Like many modernist writers, Eliot wanted his poetry to express the fragile psychological state of humanity in the twentieth century. The passing of Victorian ideals and the trauma of World War I challenged cultural notions of masculine identity, causing artists to question the romantic literary ideal of a visionary-poet capable of changing the world through verse. Modernist writers wanted to capture their transformed world, which they perceived as fractured, alienated, and denigrated. Europe lost an entire generation of young men to the horrors of the so-called Great War, causing a general crisis of masculinity as survivors struggled to find their place in a radically altered society. As for England, the aftershocks of World War I directly contributed to the dissolution of the British Empire. Eliot saw society as paralyzed and wounded, and he imagined that culture was crumbling and dissolving. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) demonstrates this sense of indecisive paralysis as the titular speaker wonders whether he should eat a piece of fruit, make a radical change, or if he has the fortitude to keep living. Humanity’s collectively damaged psyche prevented people from communicating with one another, an idea that Eliot explored in many works, including “A Game of Chess” (the second part of The Waste Land) and “The Hollow Men.”
Eliot maintained great reverence for myth and the Western literary canon, and he packed his work full of allusions, quotations, footnotes, and scholarly exegeses. In “The Tradition and the Individual Talent,” an essay first published in 1919, Eliot praises the literary tradition and states that the best writers are those who write with a sense of continuity with those writers who came before, as if all of literature constituted a stream in which each new writer must enter and swim. Only the very best new work will subtly shift the stream’s current and thus improve the literary tradition. Eliot also argued that the literary past must be integrated into contemporary poetry. But the poet must guard against excessive academic knowledge and distill only the most essential bits of the past into a poem, thereby enlightening readers. The Waste Land juxtaposes fragments of various elements of literary and mythic traditions with scenes and sounds from modern life. The effect of this poetic collage is both a reinterpretation of canonical texts and a historical context for his examination of society and humanity.
Over the course of Eliot’s life, gender roles and sexuality became increasingly flexible, and Eliot reflected those changes in his work. In the repressive Victorian era of the nineteenth century, women were confined to the domestic sphere, sexuality was not discussed or publicly explored, and a puritanical atmosphere dictated most social interactions. Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 helped usher in a new era of excess and forthrightness, now called the Edwardian Age, which lasted until 1910. World War I, from 1914 to 1918, further transformed society, as people felt both increasingly alienated from one another and empowered to break social mores. English women began agitating in earnest for the right to vote in 1918, and the flappers of the Jazz Age began smoking and drinking alcohol in public. Women were allowed to attend school, and women who could afford it continued their education at those universities that began accepting women in the early twentieth century. Modernist writers created gay and lesbian characters and re-imagined masculinity and femininity as characteristics people could assume or shrug off rather than as absolute identities dictated by society.
Eliot simultaneously lauded the end of the Victorian era and expressed concern about the freedoms inherent in the modern age. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflects the feelings of emasculation experienced by many men as they returned home from World War I to find women empowered by their new role as wage earners. Prufrock, unable to make a decision, watches women wander in and out of a room, “talking of Michelangelo” (14), and elsewhere admires their downy, bare arms. A disdain for unchecked sexuality appears in both “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” (1918) and The Waste Land. The latter portrays rape, prostitution, a conversation about abortion, and other incidences of nonreproductive sexuality. Nevertheless, the poem’s central character, Tiresias, is a hermaphrodite—and his powers of prophesy and transformation are, in some sense, due to his male and female genitalia. With Tiresias, Eliot creates a character that embodies wholeness, represented by the two genders coming together in one body.
Eliot used fragmentation in his poetry both to demonstrate the chaotic state of modern existence and to juxtapose literary texts against one another. In Eliot’s view, humanity’s psyche had been shattered by World War I and by the collapse of the British Empire. Collaging bits and pieces of dialogue, images, scholarly ideas, foreign words, formal styles, and tones within one poetic work was a way for Eliot to represent humanity’s damaged psyche and the modern world, with its barrage of sensory perceptions. Critics read the following line from The Waste Land as a statement of Eliot’s poetic project: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (431). Practically every line in The Waste Land echoes an academic work or canonical literary text, and many lines also have long footnotes written by Eliot as an attempt to explain his references and to encourage his readers to educate themselves by delving deeper into his sources. These echoes and references are fragments themselves, since Eliot includes only parts, rather than whole texts from the canon. Using these fragments, Eliot tries to highlight recurrent themes and images in the literary tradition, as well as to place his ideas about the contemporary state of humanity along the spectrum of history.
