The Waste Land

 What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

(Lines 19-30)


In these lines she is remembering the past. The trenches of the war and the rubbish it has become. She is speaking to someone, but no one is really there listening. She is stuck in this moment from the past, but cannot see the picture clearly, only images. She sounds like she is experiencing PTSD- Post traumatic stress disorder. She could be depressed and scared and wants someone to talk to and share her past. The red refers to the blood and the death of the war. The shadows that were present and that haunt her still all these years later. The last line is both drawing the reader in and pushing the reader away. She says come and let me share with you all the horrors and fears and sadness. She does not want to be alone in her memories.  The line with the cricket is the memory of silence. Even the silence is deadly. These lines remind me of loneliness and loss. There is no cheerfulness in these memories of the past. 

I read this poem last semester, but now that I read it again I feel like I am seeing more in this poem then I saw before. I keep referring to "her" because of the lines in Latin before the poem begins. The lines translate to "I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her "What do you want?" She answered "I want to die." So from the very beginning there is loneliness and sadness and regret. It feels like all of the negative feelings are thrown together in one person's mind and she can't handle it. She is lost in a world of her own with no way out of a past she cannot change nor control. These lines in the poem are very dark to me. 


Some interesting insights here. Let's keep PTSD and WWI in mind for class discussion. It's important to remember that not only did the civilian populations come into contact with huge numbers of men who were "shell shocked" (the term used for PTSD back then), but intellectuals who might not have been directly involved in the fighting underwent a great trauma at the realization of what the war meant (given what they learned about atrocities described in the newspapers and in poems written by soldiers). Think of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," for instance.

The front-line and home-front experiences were obviously very different, but from the variety of causes a general trauma saturated the culture of the time, and memory became a key point of anxiety. Should we remember the past? Should we cut ourselves off from it and move forward without so much as a glance behind? Is memory reliable enough to be trusted? And for that matter, what is memory?

There are some interesting connections here with Courtney's post about the apparent exhortation to creativity and making everything anew, so let's try to keep them in mind tomorrow.