Since its publication in 1922, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land has been confounding English students and scholars, both the curious and the learned. It is a poem of unprecedented artistic breadth and erudition and a representation of the cultural and moral infertility that Eliot saw in the mechanized, passionless urban landscape of the new century. The piece is famous not only as one of the greatest literary edifices of high modernism, standing alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, but for also being, also like Ulysses, nearly incomprehensible the first (or second or third) time through without the cultural perspicacity of someone like Eliot. An understanding of The Waste Land depends on an understanding of Eliot’s veneration of his artistic predecessors: the “dead poets” who created the art of writing, reaching as far back as ancient Greece, who ignited the torch modernists were destined to carry. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” an indelible companion to the modernist era, Eliot put to ink his views on the influence of intellectual history on modern writing:
|Thomas Stearns Eliot in 1934. Taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell. (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London)|
- [Tradition] involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order (Qtd. in North 114-115).
The significance of modernism in the annals of literature is now obvious, but to Eliot the canon was an anchor that would keep the avant-garde poetry that we would come to call modernism within respectable limits and help carve its niche in history. The Waste Land is Eliot’s preoccupation with the past manifested ad infinitum; one of the most difficult problems for a modernist neophyte is the generous use of allusion. A careful reading with a companion text will reveal that one cannot follow five lines of The Waste Land without uncovering a word evoking Dante, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, or another legendary writer. Much of Eliot’s poetic potency comes from the countless allusions in his work: it endows each word with centuries of signification. And, after all, an allusion is, as a rule, almost always taken from a successful work; it is the definition of “standing on the shoulder of giants.” Whether you believe Eliot’s allusions are a legitimate poetic strategy, high-brow sophistry, or artistic blood-sucking, there is no question that The Waste Land rests on a foundation of literary history.
This foundation is most apparent in the end notes written by the poet himself. The first hardcover edition of The Waste Land, published in December of 1922 by Boni and Liveright, was first to include this ancillary section, disparaged by Eliot himself as “bogus scholarship” (Qtd. in North 113). While it might seem that Eliot included them in order to clear the confusion innate in a poem that relies so heavily on other works, there were other less academic reasons, too. While in France, Eliot met the eventual publisher of The Waste Land, Horace Liveright, while at a dinner with James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Liveright agreed to publish the Eliot’s poem in book form but was apprehensive about its length. “I’m disappointed that Eliot’s material is as short,” he wrote in a note to Pound. “Can’t he add anything?” (Rainey 24). Eliot did end up adding something to pad the publication: his endnotes. Scholars sometimes point to fact that the notes were somewhat of an afterthought, more economic than poetic in origin, when using them to approach the poem. The notes themselves can also be as exacerbating as the poem; some portions are written in foreign languages and they often fail to efface the “brown fog” from Eliot’s writing. Michael North, the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land (that somewhat humorously includes footnotes on Eliot’s footnotes), says of the appendix, “Some of these notes…are so blandly pointless as so suggest a hoax, and others, particularly those citing classical quotations in the original language, seem determined to establish mysteries rather than dispelling them” (ix). The problem with (or maybe benefit of) such a prodigious collection of references is that the ambitious researcher will find an interminable reading list to accompany The Waste Land. The endnotes beg you brush up on your Dante, Baudelaire, and mythology. One could spend a lifetime sifting through each source and contriving relationships to the poem. So, for all their difficulties, the notes provide a starting point to excavate the centuries of text buried devilishly by Eliot in his lines.
Additionally, upon careful examination, we can see that the notes are not thrown in at Eliot’s whimsy; there is a pattern to their presence that corresponds to the themes and interconnectivity of the poem. Each note, each quotation that Eliot culls is either from a solemn and weighty work, such as the Bible or Roman poetry, or he impregnates otherwise benign passages with his characteristic apocalyptic tone. Their most immediate function, however, is in creating a web of allusions that hold the poem together. One of the reasons The Waste Land is so maddening is because of the independence of each passage. They could be removed from the poem and almost be able to stand on their own, but through some centripetal force, which allusion is a part of, Eliot has managed to unite these disparate parts in their ability to represent the despairing ethos of modernism.
