Fragmentation in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

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T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1921, as a response to the devastation he saw in society in the wake of World War 1.

Critics at the time were divided: some believed it to be deliberately obtuse and unreadable, others “canonized the poem as the exemplar of a kind of high modernism that powerfully depicts and rejects modern life. One aspect of the poem that has never been disputed is the fragmentation that exists within it, and it is this that I intend to concentrate my essay on.Eliot, though he never openly chose to admit it, was influenced by the Imagist group of poets (which included Eliot close friend, Ezra Pound), who practised the theory that art should be made up of Images, not a lengthy description of feelings: one of the most important beliefs about art that Eliot shared with the Imagists was that “the writer should only present his observations to the reader, for he, like them, is a limited finite being. “1 The emotion that the writer about a subject should not be the basis for the poem, only exactly what he sees, his immediate reaction to an event.

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In some of Eliot’s earlier work, he showed evidence of Imagist tendencies: In The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock, for example, the famous line “Like a patient etherized upon a table,” is an Image; the poet’s immediate reaction unclouded by emotion. In The Waste Land, however, he went beyond the Imagist technique: while he still collected stark images of the modern world, juxtaposed with speakers’ memories of a glorious past, he realised the limitation of writing a treatise for the world purely based on one image – instead, he created a series of images, fragments, and placed them together.With the release of the original manuscript to the poem in 1971, information to back up this idea of fragmentation in all aspects of The Waste Land came to light: “From the marked differences in handwriting, paper and typescript, the manuscripts reveal that The Waste Land is not only made up of pieces, but that they were also written over a considerable length of time. 2 The full extent of Ezra Pound’s influence when editing also became apparent, with almost half of the poem cut.

It is doubtful whether that editing had any real influence on the coherence of the narrative structure, however, as presumably the fragments that were removed had no real thread of plot and consistency running through them. Fragmentation is present in almost every aspect of The Waste Land.In the first instance, it affects the narrative voice of the poem: throughout, the reader is subjected to the voice of the poem changing as it continually adopts the perspective of a different speaker: In section 1, “The Burial of the Dead”, we hear first from an aristocratic woman, claiming to be German as she tells a story of her apparently happy and active childhood, in comparison to her now empty life (“I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” line 18).She is followed by a speaker who again juxtaposes earlier, happier memories with startlingly bleak images of the barren present, as he issues an invitation to the reader to “show you fear in a handful of dust” (line 30).

We then have Madame Sosostris, the tarot card reader; the section then concludes with a different speaker walking through the streets of the “Unreal city” (line 60) of London – unreal as it appears to be populated with ghosts.The juxtaposition of fragments of voices and personalities continues throughout the poem, with part 2, ‘A Game of Chess’, divided roughly into two sections – the first dealing with a wealthy, upper class woman likened to Cleopatra and Dido; the second depicting a lower class bar room scene of two women gossiping about a contemporary. These are followed later in the poem by images of a typist’s ultimately unfulfilling sexual encounter with her lover (“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over,” line 252) and also of Queen Elizabeth I’s affair with the Earl of Leicester.The continuous change in narrative voice highlights the fragments of images that make up The Waste Land, yet it also provides a link, some common ground, between the different sections: “throughout the poem, the “I” slips from persona to persona, weaves in and out of quoted speech, and creeps like a contagion through the Prolathalamion or Pope or the debased grammar of a London pub, sweeping history into a heap of broken images.

“3However, a link between the voices is also suggested by Eliot himself in his notes, in the form of Tiresias, the blind figure from Ovid who can see into the future, who “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 Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias.What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the whole poem. 4 This suggestion is also highlighted in the text: “And I Tiresias have foresuffered all” (line 243), as if to suggest that he becomes almost omnipotent in the poem, seeing everything and experiencing everything that the different speakers experience, incorporating all aspects of their personalities into himself.

The fragmentation in the poem extends to the poetic form of the poem. Whereas in some of Eliot’s earlier poetry he experimented with rigid structure, in The Waste Land he appears to have returned to his beloved free verse.However, on closer examination it is clear that within this free verse Eliot employs short bursts of structure, partly as a homily to the poetic works of the past. In part 2, ‘A Game of Chess’, for example, the first half of the section depicting the upper class woman surrounded by wealth is written mainly in unrhymed iambic pentameter, growing more and more irregular to match the woman’s increasingly disturbed thoughts.

This contrasts directly with the structure in the second part of the section, which is purely a dialogue interrupted at intervals by the barman’s “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”.In part 3, ‘The Fire Sermon’, he juxtaposes his usual mixture of line length and erratic rhyme scheme with his inclusion of sections of songs: the refrain from the wedding song in Spenser’s Prothalamion (“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” line 176), the ‘Jug jug jug’ of the nightingale’s song, the Rhine-maiden’s lament from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. Also in this section, Eliot plays on the traditional Petrarchan sonnet form (lines 235-248) when describing the interlude between the typist and the clerk, possibly as an attempt to romanticize the crude and uninvolved sexual encounter that comes to pass.It is only the final line that breaks with the traditional rhyme scheme of the sonnet.

One of the most apparent uses of fragmentation in the poem is Eliot’s great use of literary allusions. In section 1 alone he quotes from Wagener’s Tristan and Isolde: “Frisch weht der Wind/ Der Heimat zu. / Mein Irisch Kind/ Wo weilest du? (lines 31-34); Shakespeare’s The Tempest (“Those are pearls that were his eyes”, line 48), Dante’s Inferno (“I had not thought that death had undone so many”, line 62), Webster’s White Devil (line 75) and Baudelaire (“You!Hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frere! “, line 76). He continues through the poem with more references from Shakespeare, Middleton, Milton, Spenser, Marvell, alongside older writer such as Ovid.

