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T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land depicts a modern society engulfed in absolute chaos and plagued by the complications of industrialization. Image clusters from the poem vividly describe littered streets overcrowded with people, while the text itself reads abruptly and harshly. Thus, Eliot’s poem strongly suggests that the negative effects of industrialization and urbanization vastly outweigh the benefits. Eliot’s fragmented language and discontinuous images reflect the ways in which an urbanized society circumscribes the individual’s ability to communicate with others in that society.
One striking feature of Eliot’s poem is the point of view from which it is told. The Waste Land contains no one single central speaker, creating a sense of disarray. Despite this, the poem reads like the interior dramatic monologue of a modern society. Eliot writes, “Unreal City,/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many” (Lines 60-63). The fact that the poem is not told from one specific point of view reflects the sense of disconnection Eliot is trying to portray. Here Eliot is juxtaposing different ideas, all of which, such as the throngs of people and questions about the weather, are general concerns of a collective group of people. In doing this, he takes seemingly random and scattered ideas and weaves them together to read as the stream of consciousness, the random thoughts, of a modern society. The resulting effect is a sense of aloofness that comes from solitude and isolation. The effect is ironic: Although people move together in massive crowds, the individual still feels alone. Despite many benefits to modernizing society, according to Eliot, isolation is a major downfall.
One motif in Eliot’s poem is the cycle of life and death. Throughout the poem, Eliot includes references to what would normally be a continuous cycle of life after death which has, instead, been fragmented and stopped. “‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ ‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?'” (Lines 71-72). Eliot references the fertility god’s ritual death prior to rebirth, which is merely one episode in a continuous cycle. However, rather than continuing the cycle, it is truncated and stopped at the point of death and does not proceed to the process of rebirth. This hiatus reflects the severing effect of living in urban society. Things come to a halt as a result of overwhelming isolation. They cannot continue in their natural cycles, because the drawbacks of modern society disconnect what kept things continuous.
The modernization of the workplace is perhaps criticized most by Eliot in his poem. In the second portion of the poem, Eliot offers a glimpse into the home life of a typist, writing, “When lovely woman stoops to folly and/ Paces about her room again, alone/ she smoothes her hair with automatic hand,/ and puts a record on the gramophone” (Lines 223-226). The poem depicts the typist in her home life, yet even in this familiar and informal context, the typist is identified with her work. Eliot’s use of synecdoche reinforces the overall sense of disconnectedness offered by the poem. Identifying the typist as a hand and not a person shows how the woman, even when not at work, becomes identified with her job. As a result of modernization, craftsmen have been dispersed amongst an assembly line. No longer is a person required to be skilled and knowledgeable, but is rather isolated and specialized to do one type of job. In the case of the typist, her job in society comes to identify her as a whole, truncating her from an entire person to merely hands. In doing this, Eliot does not depict an entire person, but rather the hollow men without a sense of personal identity or voice. The use of rhyme in this passage only helps to convey a sense of habitual, repetitive behavior, yet again adding to the sense of isolation.
Eliot also uses the motif of water in his poem to show the negative effects of modernization upon society. Water often has been an archetypal symbolism for baptism in literature, often exemplifying the act of takings something old or corrupted and cleaning it into something fresh and new. However, this is not the case in The Waste Land. Part IV of the poem is titled Death by Water and depicts the passive death of Phlebas. “A current under sea/ Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool” (Lines 315-318). Eliot’s description shows a very passive and peaceful death by drowning. The word choice of “entering” by extension even connotes a willingness to die by water, making the water, in the context of this poem, highly ironic. This ironic use of water adds to the sense of discontinuity and unpredictability of the chaotic modern world. Water functions as a killing force, a death trap in this poem rather than in the archetypal cleansing role of baptism. Another instance where Eliot makes an ironic reference to water occurs in the last portion of the poem. Part V What the Thunder Said is Eliot’s conclusion to the poem. “There is not even silence in the mountains/but dry sterile thunder without rain” (Lines 341-342). Thus, Eliot creates a scene very similar to that of God appearing to Noah before the rain. In the poem, God is identified with the Thunder and appears in the mountains, but does not bring with him the symbolic baptismal rain. Even here, again, Eliot’s word choice of “Sterile” to describe the thunder connotes a sense of passivity which also by extension creates a sense of hopelessness for the situation. The effect of urbanization is felt even in the remoteness of the mountainous setting, showing the extent of the negative impact of modern life.
Lastly, Eliot uses a mode of divine intervention when God speaks in the last portion of section V of his poem. What starts off with a paragraph containing distinctly Christian imagery quickly shifts away from that and towards unfamiliar territory. The God Eliot inserts into his poem is foreign and unfamiliar and speaks in puzzling terms. “Da/… Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata” (Lines 401, 433). Rather than speaking in the common colloquial language, God speaks and offers his solution in Sanskrit. However, even when the solution is translated to English, it still proves enigmatic. The translation of “Da” into “Control yourselves”, “Give” and “have compassion” do not provide a straightforward answer to solving the complexities of urbanization. In this context, “Da” stands alone and in itself proves the most abrupt when reading the poem while also creating a sense of senseless gibberish. While “Da” holds the answer, it appears incognito, ostensibly as meaningless baby talk, creating a dramatic antithesis to the expected revelation. This reflects Eliot’s idea of the futility of the situation, while urbanization and modernization do create those negative effects as demonstrated in the poem, very little can be done to change it. Moreover, the shift from the distinctly Christian imagery to that of Hindu reflects the uncharitable territory of modernization. It is impossible to predict the byproducts of urbanization and industrialism and how the resulting sense of isolation will affect society in the future.
Overall, Eliot’s poem The Waste Land criticizes the effects of urbanization and modernization on humanity. While modernization has led to the gathering of people in large cities, Eliot argues that it has isolated the individual amongst the crowds and that it prevents them from interacting properly with society. Eliot also shows the impact of the division of labor and the negative effect of being identified with your work. Lastly, Eliot shows the futility and complexity of the situation. Modernization and urban life are in such chaos that traditionally conventional solutions such as divine intervention are no longer an option.
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