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The Waste Land By T. S. Eliot

3607 words - 14 pages

A wasteland [weyst-land] is defined as: land that is uncultivated or barren; an area that is devastated as by flood, storm, or war; something as a period of history, phase of existence, or locality that is spiritually, or intellectually barren; one of the most important poems of the twentieth century (Dictionary.com). The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, has puzzled its audience and been tossed aside by the general population since 1922, when the poem was published. To a reader not committed to delving into its metaphors, the story might appear to represent the broken faithlessness of a society physically and emotionally marred after the Great War. However, Eliot intended the meaning to be much deeper. He strived to capture the struggle of awareness and ambivalence between moral grandeur and mortal evil (Britannica 2). The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, provides an eulogy for an intellectual society murdered by the Jazz Age through the multi-metaphorical symbols of the epigraph, “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Water,” and “What the Thunder Said.”
The poem begins with an epigraph of “Satyricon,” in ancient Greek and Latin. That story is of Cumaean Sibyl, Apollo’s prophetess, wishing for immorality. She is granted this, however, it is immortality without eternal youth. Therefore, she miserably and painfully grows older forever, never dying (Arbiter 7). The quote translates into:

I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage,
and when the boys cried at her, “Sybil, what do you
want?” she responded, “I wish I were dead.” (Eliot 99)
This seems like a pessimistic excerpt to precede a story that is comprehensively equally angst. The connection Eliot saw between this piece of “Satyricon” and this own literary work is overall unknown, but there are many different ways scholars can intertwine the two. One of the common themes is the mechanical persistence of the world (Shmoop 5). Eliot felt that his beloved Victorian Era had been murdered in cold blood by the 1920’s Pop culture. He believed that life and existence had outlasted their meaning. Yet, the world spun on. Cumaean Sibyl lived in a cage, drowning in her own wrinkles with aching bones. Her body had outlived its ability to function (Arbiter 2). Eliot felt much of the same way about society. A single theme of The Waste Land is the decline of culture in Europe in the 1920s. Eliot was attempting to capture the concept of the intellect dying, yet the body functioning on (Shmoop 2).
Another way that these two literary works might be related, is over the false pretense of the belief “ignorance is bliss.” Cumaean Sibyl may have felt this at some point in her youth, but as she was laying in her cage, she wished she could have predicted her fate before it had seduced her (Arbiter 25). Eliot may have also wished to represent the consequences of ignorance. It was said that “optional stupidity” was seen as an extremely unattractive quality in a person in his...

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