Wastelands

I originally wrote and gave this paper in 2014. After a weekend reading T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ for the first time, I decided to commit this paper to my blog. In the paper, I compare the fallout of conflict in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ form Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (the featured image here is Vivien Leigh playing Titania in 1937).

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Under this conference’s umbrella theme of war and literature, I am specifically interested in investigating the aftermath of conflict, seeing what literature has to say about war when it is over. T.S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ is a seminal 20th century text, published four years after the 1918 Armistice and I would like to suggest that it is involved with a negotiation of the condition of modernity in the wake of the first terrible ‘Total War’. It is a text that in a number of ways bemoans war because of the death and decay it leaves behind it, but is simultaneously a violent and aggressive attack on preconceived notions of form and meaning, suggesting that it relies on war, indeed it is an act of war, to create something new and radical. I have restricted my close reading of ‘The Wasteland’ to the first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

The title ‘The Burial of the Dead’ suggests a final action that commits dead bodies to the ground, keeping the spheres of the living and the dead completely separate and thereby allowing the living to continue with life. However, the poem opens with an image that suggests otherwise:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land

We are presented with living things, lilacs, rising out of a ground that belongs to death, but is not necessarily dead in itself because it is involved with growth, not stagnation and inertia. Thus a paradox emerges: whilst the ‘burial’ of the title suggests a movement of taking extinguished life down to the ground, the opening of ‘The Wasteland’ suggests a movement of death bringing something life-like back to the surface. The poem emphasises that this is a ‘cruel’ movement instigated by April, a month that traditionally has a cultural relationship to spring and new birth, but here becomes the site of death becoming an inescapable presence that infects life and the living. The snow of winter covers this ‘land’ which enables us to temporarily ‘forget’ its disturbingly deathly quality and, potentially, the conflict that made it this way, (Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow’) but April serves as a reminder that the earth is teeming with deathliness.

This is cemented by the speaker’s reference to lilacs, which are flowers with a mythological history: Syringa (the botanical name for lilac) was a nymph who hid from the amorous advances of the woodland god Pan by turning into a bush of flowers. Therefore, lilacs are involved with disguise and have a history that suggests that figuratively, there is more to them than what meets the eye. Within the context of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, the lilacs are masked harbingers of death, metaphors of bodies belonging to death that are hidden but nevertheless inherent to the post-war landscape. The use of the verb ‘breeding’ to describe the production of the lilacs complies with this, a word that is defined in the OED as ‘bringing to the birth’. It points to the bodily, inorganic quality of the lilacs that re-enter the sphere of the living hidden within the form of a flower. This image is echoed at the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ when the speaker calls out to Stetson:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

There has been a reversal in the terminology of growth and surfacing employed: whereas the lilacs are bred out of the ground like bodies, the corpse, it is proposed, will grow out of the ground like a flower, sprouting and blooming. This implies a commonality between the flowers and the corpse, suggesting that they are exchangeable and fluid.  The distinctions between them are done away with because they are both objects coming forth from death’s land, and we can see that the landscape inhabited by the living is at the mercy of a deathliness that seeps into it as a result of horrendous conflict, making the two states of life and death indistinguishable.

This can also be seen in the speaker’s description of London;

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.

The repetition of ‘so many’ points to the extraordinary number of people that the war brought into contact with death in one way or another. The image suggests that in the aftermath of conflict, death controls and oversees existence, stripping life away from people left behind and reducing them to a deathly state whilst still alive. As a result of an existence defined by death blurring itself with life, the city and the people within it are ‘unreal’, occupying a liminal and disturbing position that they might not be able to properly identify themselves, hence the interchangeability of the lilacs with the corpse as previously mentioned. Death’s infection of life has become hegemonic, and is not challenged and questioned by the inhabitants of the city.

The image of the ‘brown fog of winter dawn’, a pervasive meteorological nuisance, helps to exacerbate the murky and indivisible landscape of deathly life, and also helps to develop the poem’s melancholic and depressive tone. It is at this point that I want to draw a comparison between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a text produced 300 years earlier, where we are also presented with a traumatised landscape that has resulted from conflict. Eliot’s ‘fog’ recalls the image of the fog produced by Titania in her description:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs.

