They’re all wasted! sample essay
“They’re all wasted! ” proclaims The Who’s Roger Daltrey in 1971’s “Baba O’Riley,” a song widely and mistakenly believed to be titled “Teenage Wasteland” because of the refrain. Putting an emphasis on “all,” this is a sweeping indictment: the youth are all wasted, not just one group or in one way, but everywhere and in every faculty. Every potential–for rebellion, discipline, pleasure, belief–has been squandered. But The Who were far from the first to imagine this modern wasteland.
T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland,” provides a wide-ranging critique of modernity, while also modeling the aesthetics of the new epoch, that makes statements like The Who’s intelligible while building on established literary and social conventions. The historical context for Eliot’s poem can be divided into three major components. First, there is the literary tradition writ large, the collected textual productions of the world over the last several millennia.
“The Wasteland” makes reference to the Bible (20-3), Buddhism (173), Dante (62-5), Shakespeare (172), Greek tragedy (218), and many more sources: the Norton Anthology’s cup runneth over with footnotes. Second, there is English literature. It is more likely that Eliot’s peers would measure him against the immediate backdrop of national history, not least because education in excellence in English literature is also education of the excellence of English literature.
Thus Eliot must be able to demonstrate knowledge of Shakespeare and Marvell at the minimum, but also make an original contribution to the English literary tradition coming out of the nineteenth century. As in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Eliot addresses nineteenth century British Romanticism with modern inversions of the celebration of unadulterated nature. In the opening paragraph we have a modernized parallel of Wordsworth’s “A Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free”: Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. (8-11) The natural world is pleasing and comforting to humanity in this miniature. The surprise of rain does not seem to dampen the spirits of the characters but rather, through the stop in the colonnade, causes them to pause and so appreciate the reappearance of the sunlight. The construction “Summer surprised us” gives the natural world and its seasons a kind of playful agency, as in the Romantic tradition. However, we cannot think of Eliot as remaining within the Romantic tradition despite his utilization of it as a literary option. The third vital context is the recently concluded World War I.
Hence the agency of the natural world, insomuch as Eliot images such agency for literary purposes, is as ambivalent as human nature. The opening lines, also drawing on literary precedent in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” depict a less loving nature. April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (1-4) The April showers that bring May flowers, to paraphrase Chaucer, bring a conflation of life and death instead of pilgrims. April is personified, as in Romanticism, but here it is so that it can be labelled cruel.
Life is not an abstractly generative force: since at least Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnets,” English literature has had a rich tradition of sexual metaphorics, using phrases like “Dull roots” for phallic impotence and “spring rain” for ejaculatory procreation. But Eliot cannot simply celebrate this cycle of rebirth in the shadow of the muddy graves of World War I. The “mixing / memory and desire” recasts the common literary relationship between sex and death in a perverse light, since “memory” transgresses the partition between the living and the dead, the present and the past.
Memory exhumes what is past, does not allow it to die and rest in peace. This corpse is now also the object of “desire. ” The cycle of death and rebirth has been stalled in modernity and in the vision of “The Waste Land. ” Eliot’s poem both represents and partakes of this modern problem; in fact, the necessity of participating in the forces of social infertility to represent it might be one of the most distinctively modern aspects that Eliot represents here. The broad scope of historical literature that he can draw on is the result of the British empire contacting and importing cultural products from around the globe.
His knowledge of languages and availability of translations when necessary further speak to world literature as a thoroughly modern phenomenon. The need to reject or critique prior traditions is also part of the modern awareness of the dialectical nature of history. Of course, this also marks (ironically) a point of continuity with Victorians like Baudelaire (67). The fragmented form of “The Waste Land” is part of this modern rejection of tradition, but to depict this fragmentation Eliot must also gather together multiple traditions.
They are juxtaposed with each other but without a master narrative to organize them. To further drive the point home Eliot also uses non-standard grammar or spelling, or seemingly nonsense words and sounds: “O O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag–” (128). This ambiguity then contrasts with the grim and undecorated conversation circling, like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” around an abortion: “I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face, / It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said” (158-60).
Stylistic innovation and rejection of stifling “rules” of art allow Eliot to create a radically new expression of the human experience, but in doing so he simultaneously duplicates the rootlessness and anomie he is seeking to overcome. “The Waste Land” articulates combatting notions of history, progress, and form that do not reach any conclusive resolution in the poem or in its subsequent readings. With the aid of hindsight the critic can understand Eliot’s growing religious conservatism in subsequent works like “Journey of the Magi.
” By trying to include every literary and theological mode, he winds up putting them all at a discount; even if one’s chosen credo is somewhat arbitrary it at least allows entrance into the myth of rebirth. The forces in tension in “The Waste Land” chart two continuing political alignments. The will or willingness to subscribe to any belief is most darkly visible in the rise of the Third Reich; the willingness to subscribe to none is most visible in our inability to decisively commit to the prevention of subsequent atrocities.
Eliot’s poem provides a space for considering these questions without prejudicing the question through contemporary political affiliations. The political question can be momentarily set aside if we imagine, for the time being, that this is merely art for art’s sake.
Eliot, T. S. “The Wasteland. ” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. , 2000. 236
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