The Waste Land

The Waste Land as an Archive

I had never thought of The Waste Land as an archive prior to reading Foucault, but when I consider the poem in that light there really isn't a better term that can be used to describe it. According to Foucault's definition, an archive "...unites in a single "volume" a series of linguistic elements that derive from existing books and that are, by virtue of their specific documentary character, the repetition of things said in the past" (105). The Waste Land is the only poem I can recall reading that appears to be more like a catalog of other ideas than an original text; it "cataologs" ideas, phrases, and direct references from world history and other works of literature throughout, and it's one of many reasons I enjoyed reading the poem. I loved trying to figure out where certain references were being pulled from. 

Archives are also used to preserve history and literature, and The Waste Land achieved that by reimagining and throwing together older texts, presenting them to a new audience. No work of literature is original, as each new piece either directly or indirectly draws upon previous works for inspiration. T.S. Eliot seemed very aware of this in his writing of The Waste Land. He purposely sought out references for use in his own work, which - strangely enough - makes the poem original, from a certain point of view.

Archives, Foucault, and Eliot

As several of my classmates have said, Foucault’s descriptions map readily onto The Waste Land. Foucault addresses his focus, The Temptation, as “a monument to meticulous erudition” (89), a descriptor which perfectly suits The Waste Land as well. Within Eliot’s work, every line can be examined, unpacked, put back together, and deconstructed again and his attention to detail – no wasted words, every word significant – is amazing. The similarities continue as Foucault talks about “words spoken in the past…the amassing of minute facts, monuments reduced to infinitesimal fragments” (90-91), which calls to mind Eliot’s mythic method and the significant-yet-short references present in The Waste Land (ie, the quick reference to Mylae in line 70).

Key, I think, to Foucault’s treatment of archives are “the virtue of its essential relationship to books” and the ability “to extend the space that existing books can occupy” (91). I’m still trying to fully understand his point – especially the diagram found later in the essay – but I find his ideas about intertextuality and the constant referencing among texts fascinating. Finally, I was struck by the way he describes The Temptation as “the book of books,” as the description applies just as much to The Waste Land: “It unites in a single ‘volume’ a series of linguistic elements that derive from existing books and that are…the repetition of things said in the past. The library is opened, catalogued, sectioned, repeated, and rearranged in a new space” (105). This is The Temptation, this is The Waste Land, this is an archive.

The Waste Land as an Archive

Like Kaity, I found in the reading of Foucault's Fantasia of Library that it was not difficult to find comparisions between the archival qualities of The Temptation and similar archival qualities in The Waste Land. Foucault describes The Temptation as "a monument to meticulous erudition"; he may as well have been describing the style and work of Eliot in The Waste Land (Foucault, 89). Just as Flaubert recollected, remembered, and revised a multitude of past works through his writing of The Temptation, Eliot preserved fragments of the European literary tradition that came before him through the poetry of The Waste Land (Voss and Werner, ii). 

In Eliot's capturing and conserving of texts, stories, and songs that came before The Waste Land, however, there is "a history of loss" (Voss and Werner, i). Voss and Werner in their discussion of archives, showed that archives, while preserving, are often fragmented representations of the works they preserve. The Waste Land has this fragmented modern archival quality. Within The Waste Land, Eliot provided a space for various literary works to be preserved and passed down, extending the space the works previously occupied, to paraphrase Foucault (91). However, these works, though preserved through the medium of Eliot's poem, are not whole. The poem is a showcase of Eliot's brilliant ability to take fragments of historical and monumental literary works and "in a single movement... cause them to glitter and disappear" (Foucault 92).

The Waste Land Archive

Like Justin, before reading these articles, I had an outdated idea of what exactly an archive was. In Voss and Werner’s words, I had acknowledged the physical site, but ignored the “conceptual space.” Defining the archive this way made me rethink what exactly a literary work was. Voss and Werner quoted Bornstein saying that “literary work exists not in any one manifestation but in an archive that brings all the versions with claims upon our attention put together.” I think this is much easier to see in the digital age because we can do a quick google search and have tons of different editions or versions of a piece at our fingertips.

Specifically in regards to The Waste Land, I liked where Voss and Werner paraphrased Greetham saying, “that the archive proper is comprised of ‘garbage,’ ‘cultural scraps…leftovers…bits of memory.’ ” This made me immediately think of The Waste Land because of all the fragmentation there is. It’s like there’s these little ‘bits of memory’ put together into one seamless piece. We get biblical allusions juxtaposed with more recent allusions, yet it’s still one coherent piece. I also thought of The Waste Land when Voss and Werner say that each archive, as a construct, “reveals some things while concealing others.” As a part of the multimedia group, I found this to be especially true. When The Waste Land is just a printed text, the different voices that emerge are mostly concealed, but when you see a performance of it, or listen to a recording of Eliot reading it himself, those different characters become revealed.

