Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land is unarguably a poem about the decline of western civilization in general. It is for this reason that the reader would not expect to find many specific references to time and place. Surprisingly, however, there are a large number of particular references to London – though, interestingly, only one to the recently-concluded World War One: the demobilisation of “Lil’s husband” from the British Army (line 139).
This essay aims to identify to what extent the poem presents a picture of London immediately after the First World War and how it achieves that. What role is London playing within the poem?
Eliot presents a detailed picture of London and its civilization. This is partly achieved through place names. The geographical locations given by Eliot are preponderantly rooted in London. Examples include “Queen Victoria Street” (line 258), “Richmond” (line 294), “The Strand” (line 258), “King William Street” (line 66), “The Cannon Street Hotel” (line 213) and “London Bridge” (line 427).
Further examples of typical London locations include churches, pubs and bed sitting rooms. Coote argues that these are “descriptions whose principal purpose is to root the poem in the contemporary physical world” (Coote 49), but this is achieved by other aspects of the poem too.
Eliot shows that ‘life goes on’ regardless of difficulties. One aspect of this can be seen in Eliot’s portrayal of ‘work’, or the working population in a busy and important city. In the poem, work is presented as sterile and meaningless. Eliot shows this through the symbolism of the crowd that “flowed over London Bridge” (line 62):
so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. Flowed up the hill and down King William Street, To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. (lines 62-68)
The reference to the dead sound of the bell suggests, in turn, that life dies at ‘nine’ when work begins. Life becomes a “human engine” (line 216) until the ‘violet hour’ (line 215) when work ends and life returns to be ‘lived’. As Coote states,
What these lines present is a picture of commuters rushing into London. It is both exact and immediate. We are told the time of day, we see the crowds flowing across London Bridge, we hear their sighs, we see how they hold their faces. (Coote 51)
The ‘violet hour’ reference serves as a preamble to a further aspect of Eliot’s ‘life goes on’ theme, this time symbolised by the sterility of love and sex. In the lines that follow the reference to the ‘violet hour’ Eliot describes a scene which David Craig summarises as “part commonplace, part debased …[and] altogether unpleasant” (Craig 204). The scene opens with an exact depiction of a young woman’s preparations for an evening of leisure as she clears her breakfast, lights Her stove, and lays out food in tins. Out of the window perilously spread Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays, On the divan are piled (at night her bed) Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays. (lines 222–7)
When the “young man carbuncular” (line 231) arrives, he seizes his opportunity at a “propitious” (line 235) moment for sexual relief from the “bored and tired” (line 236) young woman.
The sterility and routine of the sexual encounter are reinforced after the act, as the typist is “hardly aware of her departed lover” (line 250) and “smoothes her hair with automatic hand” (line 255). There are no goodbyes, kisses, loving words or emotional moments. The poet’s goal is to demonstrate that relationships between the genders in post war London are empty, sterile and devoid of meaning, and he helps to establish this by using exact details of everyday life at the time.
Three other references to sexuality underline this conclusion. The first is the reference to Mr Eugenides who invites the speaker to spend the weekend with him at the “Metropole” (line 214): a hotel in Brighton notorious for illicit sexual encounters.
The speaker himself makes no comment on this invitation though Alasdair Macrae suggests that in this passage “London, representative of urban living, is corrupt and has lost its spiritual vision” (Macrae 23). In the second example, a conversation between two women in a London pub reaches the conclusion that sexual attraction may be reduced to a set of false teeth. Now Albert is coming back from the war, Lil is told,
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there. You have to have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set, He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you. And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert, He’s been in the army for four years, he wants a good time And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said. (lines 143-149)
These lines are a reminder that men were in short supply after the First World War; they underline how many were killed. Moreover, they help to reinforce the extent to which rigid Victorian sexual mores have broken down in the aftermath of the war to end wars.
