‘The Wasteland’ is the early Modernist poem classic. T. S. Eliot was striving to understand a shattered world post WWI and how the inherited cultural knowledge could offer direction or solace in a broken, mechanistic world. His use of literary and cultural allusions may feel overwhelming at first, but an open mind and supportive discussion will illuminate this gorgeous poem.
At this moment of Modernism, the urge was to separate from the oppressing past (‘Make it new!’ charged Ezra Pound, Eliot’s mentor) but this becomes a double gesture. The attempt to repress or break free from the past ends up haunting the writers and thinkers of the modern period—until they negotiate a link with the myths and images of the past that threatened. ‘Wasteland’ demonstrates this in the specific allusions to past works and in its melding of characters of the past and the present (Cleopatra becoming a modern working woman in ‘A Game of Chess’ for example) as well as the use of myth to reconnect our lost modern psyche to a past of ritual and meaning.
The experience of ‘The Wasteland’ combines a dig through allusions to a sense of what we hear: the journey is impressionistic. Eliot struggles to rediscover primitive, authentic emotion against the falseness of modern life. He employs the poetic technique of multiplying references ( thinking of form of sedimentary rock—the layers evoking ages but holding discordant impressions together).
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
—from The Burial of the Dead
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