For much of the time he doesn’t quote directly, or mis-quotes an author to impose his own meaning onto the phrase, such as the opening line of the poem: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land,” (lines 1-2).Re-writing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, (“When the sweet showers of April have pierced / The drought of March”,) Eliot imposes a harsher feeling to the coming of spring: whereas Chaucer writes of the relief of the appearance of April, Eliot regards it as an unwelcome occurrence, an reminder of the memories of the past, between the winter that “kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow” (lines 5-6) and summer.It is not only excerpts from the work of his predecessors and contemporaries that Eliot uses, however; he also relies heavily on religious texts and images, and ancient myths. The Bible is obviously heavily called upon, however we also hear from Judaism (the “sevenbranched candelabra”, line 82) and, in the conclusion to the poem, from the Upanishad – a philosophical work that makes up part of ancient Hindu sacred literature.

The religious sources that Eliot draws on, mainly the Bible and the Upanishad, combine to create a philosophical journey through the poem, from the description of a time of fear and death in Ecclesiastes 12 alluded to in the first section (“The dead tree gives no water, the cricket no relief”, line 23) through the lack of faith that contributes to the barren waste land of life that is the main subject of the poem, to the three aspects of life (giving, sympathy and control) described in the final section, ending with the formal end to the Upanishad – “shantih shantih shantih” (line 433), translated by Eliot as ‘The peace which passeth understanding’. 5 One has to comment on the allusive qualities of the poem, and the reasoning behind it. Many critics at the time were divided on the matter: some saw it as mark of a great Modernist work; others denounced it as baseless theft.However, it is not as though Eliot used the quotations and misquotations to carry their original meaning: the context in which he placed them was often totally different, and therefore the meaning changed entirely.

The allusions are often so subtle, containing perhaps only two words, that even if a reader does not register them, he can carry on reading the poem regardless. They are designed to aid the reader’s understanding of the poem, perhaps altering the meaning slightly in the process. Indeed, I cannot see how they can be viewed as theft, as quite often they are so hidden and well incorporated within the text of the poem, in fact they “do not seem to reinforce an otherwise approachable meaning but instead seem essential to the structure, not immediately perceivable, of the poem.For all literary allusions to be viewed as ‘theft’, would in fact, render most literature obsolete, as much of what makes up the literary Canon ‘borrows’ elements from other sources – Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example.

All The Waste Land serves to do is emphasize the borrowing culture of literature, hinting “that literature is nothing but a plague of echoes: that writing necessarily deserts its author, spreading like an epidemic into other texts. “7 The myths that Eliot draws on form part of a group of recurring themes and images within the poem, the most prominent of which is that of Philomel, which appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Tereus, the King, rapes Philomel, his sister in law, before cutting out her tongue to stop her from telling anyone what has happened.However, she weaves the story of her plight into a tapestry to tell her sister, Procne, what has happened. The sisters then gain revenge on Tereus, by killing his son and feeding him to Tereus.

They are then both transformed into birds – Philomel a nightingale, Procne a swallow – representing their escape from the harsh world around them. The references to this myth occur three times in the poem: firstly, in ‘A Game of Chess,’ where the upper class woman is explicitly likened to her. At this point, her change into a nightingale is still something that is “rudely forced” (line 100), as it is in the next section when the ‘Jug jug jug’ of the nightingale’s song fills the air (line 204).However, by the end of the poem the transformation of the sisters into birds appears to be viewed as a welcome escape, with the reference from ‘Pervigilium Veneris’ – “When shall I become like the swallow”, line 428.

This ‘echo’ of a theme throughout the poem, also seen in examples like the “Unreal city” (lines 60, 207), or the over riding theme of the barren waste of modern life, help to link the otherwise fractured collection of images that make up the poem: “In a text like The Waste Land, which dispenses with any over-arching narrative coherence, much greater weight is placed on these self echoes: through them, we construct a different kind of coherence out of Eliot’s juxtaposed fragments.Indeed, even the conclusion of the poem, the ‘peace which passeth understanding’ as a result of the combined elements of Datta, Dayadhvam and Damyata in life, is a theme that exists throughout the poem purely through a lack of giving, sympathy and control in the lives of the different narrative voices. “These words [datta, dayadhvam, damyata] act as a kind of trajectory, broken theme moving through the various sections of the poem, defining the boundaries of the associations of each fragment, floating ambiguously through the context of the poem to the surface at the end. Like the mathematical progression where the ‘answer’ is given, each section can be seen to betray through its own kind of fear a lack of giving, sympathy and control.

“Despite the negative criticism surrounding The Waste Land and its apparent incoherency, Eliot’s intent to create a stunning comment on the harsh reality of life after the First World War succeeded, and was added to, by the fragmented appearance of its composition. The recurring imagery of the barren Waste Land of life, as the voices searched for the sort of meaning in the emptiness that had been apparent in the ‘golden years’ of the past, is one that is apparent to all readers, regardless of their knowledge of Greek mythology or ancient Hindu texts. The notes to accompany the text only served to illustrate the theme in greater detail, and possibly to aid understanding in the conclusion, if indeed it can be called that.The fragmentation, rather than hindering understanding, is an integral part of the message of the text as it mirrors the chaos hindering the fractured society that Eliot is trying to educate.

The fragments of allusions and religious motifs are merely an example of the poem “treating myth, history, art and religion as subject to the same fragmentation, appropriation and degradation as modern life. “10 However, despite its negative outlook on the state of the present, the conclusion ends on a rather positive note: “Shantih shantih shantih. ” (line 433). The ‘peace that passeth understanding’ suggests that although the reader may yet be caught in the barren waste, in the future there is a certain peace that will come.

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Fragmentation in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (2017, Dec 22). Retrieved from

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