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The wasteland Literature

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The Waste Land by T S Elliot
The Wasteland has been aptly called the most important poem of the twentieth century. It moves directly in tandem with Elliot’s philosophy and high regard for culture and knowledge: this modernist poem aims to depict the degradation of culture in the present times. Through various sections, changing points of views, and most importantly, the fragmentation that appears in numerous parts of the poem, Elliot depicts his desperation at the downfall of high culture and intellectual sophistication. People were surrounded by knowledge, wealth, and opulence, but were unaware of how to praise them, or how they alluded directly to some of the greatest works of all times.
Elliot himself prized knowledge above all else. He believed that a good writer is one who takes from the writers that came before him, who can swim in the same seas as them. He prized ‘knowing’ above all else, and despised the disillusionment that occurred in the society after the Great War. The same has been depicted in the poem as well, as have been reflected Elliot’s personal travails.
This paper analyses two passages from the second section of the poem, A Game of Chess, and through them aims to depict the now degenerative nature of sex in the society. Looking at it from a philosophical view, sex has always been associated with reproduction and the bringing forth of new life into this world. However, with people unaware, careless, and hurtling towards intellectual chaos, it too has degraded to define only carnal pleasure and sexual superiority.

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“Above the antique mantel was displayed/ As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene/ The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king/ So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale/ Filled all the desert with inviolable voice/ And still she cried, and still the world pursues,/ “Jug Jug” to dirty ears.” (lines 97-103)
A Game of Chess can be divided into two sections: the first one depicts an opulent room, where someone is quite possibly hosting a party. The section ends with a rant by a woman whose mental faculties seem to be degrading, thus depicting the downward spiral that modern society is in presently.
Elliot describes a painting, hanging on the wall above the mantel, as a window to the ‘Sylvan’ scene, which is a direct reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Milton Book IV, line 140) (lines 97-98). This painting depicts the transformation of the Greek heroine, Philomel, into a nightingale. Appearing in the poem Metamorphoses, written by Ovid, Philomel was raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus, who then cut out her tongue so she would not tell him. However, Philomel still managed to weave her tragic tale into a beautiful tapestry and show it to her sister. The sisters, seeking revenge, murdered the King’s son, and fed pieces of the boy to Tereus himself. When Tereus found out what had happened, Philomel escaped by transforming herself into a nightingale (Ovid) (lines 99-100).
Elliot says that the Nightingale’s song, or Philomel’s voice, can still be heard throughout. People are, however, unaware of the classics, of culture (‘dirty ears’ refer to uneducated people), and thus the sound only seems to them as noise (lines 101-103). Elliot calls Philomel’s voice inviolable: this may be interpreted as Tereus cutting out Philomel’s tongue so his deeds would go unnoticed. Despite this, Philomel’s ‘voice’ could not be suppressed, for she wove her tale into a tapestry. Knowing Elliot, Philomel may also represent culture and sophistication, on the whole, whose voice will resound through time, despite being suppressed by boorish elements, mockery, and ignorance. Her rape can, thus, by extension, be seen as the rape of culture in the modern context, where people do not care what lessons the classics preach. Thus, her inviolable voice falls on deaf ears, because they can neither understand nor care for her.
The second passage refers to lines 158-164, “I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face/ its them pills I took, to bring it off, she said./ (She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)/ The chemist said it would be alright, but I’ve never been the same/ You are a proper fool, I said./ Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,/ What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (lines 158-164)
For the second section, Elliot transports us to a bar in contemporary England, where two women are engaged in a conversation about a third one, Lil, who seems to be unhappy in her married life. Lil’s husband, Albert, is on his way home from the war, and the first woman has been trying to persuade her to improve her appearance.
Lil then tells the first women the real reason for her ragged appearance: she had taken a pill to abort her sixth baby (“bring it off”), which had caused a severe chemical reaction in her body, and had had a physical effect (lines 158-159). As is evident from line 160, she did not want any more babies, as she had nearly died while birthing her last one. She had taken the pills under the chemist’s assurance that everything would be fine, but admits she has been feeling ill ever since (161).
The first woman, however, does not seem to let up. She tells Lil that the latter is a fool for not being interested in sex. Children were all what people married each other for, it seems (lines 162-164).
Where one instance talked about sex as a tool that had been used to pilfer a woman’s integrity and honor, the other depicts it as an unwanted task contributing towards taking away a woman’s choice under the pretext of a duty. Thus, Philomel and Lil are linked to each other, insofar as they are the victims of an oppressive and degraded society. Here, sex is not seen as the beautiful union of man and woman, but a chore expected of both. Women, it seems, are good only for producing babies, and even then, they see their children as burdens.
The mention of war, here, is also symbolic: during the Great War, many women lost their children to the fight, which might dissuade one from having any more children for fear of losing them. Moreover, the current generation of children, while still reeling from the consequences of the first war, gives off the impression of preparing for another one. Culture has degraded, knowledge has taken a back seat, and the moral values that drove people in the past have now become only guidelines. Thus, even if one is giving birth to babies, the children are opening their eyes in a world being stripped of its heritage and identity. While Philomel’s world cannot listen to her voice, this one does not seem to be too eager to change the circumstance of their current predicament and is producing progenies that are no less ignorant, and equally devoid of knowledge. These women are only tools for the same. They are the world that can no longer produce precious life, respectful of culture and fearful of baseness.
References
BIBLIOGRAPHY Elliot, T S. “The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 57-74.
Milton, John. “Book IV.” Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Penguin , 2003. 512. Print.
Ovid. “Metamorphoses.” Metamorphoses (Oxford World’s Classics). Trans. A D Melville. Oxford Paperbacks, 2009. 528. Print.

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