One example of this involves Hyacinthus, one of Apollo’s favorite companions. Hyacinthus, while out sporting one day with Apollo, chased after the god’s discus,
|“The Death of Hyacinth” (1801) by Jean Broc. Note the fatal discus in the bottom left.|
which he had launched into the obscuring clouds. The youth, who lost sight of the disc, was struck in the head as it returned to earth. The grieving Apollo, devastated at the death of Hyacinthus by his own hand, turned the corpse into a flower, the Hyacinth, which returns every spring: a yearly reminder of the untimely death. Eliot brings Hyacinthus into The Waste Land in line thirty-five of the poem:
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
–Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer. (ll. 29-42)
This passage exemplifies not only Eliot’s mastery of allusion–it juxtaposes a Greek myth with a line in German taken from the Wagner opera Tristan and Isolde–but also his avant-garde narrative style. The section is disjointed in relation to its surrounding lines: the speaker is ambiguous, the theme is desolate and melancholic, and it anticipates future passages. The speaker here is undoubtedly different than the Biblical “handful of dust” speaker from a earlier in the poem, and it is clearly not Madame Sosostris, but we can even wonder if the “me” in line thirty five is speaking the “we” of line thirty seven. The italicized lines preceding the passage refer to Tristan and Isolde translated mean, “Fresh blows the Wind/ to the homeland./ My Irish child,/ where are you dwelling?” They are lines sung by a sailor and are overheard by Isolde, who believes the song is mocking her. Perhaps, like the sailor’s song, the quotation is overheard by someone or is merely a memory of the Hyacinth Girl. The poem gives us no easy answer. Either way, we can tell that the scene involves a couple in a declining relationship. The speaker is feeling the life-in-death impotence of the waste land: “I could not/ Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (ll. 38-40). Relationships in The Waste Land are always passionless. The language of this passage, “could not speak” and “I was neither/ Living nor dead,” anticipate the lines “Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak?” and “’Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’” of the couple in Part II (ll. 112, 126) . Eliot’s coupling of this relationship with Tristan and Isolde on one hand brings to mind the tragic fate of the lovers, but, on the other, Eliot might be contrasting the unhealthy relationship of the hyacinth girl with Hyacinthus and Apollo, whom he might have seen as sharing a purer love. The state of romantic love is one of the most persistent criticisms of culture in the poem–it is developed even further in the “The Fire Sermon”–and, by evoking Hyacinthus, Eliot sets the atmosphere for the unhealthy relationships to come.
Hyacinthus is of course only one minor allusion in The Waste Land. The poem is built upon many others, and each brings its own dimension to the work that original imagery itself cannot. By simply adding a few words that remind us of an ancient hero Eliot can drastically change the tone of a poem; by adding a name he can relate his poem to thousands of years of history. Conrad Aiken, one of Eliot’s close friends, once wrote, “Mr. Eliot has a haunting, a tyrannous awareness that there have been many other awarenesses before; and that the extent of his own awareness, and perhaps even the nature of it, is a consequence of these” (Qtd. in North 148). This awareness of the past and how the past affects the present is most illuminated in The Waste Land. Eliot was an indefatigable lover of the classics, as evidenced by their frequent appearance in his verse, so it seems appropriate to elucidate how his awareness of the Greek and Roman literary tradition and the consciousness of ancient peoples shaped his work. He evokes them several times throughout the poem to great effect and embody some of the poem’s central themes, such as life-in-death and the enervated sexuality of modern culture. The following links lead to further explorations of how certain classical figures enrich Eliot’s verse.
North, Michael, ed. The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.
Rainey, Lawrence. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. New Haven : Yale University Press, 2005. Print.
Hyacinthus and Apollo
Created by Greg LaLuna