T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a challenging and complex reading. Unlike traditional poems that use one voice, Eliot’s poem introduces his readers to multiple voices, both male and female, young and old. The poem, circa 1920, is written during the same period as World War I. Eliot is suffering from depression, his wife is mentally unstable, and World War I has left ruin and destruction. This backdrop should not go unnoticed, as it seems to influence the death, hopelessness and destruction within The Waste Land.
From the onset of the poem, the reader is discombobulated. The poem’s disjointedness puts the reader in an ungrounded place; there is no solid footing. Instead of expecting to listen to one story, we hear multiple perspectives from various characters with differing backgrounds. Children, the elderly, middle aged men and women, young adults, are all mentioned as if to listen to the perspective of many and the disparate. These myriad narrators present the poem as more of a play than a poem. Is this what Eliot wants of his readers? He wants to displace us, create uncertainty, disconnection, in a world that appears to present order and civility – except, of course, it does not. Perhaps he wants to create in us an empathy or compassion; he wants us to remove ourselves from a safe haven. This place of doubt is unnerving, but it can also allow his readers to deeply understand issues of love, desire, and loss.
The children in his poem offer a glimmer of hope, “Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!” They seem to breathe new life; they present a lightness of being, which also illustrates an innocence and forgiveness that rationalizes living amid hopelessness. But there is always the return to a dark and desolate place, “I who have sat by Thebes below the wall and walked among the lowest of the dead.”
The poem begins with a narration from a man who appears to be reporting on the despair of a place that should bring us a new beginning, but instead brings the reader difficulty, “April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…” The narrators all address this hopeless, destruction and direness, “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats.” The reader is approached with a hint of possibility and of a better tomorrow, but this is quickly brought back to an emotional ruin, “…the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water.”
The characters in this poem seem to be connected, and this makes one contemplate kinship. Alluding to some characters as son and brother may be Eliot’s way to connect humanity and to illustrate how humanity is our common base.
Eliot’s themes of love, loss, and death transcend time. In one’s life, these themes are always interconnected and never avoided. To feel as if one enters a place of uncertainty is to experience what life actually brings us; it is a place of unknowns even in our most definite and confidant situations. With this in mind, we need to embrace those moments of unknowns because they are a natural part of our existence. To deny the dark places is to live life with a superficiality that is unrealistic. Wisdom and maturity cannot be attained unless you accept the darkness and do so with openness to emotional growth.