Myth and the 'Now' Part Eighteen: The Waste Land 2


The accompanying table reminds us of our thesis so far: Northrop Frye’s categorisation of literature into the five evolving modes of Myth, Romance, High Mimetic, Low Mimetic and Irony parallels the development of the thing called ‘fiction’ through the ages, but also mirrors the development of the individual, from early childhood to adulthood - and this whole movement is also related to the progression described in Owen Garfield’s work Saving the Appearances, from a state in which human beings are intimately participating in the world around them to a condition in which they find themselves disaffected and isolated.

Irony as a mode, as we have seen defined by Frye earlier, is ‘literature in which the characters exhibit a power of action inferior to the one assumed to be normal in the reader or audience, or in which the poet's attitude is one of detached objectivity’ and ‘the mythos of the literature concerned primarily with a "realistic" level of experience, usually taking the form of a parody or contrasting analogue to romance. Such irony may be tragic or comic in its main emphasis’. If our thesis is broadly correct, we should also find that this state reflects a normal experience of ‘being an adult’ and that that condition is associated with isolation and fragmentation.

And so, matching it all up, we find that Irony comes to dominate the literature of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, appearing to us, as the audience which has grown up in those times, to be literature’s ‘most mature’ form. Thus we fall prey to what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’, which he defined as

the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited

which we must not fail to recognise as the attitude commonly taken by adults to anything to do with childhood - i.e. the sense that ‘childish things have been outgrown and are now superseded and outmoded in every way’.

The latter is a kind of localised chronological snobbery: we believe that because we are older, we must 'know better'. This is such an axiom of our times and throughout human history that it is no wonder that the same idea leaks out more broadly into our attitudes to the past as whole.

But it is also our thesis that, even at the remotest end of these scales, when we are ‘grown up’, when we are at our most remote and analytical, and when we live in the most ‘advanced’ period of human history, the bones of Myth show through: the primal, raw, simple and powerful images and motifs of early humanity, early childhood and our most participative phase are still there, just under the surface, forming the skeleton upon which the flesh of later modes, later centuries and later life hangs.

Eliot said that he explicitly used ‘mythic method’ in writing his poetry - he recognised and strived to apply the principles of Myth despite that fact that his message or theme as highly Ironic in nature. It should only be necessary to examine the first part of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land in detail to establish that it is in fact Ironic in nature but is using the power of Myth to make its point.

As I said earlier, the fact that it is difficult to attach simple meanings to The Waste Land is a sign that it is Ironic. Eliot intended it as a eulogy to the culture around him that he considered to be dead. In attempting to sum up the nature of that supposedly dying culture, Eliot intentionally wrote in a disjointed style. (Fragmented writing was what Eliot was famous for, as we can see from other examples of his poetry like 'The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock'.) The Waste Land is split up into five sections, each of which has a different theme.

However, mythic allusions start before the poem itself: it was originally preceded by a Latin epigraph from The Satyricon, written by Gaius Petronius, which features a narrator, Encolpius, and his unfaithful lover. The epigraph reads, ‘I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, “Sibyl, what do you want?” she replied, “I want to die”.’ The oracle Sibyl is made immortal by Apollo, but not given eternal youth or health - she grows older and weaker, but never dies. No better testimony to the ‘perpetual adulthood’ of Irony could be found - the epigraph suggests the prolonged meaningless and degradation of a life without joy, isolated from the innocent participation in the world which was the province of youth.

One of the chief characteristics of Irony, as described in my own book How Stories Really Work, is that it plays with what is considered an ordinary time sequence. Stories in which events happen out of sequence usually fall into the Irony genre. And at the beginning of the poem itself is the section called ‘The Burial of the Dead’: we are starting at the end, so to speak.

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

April, normally considered the month in which Winter finds its end and Spring emerges with new growth and hope, is turned on its head: April is the ‘cruellest month’, and life’s ‘dull roots’ are bred from death, fed with ‘dried tubers’. Oxymorons, another feature of Irony, abound: ‘Winter kept us warm’; ‘Summer surprised us…With a shower of rain’.

‘Starnbergersee’ was the countess Marie Louise Larisch’s native home of Munich; the ‘Hofgarten’ is a garden in the centre of Munich, a symbol of European decadence. After the First World War, Marie Louise Larisch was herself a symbol of Old-World decadent Europe. Thus Eliot harks back to the pre-war years as we as adults might yearn for a lost childhood: ’in the mountains, there you feel free’.

‘Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch’ means ‘I am not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, I am a real German’ emphasising dislocation not least by the fact that very few English readers would know enough German to translate it, leaving them feeling disaffected.

But we can already see mythic images emerging, albeit upturned:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.

These clutching roots are a long way from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, in Norse myth, which winds its branches and roots into the whole universe - and the ‘Son of man’ here is not the living Christ but an entity that knows only a ‘heap of broken images’. Water, mythically the source of life and even eternal life, is here absent. The universe has become a frightening, hostile place, full of shadows under which we are invited:

Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Then Eliot quotes from Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde about the ill-fated affair between the knight Tristan and the lady Isolde, itself based on a medieval romance that became part of the Arthurian tradition. The quoted scene occurs near the beginning of the opera, with the captured Isolde being escorted by ship to Cornwall by Tristan:

Frisch weht der Wind

Der Heimat zu

Mein Irisch Kind,

Wo weilest du?

Fresh blows the wind

For home;

My Irish child,

Where do you tarry?

The opera’s central idea is that while death conquers all and unites grieving lovers, love itself is the source of problems - therefore it is death that should be celebrated, not love. Another Ironic inversion.

The poet then expresses a draining away of life, senses and knowledge even in the face of sensuous beauty:

Yet when we came back, late, from