Desire to return to a noble past is a central theme of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The narrators of the poem consistently show dissatisfaction with the present, and describe, with yearning, the quality of the past; furthermore, Eliot portrays the contemporary world as irredeemably lost to the beauty of antiquity. In The Waste Land, the theme of isolation from a noble past is represented by descriptions of the environment, sexual corruption, and self-mechanization.
Eliot opens “The Fire Sermon” with a juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity that is centered around the Thames River. The mystical past of the river has been destroyed, and the speaker laments the current condition of his environment:
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the water of the Leman I sat down and wept (177-82)
Although this section is written in the present tense, the speaker means the Thames of the past. The Thames of the past was not polluted, and there were nymphs, giving it a mystical characteristic; however, these nymphs are departed now, and the river is nothing like it used to be. Eliot also juxtaposes different poetic styles to further distinguish the past from the present. Amid a group of unrhymed, rhythm-less lines, he writes, “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” (175...
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...ing lost the sense of Good and Evil, has ceased to be alive” (46). This “living death” is seen very clearly during and immediately after the sexual encounter of the clerk and typist. Eliot uses desolation of environment as well to juxtapose past and present, especially when describing the “unreal city.” The destruction brought about by post-war modernity is rampant also in the description of the Thames River. Finally, Eliot shows the lack of vitality of modern people through their voluntary self-mechanization. The characters of the present in The Waste Land have no motivation to make, or live by, their own choices, and let the machine of life carry them where it may. The result is a stark depiction of the automation, isolation, and despair that define the contemporary world.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Collected Poems Harcourt : New York, 1963.
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