In Michael Whitworth’s Modernism, Ezra Pound once commented that T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land “is… the justification of the ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment…”, and this poem is revered as a major statement for modernist poetics (Whitworth 250). The Waste Land is composed of five sections, each focusing on different issues. Common themes are apparent throughout the poem. The poem takes place in a post-war world where everything feels desolate, and it brings attention to an entire culture in crisis (Lewis).
T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land Photo Credit: Joanna Parypinski
“The Burial of the Dead” acts as the introduction to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as it sets the stage for themes that will be seen throughout the poem. In the first stanza of the poem, we notice a contradiction between the speakers’ words and common ideas. This begins the theme of chaos that is present throughout the poem.
In the first line, April is called the cruelest month in spite of the fact that Spring is responsible for bringing new life. This line is an allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which begins with a description of April’s “sweet showers”. According to Professor Amy Green, this line suggests that the speaker in the poem may have dreaded the natural cycle of life and death. This is supported by line 5 which states that “Winter kept us warm” contradicting the ideas of death and isolation associated with winter by suggesting that it instead offers warmth and protection.
In Gerald Lucas’ “Utopian Fiction”, it is noted that modernism was greatly influenced by Neitzsche’s pronouncement that “God is dead” along with theories from thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. The chaos and destruction caused by man in World World I is reflected in the modernist American literature produced during the time. Modernism is considered as a quest for order in the midst of chaos.
In “Burial of the Dead”, the text is presented in first person although “The Wasteland Lecture” suggests that more than one speaker is present (Green). The use of personal pronouns throughout the poem shows a lack of an omnipresent being thereby supporting the Modernist idea that there is no God. This point of view also glorifies the significance of the individual.
Lucas notes in “Utopian Fiction” that modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound produced works that undercut and destroy the authority of the past, like country, church, and family, and attempt to find meaning within the individual.
Another trait we notice in stanza one of “The Burial of the Dead” is the structure. Pericles Lewis makes the observation that Eliot utilizes old English poetic techniques with use of line structure, sparse use of end rhyme, and use of syllables in each line. Eliot also utilizes alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds, as we see with winter/warm, lilacs/land, and forgetful/feeding, another Old English poetic technique.
Some of the most critical imagery of the poem is introduced in this first section of the poem. The line, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust…(Line 30)” could allude to several things according to Prof. Green. It could suggest the biblical reference “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return,” but it could also allude to the fear of drought and the terror instilled by the loss of life that a lack of water could cause which supports the theme of destruction. The sexual symbolism introduced by the hyacinth girl in this section are furthered explored in the conversations that take place during section two “A Game Of Chess.”
Death by Water
In “Burial of the Dead”, we are introduced to Madame Sosostris, a tarot reading false prophet, who warns everyone of “death by water” in line 55. Eliot returns to this topic later in the poem in section “IV. Death By Water.” It is here where the audience realizes that the society has been led to believe a lie, and the only way to find peace (hope for utopia)is through the dreaded death by water (Green).
In the last portion of “Burial of the Dead”, a conversation between the narrator and a ghost, Stetson, takes place concerning a corpse that was planted in a garden. This is significant for several reasons. The sprouting of life from the corpse would represent hope that life can rejuvenate from the wasteland which is a theme that will resurface in “V. What the Thunder Said.”