T.S Eliot

Poetic Database

When one hears the word "archive", the most likely image they will conjure is one of a library or database. An archive is a mausoleum for artifacts otherwise forgotten by the general public - encyclopedia entries, journal entries, and manuscripts that nobody would read unless prompted by research of some kind.

But, when one looks at the nature of the archive from a broader stance, as Werner and Voss do in Poetics of the Archive, it becomes clear that an archive can be nearly anything: a poem, a book; whatever utilizes past works in its creation. An author who works ancient myths into their story is creating an archive. As Michel Foucoult writes in Fantasia of the Library: "... it recovers other books; it hides and displays them and, in a single movement, it causes them to glitter and disappear." Written about Flaubert's The Temptation, this applies to any work which references works from the past. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is a clear example of a work of art as an archive. In his poem, Eliot deliberately fills the stanzas with fragments of European culture. From Shakespearean tragedies to 19th century German nationalist opera and everything in between, Eliot archives nearly all of European culture up through the first World War. Eliot's The Waste Land, like Flaubert's The Temptation, utilizes past works "... fragmented, displaced, combined, lost, set at an unapproachable distance by dreams, but also brought closer to the imaginary and sparkling realization of desires." (Foucoult 92).

"At times the archive requires us to read its minimum signs with maximum energy." This sentence, from Poetics of the Archive, to my mind matches Eliot's The Waste Land to a tee. An archive as a stand alone work of art encompasses past works, and gives them new meaning within its own. It requires its reader to dig a little deeper, but once the work has been put in they will find a vast resource of art and history, more permanent than the resources found in a library or encyclopedia. The archive as its own piece of poetry houses historical and cultural works and gives them a place in the minds of its readers, ensuring they will be survived long after the original works have disappeared.

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.

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.