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“The Burial of the Dead” in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

** The Cover art is Pieter Bruegel — The Triumph of Death (the Wasteland) “The Burial of the Dead” clarifies other parts of The Waste Land — its relation to Modernism and Utopia

“And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you I will show you fear in a handful of dust” ― T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (Lines 27–30) “The Burial of the Dead” immediately opens to a reversal of symbols for life and death. Spring is typically thought to be the season of life, rebirth, and rejuvenation of nature, while winter is the season of cold death, suffocation, and hibernation. T.S. Eliot uses role reversal to show the exchange of symbolism, stating: APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers. (Lines 1–7) Pericles Lewis suggests that, “The natural cycle of death and rebirth traditionally associated with the month of April appears tragic to Eliot’s speaker.” April is cruel for revitalizing the “dead land,” and winter is described as “warm.” The twisting of known symbols is one reason why The Waste Land is seen as a modernist work. Looking at T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a modernist work, requires a deeper understanding of modernism in literature. Flippin’ English, in their video “Modernism & English Literature,” discusses modernist authors and how they “presented a pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.” By presenting the world in this way, the author is able to write a world focused around “apathy and moral relativism.” The poem immediately starts with the seasons reversed — the familiar has turned into the unfamiliar. A reader should recognize the symbolic switches through out The Waste Land and connect the reversal with what the narrator is saying about the world being represented. In Modernism: A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Butler states that “two aspects of the culture, a ‘high’ formalism and a ‘low’ popular content, confront one another, and this kind of interaction is tremendously important for modernism” (bolded elements added for emphasis, 7). Eliot’s allusions through out the poem are significant when is comes to modernism, as Eliot incorporates ideas from popular texts continually through The Waste Land. The Modernism Lab states: Aided by Eliot’s own notes and comments, scholars have identified allusions in this first section of 76 lines to: the Book of Common Prayer, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rupert Brooke, Walt Whitman, Théophile Gautier, Charles-Louis Philippe, James Thomson, Guillaume Apollinaire, Countess Marie Larisch, Wyndham Lewis, nine books of the Bible, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Richard Wagner, Sappho, Catullus, Lord Byron, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Frazer, Jessie L. Weston, W. B. Yeats, Shakespeare, Walter Pater, Charles Baudelaire, Dante, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and John Webster — about one allusion every two lines. Perhaps before even the symbolism seen in The Waste Land is mentioned, a reader must first recognize Eliot’s poem as modernist because of the way it builds on previously constructed ideas to create something new, in a new format via allusions to other texts.

Cover of The Waste Land by Vee Press In support of the modernist drive behind The Waste Land is Ronald Bush in “T.S. Eliot’s Life and Career”; he states: “A poem suffused with Eliot’s horror of life, it was taken over by the postwar generation as a rallying cry for its sense of disillusionment” (bolded elements added for emphasis). Eliot writes about a pessimistic world because that is how he sees the world he lives in after the first world war. Nothing is the same as the world before the war — morals fell away to show a world of death and destruction. Lewis states, “The poet lives in a modern waste land, in the aftermath of a great war, in an industrialized society that lacks traditional structures of authority and belief, in soil that may not be conducive to new growth” (bolded elements added for emphasis). The world the reader views in The Waste Land is not a Utopia, not to the narrator. There is a constant idea of death, even where there seems to be the idea of a Utopian city. The last stanza within the section of “The Burial of the Dead” speaks of an “Unreal City” where the narrator meets a man he used to know and asks him “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?/Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” (lines 71–75). Burying a corpse for it to come back to life leads to the idea of rebirth, but it does so by coming back to the first symbols in the poem, the reversal of life and death. Corpses do not grow into new, living beings and to do so goes against our expectations as readers, both realistically and morally. The symbols and allusions to other texts are seen through out The Waste Land and rely on a primary understand of the symbols from the the onset of the poem as the same idea is often repeated, such as the twisting of death and rebirth. The world Eliot describes is not a cheerful one, it is a dystopian society that has been morally ruined in Eliot’s eyes by the injustices humans can do to each other. Note for readers: I originally wrote this in 2016 and was enjoying going back through the sources of this piece and decided to post in on my personal site. Have a great week! I'll be leaving for Thailand and then Vietnam on the 28th for about a month in-between my move to Hong Kong as it's cheaper than paying my current rent. Uploads will be internet dependent! -Mea Andrews

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