April 20, 1996
The industrial revolution changed the world. Not only did it procure new methods of producing items and advancing the quality of life, it created a fundamental change in the way that the world– Nature– was seen. Before this revolution, during the Romantic era, Nature was seen as being full of beauty and the source of inspiration, and it is represented as such within poems such as Shelley’s “Mount Blanc.” However, once after the great machines took a hold of all aspects of life and began to interact with it in destructive ways, another view of Nature foregrounded Shelley’s transcendental description. This view, best represented in T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” describes a world devoid of the beauty and life that Nature had previously been counted on to sustain us with. Each poet’s vision of Nature determine’s the imagery used with the two poems, and it is from the imagery where we see this vision.
During the Romantic era Nature was seen as a source of inspiration. Poetry written during this era records how one grapples with life, rather than drawing conclusions about topics. Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” represents a typical view of Nature during the Romantic era. The poem uses Mont Blanc as a means for delving into where the source of all imaginative inspiration comes from. The poem’s natural imagery is used as a comparison to human imaginative processes, as well as a means of defining power and how it relates to this process.
The poem’s imagery reflects the relationship between Nature’s power and how it can be best understood and interpreted by man’s mind. Lines 94 through 100 describe what lessons “the naked countenance of earth” can “teach the adverting mind.” The lesson here is reflected in the juxtaposition of permanence and flux described within the imagery. Shelley proposes that we humans are part of “all things that move and breathe with toil and sound” creating a sense that nothing is permanent, not even the mountain. On the other hand, within the mountain “power dwells apart in its inaccessible” and it is this permanence that gives man a sense that Nature is immortal and by drawing from that power in the form of poetry and art, we too can become immortal. Perhaps not in our lifespan but within the arts and accomplishments of the mind.
This revelation of our relationship to Nature and its power is summed up in the beginning where Shelley writes that “the everlasting universe of things/ Flows from the mind…/ …where from secret springs/ The source of human thought its tribute brings/ Of waters,– with a sound but half its own” (Shelley 1-2, 4-6). These lines evoke a link between human imagination and Nature. Nature, as the speaker sees it, is one way of defining the inside life of the mind by using the outside world as a basis for the definition. By placing Nature and the imaginative process in the same stanza, the speaker builds a connection between the two contrasting images of Nature and “the source of human thought” as being one in the same.
Water imagery in the poem also suggests a faith in that Nature never goes away and it will survive, despite human interaction. Line 109 reaffirms the idea of perpetual being in that the water from the mountain “rolls its perpetual stream” destroying all that man has attempted to improve within the land. Shelley then links this back to human imagination by suggesting that where this water flows from, the imagination also flows as well– ultimately suggesting that human imagination has the same permenance that Nature does.
However, this representation of nature as being the source of inspiration changes during the Modern era, after the introduction of machines and the industrial revolution. T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” represents a dramatically different view of how nature can be seen. Instead of representing Nature as the source of beauty and inspiration, “The Waste Land” shows us a landscape devoid of everything except the knowledge and appearance of death– a perfect description of a living Hell.
Like Shelley, who searches for the source of beauty and finds it within Nature, Eliot too searches for a greater sight– however in his case he never finds it. “The Waste Land” is an examination of a possible future spawned in part by the industrial revolution and its pollutants. The images within “The Waste Land” show us that death is everywhere. The poem begins in April where it is presented as being “the cruelest month.” (Eliot 1) This first image suggests that from out of the dead season of winter, the promise of a new life has gone unfulfilled.
Eliot then shows us a set of images linked to that of the natural world, as it has become devoid of all life. “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (Eliot 23-24) are details that show to the extent of the damage that this world has sustained. The inhabitants of this world cannot draw any inspiration from the natural world to console them or sustain their starving imagination. It is because of the destruction of the natural world where the connection between the landscape and the imagination suffers; this view is also in direct contrast to what Shelley suggests in “Mount Blanc.”
Section three continues to detail this horrorific modern life by showing that even the monuments of manmade civilization– cities– are deemed “unreal” for they too contain no beauty and source of life. Within the cities are the marks of the industrial damage of a ” brown fog,” and flowered “corpses” refusing to sprout and supply the inhabitants with some hope for renewal. Even the humans inhabiting this bleak and desolate Hell have become machines. People are described here as being machinelike for “she smoothes her hair with [an] automatic hand” (Eliot 255). This line represents what the industrial revolution has done, not only to Nature, but to the human spirit as well. Even the population’s “sighs, short and infrequent” (Eliot 64) suggests that the people exist in a state of a constant deep depression and this is also expectant and mechanical.
So what hope does this bleak poem of the future offer us? There is no hope better than that of experience. The final lines of the poem, spoken straight from the Upanishad and translated state “the peace which passes understanding is our equivalent to this world” (Eliot 433-434). Unlike Shelley, Eliot finds no beauty and inspiration within the gifts Nature offers us. No, because of the destruction caused by the industrial revolution he can only see the end to all that gives us meaning and happiness within the world. In writing “The Waste Land” perhaps he took a political stance in changing the way that Nature was (is) abused and return it to a more pure and Romantic state.