T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land
“Both the hysteric and the mystic transgress
the linear syntax and logic governing the established
It is perhaps part of the unique genius of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” that both critics and lay readers have repeatedly felt forced to look outside the published text of the poem for clues as to its meaning. The text’s fragmented, seemingly violated body seems to exhibit wounds through which its significance has slipped, creating a “difficulty caused by the author’s having left out something which the reader is used to finding; so that the reader, bewildered, gropes about for what is absent…a kind of ‘meaning’ which is not there, and is not meant to be there” (Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). Elsewhere, Eliot says that “in ‘The Waste Land’ I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying” (Writers at Work, Second Series, 1963). In these two statements Eliot speaks of two different forms of meaning: the first, that which arises through the act of communication, that which is conveyed from one imprisoned self to another, and the second, that meaning which arises out of the individual’s use of language, from one’s personal relationship to language. The “The Waste Land” itself depicts a struggle with both of these aspects of language, and it is out of this struggle that much of the poem’s meaning is unearthed. Early in the poem Eliot calls into question the extent to which language can reflect or even describe reality, and this conflict arises in different forms throughout the poem. The possibility of a disparity between language and reality thus becomes one of the many wounds – to use Koestenbaum’s term – which the poem, and the poet, must inevitably seek to heal.
The very first lines of the poem’s second stanza bring the question of language’s efficacy to the forefront. Asked to describe what sort of life might spring up out of the “stony rubbish” (20) of the poem’s sterile landscape by an interlocutor who seems – by the force of the allusion to Ezekiel – to be a representative of some sort of transcendent reality, there seems to be no way for the poet to answer. The speaker continues in almost accusatory tone: “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images” (21-22), and it is in this line that Eliot questions the potential for meaning inherent in language. The self is unable to explicate the nature of this life for his only language is a mere “heap” – a disordered pile of “broken images”. Here Eliot describes language as representation, and in this mode it is doubly useless; first, because it is “broken”, fragmented and divorced from the very realities it was intended to describe, and second, because it consists of mere “images” – representations of things and not the things themselves. One might argue that language, though only “a heap of broken images,” does achieve a certain reflexivity here, for in...