T.S. Eliot

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 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 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.

Depressing Themes in "The Waste Land"

Unlike several of my classmates, this is the first time I have ever read "The Waste Land".  It took several read throughs to even try and make sense of it, but the depressing and pessimistic, even morbid, vibes coming from the poem stood out to me right away.  Right off the bat, Eliot mentions April, a month in the season of life and color, yet refers to it as "the cruellest of months".  The lilacs blooming and dead land giving way to the green of nature is something  he views as less than desirable compared to the covering snow of winter.

Eliot uses descriptions of "stony rubbish" and dead ground to continue in the depressing descriptions.  He goes on to talk about the clairvoyant woman, Madame Sosostris, who warns him to "fear death by water".   Near the end of the first section, he speaks of a crowd of people in London, whom "death had undone", which I can only assume means zombies.  To end section one, he sees a friend in the crowd of zombies and asks about the corps he buried in his yard.  

This poem goes in so many directions at once yet the theme of death and misery seems to pervade many of the encounters that Eliot writes about, which is very fitting since the title of the section is The Burial of the Dead.  Even the few happy moments in the sections, such as the girl with the hyacinths, end on a dismal note.  This could be Eliot showing a pessimistic view on life as a whole, how even the happy moments can end in confusion and disaster.  

The Waste Land

Upon reading The Waste Land for the first time, what stuck out to me the most was the first half of section 2: A Game of Chess. It starts off simple and normal: a woman waiting for her lover to arrive. As time passes and her lover still hasn't shown up, the format of the poem becomes more erratic, emulating her thoughts.

The way the poem is written - appearing well put together at first and eventually breaking apart - struck me as very true of human nature. When we dwell on something for too long, eventually our thoughts become disjointed and unstable, causing panic and anxiety. The passage begins to break apart when the narrator first speaks to herself: "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me" (111).You know things are bad when you start talking to yourself, and clearly Eliot used this as a device to make the reader feel more anxious as well. There is a clear buildup in this passage, and there seems to be a buildup in the other passages as well. Each story is building up to something, but I'm not quite sure what to make of both sections altogether.


Eliot and Empathy

Let me begin my admitting that, even during my third encounter with this text, I found myself having to resort to outside sources for commentary and clarification (Sparknotes...no shame). I find the entire poem to be incredibly challenging, but I love how it can be dissected into smaller and smaller pieces for close study. One of my favorite sections, one which I find quite simple to understand, is the final scene in Section II. A Game of Chess. The scene is one of the most realistic scenes Eliot creates--women at a bar discussing the affairs of their lives. These affair,s unfortunately, are not exactly positive.

Upon this reading of the scene, I found myself struck by the lack of empathy expressed towards Lil. Again, let me be honest, when I read things I British authors, I usually use a British accent. I find that it keeps things interesting. For this passage, I found it extremely helpful in developing the character of the main speaker. The flippancy with which she disregards Lil's sufferings are shocking. For example, her assertion that "if you don't give it to him, there's others will" was so heartless, it made me immediately question the relationship of the characters. Who would speak this way to one of their friends? If the characters are not close friends, why are they having this conversation? What do these comments say about Eliot's view of social interaction and relationships?

I don't have answers to all of these questions, but I think that I can begin to interpret Eliot's view. Simply put, these characters lack empathy. They are calloused and do not feel for one another. I think this holds true with the destruction of social interaction brought about by the war. People had seen/heard/experienced such horrible things that they were made hollow. I still think that a lack of true empathy still exists in our society today. People are dehumanized by the tragedies we (arguably) glorify in our news and media. In this aspect, it appears that Eliot claims that a waste land now exists within the human emotional experience.  

Map of "The Fire Sermon"


View The Fire Sermon in a larger map

Most of the locations on this map are grouped near the Thames River.  I'm not sure what to make of the spatiality of the diagram alone.  The map does not offer much new analysis as far as I can see.  The landmarks show that the speaker never gets far from the shore of the Thames and remains very close to London until the very last lines.  

As I was mapping these points, though, the speaker's movements are erratic and often double back on itself.  For instance, the movement from Greenwich reach to the Isle of Dogs would require the speaker to travel from East to West.  "Elizabeth and Leicester," which I plotted with an educated guess, is a West to East movement (if I'm allowed to read the "and" more as a "to").  The other points maintain what seems to be a wandering and aimless traveller until the end.  The last three places the speaker mentions are "Moorgate" (where the Globe Theatre is), Margate Sands, and finally Carthage.  These places, read sequentially, take the reader from the center of London to the eastern coast, and then to the northeastern tip of Africa, which is further east than the last location in England in this section.  From here, the poem ends in India near the Ganges River.

