“A heap of broken images”

So we’re jumping right into this one while the presses are still hot.

View of rooftops from St. Martin's showing shards of the whole. Notice the different styles of buildings with different shapes and colors. Also notice the London Eye watching from the background.

I just discussed how The Shard is the perfect image to describe the fragmented nature of London and how the unknown, confused layers the city is built upon carry the voices of those that were lost. I’m suggesting that, by looking at ‘The Waste Land” through those frames, a new light can be shed on the way T. S. Eliot uses fragmented imagery and voice.

The title of this post comes from “The Waste Land,” line 22. To use an example of Eliot’s imagery, lines 19-30 read:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

From the very beginning of the poem, the reader comes into contact with a barrage of images. What is interesting about the images themselves is that they combine concrete with the abstract to create a montage that evokes an overall picture in the reader’s mind. The sun beats on what? The dead tree is sheltering what? What is the cricket relieving? There is no center to the images, thereby making them “broken” (Waste Land 22). By using a specific image and giving it no particular action or purpose, Eliot simply suspends the image in abstraction until others are pasted around it, thereby creating a dream-like scene. He uses this technique of concrete abstractions throughout the poem in order to piece together a setting and convey more abstract or lofty meanings.

Lawrence Rainey, author of Revisiting “The Waste Land,” writes about the effect of the fragmented imagery:

To read the poem was to plummet through a series of broken sketches, antic turns, and fitful moments of oracular solemnity and lyrical intensity—a dreamworld experience that startled and disturbed. (111)

“Startled and disturbed” is an accurate way to describe the feelings that take hold when reading “The Waste Land.” All of the images scattered across the page intimidate and inspire, confuse and enlighten.

For instance, in “Part II: A Game of Chess,” Eliot uses fragmented imagery to create the setting of a wealthy woman’s bathroom:

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of seven branched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling. (87-93)

This example differs from the first in that the images are all interacting with each other. The motion of the words give the feeling that the whole room in undulating in the candelabra flames, while the descriptions themselves set up a very dreamy, dark, and mysterious mood: one Cupidon peeking while another hides, perfumes lurking around the room, drowning out other senses; and the very pattern on the elegant ceiling being churned. It’s impossible to feel as if some dark secret isn’t being hidden here, tip-toeing in the shadows. Although the images are not as isolated from each other, as they were in the first example, they still act individually as contributors toward the whole. Each shard has its own action that interacts with another one so that they all set up a scene in a fragmented and broken, but cohesive form.


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