Prior to Professor Tandon’s “Modern and Contemporary Poetry” class, I had never seriously read or written about poetry. Rather, like most of my classmates, the bulk of my exposure to poetry came in high school with a teacher spending at most around three weeks reading Shakespeare and requiring an iambic pentameter assignment at the end of the term.
In WR 150, however, I quickly came to appreciate and even enjoy the level of scholarship necessary to understand a poem. From group discussions and class lessons, I learned that poetic choices—such as allusion, form, or even rhythm and meter—that at first glance might seem arbitrary can hold a much deeper level of significance when interpreted within a particular historical or social context. Instead of reading a poem and searching blindly for blunt instances of alliteration or peculiar word spacing, I started to become a more perceptive reader, keenly reading for unique subtleties in the poem; like the critics whose work I researched for motivation, I wanted to develop the necessary sophistication to intuit a unique interpretation that I could call my own.
This was certainly not easy to do for T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” because parsing the poem’s numerous literary, historical, linguistic, and mythological references often proved excessively challenging. To simplify the poem, I focused my energy on deciphering the significance of Eliot’s unique proclivity for irony evident throughout the poem. Indeed, from the opening epigraph (a Roman oracle responding to questions posed to her in Greek) to the poem’s closing stanzas (the titular Thunder does not speak) it’s clear that the waste land’s fertility is not intended to be restored.
Consequently, while some critics claim that Eliot’s choice of a barren “waste land” as the poem’s setting in conjunction with the poem’s litany of spiritual references epitomizes a morally lost and spiritually arid post-WWI Europe, and as such serves as Eliot’s call for spiritual revival, I argue that the poem’s clearly purposeful irony instead speaks to the failures of religious and Christian thinking in Europe. Moreover, Eliot is drawing the reader’s attention to the clear incompatibility of past religious thinking with the modern present through paradox and contradiction, offering an alternative morality that is neither bound by allegiance to a particular god nor rewarded by good faith. Rather, his world is “beyond good and evil” in the sense that it is a raw waste land, barren of past morality and thus subject to the will of the individual. In this sense, his work is uniquely empowering; unlike Eliot’s eponymous J. Alfred Prufrock, who fails to seize the day, “The Waste Land” champions individual potential.
GEORGE DANIS is a mathematics and history double major in the Class of 2013. On campus, he is a Resident Assistant at Sleeper Hall and a mathematics tutor at the Educational Resource Center. He would like to especially thank Professor Jason Tandon for his encouragement throughout WR 150. This essay was written for Jason Tandon’s course, WR 150: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.