I'm writing an analysis of The Wasteland that has to be 4-6 pages in length, and no more. It's at five now, but I want to explore modernism and the mythical method a lot more... so it's either abandon that topic or completely rewrite the paper.
So if anyone has the time/interest to read what I've got so far, any critique would be much appreciated!
Dream Symbolism as Mythical Method in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
Elevated by many critics as one modernist poetry’s great paradigms, The Waste Land exemplifies “the mythical method,” a process of structure invented by the poem’s author, T.S. Eliot. Through this method, Eliot connects parallel symbols and images from literary history with present-day symbols and images. The disjunction between one moment and the next, as well as between seemingly random images, is akin to the mental state during a dream. It can be interpreted in the same way we can interpret dreams. Because readers cannot rely on time to map out the poem’s order for them, they must find order in Eliot’s analogies in order to construct the meaning of the poem.
The Waste Land’s “mythical method” takes form in the unification of abstract concepts. Using the death and regeneration of nature as a model for its mythical method, the poem is divided into five sections, each corresponding to a season in the aforementioned cycle of time. Each section explores the struggle between fertility and barrenness, referencing a fragmentary collection of images, anecdotes and allusions to sources ranging from the Bible to Eastern philosophy to ancient literature.
It has been argued that T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land” lacks a theme or argument, and that its images do not function as symbols or metaphors. The idea of fertility, however, permeates the fragmentary collection of images, anecdotes and allusions (to sources ranging from the Bible to Eastern philosophy to ancient literature), and myriad metaphors litter the poem’s landscape. The most notable of these metaphors are those regarding water and vegetation, symbolizing, in their many forms and states, the poem’s struggle between fertility and barrenness.
In his essay, “The Waste Land: Ur-Text of Deconstruction,” Ruth Nevo declares the poem absent of every single fundamental category of literary discourse:
"There is no single time or place but a constant, bewildering shifting and disarray of times and places; there is no unifying central character either speaking or spoken about, no protagonist or antagonist… Nor, similarly, can we differentiate a subject in the sense of an overall subject matter, or argument, or myth, or theme for the poem to be unequivocally about or to embody."
I agree that “The Waste Land” lacks all of the above-listed qualities, except for that of the subject matter. The poem is most certainly “unequivocally about” something, that something being fertility, or, rather, the lack thereof. This theme is introduced in the very first line, with the word “breeding”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land…”(1-2) April traditionally takes on cheerful and youthful characteristics, but here it is the object of scorn for the speaker (whose identity shifts throughout the poem). April is “cruel” because it is capable of regeneration, while human’s, in the protagonist’s society, have been afflicted with infertility.
The letters of John Donne exhibit a view of Spring similar to that displayed in the first stanza of The Waste Land, so strikingly similar, in fact, that I suspect that Eliot was familiar with this particular letter: “Because I am in a place and season where I see every thing bud forth, I must do so too… [yet] the pleasantness of the season displeases me. Everything refreshes, and I wither, and I grow older and not better, my strength diminishes, and my load growes.” As if anticipating that, hundreds of years later, a will poet speak what are said to be the first words of a new movement (modernism) by invoking a sentiment he felt first, Donne’s relation of his emotions serve as a pre-emptive explanation of Eliot’s first stanza. Donne’s aging without “refreshing” is echoed in The Waste Land’s structure; the passage of time and the cycle of season does not provide regeneration to humans as it does to vegetation.
That April symbolizes cruelty and presents the setting as “dead land” is non-traditional imagery, but that doesn’t mean it completely lacks symbolism. Nevo states that the poem’s symbols do not perform the “functions” of foci:
"They refuse to symbolize. They explode and proliferate. They turn themselves inside out, diffuse their meanings, and collapse back again into disarticulated images… Is water, or the sea, death or life? Is fire a lust of the flesh or a purity of the spirit?... Or are these possibilities in unceasing dialectical interchange; idea and image, essence and existence, appearance and reality?... there is a language which this mode of phantasmagoria resembles, the language of the unconscious, with its condensations, substitutions, displacements, and [if we] are then challenged to find an interpretive key to this dream, we cannot."(456)
Before I discuss the idea the unconscious in relation to The Waste Land, I must point out that some of the poem’s symbols are traditional metaphors. “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water…”(23-24) This passage presents the two kinds of symbols Eliot uses in the poem: the a priori symbol and the a posteriori symbol. The tree as a source of shelter is an image that speaks to the reader’s common sense, while the cricket that gives no relief is an allusion to Ecclesiastes XII, a connection that the reader can only make through experience. The dry stone with “no sound of water” could symbolize many things a priori, but those readers who picked up on the theme of breeding from the opening line have a posteriori knowledge that gives a hint as to where to follow the metaphor; “dry” often means “barren,” and water clearly symbolizes vitality, or, for this poem’s purpose, fertility. We do not possess “an interpretive key” to The Waste Land, but rather molds for two different kinds of key, which we can shape to each individual image.
The connection Nevo makes between the language of the unconscious and the poems “dialectical interchange” begs further exploration. It was this criticism that inspired me to approach the poem as if it were a sequence of five dreams, each comprised of a disjointed story-like experience and seemingly incoherent images. My opinion on the interpretation of dream symbols is best expressed in Dr. Anoceto Aremoni’s introduction to Eduardo Zajur’s That Other Existence: “Dreams constitute for [the author] a form of individual production in which conventional and circumstantial universal symbols are present. The other symbols… are those of individual creation … Dreams, he says, are the masked tools which are available to the analyst and which he can use to challenge the negative forces within the patients themselves.” The conventional symbols, in The Waste Land, are those metaphors which we, as analysts of the narrator’s dream, have little to no difficulty translating into literal meanings. The narrator’s frequent allusions literary texts are our “circumstantial universal symbols,” which we need hints from the author, in the form of Eliot’s notes, in order to use them to make connections about the poem. Everything that impatient readers, like Nevo, brush off as too complex or obscure to make into a meaning are Eliot’s “secrets,” his symbols “of individual creation.”
The end of the Autumn section, features one of the daughters of the Thames– she who has been “rudely forced” like Philomel – singing, “On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with Nothing.” Spanos’ discovery reveals in the narrator the ability to converse with the texts of history, communicates a failure to connect time in temporal continuity. Lack of temporal continuity and the haziness of connections to what we know of history and literature are characteristics of dreams.
By approaching Eliot’s writing as if it were derived from dreams, we come closer to understanding his mythical method, which juxtaposes many seemingly unrelated ideas and symbols. The grouping of symbols into three kinds of dream symbols, as well as into a posteriori and a prior, provide us with a basis for assigning order to the poem. When left with seemingly un-interpretable symbols, we can look to outside texts and ideas which Eliot does not allude to; symbolism is subjective, and if we find a source of light onto Eliot’s idea that resonates with us (couldn't figure out how to end that sentence)
(and even if I decide to end it here I'll still need a conclusion, something I suck at)