Critique of excessive materialism in T.S Eliot’s The West Land

Critique of excessive materialism in T.S Eliot’s The West Land

This term paper makes an attempt to trace out an excessive materialism in Eliot’s The West Land. As the First World War is a backdrop of the poem, it deals with disastrous consequences it brought to west Landers.  The west has become the wasteland because of the excessive practice of materialistic lives. It shows sexual perversion, the commodification of human values, forgetting of myth and culture. There is a depiction of the crisis of moral values, humanitarian ethos and, daily basic requirement. The poem expresses an ambiguous attitude and experience of west Landers. It means people are going away from the connection of each other. What they all know and die for is material goods and non-natural way of life. The west Landers are suffering from a crisis of human existence, let alone an identity. Technique, form, structure used in poem contributes it to be a modern poem. Eliot uses multiple fragments in the poem to show fragmented and divided psyche of West Landers after the First World War. Because of elevation of the capitalism, there was deterioration of spiritual values. Similarly, west Landers had to undergo a sense of alienation and spiritual bankruptcy. In this milieu, to critique on the excessive practice of materialism in the west, researcher brings Marxist notion on capitalism and material consumption. In addition to it, the paper will try to employ George Simmel’s concept that how people of the modern city are becoming a prey of excessive use of money and material.

The poem is split up into five sections, each of which has a different theme at the center of its writing. They are “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, “The Fire Sermon”, “Death by Water” and “What the Thunder Said”. These fragmented sections metaphorically hold up George Simmel’s idea that West Landers’s psychology is corrupted and frustrated because of the devastating catastrophe caused by War and economic regression in the 1930s.

In an essay metropolis and mental life, Simmel opines:

Money economy dominates the metropolis, it has displaced the last survivals of domestic production and the direct barter of good; it minimizes; from day today, the amount of work order by costumers . . . the metropolitan way of life is certainly the most fertile soil for this reciprocity, a point which I shall document by citing the dictum of the most eminent English constitutional historian: throughout the whole course of English history, London has never acted as England’s heart but often as English’s intellect and always as her moneybag.(226)

  This extract speaks about how money economy is dominating metropolis and has displaced domestic production. Simmel reveals that London has never had heart and guided by it in the history. Rather she is guided by intellect and money. It means, for west Landers, money and, mind is more important than the humanitarian values and morality. This money economy and attitude enhance westerners to the culmination of material consumption. It makes people very machinery and servant of money. This idea of Simmel is very relevant to the study of West land.

               The poem starts with the recurring imagery of death: ‘April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain’.(1-6) These lines contain a very frustrated psyche of poet and also an irony to people of West Land, particularly Londoners. Though it is the month of regeneration and rebirth of species, poet treats spring season as the cruelest month.  It was First World War that took lives and destroyed the west.

The use of the word ‘winter’ provides an idea of cold and death; however, it isn’t the celebration of death but a cold, hard fact. Winter is the time for normal life to hide away, to become suspended and an anxiety of change. Eliot was suffering from an acute state of nerves, and it could be the truth behind the poem that change was something he was actively avoiding. In words of Simmel, it shows that the London as a city had sufferings, diseases, and disorder lives. Poet, himself belongs to London and represents all the people of the city as diseased one.

 Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many(60-64)


These lines also portray London as a city of George Simmel as described in his easy, Metropolis and Mental life. As he argues, spiritually hollow people live in the city; people of London no longer possess essence to call themselves people. The description of veiling London with winter fog gives an environmental scenario of the city. A crowd over London Bridge makes the speaker feel irritated and thinks why the death has left all people alive. His disgusting feelings towards the crowd prove that city is a sea of people who cause merely boredom and suffocation.

