Theme of sterility in the poem the waste land
“The Waste Land” was first published in October 1922 in a magazine called “The Criterion”. Eliot began work on the poem in the early 1919 but much of the work was done in late 1921 as he was staying on the coast of Margate in England and later on at a sanitarium in Luassanne, Switzerland where he was taking a rest after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of his father’s death in 1919.
“The Waste Land” combines overwhelming scholarship of adulterated speech. Quotations from other languages from great literatures of the world and from pop songs and music hall are woven into one fabric making it possibly the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century. This poem can be said to be Elliot’s greatest work of literature.
All the five cryptic segmented sections of “The Waste Land”, confront the problem sterility and at the end tries to offer a solution, though of little help. In the poem Eliot asks a question “what branches grow out of this stony rubbish”. Through this imagery, “branches” and “stony rubbish” Eliot suggests that the poem examines the lives of people (branches) and the culture (stony rubbish) in which people live. The lives of people are interconnected to their culture. Like the ground where trees draw their life, the culture is a life stream of people. Branches can never grow if the roots cannot clutch if the soil is stony rubbish. The same way people cannot live well if their culture is broken, rough and can longer support them. It is also impossible to bring about a civilization worthy of mankind or better make mankind wholesome and create a worthy culture, if the environment in which the mankind grows undermines life instead of nurturing life (Blossom p.26).
“The Fire Sermon”
The tittle of this passage is taken from a Buddha sermon given to Buddha followers. It urges them to give up earthly rages symbolized by fire and instead look for freedom from earthly things. A turn away from the earthly actually occurs in this passage. Series of debased sexual encounters are depicted and finally closes with a river-song and religious conjuration. The passage opens with a desolate riverside scene. The speaker is surrounded by rats and garbage as he fishes and muses on the king my brother’s wreck.
Through this description the poet is able to develop the theme of sterility. Unlike the desert that is characterized by bareness, the riverbank that should be full of rejuvenation of life just but a dull canal that only rats a seen moving around. This shows the pessimism because what is hoped to bring about regeneration of the people only rats are found there. As the speaker muses in the king my brother’s wreck, with the king my father’s grave before him, he thinks about the death of kings that leads to loss of significance of life. The sound of rats rattle personifies the lethal plaque ruining the human spirit.
London according to Elliot had become so unreal in the sense that the dwellers of the city have lost touch with basic reality of olden pulse of germ and birth. Eliot shows sterility in a heterosexual encounter in London. The speaker is invited by a one-eyed merchant of Madame Sosostrils’s tarot pack, Mr. Eugenides, to a meeting place for homosexual assignations. In this situation the speaker proclaims himself as Tiresias. Tiresias is an ancient mythology who possesses both male and female reproductive organs, old man with wrinkled female breasts. He is also able to see into the future. The speaker in this encounter as used by Eliot is only an observer of the events of this encounter as they unfold. The speaker witnesses an encounter between a typist and a small house agent’s clerk. After a long day of work, the typist returns to her house and prepares dinner. Her underwear is seen drying on the windowsill, and the divan on which she sleeps is strewn with other lingerie such as a stockings. A young man, a small house agent’s clerks, who is described as having a bold stare, arrives in the typist’s house. On eating dinner, the young man starts making advances towards the typist which she does not resist. She readily gives in and they are involved in a sexual intercourse which the speaker sees as an alienated sexual exchange. After they are done the young man walks out of the house finding his way through the dark. This signifies the state of moral and vital darkness that he lives in. The typist on the other hand, adjusts her hair and says to herself “glad it’s over.” This sexual encounter symbolizes the degradation of the central model of love and fertility. It was neither an act of procreation, nor a rite performed ceremonially for a fertile earth. There was not even an expression of love. The sexual encounter is a conceited assertion of destitute self on the part of the clerk and an example of accustomed submission on the part of the typist. Sexual intercourse has been turned mechanical just like how machines work.
The poem therefore represents the narrator’s consciousness of his anguish in relation to history, culture and even time. Throughout the poem infertility is felt with little hopes of the future. What the speaker sees in this encounter is one of the highest examples of barrenness, egotism and disaffection.