Eliot’s tremendous knowledge of myth, religious ritual, academic works, and key books in the literary tradition informs every aspect of his poetry. He filled his poems with references to both the obscure and the well known, thereby teaching his readers as he writes. In his notes to The Waste Land, Eliot explains the crucial role played by religious symbols and myths. He drew heavily from ancient fertility rituals, in which the fertility of the land was linked to the health of the Fisher King, a wounded figure who could be healed through the sacrifice of an effigy. The Fisher King is, in turn, linked to the Holy Grail legends, in which a knight quests to find the grail, the only object capable of healing the land. Ultimately, ritual fails as the tool for healing the wasteland, even as Eliot presents alternative religious possibilities, including Hindu chants, Buddhist speeches, and pagan ceremonies. Later poems take their images almost exclusively from Christianity, such as the echoes of the Lord’s Prayer in “The Hollow Men” and the retelling of the story of the wise men in “Journey of the Magi” (1927).
Eliot envisioned the modern world as a wasteland, in which neither the land nor the people could conceive. In The Waste Land, various characters are sexually frustrated or dysfunctional, unable to cope with either reproductive or nonreproductive sexuality: the Fisher King represents damaged sexuality (according to myth, his impotence causes the land to wither and dry up), Tiresias represents confused or ambiguous sexuality, and the women chattering in “A Game of Chess” represent an out-of-control sexuality. World War I not only eradicated an entire generation of young men in Europe but also ruined the land. Trench warfare and chemical weapons, the two primary methods by which the war was fought, decimated plant life, leaving behind detritus and carnage. In “The Hollow Men,” the speaker discusses the dead land, now filled with stone and cacti. Corpses salute the stars with their upraised hands, stiffened from rigor mortis. Trying to process the destruction has caused the speaker’s mind to become infertile: his head has been filled with straw, and he is now unable to think properly, to perceive accurately, or to conceive of images or thoughts.
In Eliot’s poetry, water symbolizes both life and death. Eliot’s characters wait for water to quench their thirst, watch rivers overflow their banks, cry for rain to quench the dry earth, and pass by fetid pools of standing water. Although water has the regenerative possibility of restoring life and fertility, it can also lead to drowning and death, as in the case of Phlebas the sailor from The Waste Land. Traditionally, water can imply baptism, Christianity, and the figure of Jesus Christ, and Eliot draws upon these traditional meanings: water cleanses, water provides solace, and water brings relief elsewhere in The Waste Land and in “Little Gidding,” the fourth part of Four Quartets. Prufrock hears the seductive calls of mermaids as he walks along the shore in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but, like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 800b.c.e.), he realizes that a malicious intent lies behind the sweet voices: the poem concludes “we drown” (131). Eliot thus cautions us to beware of simple solutions or cures, for what looks innocuous might turn out to be very dangerous.
The Fisher King is the central character in The Waste Land. While writing his long poem, Eliot drew on From Ritual to Romance, a 1920 book about the legend of the Holy Grail by Miss Jessie L. Weston, for many of his symbols and images. Weston’s book examined the connections between ancient fertility rites and Christianity, including following the evolution of the Fisher King into early representations of Jesus Christ as a fish. Traditionally, the impotence or death of the Fisher King brought unhappiness and famine. Eliot saw the Fisher King as symbolic of humanity, robbed of its sexual potency in the modern world and connected to the meaninglessness of urban existence. But the Fisher King also stands in for Christ and other religious figures associated with divine resurrection and rebirth. The speaker of “What the Thunder Said” fishes from the banks of the Thames toward the end of the poem as the thunder sounds Hindu chants into the air. Eliot’s scene echoes the scene in the Bible in which Christ performs one of his miracles: Christ manages to feed his multitude of followers by the Sea of Galilee with just a small amount of fish.
Like most modernist writers, Eliot was interested in the divide between high and low culture, which he symbolized using music. He believed that high culture, including art, opera, and drama, was in decline while popular culture was on the rise. In The Waste Land, Eliot blended high culture with low culture by juxtaposing lyrics from an opera by Richard Wagner with songs from pubs, American ragtime, and Australian troops. Eliot splices nursery rhymes with phrases from the Lord’s Prayer in “The Hollow Men,” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, as the title, implies a song, with various lines repeated as refrains. That poem ends with the song of mermaids luring humans to their deaths by drowning—a scene that echoes Odysseus’s interactions with the Sirens in the Odyssey. Music thus becomes another way in which Eliot collages and references books from past literary traditions. Elsewhere Eliot uses lyrics as a kind of chorus, seconding and echoing the action of the poem, much as the chorus functions in Greek tragedies.