On entering T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the reader finds himself in a dismal maze of decay and isolation. It is easy to get lost in back alleys of Biblical and literary references, obscure phrases in French, German, Latin, and Greek; and the ever persisting question of “Who said that?” Upon its publication in 1922, John Peale Bishop, a Princeton graduate and the managing editor for Vanity Fair, described it as “IMMENSE. MAGNIFICENT. TERRIBLE.” (Rainey 103).
Eliot wrote a good deal of the poem in London, but worked on it while undergoing some rest-therapy at Margate and Lausanne. Eliot was known for having a nervous disorder and the weight of balancing his jobs as a bank clerk, poet, and an editor– all of this exacerbated by the chaotic and stressful city life of London– gave him the need to search for some restoration elsewhere (Wilks 6). In a sense, he stepped away from the waste land for a while so that he could have a better look.
“The Waste Land” in its entirety is a poem about the decline of Western traditions, values, and culture. This decline, perceived by the artists of the time, took place across all of Europe and America, but that scope is broad. Volumes could (and have) be written about the hollowing out of Western ideals. My interpretations of the research I present in this blog, and the observations I take from London itself, will focus on making London T. S. Eliot’s symbolic inspiration for “The Waste Land.” This will involve looking at the architecture of the city as inspiration for the fragmented form in which Eliot writes. It will involve visiting sites that are specifically mentioned in”The Waste Land” to witness firsthand the sights and sounds that inspired Eliot. It will involve studying the people of London, both historically and contemporaneously, to better understand the voices that echo in “The Waste Land.” The dead and dying are to be found in the twisted ancient corridors of the massive city that has roots twisting all the way to ancient Rome, and it is the death in London that Eliot writes about.
In fact, the poem opens with a harrowing epigraph taken from the Satyricon by Petronius. Eliot uses the original Latin and Greek, but the translation according to A. J. Wilks is:
For, indeed, with these very eyes I saw the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a glass bottle; and when the boys said to her: ‘Sibyl, what is the matter?’ she always answered, ‘I long to die’. (25).
Wilks explains that the epigraph “presents an image of literally suspended life (death-in-life, Cleanth Brooks calls it), from which death proper would be an escape” (24). The plight of Sibyl being suspended for all the world to see is the situation that Modern culture– that is, the post-WWI era in which Eliot was writing– is in. The living death, or “death-in-life,” that humans experience is what turns the world into a waste land.
The idea of living death is very visible in London, not to mention other metropolitan cities. Hundreds of dead faces walk into the Tube (London’s underground transit system) everyday. Faces that can’t afford a smile because you may try to sell them something or simply smile. Each one is buried in a book, a newspaper, a thought, or the floor in order to avoid acknowledging other human beings. Routine and responsibility have claimed them.
The idea of living death is fully introduced in the opening lines of ‘The Waste Land”:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers. (1-7)
The death Eliot writes about is animated. Alive. At the end of every line there is a verb that suggests, at the very least, the presence of life, if not the creation and sustenance of it (“breeding…mixing…feeding”). Eliot is suggesting that what humanity was experiencing in the post-WWI period that came to be known as Modernism, was a living, breathing death. It was a death that reached back into tradition and left man with nothing to fall back on. A death that dissolved the inner confines of Western culture, making it hollow and superficial.
When T. S. Eliot writes of “The Waste Land,” he writes of the living death of the spirit and of the traditions of Western culture. The death is spiritual, cultural, and sexual in nature, and, through my research, I want to explore the connections between the city and the poem that make London a “Waste Land.”