The link between modernization and the loss of religious belief in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"

Essay, 2015

6 Pages


When World War I and II shake the European society at the beginning of the 20th Century first the fascination and national pride, then the horror and deadly fear of war had an immense impact on literature. High expectancies and the insurance of an early victory were used to make soldiers comfortable and take their fear for the upcoming fight. Though, it didn’t take long until the mood and the cruel reality washed away the propaganda messages. Leaving behind speechless and traumatized people afraid and unable to express their emotions in long texts, so poems, meaning hidden in a few lines, became the most popular way of expressing the unspeakable things, soldiers had to deal with on the battlefield. Famous writers such as T.S. Eliot used this form of expressing emotions to catch the zeitgeist of this period in poems like The Waste Land.

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot was written in 1922, hence four years after World War I. This period is full of war lyric which was first used to make propaganda for the war and afterwards used to deal with the consequences of the war. At the beginning of World War I in September 1914 everybody thought that the soldiers would already be back for Christmas. Therefore, the atmosphere was inebriated and sure of victory so that the war would not last for long. This was the ideal situation to write poems about the glorious leaving of the soldiers so that many other young men volunteered for the front. They were depicted as patriotic heroes of their land. The poems were part of the war propaganda and only showed positive news about the war events like the newspapers did as well. With time it became clear that the war will last longer than everybody had thought and the atmosphere changed from victorious and careless to angered and worried. The more soldiers died the more very young and very old men were recruited and the wives had to do the work alone. Many soldiers died and the ones who came back were traumatised and the people had to deal with a totally new disease: posttraumatic stress disorder. They had to learn that this type of disease was psychological and caused by the traumatic experiences of the soldiers during the war. Many poems were written by soldiers because they did not have the time to write whole novels at the front because they were sitting in funk holes which got deeper when it rained waiting for the enemy to attack. Thus, they wrote poems about their experiences, thoughts and worries.

Eliot’s whole poem reflects the hopeless atmosphere of a time in which the people were angry about the events that happened and therefore, lost their religious belief. Religion and especially God was often used in war propaganda like in World War II from Hitler to justify the murder of a special human race (cf. Katzenbach, 349). Furthermore, many people asked themselves that if God really exists would not he have prevented the war and the death of so many people? That is a question people are always thinking about because war is not the only terrible thing that happens on earth. People tend to pass their faults and outages onto God and make him responsible for all sad events that occur in the world. Thereby, one can “interpret `The Waste Land´as representing the general loss of spiritual belief during the opening decades of the century” (Roston, 50).

Moreover, religion lost a huge part of its influence on people because of science. Things which could not be explained many years ago and thus had to be God’s work became allegeable during the period of Enlightenment where scientist started to explain the world. “Modernism represents the post- Enlightenment philosophy of the empiricism and human reason. (...) [M]odernism held that only physical matter exists” (Kim, Fischer, and McCalman, 117). One of them were Charles Darwin who explained the origin of animals and plants by selection and not by God what everybody had thought until 1859 when his book On the Origin of Species was published. Thereby, the people lost their trust in God and were not reliant on God anymore to explain certain phenomena in the world. “Modernism has its origins in the Enlightenment, the age of reason, scientific discovery, and human autonomy” (qtd. in Kim, Fischer, and McCalman, 117).

The Waste Land resembles the hopelessness after World War I because many buildings and land segments were destroyed because it was the first war in which modern weapons like machine guns, poison gas and planes were used. Therefore, the countries destroyed by World War I were kind of a waste land. Eliot writes about the destroyed environment with no plants because everything is dry and a desert (v. 19). The idea of a waste land is elaborated by images, such as “stony rubbish” (Eliot, v. 20). The lyrical I draws on the past with a happy childhood and compares these good memories with its actual situation which is hurtful and sad (cf. Eliot, v 1- 18). The passage is full of references to a gone world before World War I and the Russian Revolution where aristocracy predominated. “A heap of broken images” (Eliot, v. 22) are pieces of memories and show the broken world after the war and the entire poem is a “heap of broken images” (ibid.) through its fragmentation what was the aesthetic principle of Modernism. It is addressed on a thematic level and used as a structural principal and a correspondence of theme and form.

