Myth and the 'Now' Part Seventeen: 'The Waste Land'

Another good example of what I mean by the ‘Ironic culture’ of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries is T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, which some regard as the most important poem of the twentieth century. The Waste Land has been the subject of a great deal of critical analysis and scholarly interpretation, with many still arguing over ‘what it means’. But this is actually our first indication that we are dealing with an Ironic work: works of previous modes and other genres do not give rise to such contention about their meaning. Ambiguity and lack of accord about something so important as a poet’s or author’s central intentions, or the purpose and meaning of a work irrespective of its poet or author, are signs of an Irony.

In the second decade of the twentieth century a group of poets who named themselves ‘Georgians’ after King George V dominated poetry in England. They were part of a well-worn tradition stemming from Victorian times in which poetry was mostly about nature and had rural settings. The early Twentieth Century with its motorcars, buses, commuters on the London Underground, canned food and gramophone records was not their focus: indeed, the ‘modern world’, especially the state of the world after the First World War, had not yet properly been assimilated by any poetic movement in English. Sassoon’s war poems had given readers a poetic glimpse of the war itself, but its consequences for the peace had yet to be poetically assessed.

Eliot, who had grown up in America, the crucible of secular industrial modernism, was convinced that Georgian poetry was significantly failing to capture the post-war world poetically. Overused mages and metaphors lose force and become clichés, and a small number of poets in England including T. E. Hulme had started to reject much of what the Georgians stood for and to call instead for a ‘dry, hard, classical verse’ based around innovative images and new metaphors.

As an undergraduate, Eliot came across several nineteenth-century French poets, including Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue. Rather than writing about the rural world, Baudelaire (1821-1867) had often tackled the modern city using new images, and had developed a new language for poetry. French poets also showed Eliot that poetry didn’t have to conform to a strict rhyme scheme or metre: the French called it vers libre or ‘free verse’.

The Waste Land took these techniques of modernism to new levels. But again, if we understand what Irony is all about, we can predict what we will find: Irony, moving closer to the ‘dark pole’ than any other mode or genre, subverts the ordered structures and rules of Epic or of earlier modes; indeed, it depends for its own meaning on the subversion or dispersal of conventional meanings. For the purposes of this series of articles, what we are looking for is whether or not, in doing so, the skeleton of Myth, which we have found so far to have underpinned the other modes, likewise forms the foundation of Irony.

And this is exactly what we do find in The Waste Land. Eliot’s poem draws on a vast number of literary and religious texts and traditions, but particularly focuses on what is called the ‘mythic method’, Eliot’s use of a mythic narrative or structure. James Joyce had used this method in his novel Ulysses, which had been appearing in instalments in the Little Review for several years prior to its publication in 1922, when The Waste Land appeared. Eliot had praised Joyce’s use of ancient myth in an essay, and in his own poem drew on Arthurian legend and other religious and literary traditions, including the Fisher King myth from the Arthurian body of work, summed up as the story of an infertile king with an infertile kingdom. The desolation has been caused by a crime, the rape of maidens. The land cannot be made pure except through the actions of a pure man.

Followers of this series will spot immediately how this is a simple inversion of the traditional Romance, in which the Emerging Warrior King ascends to his throne bringing prosperity to the kingdom, or the progress of a story towards the enlightenment and freedom of the ‘light pole’.

In his poem, Eliot was postulating that post-First World War civilisation had become a ‘waste land’ - the world had lost its fertility and even the survivors of the war seemed to be suffering spiritually. Eliot’s primary task was to try to capture this poetically, using the techniques he had picked up from Baudelaire and others. One of the foremost of these was the idea of ‘impersonality’. Eliot considered that a ‘good poem’ was not all about the poet’s own feelings and experiences, arguing in his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ for a kind of anti-Romanticism. The Romantics’ - Wordsworth, Coleridge and many others - focused on the idea of original creation and inspiration, but for Eliot the tradition that preceded any era of poetry was even more vital. Joyce had used Odysseus as a framework for his novel set in modern Dublin; Ezra Pound looked back to the poets of the Middle Ages; H. D.’s Imagist poetry used Greek references and ideas. Eliot felt that a modern poet should write with an intimate knowledge of the literature of all previous ages:

This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

In other words, knowledge of past writers in the hands of contemporary writers incorporates tradition into the contemporary scene. The traditions of Homer and Dante come together in Eliot’s poetry making it both modern and traditional. This has been called a paradox, but we can recognise it as an explicit statement from an Ironic poet that he was using Myth as his foundation.

For Eliot, the poet’s personality did not matter: the poetry produced is what is important:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Irony, according to Northrop Frye, is to do with the sub-human. Here we have Eliot wanting to escape from what it was to be cohesively human, to remove himself from personality. But he used the power of Myth to do so - with interesting results, as we shall see.

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