The Waste Land Introduction
In A Nutshell
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Where to begin?
No seriously. T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" has been called "one of the most important poems of the 20th Century" and it might actually be one of the most important poems ever. Like, ever.
In its original draft, the poem was almost twice as long as the published version. That's because T.S. handed the thing over to his buddy, Ezra Pound, who slashed a ton of material and made extensive editing suggestions. Eliot pretty much used every one of these suggestions, and even dedicated the poem to Pound, calling him "il miglior fabbro" in the inscription, which is Italian for "the better craftsman." So yeah, even though T.S. wrote the poem to end all poems in 1922, he still had some confidence issues.
Maybe what Eliot should have been concerned about was penning a poem that's considered incomprehensible by many first-time readers the world over. Yep, there's no getting around it: "The Waste Land" can be one tough cookie to read. The poem constantly shifts between different speakers without warning, and it's chock full of references to classic literature from cultures all over the world, many of which are more than a little obscure.
Which raises the question, why oh why would Eliot want his poem to be so hard to read? Well, like many writers of his time (so-called modernists), he felt that Western culture was headed to hell in a handbasket, and that people were getting dumber and dumber (it's a good thing he didn't live to see the days of Conveyor Belt of Love). So basically, his message to readers was: "Hey, if you don't understand what I'm talking about in this poem, go to a library!" And now that we live in the age of Google, we really don't have any excuse for not understanding his references.
Apart from its obscure allusions, "The Waste Land" can be difficult to read because it constantly shifts between different speakers and scenes, often without warning. At one moment, you're a woman reminiscing about riding on a sled when you were young; at another, you're staring at a dead sailor who's decaying at the bottom of the ocean. But no matter how weird things get, make no mistake: this is a very, very serious poem about a very serious subject: the decline of western culture and the beauty that this culture once possessed, back in the good ol' days of classic times.
Why Should I Care?
Honestly, Eliot would probably go red in the face if you dared ask him "Why should I care?" The whole reason he wrote this poem is because modern people just don't care about anything worthwhile, like great art or spirituality. Even in the early 20th century, Eliot looked around and saw a world that was, in his mind at least, constantly being dumbed down by booze, atheism, and general laziness. His beloved culture was decaying faster than a tooth in a glass of soda, and he needed to find an outlet for the despair he was feeling. In a world where we tend to say "To each his own," Eliot wants to grab you by the shirt and yell, "It's not all equal! You think people are going to read Fifty Shades of Grey a thousand years from now?"
You might not be with Eliot when it comes to getting a classical education and acting more refined (pinkies up, everyone!), but you have to respect the fact that this guy really put himself out there and stood up for what he believed in. He knew that most people would take one glance at his poem and think he was an uptight weenie (or totally nuts), but it didn't matter. By the 1920's, pop culture had pretty much murdered high culture, and Eliot wanted to make sure high culture got the eulogy it deserved.
In today's world, Eliot would no doubt get shouted down as an snooty, tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking elitist by most people; but if you read this poem with a sympathetic eye, Eliot just might convince you that knowing five languages and being familiar with the entire history of Western literature is better than knowing how many career touchdowns Peyton Manning has thrown for. Just make sure you have a gym towel nearby, because this one's gonna make you sweat.