Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Listening for the "Sound of Water over a Rock": Heroism and the Role of the Reader in the Waste Land

Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Listening for the "Sound of Water over a Rock": Heroism and the Role of the Reader in the Waste Land

Article excerpt

Eliot breaks all the rules of epic poetry in The Waste Land. For an epic poem it appears to be too short; it does not have a unifying voice; and it lacks the primary characteristic that defines this genre--a hero. (1) Eliot, nevertheless, employs an epic structure that necessitates the presence of a pilgrim, of either gender, who has the opportunity to become a hero in the poem.

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The heroes of The Waste Land are its own readers. The guide/pilgrim structure of Eliot's poem places readers in the role of the pilgrim. In this role, active readers gradually develop qualities that later will characterize them as heroes. Eliot defines what it means to be a modern hero in three different phases of the poem: the first refers to Eliot's use of the second person in "The Burial of the Dead," which invites readers into the poem, yells at them, and then begins to lead them on a journey; the second places readers in the role of the active spectator; and the third phase of reader's interaction with the text consummates their role as the hero by becoming an active participant, a collaborator, who affects and alters the poem's essential meaning.

Very few mention the role of the hero in their scholarship on The Waste Land, and even fewer discuss it. The absence of a hero in the text is taken for granted to mean that there is not one. Images of nature in the poem, the dead trees, the barren tree branches, and the dry stone, give the illusion that all potential heroes or saviours have been overrun by corruption, moral decay, or their own mortality. This narrative needs a hero and Eliot's depiction of the land gives one the sense that heroes have either abandoned this place, or could not inhabit it. The land's rejuvenation is nothing more than a chimera and hope itself appears to be just as empty as the terrain that the poem describes. Many readers overlook the role of the hero because they are used to reading about the hero's actions on the page. The female or male hero of this poem, however, potentially is a reader who actively engages with the poem, though she or he is not physically a character on its printed pages. The hero, then, appears to be invisible, or just not there, but is in fact present at all times. Eliot and the voices that narrate his poem acknowledge a reader's presence by using the second person to speak to them in the first, fourth, and fifth sections.

While some critics have called this poem an epic, they do not thoroughly discuss the possibility of a hero in the poem. Steve Ellis speculates in his work that the reader may be the hero of the poem, but this suggestion is only a passing one. The use of the second person as a way of referring to a "protagonist or hero?" is a conjecture that Ellis makes, but does not explore (Ellis 89). The word hero comes up in another piece of scholarship by Wayne Koestenbaum on collaboration and hysteria in the poem. Koestenbaum refers to Eliot's audience as "these heroic readers, whom John Crowe Ransom, in 1966, called 'those sturdy people who studied The Waste Land'" (113). This epithet, "heroic," suggests that the act of reading the poem itself is an act of heroism. Though her work does not address directly the existence of a hero in The Waste Land or the use of second person, Jewel Spears Brooker also explores the text's relationship with its audience; instead of describing it as a heroic feat, she explains that it is dialogic. In an article on Eliot and collaboration, Brooker argues that Eliot intended to create a common ground of understanding with readers in order to communicate with them. By undermining the popular concept that Eliot is elitist in his poetry, Brooker demonstrates that his real goal was to collaborate with his readers. In another article on "The Dispensations of Art" Brooker explains Mallarme's thoughts on what happens during the reading of a poem. Again, she describes readers as collaborators, as "hidden poets," who ideally is "Every Reader" that encounters a poem like Eliot's Waste Land (27). …

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