Eliot brings allusions ‘son of man/ you cannot say or guess’. The use of allusion in the poem elevates Eliot to a god-like position. But science made great leaps of technology and the spiritual and cultural sectors of the world lay forgotten in the west. This idea is similar to Simmel’s idea that people of the city are becoming money minded, dependent upon scientific material at the cost of the morality and humanitarian values. At the same time, this is where the death of God declared by Nietzsche can be applicable. As a descendant of God, people are supposed to respect and follow his path, but unfortunately, they are going away

Similary, as for materialism, author, Marcellus D. R. von Redlich, argues:

…materialism is a system of philosophy which regards everything as having had its origin with matter. Materialism attempts to explain every factor of life and every incident in this universe as having had its inception and its continuance by reason of the activity of matter. It is, then, necessary to exclude the spiritual world, for . . .  there is no God, no Supreme Being, no Divine biter of Life and Fate, no Supreme Architect who built this planet on which we live and have our being. Materialism places itself in opposition to spiritualism and idealism which, notwithstanding the fact that they are one-sided and exclusive. (02)

Here, Redlich asserts that materialism has rooted with origin or matter. Everything and every people are guided by reason of material. People do exclude religion and spiritual world. They argue there are no god and any super being in the universe. Materialism is just opposite to spirituality. The West Land bears these features as claimed by Redlich. West Landers abandon all moral and ethical values. They are spirituality hollow men. They seem to be emotionless like on an object.

“Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,/Had a bad cold, nevertheless/
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,” . . . One must be so careful these days”(43-59)

This shows famous fortune-teller, wise woman of Europe has suffered from the bad cold. It means the west Landers gave up believing in fate and god. They are becoming more rational and intelligent. They burnt their tradition and culture. They made a departure from past. Westerners’ ignoring to Sosostris shows ignoring and disrespect to ancestor and founder of human civilization. Now, westerner has reached the city where capitalism is practiced. Society is divided into two distinct classes; bourgeoisie and proletariat, where even wise man, intellect and talent have been commodified in city.
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!/“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout?/ Will it bloom this year?” (70-72). ‘Mylae’ is a symbol of war. It was a naval battle between the Romans and Carthage, and Eliot uses it here as a stand-in for the First World War, to show that humanity has never changed, that war will never change, and that death itself will never change. This refers to the thorough depiction of violence, death and chaos occurred in First World War.

Regarding criticism of West Land, critic, Brian Crews, in his essay: TRADITION, HETEROGLOSSIA AND T.S. ELIOT’S THE WASTELAND, mentions:

It is about the decay of culture in modern Western society when many present experience as chaotic, fragmentary, sterile and meaningless; but once the affairs is understood in terms of the heteroglot nature of language, literature and then the artist is able to provide the text which can re-establish the links with the past and restore its significance.(17-25)

  • Crews views west Land as the decayed land where society and its people are fragmented psychologically. The modern western society no longer practices culture and tradition. People live meaningless life in the modern city. All we can get is chaos, sterile, atrocities in the west land of Eliot. They are deviating from the history and civilization. Therefore, Crews seems to be suggesting artists and literary figures restore those lost values of significance. So, it is only artists and literature that can restore the lost humanitarian ethos and spirituality of West Land.

‘A heap of broken images’ reinforces Nietzsche’s idea of the death of god. The phrase shows the fragmented nature of the West Londoners and the pictures of what the west has become. It serves to identify the emptiness of west without culture, guidance or spiritual belief. However, Eliot argues Bible has defined the meaning of life, the duty of man in life. He finds all these values broken and rooted out his societies.

The Game of chess explicitly describes the materialist life of westerners. Karl Max claims that capitalist and bourgeoisie promote consumption of material goods through the means of ideology. Here, the poem presents west Landers running after a quest of luxurious commodities. The reference of “burnished throne” indicates to Europe and particularly England’s Royal Palace. The luxury that is written about seems empty. The ‘golden Cupidon’ hides his face, and the reference to jewels, ivory, and glass seems to show an empty wealth. Everything that is mentioned in the poem is a symbol of extravagance.

