BA Honors Creative Arts
Part 2 – Contemporary Reading
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The Waste Land by T S Eliot
I have chosen to write my close reading on the first part of an epic poem called The Waste Land by T S Eliot, thought to be one of the most complex and important poems of the twentieth century. This was something I had not realized when I first came across it. Eliot is regarded as a contemporary poet and is said to have written this poem whilst recovering from a mental break down just after the First World War. Having now done a close reading of Part 1, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, I question whether he could have written this poem had he been in a happier state of mind.
In my opinion, the first part of the poem was written by Eliot, whilst in a depressive state. Roma Shrestha confirms my opinion by pointing out that “the gloom and despair of the poet are mirrored in this poem” Shrestha (2013). I have not yet analysed the other four parts, which are titled; A Game of Chess; The Fire Sermon; Death by Water and What the Thunder said. It was the first line of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ that had me hooked and it was obvious this was not going to be a happy poem. “April is the cruelest month”. Since when is April a cruel month? The typical thoughts that I have of April are of flowers in bloom, bright sunshine and blossom in the trees. It was therefore this first line that made me question things straight away, why had Eliot named April as the cruelest month?
The second line of the poem also conjured up a bleak and depressing time in the narrator’s life, with the use of personification words like ‘breeding Lilacs out of the dead land’. This leads me to believe the land has been destroyed and nothing is growing, particularly the lilacs. For me, it felt like a war had taken place giving a feeling of despair and destruction. These thoughts are confirmed by a writer called Asha Solomon who states “Eliot uses the idea of a dry and sterile wasteland as a metaphor for a Europe devastated by war” Solomon (2016) page 1.
The mood changes slightly when Eliot seems to have memories of a happier time, where he declares, “Winter kept us warm” as if to say it was a comforting time. At this point the narrator changes from being Eliot himself to a woman called Marie. She immediately skip’s back in time, to a place where she was happy. This part of the poem I can only imagine is when Eliot must have had some kind of reprieve from his illness or at least was momentarily having good thoughts, as Marie brings a lighter mood into the poem.
Eliot introduces a ‘place’ in the poem that appears to be in Munich, Germany. We know this as Marie mentions Starnbergersee (a German lake in Munich), the colonnade (a sequence of columns possibly like those in the Pfnistberg palace in Germany) and the Hofgarten (a Renaissance garden in Munich). This part of the poem evokes happiness, possibly a love story between herself and Eliot as the narrator. They used to play as children at her cousin’s house who was an arch-duke. I was intrigued to discover that an arch-duke was a man who was high up in the Austrian Royal Family. Thus, making Marie someone of royal connection, perhaps a duchess herself.
Marie and her male companion have a lovely time walking over the Starnbergersee where you can imagine young love as they escape ‘the shower of rain’ and stop in the ‘colonnade’ followed by a coffee in the ‘Hofgarten’. They are relaxed in each other’s company being able to talk comfortably for an hour. However, I then feel there must be something more to the relationship as the young man has to explain that he is not Russian he is German, “Bin gar keine Russin stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch”. I feel this is important, as perhaps it is the reason they did not end up together. Which seems sad as it sounds like he wanted to protect her. They had decided to go for a sledge ride and she was frightened, but he made her feel safe when he told her “Marie, Marie hold on tight” as they sled down the mountains feeling free.
The poem then takes another twist to being in the present time, perhaps a different place now but once more time has moved the character forward. Marie sounds older, lonely and sad. She is someone who apparently reads a lot, mostly at night, maybe has insomnia, worrying about her life, it makes me think the war took her man away or even killed him. The ending of the poem refers to the Winter season, this time she is moving to a different place to spend the winter, hopefully to escape the depressing loneliness she feels.
Eliot refers to time quite frequently, mentioning the seasons of Spring, Summer and Winter but also the month of April. He has memories of a time gone by, pre-war, happier times and also as a child when there was a feeling of freedom and fun. Fast forward, and it is a time of death and destruction caused by war. I refer back to the title of this part of the poem which I learnt is in reference to the Anglican prayer Book and its prayer for “The Burial of the Dead – Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust we are all dust in the end” Interesting Literature (2016). A very depressive heading to start a poem off with.