This is one of numerous images of the sickly landscape described by Titania that has resulted from her conflict with Oberon over an Indian boy. The personified seasons and elements have been neglected by the fairies, and avenge this abandonment by unleashing nature’s fury, causing chaos, sickness and ‘distemperature’ through floods, rotten harvests and ‘rheumatic diseases’. Most importantly, however, and in a way that links to Eliot’s wasteland, is that Titania shows how these have caused the seasons to change and merge with one another:

[…] the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evil comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.

Titania warns Oberon that the seasons have inadvertently undone themselves and have exchanged and adopted the appearance of each other, in the process throwing off what categorises them individually. The identities that contain and separate them from each other have collapsed so that now it is no longer obvious what time of the year it is supposed to be, causing confusion and bemusement amongst human beings. This motion is similar to what is at work in ‘The Wasteland’, where the boundaries separating death and life have disintegrated and death has blurred and intermingled with life, manifesting explicitly in the realm of the living, meaning that it is now difficult to successfully differentiate between the two states. However, there is a significant difference between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Titania delivers this speech during the middle of the conflict. Not only is there time for the situation between them to be resolved, which over the course of the play is achieved, she and Oberon have the power and the capability to reverse the deconstruction. As the fairy Queen and King, the parents of the seasons and the elements, they can restore the status quo through reconciliation and ending their conflict.

However, in ‘The Wasteland’, the conflict is already over and the speaker and humanity as a whole are left in a world that has not been restored to its previous state, but has seen the irreversible movement of death entering into the sphere of life and having an unwavering presence amongst the living. The speaker is not in a position, indeed no one is in a position to solve this, which is evident in the speaker’s assertion: ‘I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing’. Titania and Oberon know that if they reconcile and take up their parental responsibilities, the seasons will once again don the right appearance. However, the speaker in ‘The Wasteland’ is trapped between the states of life and death and has neither the power nor knowledge to resolve the conditions, and does not know how to continue existing within them. This is because death is the ultimate powerful force at work that has made itself an unquestionable presence that undoes people’s relationship with life, rendering them deathly whilst still alive. The poem suggests, therefore, that there is nothing more powerful and controlling than death in the post-war wasteland.

We have seen that the post-war environment that the speaker of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ presents is one that is mournful and aware of the presence of death that conflict has brought into the world. I would like to argue that this war has bred another war:  ‘The Wasteland’ as a poem that has been produced in a damaged and deathly world, has no choice but to carry on attacking, suggesting that the only way to exist is to perpetuate conflict. This it achieves through an attack of established poetic conventions, taking on the quality of the death it presents by rigorously undoing the standards we are familiar with. One of the last phrases of ‘The Burial of the Dead’s’ curious ending is ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!’ which translates as: ‘You! Hypocrite reader!’ We can see that the speaker constructs a notion of readership through the use of ‘you’ that it immediately challenges by addressing the ‘you’ in French and by accusing ‘you’, this reader, of being a hypocrite, itself a curious insult that suggests that we are guilty of falsely professing some kind of virtuousness. I would argue that it points to the futility of people attempting to live life forgetting to acknowledge or pretending to not acknowledge that death is an almost tangible feature of the post-war landscape. Nevertheless, we can see that the poem aggressively sets up a concept that we might be familiar with, the position and audience point of a reader, but immediately undercuts it, throwing it into doubt and uncertainty through the use of a different language to the predominant one employed, and by using it imperatively to challenge and question. This is one of a number of ways in which the poem destabilises comfortable notions of poetic address, form and meaning, attacking conventions and norms in a threatening and war-like manner to create something new. Another example of this would be the endless references and inferences that are made in the body of the poem and for which Eliot provides notes at the end, which playfully lead to new references and inferences. It thus aims to send one on nothing short of a wild goose chase to uncover a meaning that the poem suggests, in doing so, does not exist.

Therefore, the poem, in this its first part, presents life post-war as not a unified thing, but is something pertaining to, undone and controlled by death. As a result of this, poetry itself is fragmentary, and can do nothing but arise from the ashes of one war to begin another, on the poetic form, and our conceptions of form and meaning. This, ‘The Wasteland’ suggests, is not wholly regrettable, and is an unmistakeable and undeniable condition of modernity post-1918.

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