Fragmentation in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

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Verity Radley

Fragmentation in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1921, as a response to the devastation he saw in society in the wake of World War 1. Critics at the time were divided: some believed it to be deliberately obtuse and unreadable, others “canonized the poem as the exemplar of a kind of high modernism that powerfully depicts and rejects modern life. One aspect of the poem that has never been disputed is the fragmentation that exists within it, and it is this that I intend to concentrate my essay on.

Eliot, though he never openly chose to admit it, was influenced by the Imagist group of poets (which included Eliot close friend, Ezra Pound), who practised the theory that art should be made up of Images, not a lengthy description of feelings: one of the most important beliefs about art that Eliot shared with the Imagists was that “the writer should only present his observations to the reader, for he, like them, is a limited finite being.” The emotion that the writer about a subject should not be the basis for the poem, only exactly what he sees, his immediate reaction to an event. In some of Eliot’s earlier work, he showed evidence of Imagist tendencies: In The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock, for example, the famous line “Like a patient etherized upon a table,” is an Image; the poet’s immediate reaction unclouded by emotion. In The Waste Land, however, he went beyond the Imagist technique: while he still collected stark images of the modern world, juxtaposed with speakers’ memories of a glorious past, he realised the limitation of writing a treatise for the world purely based on one image – instead, he created a series of images, fragments, and placed them together.

With the release of the original manuscript to the poem in 1971, information to back up this idea of fragmentation in all aspects of The Waste Land came to light: “From the marked differences in handwriting, paper and typescript, the manuscripts reveal that The Waste Land is not only made up of pieces, but that they were also written over a considerable length of time.” The full extent of Ezra Pound’s influence when editing also became apparent, with almost half of the poem cut. It is doubtful whether that editing had any real influence on the coherence of the narrative structure, however, as presumably the fragments that were removed had no real thread of plot and consistency running through them.

Fragmentation is present in almost every aspect of The Waste Land. In the first instance, it affects the narrative voice of the poem: throughout, the reader is subjected to the voice of the poem changing as it continually adopts the perspective of a different speaker: In section 1, “The Burial of the Dead”, we hear first from an aristocratic woman, claiming to be German as she tells a story of her apparently happy and active childhood, in comparison to her now empty life (“I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” line 18). She is followed by a speaker who again juxtaposes earlier, happier memories with startlingly bleak images of the barren present, as he issues an invitation to the reader to “show you fear in a handful of dust” (line 30). We then have Madame Sosostris, the tarot card reader; the section then concludes with a different speaker walking through the streets of the “Unreal city” (line 60) of London – unreal as it appears to be populated with ghosts. The juxtaposition of fragments of voices and personalities continues throughout the poem, with part 2, ‘A Game of Chess’, divided roughly into two sections – the first dealing with a wealthy, upper class woman likened to Cleopatra and Dido; the second depicting a lower class bar room scene of two women gossiping about a contemporary. These are followed later in the poem by images of a typist’s ultimately unfulfilling sexual encounter with her lover (“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over,” line 252) and also of Queen Elizabeth I’s affair with the Earl of Leicester. The continuous change in narrative voice highlights the fragments of images that make up The Waste Land, yet it also provides a link, some common ground, between the different sections: “throughout the poem, the “I” slips from persona to persona, weaves in and out of quoted speech, and creeps like a contagion through the Prolathalamion or Pope or the debased grammar of a London pub, sweeping history into a heap of broken images.”

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However, a link between the voices is also suggested by Eliot himself in his notes, in the form of Tiresias, the blind  figure from Ovid who can see into the future, who “although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance ...

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