The Waste Land
How we cite our quotes:
"My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak." (111-114)
An unknown voice suddenly butts into the poem, filling the page with really anxious, neurotic demands. The person asks an unknown listener (which might be you) to spend the night with them. Obviously, this person doesn't want to be alone at all, but at the same time, they want to completely support the conversation. The anxiety outlined in this passage belongs to a person who needs to have a conversation, but has absolutely nothing to say (sound familiar?). This person also seems to be made very paranoid by silence, so they ask you to say anything at all to make the silence go away. We are dealing here with the kind of nervous, super-needy person that the modern world produces, and Eliot suggests that this type of person is created by the collapse of people's ability to properly communicate with one another.
[…] The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses. (179-181)
At one point, it might have been possible to sit alone on the bank of a river and feel like you were communicating or communing with nature. But unfortunately, modernization has completely destroyed the magic of past generations. People used to live in a world filled with poetry, where fireflies hovering over water were believed to be supernatural nymphs. But nowadays, all you'll find next to a river is a bunch of sandwich papers and beer cans. A rationalist would tell you we've come a long way since the age of superstition, but Eliot's not so sure. He feels there's something super lonely about a world without poetry.
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison (414-416)
In these lines, Eliot gives his most powerful image of modern isolation, comparing individual existence to living inside a locked prison. This suggests that people might actually want to stop being so self-absorbed, but they don't have the spiritual guidance or mental strength to do so. We might often think of the key that will release us from the prison of our isolation, but that doesn't mean we have the key. This image comes up fairly late in the poem, and there's no time for Eliot to dance around the issue anymore: if you want to stop feeling isolated, then you've got to start thinking of others just as much as yourself, or even more. There's just no way around it; you think about yourself all the time, you're going to feel lonely. That's just spiritual arithmetic, as far as Eliot's concerned.