The Waste Land is a long poem written in 1922 by poet and critic T. S. Eliot which soon became considered a defining text of the modernist literary movement and a masterpiece in its own right. Written in half a dozen different languages and packed full of references to other poems, novels, plays and religious works, it is an immensely difficult poem to get to grips when you first pick it up. But when you start to look closely at the text see why Eliot has employed such a large collection of snippets from other texts, you begin to appreciate Eliot’s genius. It is not simply a work of serial plagiarism.
He sets the poem in London and describes a city and a peoples who are struggling with the realities of modern life in the aftermath of the most destructive war which Europe had ever faced, the First World War (then known as the Great War), which claimed the lives of around 15 million men, mostly young men. Eliot writes:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowed flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The way the people are described as flowing into London makes them sound as if they are ghost-like, with the tragedy of war having “undone so many” of them. The narrator also describes bumping into a commuter he recognises, saying “Stetson! / You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! / That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / has it begun to sprout?” His mentioning of Mylae is a reference to the Battle of Mylae, which took place in 206 B.C. during the First Punic War between the Romans and the Carthaginians.
This is a crucial allusion because after the armistice of First World War in 1918, the allies drew up the Treaty of Versailles, a peace deal which conclusively ended the war between Germany and the Allied nations. However, it also obliged Germany to pay huge sums of money in compensation for the war when the country had very little money (due to the very same war), which humiliated the German people for a generation. As a result, the economist John Maynard Keynes described the treaty as a “Carthaginian settlement”, since after the First Punic War when Rome had defeated Carthage the Romans forced the Carthaginians into a similarly vengeful peace treaty which helped to lay the ground for the Second Punic War.
So, by conflating the First Punic War with the First World War in this encounter, Eliot is reaffirming Keynes’ judgement upon the Treaty of Versailles – and possibly predicting that, as with the Punic Wars, it may have laid the foundation for another conflict between Germany and the allied powers. The strange fact that Stetson has buried a corpse in his garden which may one day “sprout” extends this notion that the war may one day come back to haunt Europe again. It could also be Eliot’s way of illustrating how modern society, in its shock over the horror of the First World War, has attempted to bury and repress the loss and pain of that war rather than try to reconcile itself to it with honesty and truth.
As I hope to have shown then, Eliot’s The Waste Land yields a great harvest when looking at it critically; his allusions to other literary texts and moments in history allowing him to compress a huge amount of content into a fifteen page poem, turning it into an epic meditation on culture and civilisation.
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