The Modernism Lab at Yale University
The Waste Land
by Pericles Lewis
The Waste Land is also characteristic of modernist poetry in that it contains both lyric and epic elements.
Modernism continued the tendency, begun in romanticism, to prize lyric highly, but many modernist poets also sought to write in the traditionally highest form, epic. Eliot defined the lyric as “the voice of the poet talking to himself, or to nobody,” and if we accept his description of The Waste Land as a “piece of rhythmical grumbling,” it may seem to belong to the lyric tradition. Yet its broader ambitions are obvious. "Eliot came back from his Lausanne specialist looking OK; and with a damn good poem (19 pages) in his suitcase,” wrote Pound after reading the manuscript of the poem. “About enough, Eliot’s poem, to make the rest of us shut up shop.” Pound defined an epic as a “poem including history.” Although much shorter than Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Waste Land does contain history—both contemporary history and the history of the world understood in mythological terms. One of the factors that helped to create “high modernism” was the attempt of poets, after the war, to extend the techniques of the pre-war avant-gardes to address broad, historical questions, the sorts of questions normally addressed by epic. They remained suspicious, however, of attempts to tell the history of the world from a single, unified perspective—the “Arms and the man I sing” of the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which both the poet (“I”) and his hero (“the man”) are singular. Instead, their epics tended to treat historical experience as fragmentary, and often
it is difficult to say whether their long poems are epics or merely collections of lyrics. Instead of granting perspective on history, they struggle to contain it in their irregular forms. In the first draft of his own fragmentary epic, The Cantos, in 1917, Pound had written that “the modern world / Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thoughts in.” The modernist epic would have to be a rag-bag.
Perhaps the most famous of modernist rag-bags is the concluding section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said.” Eliot wrote this section in a flash of inspiration and published it virtually unedited. Eliot invokes three ancient Sanskrit words from the Upanishads, ancient Hindu scriptures: Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata, each announced by the single syllable “DA,” representing a clap of thunder.
The return of the waters suggests the possibility of a different type of sexual relation from those seen in the poem so far: “The sea was calm, your heart would have responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.” However, the flood and the purifying fire arrive, and the last lines of the poem seem to announce destruction, in many languages, as partial quotations pile up and the speaker (perhaps at last representing the poet himself), announces: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” After the destruction, the poem ends on a note of peace, with the words “Shantih Shantih Shantih,” which, as Eliot informs us, mark “the formal ending to an Upanishad.”
Eliot’s intentions in making a miniature epic out of the various lyrical moments and borrowed fragments that make up The Waste Land
can best be understood in terms of his own analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, which served as perhaps the most important model for the poem. Eliot wrote that the parallels Joyce draws between his own characters and those of Homer’s Odyssey constitute a “mythical method,” which had “the importance of a scientific discovery.” He went so far as to compare Joyce to Einstein. The mythical method, according to Eliot, “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Many of Joyce’s readers have felt that Joyce himself did not necessarily aim for control and order, but most are in agreement that Eliot’s essay describes well the intention of The Waste Land, in which the many parallels that have been briefly
discussed here help to convert chaos into a kind of order.
Like other modernist models of history—Yeats’s gyres, Pound’s vortex, Joyce’s Vichian cycles—Eliot emphasize the current moment as one of crisis, either preparing for or recovering from a radical break in history. This radical break certainly has something to do with the first world war, but it is also an aspect of the modernists’ eschatological view of the world, that is their fascination with the problem of destiny and the last judgment. It is for this reason that Kurtz’s famous last words (“The horror! The horror!”) in Heart of Darkness ring through so much of later modernism. Eliot originally intended to use them as the epigraph for The Waste Land. As Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, says, “he had summed up—he had
judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate.” The capacity to judge a civilization that teeters on the edge of chaos was highly prized by Eliot, as it was by Pound, whose Cantos shares some of the features of The Waste Land, and by the other modernists who attempted their own epics.