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Background: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and A. Ginsberg’s Howl are two landmark poems of the 20th century which have a unique way of dealing with emotional suffering. Aims: (a) To explore the interplay between emotional suffering, conflicting relationships and societal perceptions; (b) to show the therapeutic effect of the writing process; (c) to analyse the portrayal of ‘madness’; and (d) to discuss, in contemporary psychiatric terms, the ‘solutions’ offered by the poets. Method: Qualitative research with a narrative, hermeneutic approach. Results: Against the background of wartime/genocide and postwar disillusionment, close relationships are projected onto societal perceptions. Concepts of (self-)control, compassion, empowerment and self-efficacy are offered as solutions to overcome feelings of despair. Conclusion: In a time of perceived societal and environmental crises, both poems help us understand people’s fears and how to counteract them. Besides biological approaches, the narrative approach to the suffering human being has not lost its significance.
In the essay below, Brooks presents a detailed, section-by-section explication of The Waste Land, but cautions that a prose explanation of its symbols and metaphors is not the equivalent of the poem itself, for its meaning emerges gradually through Eliot's sometimes confusing use of symbol.
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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