The third example follows the encounter between the clerk and the typist. It begins with a brief reference to the pure romantic love of “Elizabeth and Leicester” – what Craig describes as Eliot’s “glamourising view of Spenser’s London, Elizabethan England with its pure rivers and stately ways” (Craig 204). By way of contrast, three apparently female voices describe the futility of sexual encounters in modern life, making specific reference toLondon locations:
‘My feet are at Moorgate, and my heartUnder my feet. After the eventHe wept. He promised “a new start.”I made no comment. What should I resent?’
Sexual encounters at the beginning of the roaring twenties may often have been unsentimental affairs. This is perhaps not surprising given that during the First World War itself sexual morality had broken down, and Eliot’s poem seems to reflect this. But it is interesting that London is so closely associated with this in the poem, “lost” (as Coote argues) in “the city of moral blight that has been Eliot’s chief concern” (Coote 74).
The passage following the encounter between the clerk and the typist implicitly compares London’s heroic past with its debased present. Craig argues that “modern civilisation does nothing but spoil what was once gracious, lovely, ceremonious, and natural” (Craig 204). This of course is a theme of the poem in general: that the present is debased by comparison with the past. There are many other examples of this.
The encounter between the clerk and the typist is one such case. Here what Coote describes as a “slight, tawdry, life-denying existence” marked by “depressing banality” and “sexual sterility” (Coote 50) is described by Tiresias, a mythical figure from the ancient world: “Now” comments Helen Gardner, “in the typist’s bed-sitter, he awaits ‘the expected guest’” (Gardner 12).
In doing so, the past is implicitly sitting in judgement over the diminished present and finding it wanting. If life in London in 1922 has a diminished air about it, that is not surprising given what has just taken place. Gardner summarises it in the following way: “The Waste Land voices the despairing sense that Europe had committed suicide in the 1914-1918 war” (Gardner 6): a sense common not just to London, then, but to the continent and its civilisation in general.
This method of the past sitting in judgement is a mainstay of the poem. This is achieved through the various literary voices which recur – what CharlesPowell calls the poet’s “cosmopolitan mortgage”.
Spenser, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, Middleton, Milton,Marvell, Goldsmith, Ezekiel, Buddha, Virgil, Ovid, Dante,St Augustine, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and others. Lines of German, French, Italian are thrown in at will or whim …. (Powell 29)
In the context of this essay it is worth noting how few of these are Londoners. However, as Gardner comments “[t]he sense that ‘History is now and in London’ is a note that recurs through The Waste Land though London, like other cities, is an ‘Unreal City’ and the waste land itself is timeless and unlocalised, a state and not a place” (Gardner 7).
Gardner’s remark suggests that The Waste Land can be treated in some ways as a historical document. It shows how people saw sex, love, the war and work. To this extend it has a historical dimension. But this raises the question of what is not shown in the poem.
Surprisingly, World War One is implicitly mentioned only once when Lil’s husband gets “demobbed” (line 139). Though one can feel a sense of loss and a lack of faith in the poem there are no explicit references to the effects of war – such as wounded soldiers, uniforms, invalids, mourners or orphans. Furthermore there are precious few references to other aspects of contemporary life – for example the rise of recreation, the motor car or communication. However, there is a single reference to the booming jazz age: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag” (line 128) – a phrase which captures both the literary and contemporary feel of the poem.
One might ask what purpose Eliot himself had in mind when he wrote this poem. Eliot gives his own answer to this question.
Various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling. (Gardner 4)
Despite his light-hearted comments, Eliot does suggest that the poem is more than just about London; more than just ‘social criticism’. Coote confirms the point and puts London in its place. The Waste Land he argues,
is not just a picture of life in the early 1920’s, what it was like and how it came to be thus. Rather, the poem is a meditation on the long experience of spiritual life… (Coote 60)
The point is that London is representative of western civilisation and its decline; it is only one of many ‘Falling towers’ (line 374)
Jerusalem Athens AlexandriaVienna London (lines 375-376)
In writing about London at the end of the First World War, Eliot has nevertheless left an interesting historical vignette of life in the early 1920’s, an aspect of the poem which is often overlooked.