New Historicism: The Wasteland
T.S. Eliot’s highly influential 433-line modernist poem is perhaps the most famous and most written-about long poem of the twentieth-century. Eliot’s composition brings forth a reader to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through this piece of literature, which documents the new discipline of the history of ideas. In other words, The Waste Land is subject to New Historicism to further understand the text of the poem and its relevance to history. T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, was published in October of 1922. The 1920’s and 1930’s are often known as the interwar period. The decades were profoundly shaped by the dislocations of World War I and then the mounting crisis that led to World War II. These were decades of considerable dislocation in the West. Revolutionary regimes in several societies provided another source of change. New, authoritarian political systems were another response to crisis, particularly after the Great Depression, in several parts of the world. All of this occurred even as resistance to European imperialism was mounting (Davies 938). In addition, the 1920’s was marked by major patterns. One of the first major patterns, Western Europe recovered from World War I incompletely, particularly in economics and politics. Cultural creativity was important, and several social developments marked real innovation. But political and economic structures and European diplomacy as well, rested on shaky foundations. World War I quickly shattered the confidence many Europeans had maintained around the turn of the twentieth-century. Although the ultimate effects of World War I involved Europe’s world position, the war also brought tremendous dislocation within Europe.
Though some of the damage was quickly repaired, much of the damage persisted for the subsequent two decades. The key battlegrounds for four bloody years had been in Europe. The sheer rate of death and maiming, as well as the frustration of long periods of virtual stalemate, had had a devastating material and psychological impact on the European combatants. More than ten million Europeans had died. Vast amounts of property had been destroyed. Most governments had failed to tax their populations enough to pay for the war effort-lest they weaken domestic support-so huge debts accumulated, leading to inflationary pressure even before the war was over. Key prewar regimes were toppled when the German emperor abdicated and the Habsburg Empire collapsed (Rich 138). Interestingly enough, in the first part of Eliot’s The Wasteland, the German words “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch ( Eliot, I. 12)” are spoken. The English translation is “I’m not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.” Both prior to and after these words are spoken, it is revealed that these are autobiographical fragments of a woman who not only recalls sledding in her childhood, but explicitly states that she is German and not Russian by any means. As stated in the previous paragraph, the Habsburg family was in no doubt defeated. These spoken words are important if the woman is a member of the spoken defeated Austrian family, although it is not ever revealed. Following World War I, Lithuania experienced the influence from the Soviet Union. The country of Lithuania was originally part of German territory until the post-war demands led to the partition of Lithuania from Germany and therefore, fell under control of the Soviet Union. The first section of The Waste Land can be seen as a dramatic monologue.
The speakers in this section are seemingly frantic with their need to speak and to find an audience, but they ultimately find themselves surrounded by dead people, like in wars. Because this section is so short and the situations are somewhat confusing, the effect is not an overwhelming impression of a single character. Instead, the reader is left with the feeling of being confined in a crowd and unable to find an individual who appears to be familiar. This type of situation can be seen in any war when individuals are thrusted on the war front. During World War I, to protect themselves from the withering firepower of the artillery and machine guns of the opposing armies, British and German soldiers began to dig into the ground during and after the clashes along the Marne. Soon northern and western France was crisscrossed by miles and miles of entrenchments that frustrated- with staggering levels of dead and wounded-all attempts to break the stalemate between the opposing forces until well into 1918. The almost unimaginable killing power of the industrial technology wielded by the opposing European armies favored the defensive. Devastating artillery, the withering fire of machine guns, barbed wire barriers, and the use of poison gas turned the Western Front into a killing ground that offered no possibility to decisive victory to either side. The carnage reached unimaginable levels, with the Germans losing 850,000 men, the French 700,000 men, and the British over 400,000 in the single year of 1916 on just the Western Front (Davies 925). In so many ways, the war in Europe was centered on the ongoing and senselessness slaughter in the trenches. Levels of dead and wounded that would have been unimaginable before the war rose ever higher between 1915 and 1918. They were all the more tragic because neither side could break the stalemate; hundreds of thousands were killed or maimed to gain small patches of ground that were soon lost in counterattacks. Years of carnage made all too evident the lack of imagination to utter incompetence of most of the generals on both sides of the conflict. Few understood that mass assaults on mechanized defenses had become suicidal at this point in the industrial age. The aged officers in the higher commands and overmatched politicians soon demoted or dismissed those who sought to find creative ways out of the trench morass.
With much of this history in perspective, T.S. Eliot conveys the destruction, or moreover, the aftermath of the first world war (Davies 952). The description Eliot gives in the second part of his poem, “The Fire Sermon”, “White bodies naked on the low damp ground and bones cast in a little low dry garret (Eliot, 193-194).” Although these two lines may be taken in a different context, from a reader’s perspective, one may conclude the title The Waste Land, deriving from this image. As discussed in the previous paragraph, the image of dead bodies and the bodies of the wounded in the trenches describes what appears to be a waste land. In many senses, Eliot also conveys some sort of anger.
As the war dragged on without any sign that decisive victories could be won by either side, soldiers at the fronts across Europe grew resentful of the civilians back home. Their anger was focused on political leaders who cheered them on from the safety of the sidelines far to the rear. But the soldiers were also disturbed, more generally, by the patriotic zeal and insensitivity of the civilian populace, which had little sense of the horrors they were forced to endure at the front. In fact, the commitment of the civilians behind the lines and their hatred for the enemy was usually far more pronounced than that of the soldiers actually in combat (Roberts 911). Each of the powers remained able to mobilize ever larger numbers of soldiers and military resources, despite growing food shortages and privations on the homefronts. The governments responded by rationing resources and regulating production to head off potentially crippling labor disputes (Roberts 914).
Eliot’s The Waste Land offers the reader a close depiction of the social turmoil that the European continent was in following the horrific World War I. Moreover, this poem, in many senses, is a reflection of personal emotions, and as a spiritual quest pertaining to Christian tenets. Any individual would conclude that after experiencing or witnessing horrific war events, a person of any caliber would be experiencing many emotions such as depression, anger, frustration, and fear, to name a few. It is not to assume T.S. Eliot was inspired to write the poem The Waste Land based on actual war events. Instead, this poem, as stated earlier, is a good depiction of what society was like through Eliot’s point of view. The Waste Land ultimately went on to record a hodgepodge of facts, ideas, superstitions, and interests born during the ordeal. This poem epitomizes the thoughts and feelings of the survivors of the World War I and post-World War I generation.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York City: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
Davies, Norman. Europe, A History: A Panorama of Europe, East and West, From the Ice Age to The Cold War, from The Urals to Gibraltar. New York City: First HarperPerennial, 1998. Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land. In A Norton Critical Edition, Michael North, ed. New York City: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
Rich, Norman. “The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918.” Political Science Quarterly 87(1972): 137-138
Roberts, J.M.. The New History of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.