Below is an essay that I wrote during post-graduate study. To hope to do justice to such a complex piece or work is total folly, but when academia makes these demands we have no choice but to rise to the challenge. The first challenge for readers is to get through the lengthy title – I hope that what follows is at least slightly more readable.
T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is a ‘post-traumatic poem[…] memorialising the losses entailed in modernity, in which the central lacuna or generative question – posed within the theatricalised topos of the city – is one of race’ (Eluned Summers-Bremner, ‘Unreal City and Dream Deferred: Psychogeographies of Modernism in T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes, in Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism and Modernity, ed Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005), p.263. Discuss in relation to more general theoretical work on the intersections of modernist culture and colonialism.
The Waste Land has been identified as “the signature work of modernist cultural preservation,” as its author mourns both the losses of the cultural and political moment and the crisis of articulation of these losses. This includes discussion of empire’s “deleterious effects upon English and European culture,” referring both to the invasion of one culture on another and the pitfalls of attempting to maintain cultural estrangement. In the poem there is also evidence of Eliot’s “anxieties about his own racial belonging,” having made the reverse journey of his ancestors by crossing the Atlantic from America to England.
The scope of the trauma depicted in The Waste Land can be seen to extend to instances of the 1861-1865 American Civil War, the Armenian Massacre of 1915 and World War One. In all three conflicts can be seen evidence of empire’s failure as well as atrocities inflicted on human kind, which result in the “numbed silence” of modernity. The beginning of the fifth chapter, ‘What the Thunder Said’, powerfully illustrates the sense of post-trauma:
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
The anaphora of the first three lines in this verse tells us that this is a poem about ‘after’ and that the scope of this ‘after’ is wide, that a seemingly endless suffering has taken place and has reached a long-awaited end, leaving a land of waste. The “frosty silence in the gardens” recalls the “Hofgarten” (10) of the poem’s first stanza, a scene of European civilisation and social ritual (“we […] drank coffee, and talked for an hour” (8-9)), implying a frozen, barren feeling about this form of civilisation. What is conveyed is the inevitability of alteration following “agony”, “shouting”, “crying”, and the violence of social disjunction implied by the phrase “Prison and palace” (recalling such events as the charging of the Bastille and the storming of the Palace of Versailles during the French Revolution). There is no possibility of separating the suffering of one man from another, as lines 328-329 illustrate, but that those dying have “patience” indicates the numbness of modernity, which is “after; stuck in the past.” However, Begam and Valdez chart the growth of the British Empire between the two World Wars, in “anticipation of globalisation.” It is thus worthy to note that, ““it was not so much the empire that changed so much as the attitude of a rising generation toward it.” With this in mind, the “patience” with which the modern world is dying in The Waste Land marries mourning for the violence accompanying World War One and the fall of empires past with the prediction of history repeating itself as the British Empire falls to decline.
To say that the poem is underwritten by a ‘lacuna’ is to identify the poem’s response to trauma, which is, according to Freud, “an experience which within a short period of time presents the mind with an increase in stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in a normal way.” Reflecting this post-traumatic state of the mind, instances of what Mageean calls “(t)extimacy” in Eliot’s poetry indicate towards a trauma that cannot directly be articulated. In lines 139-172, ‘Lil’ is absent from the public house scene in which she is discussed. She therefore becomes a (t)extimacy, as we read of her husband’s war efforts, her aging, her near death from giving birth and her abortion through the gossip of other women, distorting her traumatic experiences through their disapproving eyes. Her husband having returned, Lil must return to her pre-war occupation of housewife: she is returned to the domestic scene (“that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon” (166)) and left there whist her unmarried female companions who “pick and choose” (154) their men occupy the public sphere. That she has been vacated from this scene indicates toward an independence gained from the abandonment of her husband during war and lost upon his return. Here, woman suffers the irony of society’s choice to occlude the events of war from its memory, thus inhibiting progression. This lack of progression is also represented in the image of Lil’s aborted child, her assertion, “I’ve never been the same,” (161) reflecting the impossibility of the erasure of events from society’s progress.
