Multiple Voices of The Waste Land

May 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Aesthetically merging erudition and emotion through a cacophony of diverse and often dissonant voices, The Waste Land serves as a microcosm of the modern state of mind and the state of the world itself. The personality and experiences of individuals are fused together, obscuring boundaries to form a richly layered paradigm of the universal psyche that emulates the reason of an insane mind.Friends of T S Eliot have frequently interpreted The Waste Land as “Tom’s autobiography,” and yet the poet has famously insisted that his writing is in fact not an expression of personality, but on the contrary an escape from it. The perplexing question of identity and voice, therefore, is a preoccupation that anchors many explorations of the poem, mystifying readers as they wade through an inconsistent parade of personalities, never sure exactly who is speaking at any time and which, if any, is the voice of Eliot himself. Of course, no piece of art can be entirely impersonal, and even a shallow observation of Eliot’s life proves that his experiences and personality are not wholly divorced from the voices of the poem, yet through the profusion of connected and conflicting characters intensely personal material takes on universal resonances, forming not an expression of individual life, but rather an archetype of human experience. The Waste Land takes the form of a modified dramatic monologue. A dissonant conflux of human and non-human voices battle for the reader’s attention, each frantic to find an audience but stifled by the decrepit nature of their surroundings, a mimetic account of life in the twentieth century that leaves the reader with a sense of the anxiety of being trapped in a crowd. The reader searches for familiarity but finds only a dense mosaic of fragmented thoughts- the “heap of broken images” that comprises the modern waste land. In this microcosm of western civilization, metonymically rendered narrative scenes morph in and out of one another, abrupt mutations that blur boundaries between identities, and the reader is thus unable to ever clearly distinguish one voice from another. The Burial of the Dead opens with a desire for stasis, reflecting anxiety about the change, growth and sexuality that April, the “cruelest month,” (2) offers. The voice is universal and dislocated, a metaphoric voice that tries to control the lack of absolutes, but metonymic voices soon break out of this control, spiraling into a confusing patchwork of experience and personality .An initial effort to focus on the individual is quickly defeated, resulting the transcendence of the self that pervades the poem and reaching an inclusive state of human consciousness that mirrors not one life but society as a whole. Not merely an anguished personal revelation, the poem can be considered something of a role-playing experience, a masquerade, taking on personal experience through guises of different voices, searching for an identity that is not in fact personal but shared amongst all the world of the waste land, realizing that experiences of others confirm and enhance the validity of one’s own (1). The voices range from the human- including Marie, the Hyacinth Girl, Stetson’s friend, Madame Sosostris, the pub woman, Tiresias, the Thames daughters- to the non-human, immortalized in the lyrical quality of the nightingale, the crowing cock and the thunder, and the voices from literature past. The cacophony of voices reflects an anxiety of identity, with no single self or rationale but rather a multifaceted sense of personality- that of the universal, rather than mirroring one individual soul. The cry concluding the Burial of the Dead, “you! Hypocrite lecteur!” (2) blurs the narrator’s voice with Baudelaire’s, Stetson’s with his friend’s, and the poet with the reader, forcing the reader to become a character in the poem rather than a mere spectator .The hanged man in the tarot cards is the hanged God is he “who was living is now dead” (2). The “third who walks beside you” (2) is the unrecognized Jesus is the silently watching Tiresias is the “hooded hordes swarming” (2) is the ominous figure of Death. All women in the poem, arguably, are various incarnations of the Belladonna, the Grail Maiden who is intended to see the future of the grail, though appearing in neurotic, sometimes sinister figures such as the deranged woman in A Game of Chess, rather than in the traditionally desirable form. Eliot describes Tiresias as a “mere spectator” (2) rather than a character, but is nevertheless “the most important personage in the poem.” (2) In Tiresias, an androgynous figure from Greek mythology who is blind but can see the truth, all other figures in the waste land are united. All men are one, all women are one, and, just as the Tarot cards draw the eclectic collection of characters together, all men and women become one in Tiresias, the “old man with wrinkled dugs” (2). Like the Sibyl, who withers and ages but can never die, Tiresias is trapped in an anguished life of wisdom, forced to watch horror and folly unfold just as he has seen time and time before, powerless to stop it or to escape. Again, this is an experience shared amongst all characters in the modern waste land. In fact, the paradox of two different types of life and two types of death is a major preoccupation of the poem- life without meaning is as