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Old Saturday, June 11, 2005
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Post The Waste Land: Decay of Culture and Civilization

Eliot’s “The Waste Land” undoubtedly had an immediate relevance to the atmosphere, mood and temper of the time in which it was written i.e. the years following the end of World War I. Indeed, critics of the 1930s felt that the poem’s importance lay in its reflection of the decay of the Western civilization. However, the poem goes beyond the immediate situation to embody a universal dilemma. The poem has contemporary relevance and at the same time, it has also a visionary and timeless quality.

“The Waste Land” to a large extent, epitomizes the emotional, intellectual and psychological temper which constituted the “Decade of Despair” which followed the First World War. It reflects the disorder, disturbance and confusion of thoughts prevalent in that poem. It presents a picture of the post-war generation.

A panorama of the post-war generation is to be found in “The Waste Land”. The characters of the psychic malady which has taken hold of post-war Europe. In that waste land it is but natural that we meet with boredom, hopelessness and depression, mental disintegration and nervous exhaustion and pathetic efforts to find the fragments of a shattered faith. The waste land is peopled by character who have lost the ability to the life fully. Madame Sonsostris the fortune-teller, known nothing of the mysteries of life, has lost all variety and distinction for Mrs. Equitone; Lil, at thirty-one, looks too old; the typist and her seducer have sexual relation in a mechanical and emotionally indifferent manner. Albert and the loitering heirs of city directors want to have “a good time” and not knowing what it is. In the poem we meet characters such as the Cumean Sybil with her death wish; Sweeney the crude client of Mrs. Porter the procuress, a victim of nerves and hysterical relationship with her lover in Belladonna. All these characters collectively represent the state of mind of the educated people immediately after the First World War.

Having said that “The Waste Land” is social document, one has to add that it is not merely that; the poem goes beyond its scene of origin to represent a universal dilemma. If it presents a picture of spiritual emptiness, a general lack of aim and sexuality devoid of emotion, it is reflecting not merely a set period of time, but epitomizing all the periods of the history of mankind marked by such features. Indeed, Eliot has brought the past and present together to create a vision of the spiritual barrenness characterizing ordinary human beings. There might be an occasional Buddha and a St. Augustine, but even the times of such saints suffered from a lack of religious faith and purpose, and the prevalence of lust and futility. Eliot has managed to give universality to his poem in number of ways.

Eliot has told us that he got not only the title but the plan and a good deal of the symbolism of his poem from Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance”, a book to the Great Legend. He also acknowledges his debt to Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”. Eliot uses his knowledge of the recurring pattern in many myths – the close union in all myths of the physical and the spiritual, and the basic relationship between sex and religion – to give a sense of timeless vision to his poem.

At the very beginning there is a ‘Christian’ attitude to Nature, as critics have pointed out:

“April is the cruellest month”

It inverts the usual attitude towards Nature. The revival of natural life only brings fear. In the first lines of the ‘Burial of the Dead’ Eliot has given us the reactions of people towards Nature in various periods of history. The poem is dominated by a feeling of anxiety – a vague apprehension of danger. Marie is frightened at the moment of her sexual delight on her cousin’s sledge. ‘Fear death by Water’ says Madame Sosostis; the anxious crowd of Londoners keeps sighing. Belladonna and her lover are anxious, so is Lil. The ‘sons of man’ must endure the vision of fear and mortality in the desert. The fear is linked to another aspect of human life in all periods of time – lust or unemotional sex or ‘passion’. Philomela’s rape by the barbarous king is the keynote which brings the past and the present together. Sterility is the common theme linking the situation of Belladonna and Lil. This theme is linked with the episodes in “The Fire Sermon”. The violation of the three daughters of Thames is a variation on the theme of Philomela’s rape.

Stony rubbish, broken images and no water recall the ancient waste land of Ezakiel. ‘Falling flowers, Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria’ links past and present civilization in their spiritual apathy.

Aridity and sterility characterize the human situation. A life devoid of spirituality is a death in life but it is not particular to the modern situation. Thus Eliot seeks to point out that sterile degeneration is inherent in the human situation and the need for regeneration has always been felt. Thus the poem cannot be called merely a representation of the decay of Western civilization. It reflects the Christian view that original sin has degenerated man and his salvation lies in faith and belief in God and religion more than ethical conduct alone.

“The Waste Land” is not a poem which stops at being a ‘social document’. Its framework of myth and allusive technique, its use of juxtaposition of the modern and the Elizabethan scenes, its presentation of characters and scenes of seduction and violation of women, the images of dryness and lack of water – all these give the poem a universal and timeless significance.
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