Thursday, April 9, 2015

Poetry Spotlight: The Wasteland by T.S. Elliot

In my second year of college I took an Introduction to Poetry class and I fell in love with reading poetry. Before then, poetry was always a little intimidating and a medium that I didn't have much experience with. But after that class, I became addicted to reading poetry, and during the class I actually found myself thinking in and expressing myself in poetry- which I never would have guessed would happen in a million years. So, with this series I'm here to share some of my favorite poems in a way that I'm sure will turn out rambley and unorganized.

So, I just read T.S. Elliot's "The Wasteland" for my American Literature class, and it was an interesting experience to say the least. If you have never read anything by Elliot before I should warn you, he is not a very good place to start if you are new to poetry or looking to get into poetry. The explanatory footnotes are ten times longer than this poem, and he makes many allusions to mythology, history, Shakespeare, and the Bible. This is a rather challenging poem, but it is also really interesting. 
T.S. Elliot 
Read the poem here. This version has footnotes, but I'm not too impressed with them. The poem contains a lot of lines in German and a lot of allusions that need explaining. Here is a link to the Sparknotes Page on the poem, which I consulted after reading it and found it very helpful. 

A few helpful tidbits about this poem:

  • It was published in 1922.
  • This poem is considered one of the most important pieces of modernist literature and is considered Elliot's masterpiece.
  •  It is dedicated to Ezra Pound, who is a really fascinating person who had a huge influence in the literary sphere even though he didn't publish many well-known works of his own. 
  • The first line of the poem, "April is the Cruellest month..." is very well-known and often referenced within literature.

This poem was published during a time when majority of art was a response to the horror and violence of WWI; this piece is no exception. It is a rather pessimistic look at the moral deterioration of culture after the war. (Fun stuff, I know!) The poem is divided into five sections, and each section is a new poem within itself, meaning they are not continuations of each other and each section switches speakers many times within the section. Now you can see why this piece is so complicated.

Okay, so the first thing I noticed about this poem was the abundance of female speakers and allusions in this poem, that was quite unexpected to me. I found the second section of the poem entitled, "A Game of Chess" to be the most interesting section of the poem. Here Elliot portrays two women, one a powerful rich women who is associated by allusion to Cleopatra, and the other a common woman in a bar in England. Elliot makes allusions to the myth of Philomela and Procne from Ovid's Metamorphoses. This myth is about sisters Philomela and Procne. Philomela was raped by her brother in law, who then cut out her tongue to keep her quiet. She relayed her story to her sister through a tapestry she made. Procne preceded to gain revenge over her husband by killing their son and feeding him to her husband in a pie. (Yay mythology!). The two sisters were then turned into birds, Philomela became a swallow because of her missing tongue and Procne a nightingale.But Ovid mistranslated the piece and made Philomela the nightingale, and she is now often associated with the nightingale in history and art.

So, what is Elliot saying about sexuality, and female sexuality specifically, in this section? He's not a fan of it. He associates the woman of power with historical women who committed suicide because of love related reasons, and the rich woman becomes jealous, paranoid, and needy when her lover arrives. The disapproval of sexuality continues in Section Three of the poem as well. I find it interesting that with all of the violence that was just committed during the war, Elliot chooses to focus on sexuality as the cause of all of society's problems. The idea of a wasteland and barren relationships and land is quite constant through out the poem. 

Overall, I respect this poem's place in history and the literary cannon and I think it is a piece I will have to reread many time and work with for quite a while before I can really get a grasp on all that it has to offer. I would recommend checking out Elliot though, I prefer "The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock" to this one, and he has an entire book of poem's dedicated to cats which I own and plan to pick up soon, so that's cool. Anyone who write a book of poem's dedicated to cats is alright in my book.

Let me know your thoughts on this poem or any of Elliot's other poems.      

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