Blog Eight: “The Waste Land”
Headings: This article was about the development of the poem through its shape. Headings looks at each section and explain how it relates to the poem as a whole. Each sequence involves “a death-and-resurrection sequence” and each “implies an awareness of positive potentialities growing out of the initial waste and barren conditions.” (1) So, there is a repeated pattern with the final conclusion being that there is hope, despite how bad things seem at the start. This explanation makes sense, and I just generally like this explanation, due to my desire for happy (or at least hopeful) endings. Interestingly, Headings notes that Eliot “denied that his poem was intended to express the disillusionment of a generation.” (5) Before I read this article, I had assumed that this was exactly what Eliot had intended, which would fit him comfortably into the changes of Modernism. After I thought about it, though, I can see the argument for its universality. It’s not just about the WWI generation, in other words, it’s about all generations and their particular and individual disillusionments. Unfortunately, despite all these good points, Headings also confirms one of my major concerns about the poem: “Only by experiencing the works of art, literature and other, on which Eliot’s poem draws, can the reader arrive at a truly comprehensive and detailed understanding of ‘The Waste Land…’ The protagonist will fit the reader to put the Western traditions of literature…to what Eliot regards as their proper…use.” (4-5) In other words, Eliot is following his own advice from “Tradition.” Reading all the sources for this poem could be its own class, with a few readings each week then the poem itself in the last two or so weeks.
Brooks: Brooks begins by stating that he is different from other critics of the poem: he is going to explain the symbols of the poem and how they relate to each other. That may seem simple enough, but it is misleading. This poem is a gigantic mishmash of symbols that can have all sorts of meanings. Brooks, like Eliot in the notes to the poem, acknowledges the centrality of Weston’s work. (This kind of surprised me, by the way, as it seemed like we had talked before about Eliot being a little sexist. Perhaps I misremembered that.) In addition to trying to break down the symbols one-by-one, Brooks also proposes to explain the “basic method” of the poem, which is “built on a major contrast:” life without meaning (bad) versus sacrifice/sacrificial death (good). (186) His major ideas about the theme are that “men have lost the knowledge of good and evil…”(186) and that “life at its highest moments of meaning and intensity resembles death…” (188) and, finally, “the rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited.” (209) My favorite part of this article is the portion where Brooks explains the use of the battle at Mylae in the first portion of the poem. Mylae was a battle in the Punic Wars; Brooks interprets this to mean that “all the wars are one war” and “all experience, one experience.” (191) This is very nicely written. The problem, however, is that this itself illustrates that extreme level of detail and minutiae required to understand this poem. It isn’t even one of the most important or well-known battles!
TWL: I have never read this poem, and it is incredibly daunting. The references to other works seem impossible to get. For example, I just read Antony and Cleopatra, and I wouldn’t have picked up on the reference in Line 78 without the notes at the end. I understand “the big picture” but only thanks to the articles and the two documents that you posted. Otherwise, no way. This leads me to wonder, then, for whom was this poem intended? He must have wanted someone to read and understand it, and it was obviously an incredible amount of painstaking work. I was a little skeptical about the conclusion of Headings that the poem was hopeful, but after reading Eliot’s notes, I think he was right. I was convinced by the ending (“shantih”) and Eliot’s explanation of it: “The Peace which passeth understanding.” (note 434, 56).