By placing these locations in this order in his text, Eliot forces the reader to imagine in an eastward direction.  I think this might tie into the thematic conflation of eastern cultures/ literatures and rejuvenation (or a false sense of escape).  I think I'd need more locations plotted to make more of the spatial diagram of forces that Moretti focuses on in his chapter, "Maps."  

Mapping Locations in The Waste Land: The Fire Sermon

View Map of Locations in III. The Fire Sermon in a larger map

I was relatively unfamiliar with the geographical locations referenced throughout The Waste Land, so I decided to map all locations directly referred to in the third section in order to get a better idea of where these placeswere and what sort of area they occupied. I began by searching for each term in the search bar. However, many times I did not find what I was looking for right away, and so I searched the internet for more information about what exactly the poem was referring to and what modern place might exist instead of or approximate the location Eliot referenced. I color-coded the pinpoints based on how many times they were referenced in the stanza (most of them only once). 


View Map of Locations in III. The Fire Sermon in a larger map

This exercise proved to be very enlightening. I noted that most of the locations referenced gathered around a tight circle in the center of London, and there was a much looser rectangle around Greece and Turkey due to the references to the ancient world. This configuration made London take on a unique importance in the map, almost as if it were the origin of all the points, which then exploded in a tumultuous spray outwards from this narrow cluster. I drew shapes around each to indicate their clustering.


View Map of Locations in III. The Fire Sermon in a larger map

Mapping is definitely a tool I want to revisit in the future. I imagine it woud be extremely useful and illuminating when practiced on a work which has a familiar location, but I found it helpful simply for adding a bit of context and clarity to the mood and tone of the allusions to each location. 

The Waste Land in The Criterion and The Dial


In the October 1922 issue of The Criterion, T. Sturge Moore's "The Story of Tristram and Isolt in Modern Poetry" precedes T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. T. Sturge Moore discusses the ways in which Swinburne, Arnold, and Binyon appropriate the myth in their poetry. The juxtaposition of the two texts is unlikely to be accidental, as Eliot uses the German language to allude to the myth of Tristan and Isolde in The Waste Land in order to draw attention to the genetic and cultural heritage shared by England and Germany (42). In The Criterion, The Waste Land is followed by May Sinclair's "The Victim," which is set in war-time and deals with the function of memory, specifically as it concerns the deceased. After the protagonist, Steven, murders Mr. Greathead, Mr. Greathead returns as a phantasm or ghost to tell him that, in committing the murder, "[a]ll [he] did, then, was to redistribute matter" (85). Like the soldiers in the first section of The Waste Land, Mr. Greathead occupies a sort of liminal space between the earth and the afterlife, although he claims to be "alive" (85). Furthermore, while The Waste Land raises questions about how we should honor the war dead and/or be responsible to their sacrifice, Mr. Greathead asks that Steven redeem himself for the murder by ceasing to go on with his "real crime," which Greathead identifies as hatred (86). If we understand The Waste Land to be in conversation with "The Victim," we can read "The Victim" as a sort of response to the questions that the poem raises about memory and honor. Sinclair's story seems to answer that the deaths caused by war should not create guilt; instead, the hatred that causes violence is the problem.

Unlike in The Criterion, The Waste Land is not situation between any two pieces in the November 1922 issue of The Dial. This issue of The Dial is, however, permeated with questions about what constitutes national identity. The back pages of The Dial contain various advertisements for different national literatures, and the front pages of the issue contain an advertisement for BROOM: An International Magazine of the Arts, which has its "technical facilities" in Berlin and which uses the slogan, "The spirit of a people expresses itself most deeply through its artists" (iv). The advertisement is a "special offer" to order BROOM and The Dial together. Considered along with the other content in this issue of The Dial, it suggests that The Dial's reading audience might look to art to answer questions about how national identity is comprised. Among the other content in this issue of The Dial is Malcolm Cowley's "Two American Poets." In the essay, Cowley looks to art in order to attempt to determine what makes an American poet "American." Cowley decides that "[t]he adjective American is less national than temporal," so that only poetry produced by a certain generation in American can be considered "American" (563). Cowley concludes his essay by arguing that "America remains a thing seen and not a manner of seeing. America is not a point of view, a style, or a mode of thought, but a subject merely; a subject that has been most brilliantly developed in Paris or by Scandinavians" (567). In other words, national identity is as much determined by people in other nations as it is by those who claim the identity as their own. This issue of The Dial contains other material that is concerned with questions of national identity, as well. This type of discourse seems appropriate to surround the The Waste Land because the poem is, in part, concerned with the durability of national identity, as well as the varying histories of different national identities.