The “O O O O” of the “Shakespeherian rag” (128) visually indicates an absence like holes in the text, the repetition of the exclamation suggesting a struggle for articulation. Summers-Bremner writes that this is a reference “to the common practice in minstrelsy of introducing fragments of famous ‘classic’ texts whose effect was both to mock the original context and to emphasize the ignorance of the Negro figure from whom the quotation came.” In this respect, the poem can be seen as minstrelsy itself, it’s references to such works of previous ages as Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s The Aeneid, among others, highlighting the irrelevance of these writings to the modern sensibility and thus mocking the speaker in the same manner as the minstrels. The parodic distortion of ‘Shakespearian’ into ‘Shakespeherian’ implies the performer’s inability to articulate these archetypal English texts. This is immediately evident as an indication of racial disconnection, as it is the minstrel’s failure, as representative of the ethnic other, to articulate Shakespearian (English) text. However, this is also reflective of Eliot’s own sense of dislocation from the tradition into which he is striving to insert himself in his writing. An American, he draws from his native country’s racist history by which to convey his own sense of unbelonging. Conversely, the shift from ‘Shakespearian’ to ‘Shakespeherian’ can also be read as a renewal of language. These two interpretations combined, we can see both Eliot’s recognition of his own dislocation from English tradition and his attempt to insert himself into it by turning it to his advantage, thus presenting the possibility of overcoming racial difference.
What is not acknowledged here, however, represented in the ominous symbol of the repeated ‘O’, is the trauma that third world peoples have endured due to racial subordination. This expresses the perspective on empire held by those of the early twentieth century and before, which Jameson describes as, “not the relationship of metropolis to colony, but rather the rivalry of the various imperial and metropolitan nation-states among themselves.” From this point of view, the cultural other becomes not the colonized and subordinated subject but the rival imperial power and the former is erased from the equation as he is from direct reference in Eliot’s poem. To think of international relationships in this way, however, was to deny the fundamental relationship between the English metropolis and the overseas colonies, which formed the workings of the nation’s economy; it is firstly to deny trauma (that suffered by the Third World subjects) and secondly to sunder a vital part of English national identity, leaving it incomplete. Lines 366 to 376 illustrate the disparity between city and elsewhere:
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
The speaker does not recognise the “hooded hordes” whose strife, “stumbling in cracked earth,” is undergone for the people of the city. The speaker insists, “There is always another one walking beside you,” (362) whose presence goes unnoticed when the company is counted – one of the “hooded” (363) hordes whose existence is denied by those who subjugate them. Equally, however, the speaker does not recognise the city, which cracks in correspondence to the cracks of the earth elsewhere. What the leaders of empire fail to realise is that when one of these spheres falters, this will be felt in the other. Towers of cities fall, empires crumble, as these two worlds remain isolated from each other, as their realities can not be realised in this partial state. “Maternal lamentation” which comes from “high in the air” suggests the suffering of Mother Nature as the fate of the world defies her intentions by estranging one race from another. Not even she can prevent its downfall, reflecting the subsequent failure of the pathetic fallacy to function as a means of solace.
It is in instances of Eliot’s poem of incompleteness and incoherence between images of empire that we find scenes of metropolitan dislocation. Tiresius, the only identified speaker in the poem and therefore an authoritarian figure, has an omnipotent position, “throbbing between two lives,” (218). He “can see” (219) both “the sailor home from sea,/ The typist home at teatime,” (221-222) a phrase whose construction means that we can either read these two characters as separate entities or one and the same. The figure of the sailor recalls that of the “Phoenician Sailor” (47) predicted by Madame Sosostris in the poem’s first chapter. Incorporating Phoenicia, part of the fallen Ottoman Empire (and therefore also indicating towards the atrocities committed in Armenia), into the London scenes of the poem, the sailor’s body becomes “an image circulating through the text as one more memento mori on the aims and ambitions of maritime empire.” That the sailor is drowned reminds us of the working class victims of the trauma associated with empire and its demise, which is reworked in the image of the “Bradford millionaire,” (234) who brings to the scene the suggestion of “wartime profiteering.” This character, referenced only as simile for the present character of the “young man carbuncular” (231 comes to stand for exploitation that occurs elsewhere but is very much present in the dynamics of national identity. The following scene of “unreproved, if undesired” (238) copulation between the typist and young man, witnessed in the shadow of these images of fallen empire and exploitation, thus conveys the sense of disconnection experienced in the metropolis when this component of national identity is denied.
Jameson also gives a second perspective on the metropolis/colony relationship, that of the colonized people:
[T]here also the mapping of the imperialist world system remains structurally incomplete, for the colonial subject will be unable to register the peculiar transformations of First-World or metropolitan life which accompany the imperial relationship. Nor will it […] be of any interest to register those new realities, which are the private concern of the masters, and which a colonized culture must simply refuse and repudiate. What we seek, therefore, is a kind of exceptional situation, one of overlap and coexistence between these two incommensurable realities, which are those of the lord and the bondsman altogether, those of the metropolis and the colony simultaneously.
