The Nobel prize winner of literature in 1948, Thomas Stearns Eliot captures the literary consciousness for more than one reason. As a modernist poet, Eliot categorically rejected the anthropocentric Romantic lamentations of the recent literary past. At the same time, he also transcended the angst-ridden, war-ravaged, chokingly fraught atmosphere of modernism to search for a substantial meaning amidst the fractured ruins of the existential ennui permeating the twentieth century.
This paper aims to understand Eliot’s meaning-making process by exploring the various dimensions of The Waste Land, a 1922 creation. It tries to investigate how Eliot deploys Classicism as a tool to aid him in his endeavour. This paper, therefore, magnifies The Waste Land though the lens of Classicism.
Classicism has been popularly defined as a tendency in art and literature that follows the ancient Greek and Roman principles. Though there have been minor departures from this identification of Classicism, as we shall see in case of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the broader characteristics of Classicism stand reverentially adhered to. Classicism is generally associated with harmony, restraint and adherence to recognized standards of form and craftsmanship. Classicist tendencies fructified very self-consciously from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century in the English literary culture. They influenced distinctly the writers of each age and acquired modified idioms in correspondence to the pulsating rhythms of the fluid spatio-temporal reality. Henceforth, how Shakespeare, Webster and Marlowe employed the classical inheritance was distinctly different from the way in which Milton incorporated those elements.
Themes and definitions of the depraved human condition as punctuated in the classics translated into the writings of the authors prior to the Augustan age. Politically fraught seventeenth century witnessed revolutions, Restoration and many sociological formalizations of change. Literature in the form of pamphlets, journalistic writings and other experiments in prose began to carve a niche for themselves in the literary culture.
Amidst this flux, the dawn of the eighteenth century Neo-classicism endeavoured to attain a telescopic view of the glorious past. Classics became a cursory model to correct and rationally compose a reasoned order out of chaos.
Romanticism rebelled against this array of the weight of Classicism. ‘Imagination’, feelings and emotions translated into literature as expressions of “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. So, while Shelley and Keats refer to the antiquity by creating Prometheus and Hyperion, they merely used the past inheritance as containers to mortalise the abstract ideas – without any fidelity to classical norms. Wordsworth, in fact, appropriated the use of ‘rustic language’ to articulate better the ‘ideas’ about the world at large.
Modernism dismantled this myth about the linguistic ability of articulation of exact ideas in words. The gap between the world and the word grins so wide in the modernist texts that fragmentoriness and incomplete exclamations appear as literal expressions of the existential angst and ennui of the twentieth century. It is within this framework that this paper argues a case for T.S. Eliot’s classicism in The Waste Land.
What makes a piece of work classic is the time-tested relevance of its claims to longevity. Dante, Homer and Ovid are writers who have stood the test of time across generations and centuries of change. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost have provided seeds of influence to writers succeeding them. The ideas, expressions and thought processes of these craftsmen are so universal and comprehensive that they have dominated the English literary imagination till date. Thus, anyone who wishes to create something ‘new’ would in fact end up reworking on the already explored. Eliot’s essays like “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, “Ulysses, order and Myth”, “The Function of Criticism” and his criticism elsewhere interrogate this question quite repeatedly and self-consciously, perhaps because Eliot was a poet and a dramatist too.
Eliot declares that a poet cannot inherit a tradition but only acquire it through labour. The unique sense which would aid in the consolidation of the essences of the past is a cultivated genius of the writer. The process of this “progress of an artist is a continual self sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” It is this complete reverential submission to the tradition that helps an “impersonalized” writer as platinum to assimilate the sulphur dioxide and oxygen of past experiences to create a new poetry in sulphur trioxide. To use Eliot’s phrase again, “Relations, proportions, values of each work of art towards the whole are readjusted” in the new. Eliot’s classicism, therefore, appears as the “pastness” of the past remoulded in the new idioms of the present.
In order to achieve this consolidated articulation of the past and the present, Eliot proposes the concept of “objective correlative”. The conscious attempts to choose concrete objects to relate abstract notions engage Eliot’s creative craft in searching for ‘objects’ in the classics. Henceforth, Phlebas, Tiresias, Gerontion, Prufrock and Sweeney despite being ‘new’ are essentially reworked models of the past. This pertinent quote from Eliot on Ezra Pound explains the idea succinctly, “When he deals with contemporaries, he sometimes notes only the accidental. It is merely a question of means suited to a particular poet, and we are more concerned with the end rather than with the means.” The desired ‘end’ in Eliot’s poetry is to go ‘beyond poetry’ as Beethoven tried to go ‘beyond music’. His fidelity to classicism is an appropriation to achieve that aim.