Frisch weht der Wind

der Heimat zu

Mein Irisch Kind,

Wo weilest du? (Eliot, v. 31- 34)

This song is a connection to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1859) and therefore a connection to a doomed love. The opera starts with the death of Isolde’s fiancé and ends with the death of Tristan and Isolde. Thus, there is no hope in the whole drama. The verses 37 to 41 deal with the image of hyacinth flowers. Hyacinths are flowers which are often used for funerals and thereby associated with death. Madame Sosostris is a clairvoyant and uses tarot cards. The cards are used as a prop and her prediction is only vague. People become afraid of the future because they do not know what the prediction “Fear death by water” (Eliot, v. 55) really means. Additionally, traditional beliefs are replaced by rituals especially Christianity. Faith is replaced by secularisation, consumerism and commercialisation.

The legend around the Holy Grail by Parsifal is as much famous as the legend around Kind Arthur and his knights. The Holy Grail is said to contain the blood of Jesus Christ after his body on the cross was impaled by a lance. It would bring glory, power and health to the one who finds it and thus, it is a symbol for new hope although it is a legend and hence very unrealistic to find it because one does not even know if it really exists. In verses 70 to 73 the lyrical I speaks about the absurd idea to bring something dead back to life. The memories are buried and awakened again but nothing changes for the better. The month April is depicted negatively although most people would think of the coming summer and the good weather. Easter is often celebrated in April and the history says that Jesus revived on Easter Sunday but the lyrical I does not believe in resurrection.

In other words, modernism rejects the possibility that there is more to the world than what we can directly access with our senses or that there is a dimension of reality underlying what we can see that provides a source of meaning, purpose, and coherence beyond the physical events that we observe (Kim, Fischer, and McCalman, 117).

Some passages in The Waste Land are written in another language. “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” (Eliot, v. 12) or “-mon semblable, - mon frère” (Eliot, v. 76) to make the poem due to the industrialisation and globalisation more global and the reader is not meant to understand everything. From verse 331 to 358 it is said that the waste land has no water. Again, one can see the depicted hopelessness because water is the main reason for life. No life can exist without water and thus the land is infertile and an infertile organism cannot reproduce itself and therefore become extinct. Furthermore, water is not only essential for animal cells it is also important for plants which otherwise cannot grow. When plants do not grow they cannot transfer carbon dioxide into oxygen and animals do not have air to breathe.

In summary, “The Waste Land” is a lament that, while religion offers the hope of redemption from sin, sex, the body, from the cycle of birth and death, it seems likely that, as the apparent origin of Christian story in fertility rites seems to suggest, we are confined to a permanent suffering (Cuard and Loy, 30).

In the end one can see that hopelessness is what resembles the time all over the poem. People were unable to see a way into a happy future. Believes were shaken, traditions were gone. Living through the moment with an uncertain tomorrow was what people woke up with every morning. The loss of Christian belief and the church was also reflected by the poem and the author T.S. Eliot himself by not being part of the community till 1928. Due to the politically corrupted church he saw instead of a save haven and a place for people to get over their moans and worries and find new hope the poem was written in an tone that highlights a passivity of a church unable to prevent citizens to turn their backs on it and the religion it stands for. Furthermore, the general belief in God was shaken because he did not prevent the war which killed many innocent people.

Works Cited

a) Primary Literature

Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Collected Poems, 1909- 1962. Boston: faber and faber, 1963 [1936]. Print.

b) Secondary Literature

Cunard, Nancy, and Mina Loy. “The Waste Land.” Modernism: A short Introduction. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 24- 38. Print.

Kim, David, Dan Fischer, and David McCalman. Modernism, Christianity, and Business Ethics: A Worldview Perspective.” Journal of Business Ethics 90. 1 (2009): 115- 121. Print.

Roston, Murray. Modernist Patterns: In Literature and the Visual Arts. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.


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The link between modernization and the loss of religious belief in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"
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