Karl Marx, under the rubric of Bourgeoisie and Proletarian in Manifesto of  the Communist Party, writes:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian and, lord and serf, guild-master, journeymen, in a word oppressed and oppressor, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended . . . the modern bourgeoisie society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, a new form of struggle in place of the old ones. (13)

  • West Land presents prevailing capitalism economic system of West in 1920s. Max argues that history is all about the struggle between oppressors and oppressed. Conflict and violence, social evils, immoral activities take place in western society. Bourgeoisie often brings a new way of oppressing common people and the new form of struggle replacing old ones. In the case, West land, people have gone through conflicts and struggle for survival. The bourgeoisie and capitalist are inciting people for materialist lives. To achieve this sort of life, they do deception, indulge in war, murder, runs prostitute institution, runs after money forgetting all social and religious code if conducts.

               When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said,

I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.(139-42)

It shows the details of the upper-class people indulging in non-moral activities. It gives a hard emphasis on the nature of womanhood residing in a city like London. It has revealed the true face of London metropolitan lives. A woman named Lil is presented as a prostitute. Throughout the poem, the other woman attempts to give Lil advice, however, the irony is that the other woman is also wrapped up in her own misery to the point where her advice seems to be a little out of true. It is a result of money economy and consumption of excessive use of the material as Simmel says. “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept”…/”Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song”(182-83). Here, the water once more represents a loss of life. Although there is the sign of human living, there are no humans around. Remaining and sweeping at the shore of Thames river all alone at night, allows us to understand a sense alienation of the Londoners. “The nymphs are departed”. The reference to ‘nymph’ could be called back to the overarching idea of sex. This connotation of nymph unfolds the prostitution industry which has degraded people of city sexually and morally.

“I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives”,/”Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see”. Tiresias is from Greek Mythology, and he was turned into a woman as punishment by Hera for separating two copulating snakes. In the poem, it just serves, again, as a symbol of the cheapness of love and affection

Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience(326-30).

   The lines open up with a recounting of the events after Jesus was taken to prison in the garden of Gethsemane, and after the crucifixion itself. Notice the almost apocalyptic language used in this part of the description, the way the language itself seems to emphasize the silence through the use of language words – ‘shouting’, ‘crying’, ‘reverberation’ are all words of noise, however this section of the poem brings about an almost deathly quiet, and an intermeshing of life. ‘He who was living is now dead’ also ties back to the idea of the rebirth sequence.

“Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens Alexandria//Vienna London/Unreal”(374-77).The reference deals with the total destruction rendered by war. To be destroyed Jerusalem in war means the destruction of religion and faith in god. More importantly the ‘falling towers’ also signifies the Biblical imagery of the tower of Babylon.


“London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down. These fragments I have shored against my ruins . . . Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.Shantih shantih shantih”.(428-32). The falling down of London Bridge is falling down of the historical prop. And moreover, it symbolizes diminish of moral, social values. It can also be interpreted as the downfall of the identity of London. Similarly, the people of London are indifferent to this event. They seem to be busy in pursuit of money and material achievement.  Finally, the poem suggests that though Nietzsche proclaims the death of God, it is a belief in god and religion which is only the solution of this debasing west Land. The shantih can be restored and humanity can be revived on only one condition that is through the internalization of Datta, Dayadhvam and Damatya. The poem does not achieve a resolved coherence, but neither does it remain in a chaos of fragmentation. Rather it displays a series of more or less stable patterns, regions of coherence, and temporary principles of order the poem not as a stable unity but engaged in what Eliot calls the “painful task of unifying.”

Child Labor in Blake’s Chimney Sweeper

Work cited


  1. R. von Redlich, Marcellus. MATERIALISM. Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences. 15-09-2017 05:53 UTC <

Ferguson, Margaret. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed. United States of America: W.W Norton & Company, Inc, 2005.

Marx, Karl and Ferederick  Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party: Bourgeoisie and Prolitarians. Moscow; Progress Publisher. 1969.

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York:

The Free Press, 1950.

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