Modernism in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"
Modernism has been defined as a rejection of traditional 19th-century norms, whereby artists, architects, poets and thinkers either altered or abandoned earlier conventions in an attempt to re-envision a society in flux. In literature this included a progression from objectivist optimism to cynical relativism expressed through fragmented free verse containing complex, and often contradictory, allusions, multiple points of view and other poetic devices that broke from the forms in Victorian and Romantic writing, as can be seen in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (Levanson).
The varied perspectives or lack of a central, continuous speaker uproots "The Waste Land" from previous forms of poetry; however, it is not simply for the sake of being avant-garde, but to espouse the modernist philosophy, which posits the absence of an Absolute and requires the interpretation of juxtaposed, irreconcilable points of view in order to find meaning. The first stanza illustrates this point. Within the first seven lines, the reader is presented with a "normal" poem that conforms to an ordered rhyme and meter. Suddenly, the German words "Starnbergersee" and "Hofgarten" are introduced, readjusting the reader's own view of the poem, before throwing it completely off-course in line 12: "Bin gar keine...." Just as quickly, though, the lines revert to a previous pattern with the use of "And I...", "And down...", "And when...." "Discontinuity, in other words, is no more firmly established than continuity," writes Michael Levenson (A Genealogy of Modernism). In his analysis of the initial eighteen lines, it becomes apparent that no clear conclusion may be drawn as to who is speaking, or how many speakers are present. There are several methods of unifying the disjointed speaker(s), all of which conflict with each other although they may be equally true. Thus faced with this paradox, the reader is privy to one of the modernist themes in the work: individuals are permanently estranged, each bearing a unique identity, yet they are able to connect with each other to create a kind of coherence, however temporary. Of course, Matthew Arnold wrote something very similar in To Marguerite: Continued, but up until Eliot's The Waste Land, this "truth" was never illustrated in the lyrical construction itself.
Eliot also employs fragments in the work, further articulating his modernist ideas. These fragments are sometimes used to blur the lines between speakers, but also serve to blend opposing strands of knowledge. Trying to singularly categorize the usage of fragments is as difficult as finding a unified meaning in the poem and that is the entire point. Yet, in keeping with modernist thought, can there exist an "entire point"? The answer is inevitably fragmented. In lines 307-311, "To Carthage then I came/ Burning burning burning burning/ O Lord Thou pluckest me out/ O Lord Thou pluckest/ burning", the words of St....