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The Waste Land is primarily regarded as a poem that epitomizes the chaotic life of both individuals and society in the twentieth century. Thematically, it reflects the disillusionment and despair of the post World War I generation. The World that Eliot portrays in his poem is one in which faith in divinely ordered events and a rationally organized universe has been totally lost. There is sterility and waste every where that has replaced traditional order and fertility. Thus, the central subject of The Waste Land is really a religious one.
The poem is not just a reflection of individual hopelessness and despair, but a panoramic view of the total spiritual exhaustion that has overtaken the modern world. The sterile, modern-day human society waits in dire distress for a revival or regeneration that may never come. Both the vegetation myths and the Grail Romances that are frequently referred to in the poem serves to underscore Eliotís main theme - the quest for spiritual salvation or moral regeneration. The poem in its central theme recalls Coleridgeís concerns in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner i.e. the need for redemption through prayer, penance and self-abnegation after a life of sin.
Closely allied to the central spiritual or religious theme of The Waste Land is Eliotís concern with the socio-cultural scenario of post-war Europe. The 20s generation attempted to destroy the last vestiges of pre-war western civilization through their iconoclastic attacks on the prudery and Puritanism of Victorian times, their uninhibited displays of vulgarity, cheap sensationalism and their desire to shock by extreme forms of eccentric behavior. Western society had exhausted its spiritual and cultural legacy. So people now sought replacements in magic, science, other cults and a life of quick sensations through indulgence in drug taking, sex and cheap thrills. The majority felt that despair was the only honest response to their chaotic post - war universe.
All this and much more of the socio-cultural malaise that affected Western Society in the 1920ís is very effectively projected by Eliot in his poem The Waste Land. In its epic sweep, it captures the near collapse of 2000 years of Western civilization. This forms the secondary theme of The Waste Land, if not indeed at least a subject closely allied to the central religious theme.
Other minor Themes are related to Eliotís perspective on time as telescopic or continuous i.e. the past, present and future are inextricably linked in one "continuum." Hence the poem constantly shifts its perspectives from the present to the past and vice versa. The ancient myths, classical legends, allusions to old literary masterpieces, landmarks in World history are all frequently juxtaposed in the context of contemporary events and personalities, shedding a fresh and illuminating light on both the past and the present. An understanding of Eliotís time concept is crucial to over understanding of the poem itself.
Finally, another allied Themes of Eliotís The Waste Land is its notions of the purposes of art and the structure of the artistic personality as evident in its technique. Much of the poem brings us face to face with the modern artistís dilemma of how to find an adequate poetic form and expression to convey his/her inner experience. It shows us that the modern poet is acutely aware of the conflicts and contradictions the complexities and fragmentation of his society so that he/she can no longer use traditional methods of writing poetry. Hence the artist today is forced to recreate his/her own esoteric myths and symbols, and draw upon his/her own vast and unique range of reading for references and allusions to adequately express his/her meaning or experience. This, of course, leads to the charge that Eliotís poetry, especially in The Waste Land is often abstruse and suffers from extreme ambiguity. Thus, the disintegration of modern art and poetry itself into the realms of obscurity, and elitism becomes a crucial issue in Eliotís poem.