Widely recognized as a paragon of modernist poetry, The Waste Land depicts a world in crises that mimics the despair and disillusionment of Western society following the First World War. During this time, Ernest Hemingway popularised the term the ‘lost generation’, referring to those who came of age during WWI. Characterised by the widespread disenchantment of society and its meta-narratives of progress, the era spawned a wealth of literature as writers and artists alike sought to encapsulate the alienating stagnation experienced by the West, including such writers as Fitzgerald, Kafka and, of course, T.S Eliot. This article will examine three examples of the means by which Eliot expresses the disillusionment of the ‘lost generation’ in The Waste Land, these being:
1. Domestic Vignettes.
2. Linguistic Intrusion.
3. Sexual Failure or ‘Lack’.
In The Waste Land, Eliot meshes together scenes of the apocalyptic stagnation of the modern world with fragmented domestic vignettes in such a way as to unsettle the reader. The most notable of these vignettes is found in part two of the poem, “A Game of Chess”. Having opened the poem with a depiction of an almost dystopian London, an ‘unreal city’, Eliot zooms into the more intimate scene of a pub or a bar in which two women are gossiping. Their discourse is one firmly inundated with working class colloquialisms, the tone and personality of the women coming across vividly,
‘ … I said-
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself…’
Their dialogue is domestic in its recognisability, the women appearing almost as caricatures in the sense of familiarity they induce. They represent the ‘every(wo)man’ and would not seem out of place in most pubs in Britain. Yet this picture of domesticity is constantly interrupted by the refrain ‘HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME’. Whilst this too may be read as another domestic image, referencing the British pub tradition of ‘last orders’, its presence serves an ulterior purpose. It is a paradoxical image. On the one hand, its repetitious intrusion cultivates an uneasy, uncanny feeling to the poem that becomes almost prophetic. ‘ITS TIME’ gives the reader the impression of something approaching, something unseen, as if this short domestic vignette sits unknowingly on the brink of something new. This implies movement, an approach. At the same time, the image is also one of stagnation. Its repetition conveys a sense of circularity as well as uneasiness. Repetition is believed to be a typical trait of the ‘uncanny’ as the repeated object becomes both familiar and, due to the absence of apparent cause, unknown. By being in capitalised letters and entirely without punctuation, the phrase induces a panicked feeling and, paired with the time constraint it orders, creates a sense of confinement and claustrophobia. The tension between the contradictory images of constraint and stasis with the prophecy of impending doom placed within an intimate moment of domesticity helps to show the pervasiveness and permeation of disillusionment seeping into all aspects of post-war society. It is not just the grand apocalyptic scale of the ‘unreal city’ of London that it affects; it infiltrates even the banality of every day life.
Eliot suffuses poem with the frequent intrusion of foreign languages and sayings, the purpose of which has caused much debate. Take, for instance, the closing stanza of the poem:
‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon – O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.’
By including an array of languages, Eliot ensures that the reader is never able to fully familiarise themselves with the poem- there will always be some form of disconnect during these moments of linguistic intrusion. Our language, our speech is an aspect of our culture with which we are most familiar. By disrupting our understanding with foreign words, Eliot denies us this intimacy with the text and so disorientates the reader. This disorientation is a deliberate ploy by Eliot, as shown through the conflation of languages in the above passage. Sanskrit and Italian intermingle with an English nursery rhyme, disallowing a unity of meaning or understanding. ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ translates as a mantra for peace which is at odds with the apocalyptic image of London Bridge falling down. Eliot therefore uses language to displace the reader and portray an instability of unified meaning reminiscent of the fractured cultural identity of Britain following the First World War.
Sexual failure and ‘lack’:
The instances and imagery of sexual failure within The Waste Land may be seen to illustrate the disengagement and stagnation in society experienced by Eliot and the ‘lost generation’. The gossiping women from “A Game of Chess” discuss a mutual friend who has had an abortion and who blames her depleted appearance on ‘them pills [she] took, to bring it off’. Successful intercourse is a mode of reproduction, is procreatory and so is representative of progress. In a world which exists in stasis, where there is an absence of growth, there is an apparent impotency not just to the characters but to society in general. Sexual failure or impotency can also be defined in terms of absence or lack. An abortion being the forced eradication of the foetus, the society suffers the absence of new life which, within the extended metaphor of progress,portrays a world still reeling from the devestation of WWI, not yet moving onwards. The absence is manifested by the physical gaps in the text of the poem, such as the end of “The Fire Sermon”, which includes a line that simply reads
‘ la la .’
As such, the very structure of The Waste Land mirrors both the absence of progress and also of meaning that typically characterises the society portrayed by writers of the ‘lost generation’.