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Eliot and The Waste Land

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965): was born in St Louis, was educated at Harvard. His cultural background was first English and then European. He learned Italian (Dante). He studied in Paris (1920) at the Sorbonne where he attend Henri Bergson’s lectures and reads the French symbolists. Return to Harvard and took a degree in philosophy.

Waste Land (1922): it’s an amazing anthology of indeterminate states of mind, impression, hallucinations, situations, and personalities, at the limit of the space and time. The characters are Tiresias, the Theban prophet from Sophocles’ plays, who experienced blindness and the life of both sex, and the knight from the Grail legend, who moved through London and a post was middle Europe, deprived of its spiritual roots. It’s divides in 5 section:

1) The burial of the dead: opposition between sterility and fertility, life and death.
2) A Game of chess: juxtaposes the present squalor to a past ambiguous splendor.
3) The fire sermon: the theme of present alienation is rendered through description of a squalid sexual encounter.
4) Death by Water: reinforces the idea of a spiritual shipwreck, it’s the elegiac part.
5) What the Thunder said: evokes religions from East and West: a sort of solution is found in a sympathy with other human being; this solution doesn’t modify the atmosphere of desolation.

The main theme is the contrast between the fertility of a mythical past and the spiritual sterility of the present world. This poem reflect the breakdown of a historical, social, cultural order destroyed by the war and by those forces operating under the name of modernity: the poem ends with three words, love, sympathize and control. The past is described by quotations of many literary works belonging to different traditions and cultures: Bible, Hindu sacred works. The use of quotations described the concept Eliot had of tradition and history, that’s a repetition of the same event; the past is a concrete premise for the present. Past and present exist simultaneously in The Waste Land and continuous shifts of time and place are caused by the free associations of ideas and thoughts as in Ulysses. The style is a mixture of different poetic styles: blank verse, ode, quatrain, free verse that represent the chaos of present civilization. The most effective analogies can be found in some cubist image or in cinematic shots used to express a certain emotional state. Eliot requires the active participation of the reader – public who experiences the same world as that of the poet by the technique of implication. Eliot uses the objective correlative: is the attempt at communicating philosophical reflections and feelings by means of a simile, description or monologue (Example: squalid represented by banal situation of seduction). From the French symbolist Jules Laforgue Eliot derived the technique of juxtaposition: squalid elements are in contrast with poetic ones, trivial with sublime. Eliot uses also the repetition of words, images and phrases form page to page: this increment the musicality of poem. His font are the Hamlet, Dante and some artists of his time.

the mythical method: Eliot observed the western culture and returned to its origin, to legends and myths. Old myths are present but they have lost their deep meaning: it’s especially through mythical allusion that the contrast between present and past appears. Eliot uses the legend of Arthur, the quest of Grail of a metaphor for the man’s search of spiritual salvation. He makes references to the May festivities, the Celting myth linked to fertility and the Fisher King.
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