"History may not have been repeating itself, but it sure was rhyming. In 1918 humanity was just staggering out of the horrors of a world war when she was hit with the Spanish Flu. By 1920, 500 million people had been infected and 50 million died. More U.S. soldiers perished from the flu than were killed in the war.
Published in 1922, Eliot’s grim portrayal of post war, post pandemic Europe is apocalyptic in tone. His pessimistic masterpiece was hailed as the anthem of a disillusioned generation. The poem, like the society it reflected, was “a heap of broken images.” Visionary fragments in Italian, Latin, German and French tumbled like a broken kaleidoscope with American slang, Cockney voices and English poets. Allusions to Greek myth, Wagner, Dante, pop songs and yesterday’s newspaper clippings were all jumbled together in a bewildering melange of misery.
Obscure and inexplicable, the poem disturbed and excited the literary classes. Why was The Waste Land so fragmentary, puzzling and maddening? Because life in 1920 was fragmentary, puzzling and maddening. The war had solved nothing. The horrors of modern warfare and the devastation of the Spanish Flu left poor old humanity punch drunk and reeling. The poem reads like a madman in a ruined museum trying to make sense of the artifacts.
Eliot meant The Waste Land to be mystifying. He was holding a mirror to a decadent and lost generation. In his opinion, Western civilization was already worm-eaten with materialistic hedonism, atheism and a weary boredom founded on the yawning pit of nihilism. The poem simply showed the vapid, consumptive face of the European society as it really was.
The pandemic of 2020 [and the rest of our lives] has given us a similar dose of reality. "