The Poet as Prophet: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as Post-Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction

T.S. Eliot

 

There are so many distinct levels in The Waste Land that this short essay will not even begin to touch the surface of the work. The Waste Land goes beyond simple poetry and reaches into story telling in a way that is both poetic, prose, and song all at once and with many voices telling many stories that coalesce into one single overarching narrative. The Waste Land tells the story of a world that has lost it’s innocence and spirituality. Moving from prophetic warnings  of utter desolation, to a world of barbarism and war. The spirits of  dead warriors return to the desolate destroyed city of London seeking to speak to the living. It is a poem of the loss of spiritual and physical reality. It can also be seen as one of the finest examples of post-apocalyptic literature.

To understand Eliot’s work in terms of speculative fiction we must look at his influences as a poet.  In many ways Eliot builds on the legacy of Mathew Arnold. Arnold’s poetry is considered in some corners the first of the modern poets. His work delved into classical Greek and Roman ideas putting them into a Victorian and early modern. His work combined these classic elements with more fantastical  ad dark elements creating such works as The Forsaken Mermaid and Dover Beach. Dover Beach with its dark prophetic themes and apocalyptic nature could almost be a  prequel to Eliot’s later work. The poem’s theme even inspired Ray Bradbury and appears in his novel Fahrenheit 451.

Arnold, who died in the same year Eliot was born, is seen generally as one of the progenitors of Eliot, but Eliot adamantly disagreed, “[W]hile Mr. Eliot assumes the same general position as Arnold in criticism; he will own no connection with him.” (Loring 479). Eliot admitted no connection between their work but he stated that he understood “deeply” what Arnold was saying as a poet. Arnold stressed in his poetry that man should look inward for meaning between nature and spirituality. His work is introspective and contemplative. Arnold considered himself the concluding poet of his own age the last of the romantics. Eliot seems to have picked up the torch where Arnold dropped it, building on Arnold’s dark romanticism and creating a modernist approach from it. Eliot’s approach was to seek out the introspective nature of man and draw it out. For example we can look at the second section of  “The Waste Land”. Here Eliot seems to be trying to draw out that inner contemplative world into the open. “What are you thinking of? What Thinking? What?” (Di Yanni 458). This drawing out of the inner world is especially evident in the section of the poem which describes the prophetic tarot reading. Eliot exposes the innermost self to the world transcending the romantic poetry of Arnold and the Victorian period. He creates a new canvas for poetry and uses that to explore a dark future.

Another author and thinker upon whom Eliot drew inspiration is  Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was particularly important when looking at ideas of metaphysical and physical balance in Eliot’s poem. Where Matthew Arnold was introspective and contemplating of self in his poetry, Whiteheads work concentrated on the conflict between the physical world and on the spiritual world. Whitehead was a philosopher rather than a poet, a contemporary of Eliot. His work was highly influential in Eliot’s day and may have helped solidify the spiritual and scientific aspects of Eliot’s work. Whitehead also pioneered a philosophy that postulated the world must give up science and embrace spirituality. Whitehead stated that we must find, “an end of the dominance of scientism and materialistic naturalism, and the beginning of the re-construction of a livable and believable world out of the fragments” (Waggoneer 101). This was also the theme that Eliot was attempting to explore in The Waste Land. Mankind had embraced physics and science and with that emphasis on the material world he has lost his soul. These same themes can be found throughout modern post-apocalyptic literature. David Brin for instance expresses almost the exact same sentiment at the beginning of The PostMan.

      The Waste Land is a multi-layered narrative that defies easy classification. Is it a poem about a spiritual wasting away of the human spirit, or is it about the wasting away of our physical existence, or could it be both at once? I believe that it is both and neither. I think it defies those simple classifications and is a creature all on its own. It transcends the inner contemplative work of Arnold and embraces the ideas of the new modern “god” and new metaphysical reality envisioned by Whitehead. Here is a poem that is truly modern in scope and essence. The Waste Land exposes the duality of modern man set adrift in a world beset by the physical on one side and seeking meaning in the metaphysical on another.  In embracing this duality Eliot uses it to speculate on the fate of man. He asks the question have we lost our souls while embracing science and materialism? Questions like these are at the very heart of speculative fiction. Eliot gives mankind a choice, he must find a balance between the spiritual and the scientific or forever be lost in the apocalyptic wasteland.

Works Cited

 

 

DiYanni, Robert. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994. Print.

Hyatt Howe Waggoner. T. S. Eliot and the Hollow Men American Literature , Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1943), pp. 101-126. JSTOR. Web.

M. L. S. Loring. T.S. Eliot on Mathew Arnold, The Sewanee Review Vol. 43, No. 4 , pp. 479-488. December 3, 2012. JSTOR. Web.