a kind of ‘meaning’ which is not there, and is not meant to be there” (Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). Elsewhere, Eliot says that “in ‘The Waste Land’ I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying” (Writers at Work, Second Series, 1963). In these two statements Eliot speaks of two different forms of meaning: the first, that which arises through the act of communication, that which is conveyed from one imprisoned self to another, and the second, that meaning which arises out of the individual’s use of language, from one’s personal relationship to language. The “The Waste Land” itself depicts a struggle with both of these aspects of language, and it is out of this struggle that much of the poem’s meaning is unearthed. Early in the poem Eliot calls into question the extent to which language can reflect or even describe reality, and this conflict arises in different forms throughout the poem. The possibility of a disparity between language and reality thus becomes one of the many wounds – to use Koestenbaum’s term – which the poem, and...
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...in reality, becomes a tongue spoken by nature itself, one which man can both understand and speak. The word is no longer a “heap of broken images”.
The poem’s final stanza may seem to threaten this new-made reunion of language and reality with its chaotic profusion of reference, but in fact becomes a moment of consolidation in which the poet is able to pull together the fragmented “ruins” of self. In writing “these fragments I have shored against my ruins” (431), Eliot admits to the fractured nature of language; however, these fragments are no longer employed in the reflection of reality, but rather become a system of buttresses, a sort of scaffolding by which the decayed and decaying self can be supported. Thus, through the wealth of knowledge brought to us through language, there may yet be some hope of discovering the ‘peace that passeth understanding’.
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