The twentieth century has seen a great deal of advance and change. There were technoogical developments, such as the beginnings of the electricity, development in transportation and communication. Speed gained importance, man went to moon and people accepted all these changes with a rather blaze attitude. As a result of this blaze approach to life and to changes brought by the theories of some of the scientists is criticized by the artists. Yet, The First World War took its rightful place among the reasons which brought down the traditional values, life style and in relation with these a change in traditional literature. This war brought a sense of littleness, almost a sense of nothingness to human life. Most people lost their belief in technology, development and dignity of man and consequently, this approach showed a sort of detrition in the sensitivity of man.
The aim of the modernist poets is to stimulate the reader and to open their eyes to realities. In other words, they want to take off the blinkers that people have on their eyes. In their poems they try to show unpleasant things, cruelties of war and damages of technology. This can only be conveyed by the use of everyday language. These poets want to wake people up, to make them look at themselves and what is happening in the world. However, they do not make any judgments, whereas they leave the decision to the reader. For that purpose they use images. The important thing about their use of imagery is that they avoid using stock images. Therefore use of personal images become popular which is rather shocking for the reader. A best example can be given from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “The evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.”1
This is not a typical, not even a poetical image. The idea is that, natural world is turned to be unnatural by man. Ill health and illness color the poem, as the poem is about a socially unhealthy society. Therefore it can be said that modern imagery is rather puzzling and too personal. It reflects part of the revolt of the twentieth century poets.
After this short introduction to the aim of the twentieth century poets, the changes brought by developments in technology and the First World War, in the rest of the essay the influence of Eliot’s metaphorical “Waste Land” on the poetry of Yeats and Eliot as well as on Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke who are the representative poets of the First World War will be discussed.
Eliot’s early poems tend to reflect social problems and social discontent which followed the First World War. They show the barrenness and the purposelessness of life after the Great War. The accumulative effect of the imagery is very important in his poetry. For instance, even in a long poem such as “The Waste Land” an image is introduced, ten lines later another image occupies the scene, or there is the continuation of the same image. Therefore the impact of the poem depends on the accumulative effect of the images whic are interrelated.
In “The Waste Land” he talks about the waste, the cultureless state of Europe after the First World War. In this poem, Eliot complains about the loss of civilization, culture and spiritual belief, in which the materialism of man and general lack of culture are taken as the main subjects. Europe is presented in a state of desolation and stagnation after the war. The techniques of stream of consciousness, fragmentation and association are used which serve as tools in conveying modern western individual’s search for his identity and for reality as a result of moral disturbance. In this context Tiresias’ consciousness symbolized the consciousness of the whole Europe.
In the opening part which is called “The Burial of the Dead”, April is called “ the cruelest month”. April, which in fact is the symbol of spring and resurraction in life and in nature is used as an image which reveals modern man’s spiritual inactivity in this poem. Therefore, this symbolic landscape and this image of waste, frustrated and desolate land and stands for the modern waste land. Europe has been reduced to a waste land on which nothing has grown: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this strong rubbish?”2 Although the persona is conscious of the lack of fertility, sexlessness and futility around him there is nothing that he can do. This state of desolation and futility is brought to the other countries of Europe by the use of other languages apart from English. Eliot makes use of German, French and Latin which implies that the themes of lack of fertility, desolation and futility are universal. Moreover, the myth of Triston and Isolde’s secret love is introduced which is rather significant as both Yeats and Eliot make use of myths in their poetry.
Then, a rather lively and comic tone of a figure Madame Sosostris emerges the scene. Actually this illiterate fortune-teller is used to show poor morality of modern life and modern people, as she is ironically taken as the wisest and most famous woman in Europe: “Madame Sosostris, a famous clairvoyante / Had a bad cold, nevertheless / Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe.”3 At the same time, Madame Sosostris reflects people’s desire to know about their future which is out of control.
The description of Londo comes as another shock for the reader which is dead and “unreal”. Londoners n more hear the bells of St. Mary Church and their conversations are consisted of trivial things. Eliot mentions lack of innocent love, spiritual joy and affection in the next two parts. The contemporary concept of love which is rather sterile which lacks affection and trust is conveyed through love between a middle aged couple. This new concept of love consists of lust and physical desires which break down the tenderly love of innocent people. Faced with such scenes, Tiresias becomes confused and unable to comprehend this immoral world. The title of the fourth part “Death by Water” is the symbol of resurrection. The final part contains thre words in the ancient Sanskrit language which summarize Eliot’s view of life. These words embody Eliot’s advice to the next generations and can be taken as evidence to his belief in religion and morality. Eliot sees religion as the only alternative to man’s dilemma in sterile wasteland. Therefore the poem ends with hope.