What this passage conveys, as does Eliot’s poetry, is the recognition of “not only the reality of cultural fragmentation, but also the aspiration for cultural unity.” That is, the disparity between the cultures of First and Third World countries and the desire to bring them together to form a regenerative whole – not so much a combination of cultures as an inter-relative coexistence that recognizes their dependency on each other due to their intertwined histories. However, The Waste Land demonstrates the problematic nature of such an ideal, as a Babylon of voices strive to form a model of unity, but become chaotic and thus create an aesthetic of crisis. German voices, – “Wo weilest du?” (34) – and French voices – “Et O ces voix d’enfans, chantant dans la coupole!” (202) – invade the text without comment, denying any one empirical power authority over the others. Not only this, lack of comment can also be seen as ridding the text of cartography, a colonial system of imposing order by mapping out land boundaries. There is therefore a lack of order implied in the text and on the land, hinting towards a hazardous outcome in the prospect of decolonisation and the end of empire. The languages that invade the text are complicated, however, by foreign voices. “Bin gar Keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litaen, echt deutsch,” (12) spoken by a Lithuanian claiming that their nationality makes them “a real German,” draws attention to the question of how a national identity is constructed and the possibility of recognising consistencies between national identities. The voices of the French boys’ choir communicate to the reader as,
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.
This exemplifies an irrelevance of one language to another, that their song can not be translated. The line in French is taken from Paul Verlaine’s poem ‘Parsifal’, in which the choir sings following the Fisher King’s healing from the spear that wounded Christ. However, amongst the “horns and motors” (197) of the modern city, the choir’s song becomes intangible, implying the impossibility of healing. This is also the voice of Philomel, – “So rudely forced” (100) in rape by “the barbarous king” (99) Tereus who subsequently cuts off her tongue, and transformed by the gods into a nightingale – which echoes through the poem, heard in the “weialala leia” (290) of the Thames Daughters and in the “Co co rico” (392) of the cock in the mountains. The sound “Jug jug” ominously suggests the sound of her sexual abuse, whilst the erasure of the final letter from Tereus indicates her inability to tell of the king’s tyranny and thereby gain retribution. In the poem’s context of race and nation, this relates to the imposition of power of an imperial nation over another, weaker nation, and the difficulties faced by the subordinated in finding a national voice following subjugation. Like Philomel’s, the voices of the oppressed who can never gain retribution for the wrongs committed towards them will forever haunt the history of their own nation as well as that of their oppressors. As Philomel’s voice evolves from the nightingale to the cockerel, the cry of the oppressed will echo through generations. As Gilroy articulates, “the reflexive cultures and consciousness of the European settlers and those […] they enslaved, […] were not, even in situations of the most extreme brutality, sealed off hermetically from one another,” – though these nations face historical unity, it is a problematic and traumatic one.
The final voice in the poem is that of the Sanskrit Upanishads. In ‘What the Thunder Said’ the modern, English voice responds to the ancient Sanskrit voice, reviewing its culture by the commands, ‘give’ (“Datta” (401)) ‘have compassion,’ (“Dayadhvam” (411)) and ‘control yourselves’ (“Damyata” (418)). The English voice can only admit failure to adhere to these commandments: anything given has been from passion rather than love, illustrated in the line, “blood shaking my heart,” (402) implying that this giving has never been selfless; “each in his prison” (413), man has lacked compassion and confined himself to isolation; the Phoenician sailor, whose body we have seen drifting through the poem, has failed to control his boat to safety, instead, “Entering the whirlpool,” (318). Not having followed these commandments, the speaker has arrived at a compassionless and tyrannous world as a result of remaining ignorant the Upanishadic texts and those of the Eastern race who constructed them. This is an implication of the possibilities for different races to learn from each other in order to reach a place of compassion. Instead, the Fisher King admits the inevitability of decline: “Shall I at lest set my lands in order?” (425).
