The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot published his poem "The Waste Land" in 1922. Since that time, it has become one of the most celebrated poems of the twentieth century. "The Waste Land" employs a variety of poetic devices, including symbolism, to describe the state of civilization in Europe after World War One, as well as universal themes. This paper will examine the concepts of illusion and disillusionment as described in "The Waste Land." It will discuss water's symbolic power of transformation in the poem, as well as the struggle between past memory and future desires and the failure of civilization to satisfactorily resolve this struggle. This examination will demonstrate that Eliot's poem views modern culture as creating illusions that became exposed as unreal, and lead to disillusionment with progress and civilization.
Eliot begins the poem with a description of April as the "cruelest month," which he immediately juxtaposed to the dead land of winter . As one may expect from the title, the images in Eliot's poem are composed of objects and scenes that may be associated with death and destruction. For example, in lines twenty through thirty, Eliot evokes a sense of death when he asks, "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?" . His response is series of broken images, like a beating sun, a dead tree that gives no shelter, the dry stone with no sound of water, and ends with the "fear in a handful of dust," which refers to the emptiness and infertility that results from a lack of water. Throughout "The Waste Land," water is not a key symbol, but the lack of water becomes a central theme related to the failure of civilization to prevent the horrors of war.
The dark, desolate images continue as Eliot offers more images related to death, such as the Hanged Man, the reference to a corpse that was planted in a garden, and Eliot's question about the corpse, "Has it begun to sprout?" . While a corpse does not sprout another corpse, the question is ridiculous. But Eliot's point is that without water, nothing sprouts. Moreover, because sprouting is a form of transformation, water is required for transformation.
Eliot's struggle with existence is a question illusion and disillusionment. The world in "The Waste Land" is described as like a rat's ally where dead men lost their bones, where pearls replace eyes and characters ask, "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?" . In "The Waste Land," the idea of existence is being questioned as if life itself is an illusion. However, the reality of existence in the wasteland is disillusioning.