T.S. Eliot is certainly one of the foremost authors in the Modernist movement. His writing is often considered to fit neatly within the category of Modernism, leaving very little room for variation. Unlike many modernists, however, Eliot’s poetry is richly influenced by the romantic tradition. In his masterpiece, The Waste Land, Eliot uses the tradition of romanticism to illustrate the scale of his poem. In addition, his choice of mythic imagery and references to the epic Arthurian romances, as well as a series of common narrators, shows a Modernist perspective on the romantic conflict with society. The techniques Eliot uses to craft The Waste Land, from his rich use of medieval and religious symbolism, to his use of the single tragic figure Tiresias to unite the poem, connects the rich modernism of the poem to the grand scale of romanticism from which it sprung.
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The connection to romanticism’s symbolism may be apparent, but the bleak tone of The Waste Land discourages any comparison of its theme to the confident individualism that so inspired the romantic period. While it is true that The Waste Land describes a culture that is morally and spiritually bankrupt, it is a mistake to equate Eliot’s society of despair with the concept of complete pessimism. The individualism of the romantics referred to the danger of society to the individuals who lived in it. The darkness of The Waste Land follows the pattern of the romantics, showing the dangers of the corrupted society without the clear redeeming qualities of the individual. Eliot appears to show the progression of a fallen modern society in which the beliefs of romanticism have either not yet begun, or have already tried and failed. It is worth noticing that Eliot does not begin The Waste Land in the pure dark of Dante’s Inferno, but instead in the twilight of a broken England, as he shows in “The Burial of the Dead” with his reference to “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,” (60,62). In these lines, Eliot shows us the dim half light of a fallen culture that has clotted its people together in a way that has left the entire civilization impotent and weak. Throughout The Waste Land, Eliot strengthens this image of a corrupted society which stands in dire need of a romantic purging, until he ends it with the Fisher-King’s statement which D.C. Fowler refers to as “a charm, the purpose of which is to break the spell of the waste land.” (Fowler 35) The titular “waste land” serves as a metaphor for the corruption of the society. Eliot’s characters are all connected in some way to a social force, from the weakly tragic figures of “A Game of Chess” to the strange figure of Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant who arrives in “The Fire Sermon.” Each character within the “waste land” is a part of it. That is, each character within the Waste Land that makes up Eliot’s society is “wasted” in some fashion. The romantic concept of the individual escaping society does not show through until “What the Thunder Said”. Eliot presents the individual figure of Tiresias, who is outside of the setting of the urban waste-land of society represented by the parade of cities “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal” instead sitting, “Fishing, with the arid plain behind me” (425). Here again Eliot shows his inability to separate his Modernist vision from the heritage and philosophy of the romantics.
The last example of romanticism’s influence on The Waste Land is perhaps the most unique. It is a complaint that the characters of The Waste Land bleed together, none making a distinct mark on the reader. In his notes to The Waste Land Eliot himself (quoted here by F.R. Leavis) referred to this tendency, and its goal.
“Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character”, is
yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.
just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoeni-
cian Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince
of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet
in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact is the substance of the poem.” (Leavis 91)
Within the context of The Waste Land, Tiresias serves as both the motivation, and the primary narrative voice. Much like Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, Tiresias is both the beginning and the ending point of the narrative. The myth of Tiresias includes his being transformed from man to woman, and back again, as well as being one of the great prophets of the Greek mythos. Following Whitman’s example, Eliot has created a narrator who is both outside the poem, and within it, enveloping both genders and setting. Within “The Fire Sermon” Eliot, following in the tradition of perhaps the greatest American romantic poet, shows Tiresias as the Fisher-King, recognizing society’s descent into impotent perversion as a clerk engages a tired typist in fornication which borders on rape. Within this scene, as Grover Smith puts it, “Tiresias recognizes in this affair the endless repetitions of vice, his own agony and his own guilt.” (Smith 88) This sad scene is not the end of Tiresias’ story, however. Tiresias, the spectator to society’s sad and inevitable descent into the waste land, is also the listener who hears the voice of the thunder, and its echoing call to peace. In The Waste Land, the character of Tiresias serves as the all enveloping observer to the decline and possible redemption of society. This single instance exemplifies much of T.S. Eliot’s connection to romanticism, and the style of that movement. At first glance Eliot stands firmly in the Modernistic tradition of lacking a strong individual character, with his many narrators coming in and out of the poem with disturbing fluidity. However, as one looks deeper, Eliot has encompassed the entire poem within the narrative scope of a single spectator. The importance of this individual explains the skewed perspectives we see throughout the poem, but also shows us the redeeming trait of the clear thinking (although damaged) individual. Once found, this concept, taken straight from the concepts of romanticism, shows an aspect of The Waste Land that is often overlooked. When discussing the role of Tiresias as the complete narrator it is worth noting Eliot’s original title for the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”, an allusion to Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. (Ackerley 25)
This image of a single figure speaking in the voices of many others completes the comparison of The Waste Land to Whitman’s Song of Myself and clearly illustrates the influence of avant-garde romantic style on Eliot.
The Waste Land is one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century. Its dismal imagery captured the atmosphere of the post world-war intelligentsia like no other work of the period. Despite the unquestioned influence of The Waste Land, few poems have inspired as much controversy. Throughout his Modernist masterpiece Eliot sparks controversy and questions, but, like the romantics before him, he maintains the possibility than an individual can break free from the inevitable degradation of society. Through his brilliant use of religious and mythological symbolism, Eliot shows how even the most modern are inseparable from the influence of the past. In his description of a fallen society he shows a modernist’s take on the romantic’s hope of an individual’s redemption from a broken society. Finally, in the uniting character of Tiresias he exemplifies the wisdom of the individual. The Waste Land is perhaps the single most powerful Modernist poem, but even it is undeniably shaped by the concepts and styles of romanticism. Eliot’s handful of dust has certainly blinded the eyes of many, and while the mastery of his art is unquestionable, virtually everything else is. One thing is completely certain, and that is, to quote the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett: “The dust will not settle in our time.”
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