“A Game of Chess”
The title of this section is derived from two plays by an early 17th century dramatist Thomas Middleton the one in which the moves in a game of chess denotes stages in seduction. Two opposing scenes are depicted. One of the beau monde and the other of lower social class. The first part of the section exposes a wealthy, well groomed woman surrounded by recherché furnishings. The woman waits for a lover and in the process her neurotic ideas become frenzied with no meaningful cries. Her day then climaxes with plans for an outing and a game of chess.
In the second part of this episode depicts a scene in a London barroom. Here two women discuss a third woman who is not in the barroom. As the bar is about to be closed, one of the women recounts a discourse with their friend Lil. Lil’s husband had been dismissed from the army. Lil has refused to get herself false teeth and she is told that her husband will seek the company of another woman as a result. Lil’s husband does not seem to appreciate her even on bearing five children for him which has led to current appearance. The narrator says that her husband “won’t leave [her] alone”.
The two women, Lil wealthy woman, represent the two sides of modern sexuality. One side of the sexuality is dry, barren interchange inseparable from neuroticism and self-destruction. Eliot likens this woman to Cleopatra in the manner of her luxuriance of language and surrounding. She is defeated, excessively emotional but lacks intellects. Eliot’s association of this woman with Cleopatra, who committed suicide due to frustration stemmed from love, shows her irrationality. However, unlike Cleopatra, this woman is not and will never be a cultural standard.
Lil on the other hand represents sexuality as fertility associated with a deficiency of culture and speedy aging. Despite doing everything right; married right, supported her husband, bore him children, yet her body lets her down. She no longer looks appealing to her husband. Age had already set in and there was no way to reverse it, not even false teeth. This shows how possibility of regenerating sex both at the cultural and personal contexts diminishes further.
“The Burial of the Dead”
This is the first passage of the waste land. Eliot derived the title of this passage from a line in the Anglican burial service. It is constituted of four sketches, apparently from different speakers. The first is an autobiographical snipping from a childhood of an aristocratical woman called Marie. She tells the poet as they take coffee of her past in Austria and of her cousin, who was the Archduke Rudolph and the heir to be of the Austro-Hungarian throne. She also narrates to the poet in fondness how she used to go sledging in the mountains and sometimes Archduke would take her sledging. Marie mingles a meditation on the seasons with comments on the desolate state of her current being. She says “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”. Marie claims to be a German and not a Russian. She is a member of the lately defeated Austrian royal family. The poem being written after the First World War it shows how people’s lives were disrupted and left desolate as a result of war. People, like Marie could no longer feel part or even enjoy being part of the social fabric as they did before the war.
As the speaker walks through London which is populated by ghosts he faces a figure that he once fought with in a battle and this seems to mix the clashes of the First World War with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Both wars were futile and led to massive destruction. The speaker goes ahead to ask the ghostly figure, Stetson, on the fate of a corpse established in his garden. At the time Eliot was writing the poem, he had started gaining interest in Christianity. It was difficult for him to believe the Christian belief of resurrection. This shows the pessimism with which Eliot looks at degraded human culture of post-world war I. This hopelessness is depicted in the character Sibyl, a woman possessing prophetic powers who ages but never dies. This woman looks into the future and finds no hope in it and therefore prefers to die. Eliot sees himself in the same predicament as Sibyl. The culture in which he lives in has decayed and dried-up. The worst part of this culture is that it will not expire, and hence he is compelled to live with memories of its former glory.
Through memory of the dead, a confrontation of the past and the present is created. Through memory, the past and the present are juxtaposed showing how things have worsened and decayed. Marie’s memories of her childhood are painful. The worlds of her cousin and coffee in the park, and sledging on the mountains have since been replaced by complex political and emotional consequences of the war. She now prefers to read late into the night because there is not much she can do.
In summing up, the poem “The Waste Land” is regarded as Eliot’s best work of literature. Written after the First World War which he describes as futile and cause of massive destruction, Eliot explores changes that occurred after the war. One of these changes involves the culture and the people themselves becoming sterile. The culture has become so decayed that it can no longer support existence of a wholesome mankind. As a result people have lost touch with their culture and turned to doing evil things. Despite the sterility of the culture, people have to live in this hopeless condition just as Sibyl.