I was cleaning up my computer
and found this, The Worst Paper I've Ever Written. I remember it from my second english class
. My basic premise for writing this was something like, "I need to write something because it's due this afternoon
." So I made up some BS
about how The Waste Land
by T.S. Eliot
wasn't supposed to make any sense. We all know it doesn't make any sense
, so I figured I could write some crap about how the whole point of the poem was not to make sense. This might have been a convincing
argument which I like, however due to time constraints I didn't really think about it much and just spewed forth garbage
. And I got an A, go figure
After reading The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, my first thought was that it made no sense. The voice of the poem changes frequently, making it difficult to follow what is actually happening. The poem is also broken up into sections which appear to be unrelated. There are also numerous references to other works which I don’t understand. All of these things make the poem very hard to understand. Luckily, there are footnotes to help explain Eliot’s meaning. But, after reading through them, I find that they don’t help at all. The footnotes are just as unclear as the poem, and it would be impossible for me to understand them without sharing some of Eliot’s background in literature and life. Could it be that Eliot is commenting on the fact that because people don’t share a common background, that it is difficult to communicate in society?
One of the most unusual things about the poem is the presence of the author’s notes at the end of the poem. This is something rarely seen in poetry, or other works of literature. Reading through these notes, I realized that they did very little to help my understanding of the poem. Is this because I’m not familiar enough with literature to understand the references? I don’t think so. Some of the footnotes, like some of the lines of the poem, are in a foreign language. Does Eliot expect them to clarify things for his reader?
I don’t think he does. The purpose of the notes is not to clarify the text, but to further demonstrate that the problem with communication in society is the lack of a common background. Eliot’s notes do not help me to understand the poem because I do not share his background. I have not read the texts he refers to, I have not studied mythology, or tarot cards, or foreign languages. Because I do not share this background with him, his poem doesn’t make sense to me. In other words, he cannot communicate with me.
It’s possible that this is just me. Perhaps others would understand more of his notes, and be able to see what he is saying. However, I doubt that everyone would understand all the notes. For example, line 68 says "With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine." Eliot’s footnote for this line states "A phenomenon which I have often noticed." What does this mean? Eliot has noticed that at the stroke of nine, there is a dead sound. This does nothing to help a reader understand the poem. A similar example can be seen in the line "Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants C.i.f. London:" which has a note that reads "The currants were quoted at a price ‘cost insurance and freight to London’; and the Bill of Lading, etc., were to be handed to the buyer upon sight draft." Again, this may explain to Eliot about the sentence, but to a reader, it offers no insight.
In addition to these personal insights in the notes, several of them are also in foreign languages. These notes do not help me at all. Eliot was an American/British author, does he really expect readers to understand all of these references? Again, I don’t think so. While it might be possible for someone to understand some of the languages, Eliot could not have expected the majority of his readers to understand them all. This further shows the idea that because we do not have a common background, it is difficult to communicate.
The last point of interest about the notes is the vast number of sources quoted. Eliot gives reference to Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare, the Bible, and many more works. When looking through the notes, I find that I am not familiar with the majority of the works he mentions. Furthermore, there is such a wide range of literature cited that it would be very unlikely for anyone to be familiar with them all. Again, because I don’t share Eliot’s literary background, it’s very difficult for him to communicate with me. The notes do almost nothing to clarify his poem at all.
It is also important to examine the title of the poem to further understand the ideas of communication difficulties in society. A wasteland is typically though of as a dry, desolate, isolated place. In the poem, Eliot is describing society as a wasteland. But we are surrounded every day by others, how can we living in such an isolated place as a wasteland? Quite simply, it is because we have lost the ability to communicate with others around us. This leaves us feeling alone and isolated, even though we are surrounded by others.
Part of this idea could have come from Eliot’s view on World War I. During the war, most of a generation was lost. Thousands of families were torn apart, and society was destroyed by a spreading fear of foreigners. This tore a hole in the fabric of our society. After the war ended, perhaps Eliot saw the effects of this on society. The common threads we all have, such as family and religion had been damaged by the war, leaving us all isolated from each other.
We can see that the title of the poem indicates that we are all isolated from each other, unable to communicate effectively. The structure of the poem then shows us that this is due to the lack of a common background. The poem is divided into unrelated sections, and Eliot provides notes to help clarify them. But they do little to clarify, and in some cases just introduce more confusion by quoting unfamiliar works and passages in foreign languages. It is very unlikely that these footnotes would clarify the poem for the majority of readers, because they cover such a wide range of materials. Because of this, the notes make sense primarily to Eliot. This is his way of saying that his background justifies the poem, but because we do not share his background, we can’t understand. This is the message Eliot is giving us, one that is important in society even today.