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Key Literary Elements
Eliotís extraordinary poem The Waste Land projects a terrifying vision of our chaotic times and troubled lives. The waste land scenario he portrays throughout the poem is one that reflects the social anarchy and spiritual vacuity of modern urban life that drives the individual to the deep crises of emotional and intellectual despair. Eliotís poetic masterpiece attempts to depict the total disarray and near collapse of Western civilization in the early 1920s. During the years, immediately following the monumental upheavals of World War I, European life-styles, social mores and moral values were all changed drastically.
It is this cataclysmic change in human life patterns and standards that Eliot pictures in his poem. Thus, on one level, the poem presents a detailed portrait of the gloom and desolation that pervaded post World War I western society. It projects a view of the spiritual malaise, the moral decay and the intellectual desiccation permeating the social fabric of post-war Europe, in particular, and the modern 20th century world, in general.
This effect of a devastated waste land scenario is achieved through the imaginative power of the poetís genius. Eliot masterfully blends his elaborate borrowings from various ancient myths and legends into a composite, even if somewhat disjointed, picture of the fragmentation of life in the modern World. He tries to convey a sense of the vague and impalpable apprehensions felt by the vast array of figures - mythic or real, which flit through the contrasting episodic scenes of this five- part symphonic poem.
If one views the setting of the poem in purely literal terms - i.e. in terms of geographic locale or historical location, it moves across a vast canvas of diverse places and regions. The reader is taken back in time to ancient Egypt and Greece through covert references to the legend of the maimed Fisher King, the Sibyl of Cumae and, of course through Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes. In Part I of the poem, the reader shuttles back and forth across time and traverse vast spaces scattered over the globe. Mainly though, the reader is given a view of the "Unreal City" of London and other similar urban centers in modern Europe, where he or she meets such characters like Countess Marie and Madam Sosostris.
Part II also is chiefly located in modern-day London with the two sketches of the Rich Lady at her boudoir and the cockney women in the East-side pub. However, there are brief references to Queen Cleopatra riding her golden barge down the River Nile at the start of Part II. The close of this section takes us to the court of King Claudius in Denmark with the crazed Opheliaís famous lines: "Good night ladies... good night, sweet ladies etc. There is also a reference to the rape of Philomela by King Tereus, which takes us back momentarily to the land of Thrace in ancient Greece. In the conversations of the two cockney women, there are indirect references to the war-front from which Albert is about to return home to his wife Lil.