Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism

By Jewel Spears Brooker | Go to book overview

"The Second Coming" and The Waste Land
Capstone Texts in the Western Civilization Course

"The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot are ideal companion poems to use as a capstone experience in a course in Western civilization. Both Yeats and Eliot believed that moving forward needs to be informed by looking backward, and their poems are exhibits of the proposition that the most avant-garde work in art often comes from artists who maintain a living and dynamic relationship with their cultural past. Both "The Second Coming" and The Waste Land deal powerfully with the state of civilization in the twentieth century; both suggest that civilization is falling apart, and each in its own way reveals the cause of the crisis. Both poems (especially The Waste Land) allude to central events and major texts of the last several thousand years of Western (and Eastern) civilization; the list of allusions in Eliot's poem, in fact, reads like a syllabus for a survey course in Western civilization. The Waste Land, furthermore, suggests that the main activity of general humanities courses, i.e., systematic retrieval of great texts, has value as a means to redeem civilization from ruin.

In his most famous critical essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot argues that a poet must write with Western civilization, so to speak, in his bones. He calls this presence of the past within a poet "the historical sense," and he argues that it is "indispensable for anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year."

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own coun

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