A Summary of The Waste Land by T.S Eliot

The Waste Land is a poem of breakdown –
psychological breakdowns, a breakdown of marriages and relationships, of poetry
and language, the breakdown even of an entire world. The carnage of the First
World War had laid waste to Europe and made a mockery of the idea of
civilization. After the war, Eliot’s poem seems to ask, how can poetry respond to
the mess the world has become? First published in 1922 The Waste Land is full
of people sleepwalking through their daily lives
the commuters travelling to work over London Bridge put the poem’s speaker in
mind of the swarms of tormented souls in hell. Once the young typist has finished her
unsatisfactory encounter with her acne face lover she simply smooths hair back
and puts a record on – nothing to see here nothing gained, nothing. Life has become mechanical emptied of
meaning, the epigraph from the Roman satirist Petronius which opens the poem
tells of the Sybil from ancient Greek mythology who was doomed to eternal life
but not eternal youth – trapped in her cage she prefigures all of the
metaphorical prisoners of Eliot’s poem when asked what she wants, the Sybil replies
I want to die. Elliot’s poem is full of cultural
references to other now long dead civilizations and their works of
literature there are nods to ancient Greek myth to the age of Shakespeare in
amongst the depictions of the modern world. At one point we find ourselves in
London’s East End in a pub where a woman is talking to a friend about a marriage
and then suddenly we’re back to Shakespeare again as the women are leaving the pub
their speech merges with the words of Ophelia, that doomed Shakespearean heroin who
went mad and drowned herself perhaps Eliot’s poem seems to be saying
death is the only real escape from the Waste Land. The Waste Land presents a highly eloquent
account of despair, its powerful vision of urban alienation spoke to a
generation of young post-war readers and in doing so, it changed poetry forever. Eliot
found a whole new language of poetry in the everyday world of motorcars and
tinned food, jazz records, pub conversations, he complained that one of
the first reviewers of the poem had over understood it, but really we’re
still seeking to understand it, we probably always will be. But then that’s
often the mark of a great work of literature. Like the characters in
Eliot’s poem, we can never truly leave the waste land behind.

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