T.S. Eliot peppers "The Waste Land," his apocalyptic poem, with images of modern aridity and inarticulacy that contrast with fertile allusions to previous times. Eliot's language details a brittle era, rife with wars physical and sexual, spiritually broken, culturally decaying, dry and dusty. His references to the Fisher King and mythical vegetation rituals imply that the 20th-century world is in need of a Quester to irrigate the land. "The Waste Land" refuses to provide a simple solution; the properties of the language serve to make for an ambiguous narrative and conclusion, one as confusing and fragmented as Eliot's era itself.
Eliot wastes no time drawing out the first irony of the poem. In the first lines of "The Burial of the Dead," the speaker comments on Jesus' crucifixion and Chaucer while using brutal sounds to relate his spiritual coldness in a warm environment. In "The General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer poetically writes "Whan that April with his showres soote/ The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,/ And bathed every veine in swich licour,/ Of which vertu engrendred is the flowr" (Norton Anthology to English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1, p.81). For "The Wasteland's" speaker, "April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain" (Norton Anthology of Poetry, fourth edition, p.1236, lines 1-4). The harsh "c's" and muted "d's" throughout point to the speaker's disenchantment with a world full of paradoxes and dichotomies. The "mixing" of "Memory and desire" only hurts him, as do all the verbs, which Eliot places at the ends of their lines to int...
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...o present ideas and to withhold personal interaction, it is difficult to read "The Wasteland" without questioning authorial intent. Is the Fisher King in the last stanza, written in the first person, possibly the poet himself, come to rescue us in Nietzschean Über-Mensch form? Though he would certainly argue against the validity of such a self-enlarging statement (or maybe not), Eliot must have written "The Wasteland" with some hopes that it would somehow end his land's drought. In this sense, then, the writer is a type of Fisher King, and the new ritual is not vegetable harvesting, but writing.
Abrams et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Ferguson et al. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.
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