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Eliotís The Waste Land is a key or canonical text of modernist literature. It reflects in theme, tone and technique most of the principal facets of literary modernism. The hey-day of Modernism began in November 1918, after 52 slaughterous months that changed the world forever. When the World War started in 1914, the Modernist Revolution was well under way. But the sordid experiences and realities of this horrendous war propelled that revolution forward in a way that was both violent and totally unprecedented. Poetry and literature would never be the same again, as writers could never forget the particular horrors of the monstrous sufferings and mass scale slaughter unleashed by the Great War.
Ezra Pound in his seminal post-war poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920) speaks of these horrors as "Wastage as never before" and calls them "disillusions ... hysteria, trench confessions, laughter out of dead bellies." Poundís poem inaugurates this decade and sums up the Modernist poetís sense of "a botched civilization." Eliot too shared Poundís belief in the traumatic failures of modern life in the post-war era and voiced the anxieties and fears about the age in his classic poem The Waste Land.
At Harvard, both Eliot and Pound were trained to value the writings of earlier cultural periods. Both imitated or emulated classical, medieval, Italian, Provençal French and even Chinese poems. This trait is quite evident in Poundís Cantos (1917-69) where he organizes his selections from world history into a vast poetic panorama that provides moral, political and aesthetic education for readers of the post-war 20th century generations. Eliot, two, does something quite similar in The Waste Land which is akin to a socio-cultural and spiritual encyclopedia of human civilization.
The symbolist movement in French poetry also influenced Eliot. The symbolists did not care for the Realists mode of more direct forms of representing reality, their rather restrained use of imagination and their reformist zeal to change the abuses and evils of society. Instead, the symbolist mode was indirect, allusive and often obscure. They concentrated more on evoking individual moods and elusive states of mind through a complex of words, images and symbols with diverse psychological associations. Thus, readers of symbolist poetry must constantly explore the endless maze it presents. All these features of symbolist writing are amply evident in Eliotís The Waste Land.
Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue were the two symbolists who wielded the deepest influence on Eliot. They reveal a wry sense of humor, a mocking self-awareness that helps to balance their inner melancholy. Baudelaire made his readers aware of the city in all its ugliness, squalor and excitement, its crowds, its variety, its violence and the alienation it gives rise to in sensitive souls. These facts are abundantly found in Eliotís The Waste Land too.