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Waste Land, The

Criterion, From Ritual to Romance, Letters, The Waste Land

T. S. Eliot's most celebrated work, first published in the Criterion in 1922; later that year an edition was produced in New York, to which notes were added to clarify allusions to or quotations from the works of some thirty-five authors, among them Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Marvell, and Baudelaire. The notes indicate the importance to Eliot's conception of J. L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance (1920). In discussing the Grail legend, Weston refers to the realm of the Fisher King as the ‘Waste Land’, arid and sterile as a result of the sexual wound he has sustained; the Fisher King is identifiable at several points in the poem, which projects a vision of a moribund culture whose pathology is primarily sexual in its causes and symptoms. ‘The Fire Sermon’, the third section, presents a series of corrupt of futile sexual relationships observed by the hermaphroditic figure of Tiresias, to whom the notes accord central significance; his incomplete masculinity gives him some equivalence to the Fisher King. The view that the work has its roots in Eliot's gravely unsatisfactory relations with his first wife is supported by his statement in the first volume of his Letters (edited by V. Eliot, 1988) that ‘To her the marriage brought no happiness…to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land’. The poem's five parts, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, ‘Death by Water’, and ‘What the Thunder Said’, combine impressionistic juxtaposition, precisely evocative imagery, and powerful effects of language to present a succession of episodes suggestive of cultural collapse and spiritual sterility. The first and final sections enclose the whole within their vividly symbolic renderings of ‘the dead land’; the apocalyptic conclusion suggests possibilities of divinely ordained regeneration and looks forward to the religious tenor of Eliot's later verse in its adaptations of events from the Gospels. The Waste Land's continuities of mood, imagery, and poetic texture give it a cohesion independent of narrative or thematic progression; F. R. Leavis noted that ‘The unity the poem aims at is that of an inclusive consciousness: the organization it achieves … may, by analogy, be called musical’. For many, The Waste Land forms the definitive expression of the bitter disillusionment and widespread sense of cultural failure that followed the First World War; Eliot, however, preferred to regard it as ‘the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life … just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’; the statement is taken from The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript (edited by V. Eliot, 1971), which presents the original text of the poem along with the many suggestions for changes and excisions made by Ezra Pound, whose advice Eliot followed in drastically abridging the work for publication. Pound's remark that it was ‘About enough … to make the rest of us shut up shop’ anticipated the enormous impact of The Waste Land as the exemplary work of poetic Modernism and the most enduringly compelling poem of the twentieth century for succeeding generations of critics and general readers.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Robert Penn Warren Biography to Kenneth White Biography