Eliot described the use of myth in modern literary works as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering

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“A collage of materials”[1]. This brief description of Eliot’s Wasteland by Kroll captures well the fragmentary nature of Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, although this essay will argue that whilst the poem has a highly-disordered structure, the use of such extensive mythical and classical references do give some order to Eliot’s work – in terms of the message it is trying to portray. In the aftermath of World War One, many including Eliot became disillusioned with the ‘modern’ culture and ‘progress’ that was being made by European society… as it was progress that had led to the deaths of millions.

The various mythical and classical allusions made by Eliot in the Wasteland – and there are several – allow the poem to act as a sophisticated metaphor of why Eliot believes that Europe should return to its cultural traditions and a time when people were united, rather than continue to place materialism and superficiality above everything else, as this is what arguably led to the political arguments which caused the World War in the first place. One example of literal fragmentation in Eliot’s poem is the epigraph, which is naturally ‘fragmented’ from the rest of the poem.

In this epigraph, Eliot writes about the Sybil at Cumae and how she responded to the boys observing her by saying “I want to die! ”. Whilst the use of the mythical story of Sybil does not itself separate the epigraph from the rest of the poem, it is seemingly unlinked to the rest of the poem’s descriptions and classical references until the reader has finished the poem and become aware (at least partly) of the message that Eliot is trying to portray[2].

In the traditional Roman myth, Sybil was an oracle who was granted a wish by Apollo, choosing to have as long a life as there are grains in a handful of sand. However, as is expressed in Eliot’s quote, she deeply regrets this, as she is now “hanging in a cage” and wishing for death. By beginning his poem with this description of Sybil’s basically meaningless life, Eliot expresses his opinion that the old, traditional culture and values of society have, sadly, come to be seem as meaningless and irrelevant – which is one of the key ideas that he goes on to present in the rest of the Wasteland.

Thinking back to how the use of myths such as that of Sybil make the Wasteland disordered, this epigraph is further fragmented by the fact that it is written in Greek and Latin, whereas the ‘Burial of the Dead’ commences in English, which is quite disorientating to the reader and may be Eliot’s way of further distancing the reader from the classical values on which he himself places so much importance.

Again though, whilst the use of myth here does contribute to the disordered, broken structure of the poem, it also helps to give order to the poem’s meaning. Sybil for example, could be linked with later references to women like Ophelia or even the unnamed woman at the start of ‘Game of Chess’, all of whom, according to Danis[3], may be used by Eliot to comment on gender relations throughout history – an idea which seems consistent with the importance that gender relations seem to have throughout the poem.

The section a ‘Game of Chess’, the second of the Wasteland, provides a primary example of the fragmented nature of Eliot’s poem – with the shifting voices, evident use of classical stories and links to other mythical figures not only being confusing for the reader but making the poem’s structure quite chaotic, reflecting the chaos that Eliot believed had begun to engulf Europe following the destruction of the First World War.

At the beginning of this section, Eliot gives an elaborate description of a woman and how “The Chair she sat, like a burnished throne/Glowed on the marble…”, one that is very like a description of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. Other women who are referenced in this section include Philomena, who changed herself into a nightingale to escape the king who had raped her and Ophelia from Hamlet, with the repetition of “Goodnight” at the conclusion of the section echoing her final words before she drown herself.

Arguments: – A Game of Chess and the use of several mythical references, all of which seem to tie into gender so explore this abit and reference the how to read the wasteland book. * A Game of chess and the use of the myth of Tiresias, so talk in some more depth about who he is and how he links to the idea of gender in the poem as this itself links to the idea how Eliot wants men and women to be united, rather than fragmented as they are in this poem, which is what has caused the wasteland to develop to begin with.

Mention Eliot’s own comments on the importance of Tiresias as tying all the other elements of the poem together – unity between the genders – there is some hope left in the wasteland of Europe? A tiny bit? * Thinking about how Tiresias is said to be central to the poem, looking beyond the broken up sections of the poem, the use of the grail myth from the texts of Weston and Bradley seems to have been a big influence on Eliot as it runs strongly through most of the poem, again reflecting Eliot’s unusual attachment to the literary values of the past, which doesn’t really fit with modernism but that definition is abit strict anyway.

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