Within an ambit of this framework, one can explore The Waste Land from two vantage points – how does the poem incorporate Classicism and how does it depart from the earlier classicist attempts at one level, and at the other how does The Waste Land transcend the weight of the modernist canon. In order to launch into these investigations, this paper aims at focusing primarily on two areas – the theme and the structure of The Waste Land.
The Waste Land is a modernist expatiation on the ‘waste’ – ‘dead land’, ‘dried tubers’, ‘dead tree’ (The Burial of the Dead ); ‘desert’, ‘withered stumps of time’, ‘nothing’ ( A Game of Chess); ‘brown land’, ‘wrinkled female breasts’, ‘dusty trees’, (The Fire Sermon); ‘a fortnight dead’, ‘passed’ (Death by Water); ‘dry grass’, ‘frosty silence’, ’empty chapel’ (What the Thunder Said) – that punctuates modern consciousness. This waste is cultural contamination, political purulency and literary languish that canopies the modern situation. Eliot’s attempt to comprehensively address this atmosphere gets authorized weightage in the process of gaining currency from the classics.
Eliot admits to Dante’s influence in his creative process. The snapshots of impressionistic images of decay and dilapidation in the text can be seen as symbolically inherited from the journey of hell in the Inferno. The way in which he reworks the classical inheritance departing from the eighteenth century Neo-classicists fundamentally, is an interesting intervention. The Augustans created mock epics and mock heroics, more often than not, imitating the classics. Also, they mocked the contemporary world of not being able to live up to the classical ideal, on the one hand, while on the other, they simultaneously repudiated those very ideals that could no longer be realized in the contemporary world. Eliot, however, priviledges the ‘mythical method’ over the ‘narrative methodology’ as James Joyce uses in the Ulysses. His aim at the creation of Tiresias is towards internalizing the classical precedents set up by Hamlet and others and making connections between these parallel personalities.
The past, for Eliot, becomes a reservoir from where one can ‘extract’ the ‘essentially living’. In his parodic parallels, objective correlatives and conjuring up of imagist impressions – inverting the fecund Chaucerian April to ‘the cruelest month’, invoking the Shakespearian ‘burnished throne’, Spensarian nymphs – Eliot appears to ‘submit’ himself to the past ‘self-consciously’.
It is pertinent to note here that Eliot announced that he was a “Classicist in literature, Royalist in politics and Anglo- Catholic in religion”. Thus, Eliot’s embracing of the Classicist tendencies is clearly a political choice than mere aestheticism. The clear demarcation of the past and the present and attempts to search for ‘pastness’ in the present is a cautiously chosen Conservative political position. The Waste Land, henceforth, earmarks a hierarchy between the classical order and contemporary modern ruins. There is no Augustan ambition to diffuse the clearly separated boundaries.
The reverential fidelity to classicist tendencies within the modernist canon appears concretized by the close attention he pays to the structure of The Waste Land. While Eliot eulogized Shakespeare for his comprehensive assessment of thematic concerns in his works, he puts Dante on a pedestal because of his precision of diction, clear, visual images and economy of words. Additionally, his praise for Donne and the metaphysicals was not a “violent yoking together of heterogeneous ideas”, as Johnson puts it, but a gentle blending of the two seeming anti-theses into a harmonious ‘whole’.
Therefore, Eliot’s very careful endeavours to unify and blend the ‘heaps of broken images’ has been commented upon by many critics as a symphony of musical notes or a solid architectural structure that his works like The Waste Land has become. Eliot asserts in response that commitment to a ‘definite emotion’ is what produces the music and holds the various slabs of concrete together as an architectural ‘whole’. The Waste Land can be read as an exemplary incarnation of Eliot’s commitment to Classicism in the light of this argument.
Eliot adopts a style and form that connects these ‘whispering emotions’ into a crafted whole. For example, just as decay and waste run as leitmotifs in The Waste Land, a desire for regeneration pulsates in the throbbing tendons of the poem. The ‘a little life’ in the ‘dull roots’ (The Burial of the Dead); ‘if it rainsâ€¦we shall playâ€¦'(The Game of Chess); ‘a new start’, ‘burning'(The Fire Sermon); ‘entering a whirlpool'(Death by Water); ‘In a flash of lighteningâ€¦bringing rain'(What the Thunder Said) – all echo a ‘desire’ for ‘new life’ fuelled by ‘memory’ – some kind of regeneration. The continuous commitment towards this desire of resurrection can be seen as the unifying principle that stitches the various images conjured in The Waste Land into a pastiche.
The Waste Land frustrates a reader’s ambition to read the poem as a linear narrative. The coherence and connection achieved in the poem surfaces towards the end when the various fragments fall into place as the components of a jig-saw puzzle identical to the overwhelming emotion achieved after looking at an impressionistic painting.
