Some Disassembly Required
Fragmentation and recollection in the Waste Land
A reader tasked with 'deciphering' T.S. Eliot's Modernist epic might be forgiven for throwing his hands up in frustration. Hunting down every allusion requires a trek across three millennia and seven languages. Even with decades' worth of scholarly trailblazing to ease the journey, unpacking the poem involves an alarming amount of legwork.
But one does not need a map of every landmark to navigate The Waste Land. Eliot's montage of images portraying empty, absurd desire in a modern world has haunted the minds of readers for generations, even those who did not catch a single literary reference. While The Waste Land deepens through familiarity with the extensive background material that informed the poem's composition, its fundamental impact arises independently of any external source. The Waste Land is not a cipher, but a collection. Eliot unravels the ties binding his literary allusions to the works they reference, much as a collector appropriates her specimens. By means including juxtaposition with the banal and condensation to the limits of recognition, he fragments his sources and reorganizes them within the confines of the poem, giving them a novel collective context.
In order to knock his allusions from the lofty heights of literature to the streetscapes of The Waste Land, Eliot often gives them a jolt. By setting his fragments of 'high culture' against the banal, he destabilizes their significance. Only the surrounding verse can resolve the confusion of meaning that results. This approach marks the concluding stanza of the passage describing a typist and her 'young man carbuncular.' "When young woman stoops to folly and / Paces about her room again, alone / She smooths her hair with automatic hand / And puts a record on the gramophone" (353-255). The phrase "when young woman stoops to folly" is the first line of "a little melancholy air" from the 18th century novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Transplanted to the Waste Land, its refined metaphor stands awkward against, "Paces about her room again, alone." A reader is apt to stumble over the change in style, as though Eliot had forgotten to edit out a scrap of an earlier draft.
Yet the line fits the rigid rhyme scheme of the stanza as a whole, suggesting conscious intent. Eliot mocks romantic visions of love betrayed by leading readers on with the build-up to an elegant ballad, then abandoning them to the underwhelming truth: the typist responds to her rape with apathy and retreat into routine. Knowledge of the fragment's origins sharpens the contrast between expectation and reality, but Eliot's precision use of context gives the parody its real bite.
While jarring dissimilarity cues the presence of a juxtaposition in "The Fire Sermon," more descrete odd couples appear throughout the poem. In "The Burial of the Dead," Eliot sets Dante's purgatory against the drudgery of the London commute. The everyday and singular mingle as he follows the citation, "I had not thought death had undone so many," (63) with the personal remark, "... St. Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine" (67-68). The spiritual suffering of Dante's sinners and the grungy melancholy of London's citizens merge under poetic pressure. Eliot splices the hallowed voice of The Inferno into an eclectic, vibrant chorus laying bare the condition of modern England. The most famous lines of the Unreal City monologue are Dante's, but the frequency with which they are attributed to Eliot testifies to his success in appropriating them.
Similarly, the classical and colloquial speak as one in the final lines of "A Game of Chess." Finally heeding the closing-time call of the barkeep, someone bids farewell. "Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. / Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight," (169-171). The spelling reflects the spoken pronunciation of 'good night' in English, serving as the feeble climax to an inane conversation in Cockney dialect. But by a sleight of hand, these lower-class leave-takings become the final lines of Hamlet's much-celebrated character Ophelia. "Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night" (172). Recognizing the quote does not swell the conclusion of the passage with any newfound Shakespearean dignity. It merely amplifies the pathos already there. Within the world shaped by Eliot's techniques of collection, Shakespeare's dramatic persona and the anonymous voices of a seedy London burrough sing the same melody.
The force of juxtaposition works outward, overriding an allusion's ties to its external source through the impact of contrast. The force of condensation, however, works inward, obscuring an allusion as it crushes the quote or paraphrase to its bare essentials. Only the cardinal words withstand compression. Ambiguity marks the absence of the rest. The flexibility this affords Eliot allows him to slip allusion into even the most restricted portions of The Waste Land.
For example, the second stanza of the river maidens' hymn begins with "Elizabeth and Leicester" (279). At surface, the sounds of these three words harmonize with their surroundings. Delving deeper, reader versed in British history could identify 'Elizabeth' as Queen Elizabeth I, a figure as synonymous with England as the Thames river. But at the very limits of allusion, a meticulous reader would note that Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester were the subjects of annoyance for the Spanish ambassador Alvarez de Quadra in a letter to court complaining of the pair's flirtatious behavior. His discomfort reflected the unspoken truth that any true romance would snag both figures in an intricate and fatal web of politics, religion, and nationality. However much they skirted the edges of desire, fulfilling it was beyond reach for either Queen or Earl. In both image and metaphor, the story fits perfectly into the river song and the overarching themes of The Waste Land as a whole. Unfolding the three-word kernel strengthens the poem's aesthetic and thematic force, but leaving it be detracts nothing from the flow of the river song.
Though packing so much reference into so little space seems a feat insurpassable, three words are luxurious compared to the brevity of an allusion within the opening image of "A Game of Chess." "In fattening the prolonged candle-flames, / Flung their smoke into the laquearia" (31-32). Laquearia, meaning 'paneled-ceiling,' stands alone as a concise and graceful word supporting the throne room's description with its liquid vowels and exotic appearance, but Eliot's own notes reveal a nod to the Aeneid, where he stumbled upon the term amidst a passage describing the banquet of Queen Dido of Carthage. Any reader must consider the delicacy of a thread spanning the distance between one obscure word and precisely that passage, but there is a tempting satisfaction to the self-reference. Whether taken as signifier or left untouched, the word clearly contributes to the impact and cohesion of the surrounding verse.
It also introduces ambiguity to another condensed allusion in "The Fire Sermon," allowing Eliot to wring as much use from any one phrase as even a Modernist might hope for. "To Carthage then I came" (307) quotes the Confessions of St. Augustine, whose rejection of worldly wants represented by the city of Carthage mirrors the Buddha's Fire Sermon. But more than one famous traveler has come to the Tunisian kingdom. Aeneas also faced a test of desire there, consumed with love for Queen Dido--an association the extended image of "A Game of Chess" might prime. The considered economy of the allusion allows room for both interpretations, continued in the next lines "burning burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning" (308-310). The repetition of 'burning,' its use as bludgeon against the speaker's prayers, drives the passage to a frenzied climax. The quotations are so condensed as to be Eliot's own, their heft given them by him alone. Yet as allusions, they retain a hint of their origins, yielding a wealth of sources to affirm the terrible force of the plea, unanswered.
"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (431), the simple image that closes The Waste Land, belies how monumental the challenge truly was. T.S. Eliot's ruins were the ruins of a nation ravaged by the First World War and a literary tradition whose breadth had grown beyond the ken of the average reader. No individual fragment could possibly support such a burden. Only in unison, as a collection, could they prevent the towering heap of fractured images, symbols, and narratives from collapsing into chaos. Juxtaposing his allusions with the banal or condensing them to the limits of recognition, Eliot removed the dependence of his quotes and paraphrases upon external sources and allowed them to develop a significance within The Waste Land supplemented by their fragmentary nature. Fulfilling Modernist prophecy, he shattered the stained-glass windows lining the citadel of literary tradition--not with the malice of a vandal, but with the reverence of an artist. From the remnants of the old, he 'made it new', gathering the scattered shards and piecing them together again into a breathtaking mosaic.