“And voices singing out of empty cisterns…”

The second aspect of fragmentation in “The Waste Land” I’m focusing on is that of voice. One of the most distinctive and astounding elements of Eliot’s poem that has confused scholars and critics for almost one hundred years is the question that I asked earlier in this blog: “Who said that?” There are very view identifiable speakers throughout the entire poem. The others are shrouded by blurbs of speech, accompanied by obscure images that fill the borders with well-defined cobwebs. Voice and image become a similar function, in this case. The voices themselves are images of whoever is speaking– the speaker concealed in the same mystery as the dreamlike scenes I discussed in the previous post.

Stephen Sicari writes in his book Modernist Humanism and the Men of 1914: Joyce, Lewis, Pound, and Eliot:

“The Burial of the Dead” is indeed a cacophony of voices mixed together in no apparent order with no apparent organizing principle: we jump from one distinct voice to another without narrative transition or stylistic glue. (162)

Sicari’s statement isn’t confined to the first section of the poem. From the beginning to the end there are many voices clamoring to be heard. There are many uses of “I,” but the identity of “I” appears to change through the entirety of the poem. It takes on the voice of an upper-class man or woman (it’s hard to tell) at one moment, the blind prophet Tiresias at another, and fading into what may be inferred as madness at the end (which I will address later).

In “The Burial of the Dead,” the question of identity is raised starting in line 8:

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar kine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. (8-18)

The speaker has been identified as Marie, but it is impossible to say if the same speaker exists at the end of the poem. And is the Russian from line 12 the same as the sled rider in line 14? Moving further in the poem, who is being entreated to “(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)” (ln 26)? Because this type of question can be posed almost at any given point in “The Waste Land, it almost seems sophomoric to ask. I’m not sure if it can ever be pin pointed, and I think to try may be a waste of time.

The gate blocking off the site of Cross Bones Graveyard. The wall is filled with tributes to the people who rest there. The sign on the door at the end of the gate reads: "Sleep well you winged spirits of intimate joy."

Think about Eliot’s use of voice in the context I introduced in my last post– that is through the lens of Cross Bones Graveyard in Southwark, London. Cross Bones has been around for an estimated 500 years. Imagine the layers of corpses that are stacked into the stone and mud. Imagine all of the voices that could be heard deep down below the surface. Think then about all the layers that exist throughout London. The oldest part of the city was settled by the Romans in the first century, but, according to Ackroyd, “the region has been continually occupied for at least fifteen thousand years” (10). T. S. Eliot may not have known London’s history to that extent, but he was aware of the ancient beginnings of the city. “The Waste Land” is similar to London in that there are so many levels of voices that echo everything from Greek myth, to Dante, to conversations in an early 20th century pub. The voices become images of the people in the city– a mix of culture, race, and language– all exemplified by references to the past and fragments of quotes in different languages. It is natural, then, that all of the voices won’t have names.

The fact that the voices do not always have speakers has another effect on “The Waste Land.” It brings about the idea of dehumanization. All of these disembodied voices floating up and down London Bridge is assigned to a concrete image that can be physically observed on, and under, the streets of London.

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