Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Eliot and The Waste Land

This reading of The Waste Land mostly struck in terms of its influences, which I hadn’t always noticed on previous readings (this being the second or third time I’ve tried reading this poem). Even before I looked at his notes that were included in this edition, I noticed the influences of the metaphysical poets and revenge tragedians. I think this came mostly from “The Burial of the Dead” (with the kind of imagery of death and memory with the references to aspects of nature like the seasons and hyacinths), and the part about “Those are pearls that were his eyes” in “A Game of Chess” (34). The other parts struck me more in terms of Pound’s possible influence, with the varieties of voices and languages (probably since I’ve read The Pisan Cantos since my last reading of this poem).

Since I read Eliot’s selected 1920 poems in the Dover edition before reading this one, I also had an overall impression of Eliot being closer to the kind of detached mode of writing he had advocated, since I didn’t feel I saw as much of his personal life in his poems as I thought I did with his earlier ones. With the 1920 poems I did get some impression of Eliot working out issues with aging, the war (“Gerontion”) and faith (“The Hippopotamus”), and maybe even still with his wife (“A Cooking Egg”). Yet they seemed now more like elements that he could have just been manipulating to his own means rather than ones that may have been unintentional to his goals (titling a poem “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” certainly seems to be almost daring the reader to interpret the poem as personal). I gathered from his French poems that he assumed his readers at that time all knew French, unless these were written at a point where he was just writing for a French audience (but I figured the former, and that Dover apparently thought the same). I wasn’t sure what to make of his use of the “Sweeney” personage so many times (I wasn’t sure if these selections were the only “Sweeney” poems or if he had more), other than that these may have been his main warm-ups for actually writing The Waste Land.

The Sweeney poems certainly seem to have more of that “heroic modernist” feel than his other poems in this section, and so seemed to resemble to structure of The Waste Land more than the others, even “Whispers of Immortality.” With Eliot’s essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” I was glad that he elaborated on this aspect of his writing a bit more (though he just discussed it in relation to Joyce, I figured it applied to his work as well). I had still been having difficulties with interpreting The Waste Land, but I felt that the idea of his using a “mythical method” rather than a “narrative method” (178) made sense as a way of understanding what he was trying to do. I was also interested in the fact that he complained of mythological influences not being acknowledged enough in literary criticism (175), even when their influence is as apparent as in works like Ulysses. This seems to be an issue that persists with much modern criticism, even with works using the same influences as Joyce and Eliot (such as with many postmodern novels).

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