Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
STRUCTURE OF THE POEM
The Waste Land is a highly complex poem organized on the principle of a five part symphony. It opens with a compelling epigraph, which serves as a "leitmotif" to the whole poem. This epigraph introduces the ancient prophetess, the Sibyl of Cumae, and her fatal utterance of a death wish. This prophecy sets the tone for The Waste Land as a poem that focuses sharply on the deadness and utter sterility of modern civilization post-World War I Europe, Eliot felt, was on the verge of total. Collapse, due to its spiritual, intellectual, and psychological exhaustion. This central theme links up the various parts of the poem.
The entire poem is worked in the pattern of a collage, an art form popular in the 1920ís quote Eliotís own phrase in Part I, the poem presents "a heap of broken images." However, the poet is careful to ensure that these "broken images" add up to the sum total of the desolate waste land scenario, which is the dominant symbol of the poem. This waste land is projected in different ways - as a physical, natural desert as well as a socio-cultural, intellectual, and moral waste land.
Thus, in Part I, there are recurrent images of a dry, sterile landscape - a "dead land" with barren rocks, dead trees, "stony rubbish," "dry tubers," "dull roots" and "roots that clutch." These images are scattered over the two opening segments of Tiresiasí commentary. Elsewhere, in Parts I, III, and V there is the image of the "Unreal City" which runs intermittently through the poem. In Part III, the undoing of the Thames Maidens by "the loitering heirs of city directors" is reinforced by the equally sordid pictures of Sweeney patronizing Mrs. Porterís bawdy-house, or the encounter between the typist and clerk in a seedy London flat. There are several other instances of recurrent imagery that reinforces the structure of The Waste Land making it an artistically composite piece.
Another unifying principle underlying the poem is Eliotís elaborate use of the grail legend and the fertility myths of ancient Egypt Asia Minor, Greece, and even oriental regions like India. This is a very subtle, structural device woven inextricably into the fabric of the poem to give it a fine unity. Here, Eliot was indebted to the works of two famous anthropologists of his time: Ms. Jessie Westonís From Ritual to Romance (1920) and Sir James Frazerís The Golden Bough (1915).
Right through the five parts of the poem, there are also references to the maimed Fisher King of North European myths whose land is rendered waste, as its king suffers a fatal wound or disease. His kingdom and people can be saved only if a virtuous and courageous knight goes in guest of a sacred object, like Christís Holy-Grail (the cup used at Christís last supper). In the pre-Christian vegetation myths also sacrificing a young warrior to God by drowning, decapitation or burning could only restore the fertility of the land. Such legends abound in ancient Egypt and Asia Minor about sacrificial victims of fertility cults such as Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
Ironically, The Waste Land is also a pastiche of literary quotes and erudite references. The poem is liberally sprinkled with secular and religious figures drawn from history, literature, the Bible, or the sacred Hindu scriptures. Their sole purpose is to reinforce either the projection of the waste land scenario, or to bring in the theme of redemption through a spiritual quest. These rather disjointed and seemingly disparate allusions are skillfully blended into the texture of the poem to provide a not-so-easily- discernible artistic unity. Yet, it is certainly there and a tribute to Eliotís skill in constructing his poem. Every discerning reader must marvel at the way Eliot controls and masters such seemingly intractable materials drawn from so many diverse sources.
Thus, the structure of The Waste Land is vastly different from conventional, discursive poetry. It is written with a kind of cinematic technique of flashbacks, freeze-shots and stills. It also employs the Joyce an "stream of consciousness" mode used in Joyceís novel Ulysses (1920). Besides, The Waste Land owes much to the Symbolist and Imagist techniques of contemporary Anglo-European poets such as Charles Baudelaire Jules Laforgue, and Ezra pound. A combination of these myriad factors gives to the structure of The Waste Land its "unity in diversity."