One of the key characteristics of art in the early modernist era (post-WWI) was that of fragmentation. As I said in my last post, modernist artists– both literary and visual– used fragmentation in their works to help convey their views on the world. What I’ll be exploring in this post is how looking at the fragmented nature of London can put “The Waste Land” in a new perspective. Since Eliot did a good deal of writing here, it is only natural that he absorbed scenes from his location. These scenes naturally include actual physical place, conversations, people, and other forms of inspiration.
Peter Ackroyd, a well-established biographer and historian, writes about the hodgepodge of culture and history that is London:
[The City] was continually recreating itself in each generation… London was too large to be dominated by any one style or standard. Of all cities it became the most parodic and the most eclectic, borrowing architectural motifs from a score of civilisations in order to emphasis its own position as the grandest and most formidable of them all. Indian, Persian, Gothic, Greek and Roman motifs vied for position along the same thoroughfare. (519-20)
To make a quick distinction, The City is different than the city of London. The actual city of London is made up of many boroughs and districts. When I, a source, or Eliot write about The City, it is a reference to the center of the city which is only about one square mile on the north side of London Bridge. It is the center of almost all the commerce that takes place in London and is also the oldest part of London.
After walking the streets of London, and witnessing Ackroyd’s subject first-hand, his idea of London as pieces that are constantly redefining themselves, and therefore the whole, couldn’t be more true. It is interesting to see the Gherkin, a large, distinctive office building, sharing the same skyline with that of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Or The Shard building, which is still under construction, being viewed from Tower Bridge. The functional replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre sits directly next to the Tate Modern art museum. These sites are easy examples for how fragmented the city actually is. It is when you walk down cobblestone streets that run into asphalt, or walk beside stained brick walls that conjoin with sun-bleached marble, that the real nature of its fragmentation can be felt.
What creates this fragmentation? The answer is an obvious one that any city with a history has: the combination of old and new through time. Although many other factors play into the design of London– changing ideals and philosophies, new leaders in power, and the conquest of new colonies or, in a more distant history, of London itself– all of them are summed up in the passage of time. Old buildings are torn down and new buildings spring up. Consider the church of St. Magnus the Martyr, which Eliot mentions specifically in “The Waste Land and I will be discussing later. While it once stood at the southern end of London Bridge, imposing on the landscape, it is now cornered by 20th century style office buildings and apartments. The “Inexplicable splendor” of the walls that Eliot describes is only visible for a limited time when the sun peaks through the buildings (Waste Land 65).
Going back to the example of The Shard, take a glance at the picture above. There is something incredibly interesting about the building that will soon tower over London and, indeed, Europe. For a city that is fragmented, that has borrowed from so many architectural styles, that has tried to recreate what the rest of the world has done from Italy to India, it is very fitting that the most dominate building should be a multifaceted “shard.” The Shard is a perfect symbol for how all of the tiny slivers of London all come together to make up one brightly shining whole. Pieces of the city are reflected in the glass of the building that will soon come to epitomize the London skyline.
There’s something else that should be seen as well. If you look at the picture, you’ll notice the modern shape it is slowly taking. You’ll also notice the modern glass building in front and the more than slightly disgusting brown, 1960s building to the left. What you won’t see are the winding streets and alleys behind it that are called Southwark. This area of London is almost as old as The City itself. It has historically been associated with death, dirt, and demise– one explanation of its origins is that it was used as a Roman burial ground (Ackroyd, 689). There is actually an area, just out of the shadow of The Shard, known as Cross Bones Graveyard that has its own dark history. Encased in a labyrinth of 19th century buildings is a gated parking lot that covers the bodies of innumerable prostitutes. In turns out that, in medieval times, the church hired prostitutes to gain additional funds. However, since their occupations were sinful, they couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground. By the 18th century it was forgotten about and used as a paupers grave. Then that was covered up and only discovered in the 1990s when construction for the Jubilee tube line began. So far, they have uncovered 146 bodies and that is only estimated to be less than 1% (Cross Bones Cemetery Tour).
I hope I satisfied your morbidity enough keep you interested. The example of Cross Bones Graveyard should give an idea of the layers that exist in the depths of London. It is a city that in constantly dying, being covered up, and built upon again. The layers are stacked and interwoven to make a vast fabric of history that is only getting thicker with passing years. The voices that lie wrapped in that burlap sack of time under the city streets are all constantly speaking for anyone who cares to listen.
So how do these observations of London have any effect on “The Waste Land?” When you look at London in the context of The Shard– that the city is characterized by all of the pieces, old and new, that make up a whole—and the voices that are wrapped in layers under the city, it puts “The Waste Land” in a different light. By understanding London as many layers of old and new crammed together into one somewhat cohesive whole, it is possible to gain some insight into why Eliot wrote in such a fragmented style. My next post will relate “The Waste Land” to the broken images and the unnamed voices that fill streets of London.