What Is Modernity?
In an entry on Martin Heidegger in the ‘Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy,’ W.J. Korab-Karpowicz writes:
“Modernity overturns the ideas and values of the traditional (Christian and classical) culture of the West, and, once it becomes global, leads to the erosion of nonwestern traditional cultures.”
This quote will do very nicely to describe the world that T.S. Eliot describes in The Waste Land.
The Better Craftsman
British Pathe’s look back on 1921 was subtitled The Time When Little Happened. It might be true that there were few events that would have made a news editor sit up, but there was an undercurrent in society that T.S. Eliot was trying to describe in a long poem.
Eliot may have shown a rough draft of the poem to his friend, Ezra Pound, in 1921. Certainly, in early 1922, Pound began heavily editing Eliot’s piece—work that Eliot recognized when he dedicated the final version to Pound, calling him “the better craftsman.” The Waste Land that we know is, perhaps, as much Pound’s work as Eliot’s.
I think we can agree that The Waste Land is a much catchier title than the one that T.S. Eliot originally used for his poem. Originally, the working title was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a quote from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend.
However, the first title has the merit of catching something that The Waste Land reflects; the poem is full of different voices.
When the poem was first published in 1922, it met with a mixed reception. Some immediately recognized it as the masterpiece it is, others, however, thought that it was a pretentious, overworked, mishmash, full of obscure references and disjointed strands that made little sense.
These latter critics missed the point—different voices and fragments are the whole points of the poem. It is a work that has no simple explanation, it resists summary—just as you probably won’t find an underlying theme to the photos on your phone.
As we mark the hundredth anniversary of the poem’s publication, it is well worth having another look at it and teasing out the relevance that it still has today. There are similarities between Eliot’s time and ours.
The world of 1922 was a shattered world. The war that had recently ended had left much of Europe in ruins and a generation dead, wounded, or severely affected by the horrors of the conflict. The influenza pandemic that immediately followed the war killed millions more. The old certainties had gone.
At the same time, and contributing to the confusion, 1922 was a time of great change. Music, literature, transport, communications, radio, and cinema were helping to change the world into something that would have been unimaginable fifty years before. Just as now, a generation had emerged that was living in a different world from the one that their parents had known.
In 1848, Cecil Frances Alexander penned ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful,’ verse three originally read:
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
There is an Arabic term ‘asabiyyah’ that denotes a sense of community, cohesion, and social responsibility. Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century philosopher, suggested that asabiyyah is a cyclical force. It is strongest when civilization is young, declines as the civilization matures, and, finally, is replaced by another, different asabiyyah which gives rise to a new civilization.
The Waste Land shows a society where the underlying asabiyyah is at its last gasp. This is what Eliot is describing in his poem, a society adrift that has lost its connections to the past. There is speech, but no dialogue, work but no fulfillment, sex but no love. The shattered cathedrals of Europe would be rebuilt. But how could the social fabric be renewed? How could these lost people find a home?
Most of the poem describes the situation as Eliot sees it. As Eliot himself later commented, his worldview, as reflected in the poem, was colored by difficulties in his life—an unhappy marriage and, perhaps, a breakdown.
The new age of machines was the triumph of the science that had flourished since the Enlightenment, a triumph of rationality over belief. We can see Eliot as a romantic who believed that society had lost an essential element. He knew well enough that you couldn’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but humanity could search for the Holy Grail, perhaps find it. And in finding it, discover new meaning and commonality.
The reader knows that they are not in for an easy ride when she discovers that the epigraph to the poem is written in Latin and Greek.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins . . . ”
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dead tree gives no shelter . . . ”
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Bertrand Russell and The Art of Rational Conjecture
“It is science that has made the old creeds and the old superstitions impossible for intelligent men to accept. It is science that has made it laughable to suppose the earth the center of the universe and man the supreme purpose of the creation. It is science that is showing the falsehood of the old dualisms of soul and body, mind and matter, which have their origin in religion. It is science that is beginning to make us understand ourselves, and to enable us, up to a point, to see ourselves from without as curious mechanisms. It is science that has taught us the way to substitute tentative truth for cocksure error.” (1942)
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”
- These lines reference Charles Baudelaire's poem “The Seven Old Men.”
- Lines 62 and 63 reference Canto 3, lines 55-57 from
- These commuters, coming in from the suburbs to fill the offices of central London, were following the same routine day after day. Meaningless lives, Eliot would have thought, slaves to the telephone and typewriter who had lost any sense of belonging to the rich tradition of western culture.
These were people who might remember a bit of Shakespeare, a line or two of a poem, but these fragments drifted around rootless. These people are given a voice in Section Three where the nameless typist has just had meaningless sex with a ‘small house agent’s clerk’ who left her as soon as he could.
“She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’
When lovely 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.”
- Lines 253-256 reference the song in The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.
Does Eliot see any way forward, a remedy for this cultural malaise? The penultimate line of the poem is taken from the Upanishads and reads:
“Datta, Dayadhvam. Damyata.”
Translating this as ‘give, empathize, and show self-control’ we can see that these qualities are exactly the ones that the voices in the poem lack. They are the qualities that we need to navigate a complex world and help each other deal with the problems of modernity.
Take, for example, our house agent’s clerk who, in his rendezvous with the typist, gives nothing, shows no empathy and satisfies his selfish desires. He treats the typist simply as an object and, in doing so, demonstrates that he has no feelings that we would classify as essentially human.
Only by rediscovering that which binds us together can we find a way to escape The Waste Land.
The Waste Land Read by Alec Guinness
Sources and Further Reading
- 'The Waste Land' by T. S. Eliot with Annotations
Text of 'The Waste Land' by T. S. Eliot with annotations, references, map, and Eliot's notes.
- An Introduction to Modernism | Poetry Foundation
- Heidegger, Martin | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Martin Heidegger is widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century, while remaining one of the most controversial.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.