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Study Questions and Outline The Waste Land

Study Questions and Outline The Waste Land - The Waste Land...

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The Waste Land Study Guide E316K Bruster This is one of the most difficult poems you will ever read. Along with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), it is one of the two monuments of literary modernism (see the separate outline for a definition of this term), and one of the most important poems of the last century. I urge you to listen to (perhaps after downloading) the spoken-word recording of The Waste Land that’s on reserve for this class in the Audio-Visual library (Flawn Academic Center 340): Audio Recording: Compact Disc 4126. T.S. Eliot doesn’t want you to read it easily, then forget it. Instead, he wants the poem to be a tutorial of sorts on Western civilization: where it has come from, where it is now, and where it may be going. To this end, he gathers numerous “voices” from various sources (history, books, contemporary society, etc.). He wants the experience of this poem to be challenging in part because modern life is so challenging—and bewildering. Deep down, he wants you to know the books and songs that he knows. The Waste Land , then, is a mosaic of fragmented cultural voices. Many figures and characters “speak” in it, although not always in sustained dialogue. We’ll take Tiresias (ll. 218 ff.) as a central figure, even a guide to the poem. But he is far from the only authority we’ll listen to. In fact, much of The Waste Land is based on the canon of Western Literature— the types of works and authors we’ve read in this course. His friend and editor, Ezra Pound, convinced Eliot to delete a section because it was too much like Alexander Pope. Elsewhere in Eliot’s drafts Pound wrote “J.J.” as a signal to Eliot that he (Pound) recognized Eliot’s imitation of the style of James Joyce. A large question the poem attempts to address concerns the nature of life in the modern world. What nourishes, sustains, or even allows it: Faith? History? Poetry? Love? Friendship? Sex? What role do each of these play in the texture of the poem? What is the role of the city in modern life? The voice of the poem itself is alternately somber, comic, and lyrical: in place of narrative or temporal structure, Eliot arranges words, phrases, and stanzas thematically. Our job, in reading The Waste Land , will be to imagine a speaker for every line or section. Ask yourself: Who is speaking here? To whom? Why would Eliot choose to incorporate this voice, and this topic, at this particular juncture of the poem? Eliot’s poem is divided into five sections. The first four emphasize, in turn: earth; air; fire; and water. Because the poem was too short to publish as a book “as is,” Eliot’s first publisher hinted that he might expand it—he did so by cooking up some footnotes. Some of these are helpful, but most seem “padding” of a sort.
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