The Waste Land is a metaphor for the state of the world as Eliot saw it. It does not have a plot or a story; it is a collage of pictures that show the condition of the world. The disjointed structure of the poem is typical of the Modernist age, as is the extreme self-consciousness with which Eliot wrote the poem. The poem is not only about the state of the world, it is also about the state of literature itself. Eliot is acutely aware of the immensity of the task he has set himself. The poem is divided into five sections – "The Burial of the Dead", "A Game of Chess", "The Fire Sermon", "Death by Water", and "What the Thunder Said". Ezra Pound was the editor of the poem. Eliot respected Pound so much that he allowed him to make extensive changes to the poem.
The Waste Land was published in 1922. Eliot’s subject is how war and modern life has destroyed the world. The world has become infertile – the poem starts with how the months of spring, instead of bringing new life, bring back painful memories of what the world had once been. The futility of the First World War and the immense destruction it caused weighed down the mind of the poet. Eliot is also concerned about contemporary literature. He tries to create the kind of poetry that is worthy of following in the footsteps of the great literature that he admired so much.
Eliot was formulating a new kind of poetry. He experiments widely with the form of the dramatic monologue, the rhyme scheme, symbolism, etc. In The Waste Land he quotes from many authors of the Western literary canon – almost every line in the poem is a reference to some poem that had influenced Eliot. Eliot does the work of both poet and editor.
I had been told that in order to enjoy The Waste Land one does not need to know the poems that Eliot refers to. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is absolutely true. The poem is complete on its own. I did not feel the need to refer to Eliot’s footnotes and look up the poems that he quotes in order to understand what he’s saying, though sometimes when I did recognise the original poem I was overjoyed. The words, whether Eliot’s own or not, come together to form a coherent whole that is beautiful and lyrical. The poem is not always easy to read as it is extremely disjointed and some parts of it is not in English, but Eliot’s footnotes are helpful in times of need (though it is sometimes tiresome to have to refer to them). The power of Eliot’s verse is unquestionable – his words will remain with me for a very long time.
Book Reviewed by Amrita Dutta
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