This question denotes a resigned approach to the writing of one’s will, but also strives towards the arrangement of lands into a kind of order, or unity. This is emphasized when one compares the line to Isiah 38:1, in which we can see that Eliot has substituted ‘house’ for ‘lands’: “Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.” Considering this biblical reference, the line in the poem suggests that should man set his lands in order, future generations will benefit (man will ‘live’ after death through that which he leaves behind). That this should be a question suggests that man has the option of creating this improved world for future generations, that it is his choice, and that the method of bringing about improvement is through the creation of order among lands and races.
The Many voices that erupt in the final stanza bring the poem to an ending of crisis:
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Here, the Babylon of voices is “shored” together in an attempt at unity, but in fact fails to do achieve this and ends only in transforming the meaning of improvement and possibility in the Upanishadic words into the incoherent ravings of Kyd’s Hieronymo. In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo’s play, which he intends to be his revenge for the murder of his son, is performed in “sundry languages” – like Philomel (her tongue is sundered, he bites outs his own tongue to express the futility of any attempt to reveal tyranny and thereby gain retribution), his testimony goes unheard and justice – order – is not obtained. These lines exemplify western man’s interpretation of the Upanishadic words as tedious madness, and the descent into disorder that has resulted of this. That the passage begins with the image of a crumbling London Bridge pre-empts the fall of British empire, which takes place in the city and juxtaposes with the final line to indicate the irony that had the commandments of the eastern race been acknowledged, empire could have remained possible. The relationship to empire conveyed in The Waste Land, then, is an ambivalent one. It is an elegy to a “fading ideal or failing ideology” rather than to empire itself. Whilst there is an admiration for the “ideal of unity,” there is also recognition of the failure to reach this ideal.
Following this descent into crisis, the final line of the poem, “Shantih shantih shantih” reads as a calling for, more than an articulation of, peace. Traditionally (though not universally), the Upanishadic texts end in the Shantih mantra, ‘Ōm shantih shantih shantih’. The meaning of ‘Ōm’ is detailed in Chāndogya-Upanishad, a passage from which reads thus:
The essence of [all living and sentient creatures] beings is the earth; the essence of earth is water. The essence of water is plants; the essence of plants is a person. The essence of a person is speech. The essence of speech is the Rk (hymn). The essence of the Rk is sāman (chant). The essence of the sāman (chant) is the udgīta [Ōm].
According to this text, then, the ‘Ōm’ that usually precedes ‘Shantih’ in the mantra represents an epitomic totality of all things on earth. That this is omitted in The Waste Land therefore conveys the final failure and utter impossibility of achieving the unity that the poem strives towards. That the final line should read as a struggle towards a peace that is not obtained suggests that the omission of unity is the reason for this subsequent failure. Lines 426-433 henceforth read as an answer to the Fisher King’s question. Just as he is on the verge of making a decision to set his lands in order, London Bridge falls: it is too late to make efforts towards peace or unity, because empire has already failed to keep out the “native voices that challenge the unitary force of the imperium.”
The Waste Land can henceforth be read as a post-traumatic poem which defies categorization as simply an expression of the losses experienced in Britain during World War One, as references to ancient, foreign, fictional and non-fictional empire demonstrate that this is a discussion of an ambivalence towards imperial systems. Lacunae in the text ((t)extimacies) illustrate that which society denies, but that will remain ever-present in the structure of national identities. For England as much as for the colonised, this refers to atrocities committed towards the Third World subjects they subjugated as well as the violence of war. For Eliot this also refers to the “inadequately buried trauma of his dislocated origins between […] two worlds.” He therefore strives towards an end to national and racial dislocation, attempting to overcome cultural disparity in reworkings of culture that recognise fragmentation but indicate towards cohesion. Predicting the end of empire, the poem ends in crisis but gestures towards peace, suggesting that these reworkings present the only possibility of rejuvenation.
- Eliot, T.S., ‘The Waste Land’, in Rainey, Lawrence (ed.), The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose ed. Rainey, Lawrence (London: Yale University Press, 2006) Kindle DX Version, location 782-887.
- Begam, Richard and Moses, Michael Valdez, ‘Introduction’ to Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939 (London: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 1-13.
- Gikandi, Simon, ‘Belated Englishness: Modernism, Narrative, and Colonialism’, in Maps of Englishness: Wiriting Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 157-167.
- Gilroy, Paul, ‘The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity’, in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 1-5.
- Jameson, Frederic, ‘Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature: Modernism and Imperialism’ in A Field Day Pamphlet, no. 14 (Derry: Field Day Company, 1988).