good as death, whilst a sacrificial death can equal awakening to life, as exemplified through the experience of the Phonecian sailor, who meets a macabre death by drowning but in doing so enters a depth of self-knowledge and awareness. Death is never redeemed by salvation, and sparseness is replaced only by chaos. Death, the waste land beseeches, is not the most horrific fate. Life itself can be a torment. Just as the Sibyl experiences a sterile, changeless existence without life, wishing intensely that she could die, the people of the waste land are trapped in a world that has fallen into complete destruction and utter futility but will not expire.Another prominent voice in the poem is that of the Fisher King from the Grail legend. Eliot was largely influenced by Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, a study of the origins of the Grail legend that seemed to reflect Eliot’s own predicament, and that of humankind itself. The Fisher King in this spiritually decrepit society is seriously ill and wounded, trapped in life waiting only for death, and his condition is reflected in the state of his kingdom. In order for society to be restored in the Grail story, a questor must come and ask the question “who am I?” This, perhaps, is what the entire poem is asking; perhaps the whole poem is a search for identity, a search for answers to life’s most elusive questions. Just as identities are fused together, experiences are threaded together by common themes or allusions that seem to suggest that one is never wholly distinct from another- there is no individual memory, only a shared one. The journey along the sandy road of the waste land shares resonances not only with the journey to Emmaus in the Bible, but also the quest towards the Perilous Chapel in the Grail legend, while Eliot himself draws a parallel with Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition (2). Similarly, while one of the major preoccupations of the poem is the destruction wrought by the First World War, Stetson and his friend have shared an experience of fighting together in Mylae- a battle between the Romans and Carthaginians in the Punic War, not WWI- suggesting that all wars are one and the same. It is interesting to note also that the poem cannot be entirely divorced from Eliot’s personal life. At the time of writing, Eliot at the age of 33 seemed at a dead end. Like most people of his time, he was distressed by the spiritual devastation left behind by WWI, and his Everyman quest for sense and understanding had faltered, seeming futile. He was experiencing marital difficulties that ultimately ended in divorce and his troubled decision to have his ex-wife committed to a mental institution, resonances of which seem to appear in the nervous woman in the first part of A Game of Chess- “what are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” (2) It is speculated that he was impotent, a condition that hinders many characters in the waste land, from the lover of the Hyacinth Girl to the Fisher King, and his father had recently deceased, which could partially explain the obsession with death that pervades the poem. The Waste Land is structured as scholarly exegesis of literary and cultural allusions, a wealth of historical fragments patchworked together, including foreign phrases that emphasise the core idea of modernism- that we will never truly be able to understand each other. Harriet Davidson suggests that Eliot may have been playing an elaborate practical joke on the intelligentsia (2), sending them on, in his own words, a “wild goose chase” (2) to trace literary sources, but regardless of whether or not this is the case, examination of the careful selection of allusions reveals erudition that cannot be merely whimsical, but rather a significant layer to the orchestration of voices in the piece. As John T Mayer describes the poem, its form is multi-dimensional, with a horizontal, multi-voiced dialectic combined with “vertical layering of references to comprehend personal, historical, contemporary, mythical and archetypal application simultaneously” (1). Indeed, these voices from literature, culture and history are simply more characters in this pool of clashing personalities, all searching for a voice and an audience. Individual personality eludes the poem; The Waste Land is surely an escape from a particularized vision of personal life. But in its place is a wealth of universal resonances that entwine the most elemental thoughts, emotions and experiences of individual life together in one inclusive portrait of the human condition. (1) Mayer, John T, TS Eliot’s Silent Voices ((1)989) Oxford University Press, Great Britain (2) Eliot, Thomas Stearns, The Waste Land and notes ((1)9(2)(2)), New York: Boni and Liveright(3)Davidson, Harriet, ‘Improper desire: reading The Waste Land’, The Cambridge Companion to TS Eliot ((1)99(4)), Ed. A David Moody, Cambridge, Cambridge UP(4) Kenner, Hugh, The Invisible Poet: TS Eliot ((1)9((7))(4)) Methwen, London(5) Brooks, Cleanth “The Waste Land: An analysis”, TS Eliot: A Study of his Writings by Several Hands ((1)9((7))(1)), Ed B Rajan, Dobson Books, Great Britain(6) Southam, B C, Students’ Guide to Selected Poems by TS Eliot ((1)9(6)8), Faber and Faber Ltd((7)) Leavis, F R, “The Waste Land”, TS Eliot: A collection of critical essays ((1)9(6)(2)), Ed Hugh Kenner, Prentice-Hall Inc, USA 

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