The fraught environment of the twentieth century – ravages of the world war, frustrated ambitions, boredom, existential angst produced a host of literary works that unleashed the realization of the wide gap between language and thoughts. The linguistic disability to articulate exactly what one feels manifested itself generally and universally as a complete breakdown of a whole into ‘fractured atoms’. Tendencies like surrealism and impressionism can be seen as particularized corollaries of the same within modernist literature.
When placed among the literary productions of the modernist canon, The Waste Land appears to owe its expression to the preceding Romantic legacy in poetry and Victorian sensibility in prose, especially in the novels. Eliot absolutely despised the hypocritical optimism, cheerfulness, and hopefulness of Victorianism. In retrospect, he had already validated Dante’s Inferno over Paradiso and went so far as to assert that poetry does not have to be found ‘through suffering’ but ‘in suffering’ – a somewhat Keatsian immersion in pain and suffering. Perhaps, that is why The Waste Land is literally imbued in the seedy, grim, dismal, hopeless condition of the modern existence. This expression of a heightened sense of ennui repudiates the popular charge of ‘heartlessness’ thrust on Modernism when contrasted against Romanticism.
However, The Waste Land does not indulge in lengthy lamentations of the Romantics. It is a restrained, ordered indulgence in celebrating the existential angst as a parallel portrayal of the medieval anxieties of depravity. It is not letting ‘loose’ of ‘spontaneous emotions’, rather a calibrated containment of a refined sensibility. Eliot pays close attention to not let his thoughts run amock in the wilderness of ‘imagination’ that produces ‘ideas’ – Romantic legacies. The Waste Land, despite its emotional sensitivity to the modern world, transcends the wild realm of ‘ideas’ to attain a structural solidity. The essence of this architectured design sublimates in Eliot’s dedication of the poem to the craftsman, Ezra Pound, ‘il miglior fabbro’.
The innovative transmogrification of the Chaucerian ‘April’ into the desiccated despondency of pervasive aridity in that ‘cruelest month’, Shakespearean ‘burnished throne’, legends of Philomel and Cupid, Pope’s arrangement of the dressing table and incorporation of the Vedic and Buddhist philosophy speak of a unity in the poem that surpasses even the assumptions of accepted precincts to define Classicism.
While modernist poetry painted a comprehensive portrait of the desiccated modern world, it failed to offer a solution or a reparation to the ravaged condition. The Waste Land seems to conjoin these two tendencies. The collage of disparate and at times chaotic images and the desperate despondency created in the structure of The Waste Land in the first four sections appear to commit themselves to an Aristotlean cathartic denouement in the last section. The recurrent chant of ‘Datta’, ‘Dayadhvan’, ‘Damyata’ reach a crescendo and echo Eliot’s modernist endeavour to find a meaningful solution to the misleading nihilism misread by many as permeated in the fabric of The Waste Land. To achieve this task, he parallels the search of salvation in his contemporary world to the haunted realm of the medieval times. But the place of redemption from this disorder transcends European consciousness to find solace in the valleys of the Himvanta – the pre-modern, pre-Christian antiquity to define Classicism for Eliot.
With the last expressions of “Shantih, Shantih,Shantih”, the poetic ideal suffuses the atmosphere of the readers’ consciousness. The announcement of peace after internalizing the ideal of “Give, Sacrifice, Control” in The Waste Land is an achievement of Eliot’s conscious consolidation of theoretical appraisals in his essays and poetic experiments.
Eliot was an acclaimed dramatist too. He once remarked, “The ideal medium for poetry, to my mind, and the most direct means of social ‘usefulness’ for poetry, is the theatre.” An extremely cautious architect of various literary genres that he was, The Waste Land can be seen as an experimental amalgamation of various literary strains in a ‘whole’. While the poem conjures up dialogues as in “The Game of Chess” or the monologues as in “The Burial of the Dead”, it definitely brings out the theatrical conventions to life. Also, the juxtaposition of numerous voices, situations and atmospheres in great variety add to the dramatic element in the poem.
The comprehensive way in which the contemporary world is portrayed in the lyrical music of The Waste Land has produced some critical opinions around the poem as an epic creation. Though this grand claim can be contested on various technical grounds, the epical paradigms of the poem surface in impressive proportions. If one considers ‘the wasteland’ of modern civilization as the metaphorical hero and read the poem in this light, one can negotiate with the deep rooted reach of the poem.
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land qualifies the popularly conceived notions around Modernism and Classicism. The poet, critic and dramatist not only paid obeisance to the literary traditions he inherited across generations and space, but substantially modified the various borrowings according to the changed and changing demands of his contemporary reality. The poem contests the received canon, negotiates with each preceding and present precincts of the literary movements and tendencies. The qualified consolidated denouement of Eliot’s laboured endeavours culminated into a new idiom that edified as The Waste Land. It is this regenerated ‘sprout’ and ‘bloom’ of poetry on the corpse of ‘the waste land’ that makes this work a ‘Modernist Classic.’