Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.
Eliot's Most Influential Poem on the 20th Century
T.S. Eliot’s poem "The Waste Land" is considered the most influential, both directly or indirectly, piece of literature of the 20th Century, as its presence is felt in just about everything that has come after. The poem, published in 1922, taps into and captures the feelings of self-denial, hopelessness and disenchantment felt after World War I; feeling that would continue to grow with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and the events in Europe in the mid-thirties that lead to World War II.
Though Eliot himself was on his way to becoming a British subject at the time of the poem’s creation, having left the US in 1914, it captures the atmosphere at the time on both sides of the Atlantic. A couple of noteworthy aspects that the poem speaks to are the loss of innocence and cynical questioning. These aspects appealed in particular to the ex-patriots of the 1920s and the counter-culturalism of the 1960s. Three major American works where these themes can be seen are Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Ginsberg’s Howl.
The Sun Also Rises vs. "The Waste Land" vs. The Great Gatsby
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, as does "The Waste Land," speaks of the direction of the ex-patriots. In "The Waste Land," their designation as “the lost generation” is demonstrated in the lines, “‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?’/…‘What shall we do tomorrow?/What shall we ever do?’” (829). In Hemingway’s novel, the reader is shown a group of friends, based on his real-life friends, with money, free time, no inhibitions, and no ambitions beyond what the next day brings. When Joseph Flora wrote “Though Hemingway could not foresee it and would never acknowledge it, Eliot became an early ‘mentor’—one Hemingway could not put aside” (2); it’s as if Flora can hear the group of both Hemingway’s crowd and novel counterparts expressing those words from Eliot.
The destruction, spiritually and physically, of World War I is expressed, as The Great Gatsby and "The Waste Land" culminate in ruin. For Eliot, he ends with the image of a prince in a ruined tower (837). Fitzgerald also closes with the demise of a princely figure, in the person of Jay Gatsby (162). Yet, if the Prince of Aquitaine is to be a metaphor for the death of idealism, then the true death of the novel is that which occurs with Nick Carraway. He starts off the novel with great plans and ideas about life in the big city, but he returns home at the end of the novel feeling “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” (180) as if nothing can or will change ever. The events of the summer cause him to give up on his dreams and ambitions.
The subject matter of Dada and "The Waste Land" are a quite similar in purpose where the “comparison of 'The Waste Land' and Dada has been laid by a number of scholars who view Eliot's poem as a road to nowhere instead of a meandering path to redemption” (Tucker). Though both poems end, with “What the Thunder Said” and “Footnote to Howl” respectively, on a hopeful tone, the last lines end on an unfinished note. Eliot gives the reader images of destruction, Aquitaine’s destroyed tower, while the line “London Bridge is falling down falling down, falling down” (837) demonstrates that the destruction still and will continue. Then he speaks of the horror, or “shantih” (838) of it all. While Ginsberg’s last word is “Molock!” (1364), saying it is good in what had wrought the problems, but that it has not been vanquished. Neither author offers any solutions, only dwells on what has happened and lingers.
The importance of T.S. Eliot’s modernist masterwork cannot be overstated. He was able to tap into a sense of spiritual desolation that can still be felt generations after "The Waste Land" was first published. Feeling that is still felt today, ninety-five years later. Just seeing its influence in the major works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Allan Ginsberg stands as a testament to its lasting legacy. Well into the 21st century, there are still no answers to the issues the poem, or the works it inspired, examines.
Eliot, T.S.. “The Waste Land” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 2. Ed. Baym, Nina. New York.: Norton, 2013. 825-838. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner. New York: Scribner, 2004. 1-180. Print.
Flora, Joseph M. "Ernest Hemingway And T. S. Eliot: A Tangled Relationship." Hemingway Review 32.1 (2012): 72-87. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Dec.2014.
Ginsberg, Allan. “Howl” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 2. Ed. Baym, Nina. New York.: Norton, 2013. 1356-1364. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner. New York: Scribner, 2006. 1-250. Print.
Tucker, Shawn R. "The Waste Land, Liminoid Phenomena, And The Confluence Of Dada." Mosaic (Winnipeg) 3 (2001): Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
© 2017 Kristen Willms