- Kalaidjian, Walter, ‘The Edge of Modernism: Genocide and the Poetics of Traumatic Memory”, in Scandura, Jani and Thurston (eds.), Michael Modernism, Inc. : body, memory, capital (London: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 107-132.
- Mageean, Michael, ‘The Secret Agent’s (T)extimacies: A Traumatic Reading Beyond Rhetoric’, in Kaplan, Carola M. and Simpson, Anne B., Seeing Double: Revisioning Edwardian and Modernist Literature (New York: St Martin’s Press 1996), pp. 235-258.
- Narayana Chandran, K., ‘ “Shantih” in The Waste Land’, in American Literature, vol. 61, no. 4, December 1989, pp. 681-683.
- Pollard, Charles W., New World Modernisms: T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite (University of Virginia Press, 2004).
- Rainey, Lawrence (ed.), The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose (London: Yale University Press, 2006) Kindle DX Version.
- Sherry, Vincent, ‘T.S. Eliot, Late Empire, and Decadence’, in Begam, Richard and Moses, Michael Valdez (eds.), Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939 (London: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 111-135.
- Summers-Bremner, Eluned, ‘Unreal City and Dream Deferred: Psychogeographies of Modernism in T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes’, in , ed Doyle, Laura and Winkiel, Laura (eds.), Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism and Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005), pp. 262-280.
- Williams, Raymond, ‘When Was Modernism?’, in New Left Review, no. 175, May/June 1989, pp. 48-52.
 Eliot, T.S., ‘The Waste Land’, in Rainey, Lawrence (ed.), The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose ed. Rainey, Lawrence (London: Yale University Press, 2006) Kindle DX Version, location 782-887.
 Sherry, Vincent, ‘T.S. Eliot, Late Empire, and Decadence’, in Begam, Richard and Moses, Michael Valdez (eds.), Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939 (London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 131.
 Begam, Richard and Moses, Michael Valdez, ‘Introduction’ to Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939 (London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 13.
 Summers-Bremner, Eluned, ‘Unreal City and Dream Deferred: Psychogeographies of Modernism in T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes’, in , ed Doyle, Laura and Winkiel, Laura (eds.), Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism and Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005), p. 270.
 Kalaidjian, Walter, ‘The Edge of Modernism: Genocide and the Poetics of Traumatic Memory”, in Scandura, Jani and Thurston (eds.), Michael Modernism, Inc. : body, memory, capital (London: New York University Press, 2001), p. 112.
 Williams, Raymond, ‘When Was Modernism?’, in New Left Review, no. 175, May/June 1989, p. 51.
 Begam, Richard and Moses, Michael Valdez, ‘Introduction’ to Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939 (London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 2.
 Ibid, p. 3.
 Freud, Sigmund, quoted in Mageean, Michael, ‘The Secret Agent’s (T)extimacies: A Traumatic Reading Beyond Rhetoric’, in Kaplan, Carola M. and Simpson, Anne B., Seeing Double: Revisioning Edwardian and Modernist Literature (New York: St Martin’s Press 1996), p. 237.
 Mageean, p. 246.
 Summers-Bremner, p. 267.
 Jameson, Frederic, ‘Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature: Modernism and Imperialism’ in A Field Day Pamphlet, no. 14 (Derry: Field Day Company, 1988), p. 8.
 Sherry, p. 131.
 Rainey, Lawrence, The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose ed. Rainey, Lawrence (London: Yale University Press, 2006) Kindle DX Version, location 1409 (note to line 234).
 Jameson, pp. 19-20.
 Pollard, Charles W., New World Modernisms: T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite (University of Virginia Press, 2004). p. 6.
 Rainey, location 979 (note to line 12)
 Gilroy, Paul, ‘The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity’, in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), p. 2.
 Isiah, quoted in Rainey, location 1617 (note to line 425).
 Kyd, Thomas, The Spanish Tragedy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 123, Act iv, Scene iv, line 74.
 Sherry, p. 131.
 Sherry, p. 114.
 The Principal Upanishads, trans. and ed. S. Radhakrishan (1953; London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974), pp. 337-38, quoted in Narayana Chandran, K., ‘ “Shantih” in The Waste Land’, in American Literature, vol. 61, no. 4, December 1989, pp. 682-683.
 Gikandi, Simon, ‘Belated Englishness: Modernism, Narrative, and Colonialism’, in Maps of Englishness: Wiriting Identity in the Culture of Colonialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 163.
 Summers-Bremner, p. 265.