The Waste Land as Archive

Throughout my reading of Foucault’s “Fantasia of the Library,” I could not help noticing that nearly every point he made about the archival nature of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony could be applied to The Waste Land. Foucault points out the myriad of sources that Flaubert drew from while writing The Temptation—everything from Augustine to Spinoza (89). Similarly, Eliot drew from a wide variety of sources in The Waste Land. Another piece of the Foucault’s essay that called to mind The Waste Land was his discussion of St. Anthony acting as a “zero point between Asia and Europe; both seem to arise from a fold in time, at the point where Antiquity, at the summit of its achievement, begins to vacillate and collapses” (103). Like The Temptation, The Waste Land deals with both the East and the West. Over the course of the poem, the reader is taken from Chaucer’s England to the shores of the Ganges (and a multitude of places in between). They differ, though, in the fact that The Temptation highlights the rising of Western European culture, while The Waste Land looks to the East as a site of cultural regeneration.

Foucault states that Flaubert “erects [his] art within the archive” (92). With the above comparisons in mind, I think we can extend this statement to T.S. Eliot as well. The Waste Land borrows from so many different sources, Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Buddha, and the Bible, just to name a few. With all of these works in a relatively short number of pages, The Waste Land functions as an archive. All of these works are stored in its text, but it is up to the reader to search them out, just as a reader must search for a book in the shelves of a library.


The Archive of the Experience

These articles really helped me reshape how I define what an archive is. I admit that I have been carrying around a fairly old-fashioned definition of what makes an archive an archive. I think of this term as referring to a collection of physical objects and artifacts (for example, TU's collection of WWI posters). Honestly, though, I did not even consider a library--a collection of books--to be an archive; I just called it a library. Similarly, I never considered any online database to be an archive; after all, there are no physical objects online. These articles showed me that archives come in many forms, including the form of a singular text, such as The Waste Land.

I think that The Waste Land makes the most sense as an archive when the distinction of narrative voices is understood. While studying the Fiona Shaw performance of the poem, I drew a connection between the performance and a documantary interview. In that regard, I can certainly see the poem as a collection of various accounts of WWI (and many other scenes). Each sene--each moment--in and of itself is a sort of object to be preserved. For example, the pub scene reveals the bleak reality of the women who stayed at home during the war, as well as the challenges they faced. This information is collected and protected in poem itself. The poem could somewhat be considered an archive of moments and experiences; because there are so many present in the poem, it serves as a fairly extensive independent database. This explains how, by reading the poem, one not only enjoys the work but is greatly informed about the psychology of the inter-war period. That mindset was preserved for us.


I'm without a doubt a dumb blonde when it comes to technology.  I have never really taken the time to understand why computers work, or how a thumb drive can store my documents and pictures.  Werner and Voss's article about archives helped to illustrate technology for me at least a little bit.  When I hear the word "archive" I generally think of really old manuscripts or really long lists of things from an archeological dig.  Archive just sounds like a word to describe old things.  It doesn't sound like a tech-y word at all.  But archive can describe so many things, from libraries full of old books to everything I've ever written or stored on a computer.  Werner and Voss speak of lost archives, "when the leaves of hundreds of illuminated manuscripts, loosed... like butterflies in the courtyard of Oxford", and I can't help but think of the Library of Alexandria.  When the library was burned down, there were so many manuscripts and scrolls that were lost to the world because there were no other copies.  To think that we could be facing that kind of intelligence loss due to internet failure had never occured to me before reading this article. 

The Waste Land is an archive in many forms.  It has been printed as a book, it has been digitized on numerous websites, ebooks, apps, etc., and reading each one is different.  Reading The Waste Land in printed book form gives the poem a physicality that it doesn't have when reading it on a screen, while reading electronic versions of the poem gives it an accessibility and new life that it doesn't have on paper.  Different mediums have different effects on a work, even if the exact same words are used.  The fact that Eliot's poem is archived in numerous different ways, I think, links to the importance of his work.  Should the internet fail, there are still printed copies of his work and similarly, should libraries be burned like Alexandria's, the poem is still archived electronically.  