My thoughts of the poem reminded me a little of ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy with its dead land and depressive feelings, feelings of death looming, the fear of isolation and being alone. Like McCarthy, Eliot did not name his characters nor did he use speech marks when people spoke. The poem took me back to my own childhood in Germany and sledging in the snow. It gave me feelings of happiness for that short period of the poem. Overall, it made me feel sad. I would like to know what happened to Marie and whether it was the misery of the aftermath of the war or the loss of her loved one, perhaps both, that had caused all this unhappiness, loneliness and sadness.
Apparently, Elliot wrote this poem not long after the World War 1, in 1922. He was recovering in Switzerland from a breakdown caused by his marriage collapsing and the aftermath of the war. It was a time when Modernists were changing the way poems were written, no longer about love and romance and words that rhymed. Modernist poetry was about death and destruction and the aftermath of war, where words do not rhyme and the contents are not easily understood until you look deeper into the meaning of the words and the background of the author, in true modernism style.
When I first came across this poem, I did not realize at the time how complex it was or that it is deemed to be one of the most difficult modernist poems to understand. However, it immediately caught my attention and I could see that it explored time and place and covered the themes of life, death and love with a main character that stood out easily. The structure of the poem as mentioned in the beginning is a five-part poem that all have their own individual story. From understanding now what Eliot was going through personally, this part of the poem “The Burial of the Dead”, I believe, is a reflection of the breakdown of his marriage and how he felt. He was depressed and if he had not been, I don’t believe this poem would ever have existed.
Shrestha, Roma. “The Waste Land by T S Eliot: Critical Analysis.” BachelorandMaster, 25 November 2013. Wwwbachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/the-waste-land.html
Accessed October 28, 2018
Solomon, Asha F. “T S Elliot’s Modernism in The Waste Land.” Int. Journal of Arts, Humanities and Management Studies. Page 1, 5 May 2016
“A Reading of the first part of The Waste Land.” Interesting Literature (2016) https://interestingliterature/2016/10/13a-short-analysis-of-t-s-eliots-the-burial-of-the-dead/. Accessed October 28, 2018
Contemporary Reading has taught me some crucial new learning skills, I feel the tools that have been introduced to me have enabled me to take a closer look at poems and novels in a more detailed manner specifically by completing a close reading. They have inspired me to look at poems I have never looked at before and to understand more about their contents and how they are written. Poetic devices have enabled me to understand the language content and style of the poem, i.e., does it rhyme or use similes and metaphors? I learned how Modernism changed the shape of poetry from being romantic, rhyming poems to those that evoked political and philosophical content and were long, disjointed poems often complex in nature. I researched various poetry readings online that conveyed how reading a poem aloud can give it a different meaning. Different people express different emotions, this has made me do the same. For me, it certainly brings the poem to life. The different exercises gave me the confidence to write a small poem that incorporated some of the poetic devices and to experience the joy of reading aloud my own poem, which is another new experience.
I learned to ask in depth questions from an extract in a book and a poem, I also gained more confidence to express my own feelings about the mood of the poem. The more you analyse the characters the more you want to know about them and to understand what they are going through. I worried about how I would feel about death being so prominent and the depressive mood of the poem, these are feelings that can be raw to any reader, and it was a challenge. I am realising that Time and Place is very significant in all aspects of art whether it is writing, paintings or photography. This fascinates me as in how had I never noticed this before?
I feel that my assignment contains answers to in-depth questions that I asked myself about in regards to the extract ‘The Burial of the Dead” from The Waste Land by T S Eliot. It also shows I used skills for research to listen to the poem aloud by various people in order to hear and feel the emotions that it brings. Furthermore, I used research to discover more about the poet himself and to understand some of the complex background of the poem. I used poetic devices to understand the language and the structure, and to give my own thoughts and feelings. Additional research of various poetry sites showed that I was also able to see the difference in Modernist and post-modern poets and this then enabled me to identify the poem as Modernist. Part 2 ‘Contemporary Reading’ has been an exceptional new learning experience that has provided me with new confidence and a learning experience that I know will help me through the next stages of this course. It is a journey of intense learning but one that I have enjoyed a great deal.