When we take Wilfred Owen who is one of the First World War poets we see that in his short poem “Futility” he creates a pitiful feeling by reflecting the pain, weariness and degradation of human beings caused by war. Althogh the imagery he uses in this poem is one of farming and agriculture this imagery serves his purpose of showing the destructive effect of war on people. In this respect a parallel can be between Eliot’s purpose in his long poem “Waste Land” and Owen’s “Futility.” Both of them deal with the theme of futility, the format without mentioning the name of this word explicitly, whereas the latter taking it as a title. Owen’s poem portrays the physical and emotional distortion of the modern war, in which he questions evolution. The long process of evolution is reduced to nothing in a minute by the war and the poet feels pity. In Eliot’s “Waste Land” too this idea of futility colors the poem. However, with ironic and sometimes comic touches Eliot conveys the idea of meaninglessness and aimlessness in a more subtle way. Referencs to previous works, all sort of allusions to myths and use of word from different languages serve the same aim. Sterility, futility and lack of fertility are common to both poems.
The disappearance of old values and morals and the awareness of the sterile wasteland around the people make the hearts of people hollow. As a result some try to find security in old values, some turn totally away from God, while others occupy themselves creating something which can bring comfort to them. However, it is not easy to leave the old patriotic view of warfare so suddenly. Rupert Brooke, for instance in his poem “The Soldies” expresses the mood of patriotism. The poem tals abour the virtue of fighting and dying for one’s country. Therefore “The Soldier” is traditional both in its sonnet form and its idealistic mood. Nevertheless, the poem sometimes stresses ugliness and futility of war. Young lives are wasted foolishly and the soldiers die without understanding why they die. Therefore, patriotism absolutely vanishes especially with the poets of the First World War. Such a conclusion ca be driven from that point: the war poets who emphasize the cruelty of war more or less trace the example of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, as Eliot too dwells upon the destruction of people.
Eliot starts his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with an extraordinary image which indicates the unhealthy state of the society. There is something basically wrong with the society which is etherized and which needs medical treatment. The general uselessness and waste of time is mentioned in the poem which in fact is also seen in “The Waste Land”. Time goes fast and people do nothing. Worse than that culture is being degraded, people pretend to be cultured, but indeed they do not say anything intellectual. Instead they waste time with talking and doing trivial things. At this point a parallel can be drawn to “The Waste Land” which also emphasizes the waste culture and morality of the modern world. Again in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Eliot makes use of references to the previous works. Moreover, the same idea of people who do not have control over their future exists in this poem too. People who are part of the sick society which is etherized upon the table who do not have control over their lives. They suffer from inactivity. The last stanza of the poem embodies the desire to escape from it all, whereas it can be said that “The Waste Land” carries some sort of a hope humanity in the end.
In “Saling to Byzantium” Yeats tries to find a recompance for the age. Not the body but the soul should matter for man, according to Yeats. In order to emphasize this point he chooses Byzantium as a representative of the abstract art. Byzantium is taken as a “holy city”, the reason is that it does not stand for the physical representation but it is a singing school for the soul. An effort is seen to get away from the physical aspects of the body, in relation to which Yeats wants to get away from Ireland where all the emphasis is put upon the physical and sail to Byzantium. An obvious relation can be found between this poem and “The Waste Land” by Eliot as in the latter culturelessness or rather alienation to culture, aimlessness, people’s indifference to spiritual things are emphasized. In “The Waste Land”, Eliot through Tiresias complains about the significance that people gave to the material things. Gradually people move away from spiritual joy and affection.
Finally it can be said that life has lost its value after the war. Especially Europe has become a wasteland, materialism gained importance and the modernist poets as well as the three poets of the First World War take the decadence in the society as a subject matter. Meanwhile, Eliot’s metaphorical “Waste Land” becomes a model for the mdernist poets like Yeats. Moreover its influence can be traced in the poetry of First World War poets the examples of which are given above.
1 M. H. Abrams, et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979. p. 2259.
2 Ibid p. 2268.
3 Ibid p. 2268.