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MonkeyNotes-The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot
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Eliot read Arthur Symons' influential work The Symbolist Movement in Literature in 1908. Though he often rejected more recent poetic models (like Walt Whitman and E. A. Poe) Eliot turned to Robert Browning for his skilled handling of the dramatic monologue and use of colloquial language. Many of Eliot’s poems have features of an extended dramatic monologue in which we encounter a character revealing his or her thoughts and inner personality in a given situation e.g. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Gerontion and even The Waste Land.

Another poet who profoundly influenced Eliot was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Italian poet, whose Divine Comedy Eliot studied closely at Harvard. Eliot admired the frankness and economy of Dante’s language and the vast gamut of emotional experience he depicts in the 3 parts of his epic in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Eliot admired Dante’s restraint and self- effacement. Eliot, too, self distances himself in his verse throughout. The Waste Land he is possibly present in the guise of Tiresias, but is never obtrusive.

Eliot was deeply stirred by Joyce’s Ulysses, whose early manuscript (prior to publication) Eliot read in Paris in 1918. In Ulysses a single day in the life of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is depicted in detail against the framework of Ulysses’ wanderings as depicted Homer’s Odyssey. This gives the novel a richness of associations and cross-references. Eliot drew upon Joyce’s method in his The Waste Land, using the consciousness of Tiresias to make cross-references through history and myth. He also tried to manipulate traditional myths and drew parallels or contrasts between contemporary life and ancient times. Thereby, Eliot hoped to give definite shape and meaning to "the intense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history," (T.S. Eliot in his Preface to James Joyce’s Ulysses 1922).


A close examination of Eliot’s poetry reveals that several contemporary strands of English verse are subtly interwoven into his masterpiece. The Waste Land embodies the mood of exhausted bitterness of war poetry, the "hard and dry" surfaces of Imagist verse, the expansive use of mythical and literary allusions of Pound, Joyce or Yeats, the dislocations and grotesque hallucinations of James Joyce and Edith Sitwell. These, he blended subtly into the cohesive artistic unity of The Waste Land such a complex and composite mode alone, Eliot felt, could meet the challenge of theme and technique for modernist poetry in a post world war world.

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