Kate, I don't see Eliot's intention as a deliberate muddling of meaning. I think instead he illustrated not only the increasing slippage of meaning as society changed after the first World War, but also the inherent uncertainty of language to "mean."

Spoken words are usually addressed to a known audience, and for that reason the speaker and audience usually are on the same wave-length in terms of what the words mean. However, Eliot foregrounds the relativistic meaning of language in all his poetry but especially in [i]The Waste Land[/i]. His quotations in that poem, for example the monologue of the Countess Marie who recalls her childhood with her cousin the Archduke, illustrate how statements can be received quite differently from any intention on the part of the speaker.

"And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,

My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. "

Eliot anticipated later developments in linguistics which formalized the analysis of words as having fixed meanings. Our statements are always in danger of being misinterpreted. Perhaps we communicate meanings of which we ourselves are unaware. Not everyone feels free in the mountains, for example. The Countess uses the pronoun "you" as if it had a fixed meaning, which it does not. She is making certain assumptions about language based on her social class. A peasant living in the mountains might feel oppressed or restricted. A woodsman exhausted from long hours of chopping wood might find her statement nonsensical. Language is socially relative.

Later in the poem an upper middle class woman says to her male companion: "That is not what I meant at all." If people in the same social class cannot understand each other's meaning, what chance is there that a universal meaning can be found in language?

Eliot also includes a monologue of a lower class woman in a pub:

"When Lil's husband got demobbed, I saidó

I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,


Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you.

And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said.

Oh is there, she said. Something o' that, I said.

Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.


The speaker warns Lil that her husband may stray if she doesn't make him happy, and Lil receives this as evidence that the speaker is attracted to Lil's husband, a meaning the woman speaking never intended, but perhaps she has betrayed herself unconsciously. Either the woman is innocent and misunderstood or her language has betrayed a secret she wishes to conceal. In either case, Eliot again illustrates that speech has no absolute meaning, but is always slipping and sliding with relation to its referents. Again, two members of the same class who share the same linguistic codes interpret the same statement in two different ways.

Also the line about time is ambiguous. Is it the publican wanting to close, or some metaphysical notion of the author's? Again, discourse is ambiguous.

Throughout The Waste Land, Eliot illustrates again and again how uncertain is the attribution of meaning to linguistic utterances. Scraps of German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit are more or less unavailable to English speakers, depending on whether they know those linguistic systems. Latin and Greek characters are opaque visual designs to most readers, but even the meaning of those who speak our language is uncertain.

Words in dictionaries are defined by other words, which are in turn defined by still other words. Meaning is relative. A cat is not a dog. A dog is.... If all meaning is relative, then certainty exists outside language, in some transcendent realm of absolute meaning. The Waste Land outlines the speaker's awareness that such an absolute meaning is not present in human discourse. (His discovery of that certainty of meaning is described in Four Quartets.)

Eliot's subtext is the lack of certainty of every discourse, language, speech and writing in the wasteland of Europe after the first World War, when refugees in London from many countries tried to communicate, when the "people like us" security of upper class communication was changing ("That is not it at all"), and official propaganda was untruthful (The War to End All Wars produced devastation and no guarantee of lasting peace.) 




From: Kate Troy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: a Jeremiah sighting?
Date: Sun, 8 Jul 2007 13:02:31 EDT

In a message dated 7/8/2007 10:43:08 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, [log in to unmask] writes:

I often think that Eliot was a premature post-modernist in the sense that he foregrounded the indeterminacy of meaning. The struggle to interpret his poems pits not only one reading against another, but also requires readers to question the conventions of interpretation.

Then, you would certainly have to include Stevens in this group as well, premature post-modernists, but wasn't the whole modernist movement about a departure from the traditional, a departure from the ideal and romantic. And, of course, a part of this departure in literature was using language in such as way as to confuse meaning and intent.

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