We live in a world of so many different technological opportunities, and I'm really excited to continue learning more about them this semester.

What a Waste

To all those self-proclaimed "poetry haters" out there -- those who think poetry is all just a bunch of fluffy dead people writing about love and religion and things that don't apply to the modern reader -- I defy you not to be moved by the poetry of T.S Eliot. When I think of "modern poetry", or really anything in the realm of modern literature and art, no one strikes a chord that resonates quite as truly with the modern spirit than T.S Eliot. In a modern age where the human experience is forgotten in pursuit of wealth, status, or "a cause", it's hard not to be moved by motifs as striking and beautiful as those which appear in Eliot's The Waste Land.

One passage which really struck me was that of the opening paragraph, before Part I even begins. Eliot quotes a line from the Satyricon of Petronius in which he (the writer) sees the Sibyl of Cumea, who, when asked what she wants, says, "I want to die". This line alludes to the driving theme behind the opening lines of Part I - The Burial of the Dead, which states "April is the cruellest month" for bringing the dead earth back to life, upsetting the forgetful sleep of winter and stirring things into a painful reawakening. However, while these first few lines suggest a feeling of pain in relation to living, Eliot also evokes a sort of bitterness and passion through the last few lines of Part I, in which he sarcastically calls to a man on the street, "That corpse you planted last year in your garden / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?" This part provided some difficult for me, as well as the stanza before in which a clairvoyant gives a horoscope warning of "death by water." I'm not exactly clear on the relationship between the first and last halves of Part I. While Eliot's dedication at the beginning would seem to foreshadow a mood of angst and apathy, there are lines both in the first few stanzas and especially in the last two which suggest a completely different mood. A comprehensive analysis of Part I would suggest an overall allusion to WWI and the anxiety surrounding it, as well as the modern age itself. A motif in the modern age is a sense of lost identity, or perhaps a forged identity, suggested by the line "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.", translated by Eliot as meaning, "I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, I am a real German." This line, as well as the line in which Eliot calls to the man on the street, allude to a feeling of pain and bitterness in relation to one's national identity and exactly what lengths one would go to in order to protect it. "That corpse you planted last year in your garden..." is a bitter exclamation of loss and frustration, asking if that death was really worth it when he says, "Has it begun to sprout?" The connecting motif, perhaps, is that life is painful, and consciousness is a curse, but man endures it all the same. Passion and fervor are painful emotions to have, but they're all we have until we're dead. It's important to live truly, so if someone dies for a cause they may or may not have truly believed in -- as we can assume the corpse buried in the garden did -- it's important to ask if it really was worth it.

Can meaning be found in the rubbish?

I'm aware that it doesn't take much to clearly identify The Waste Land as a modernist piece of literature, but just the same, having read it once or twice before this time I was still struck by how well he uses "a heap of broken images" to express the emotions of the modernist era. I was specifically intrigued by the 2nd section in The Burial of the Dead. It is not at all surprising that this poem is used so often as a prime example of modern thought. Eliot's lines "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?" define well the struggle of modernists to find meaning in a world of chaos.

In the rest of that section Eliot uses images ("dead tree," "dry stone") to further depict humanity's grappling for meaning in the modern, war-torn world. And then he offers a place of security from the dry waste land beneath "the shadow of this red rock". For a moment it feels like there is a place of peace in the chaos.  However, the comfort found there is fleeting as the reader finds what awaits them beneath the rock is only more "fear" and confusion. The confusion coming from Eliot's use of a different language for four lines that leaves the reader once again disorientated and grasping for meaning.

The Waste Land Struggle

I am usually the first person to say that I do not really care for poetry, and I can say that reading and attempting to understand The Waste Land did not change that at all. At the end of reading this, I thought I had finally come to the realization that this was about World War II. Which was great... until I realized that this was written before World War II had even begun, which I thought ruined my entire understanding of the work; however, I actually think it makes it stronger. Eliot knew that war is cyclical and will happen again, which he predicted correctly because World War II did happen about 17 years after The Waste Land was written, which gives this work more credibility.

Throughout the poem, Eliot warns that war and violence is a cyclical event (e.g. the pearl eyes of the drowned Phoenician Sailor). The last six lines of section one, specifically, is a warning against letting war happen again and the part you play in it. "Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men, Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!" The dogs of war are 'friends to men' because men (read: people) have a tendency towards violence and war, so we must be careful and dilligent in keeping that tendency buried and not let it be dug up again. I like that it kind of brought the reader into it and made them, us, responsible for keeping the peace too.