T.S. Eliot is considered one of the greatest modern poets, and The Waste Land is often regarded as his greatest work. It is a difficult, fragmented, but ultimately rewarding poem that contains multiple voices spread across a tapestry of literary, artistic, musical, and mythical references.
Written over many years and published in 1922, some of The Waste Land’s themes include: the desolation of the First World War, the individual neurosis and sexual desire of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and the madman’s proclamation in Nietzsche’s Gay Science that ‘God is dead’ — that through science and reason we have killed the need for belief and spirituality and left ourselves abandoned in a godless world.
Therefore, Eliot’s Waste Land — drought-ridden, barren, dusty, infertile — is symbolic of modern society’s plight and its search for salvation. The answer, according to Eliot, is through self-sacrifice and giving, and that takes the form of water in this poem — without it we (the Waste Land) will remain sterile. Water appears throughout in many guises: the rain, the sea, the River Thames, canals, and the final thunderous downpour in part V.
We shall now explore the different parts of the poem and examine their relationships to the themes of love and loss in our quest for salvation.
I. The Burial of the Dead
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
We begin with a description of a dead, unforgiving earth. It breeds, mixes memory and desire, and stirs dull roots, April is cruel. What should be a season of rebirth and joy offers no such promise — rather than being transformative, it merely agitates and reminds us of things we cannot achieve.
After a scene of childhood innocence in pre-war Germany, we move to a bleak, Old Testament landscape that references Ezekiel where we, ‘Son of man’, can no longer make sense of the ‘stony rubbish’ we live in as we ‘know only/A heap of broken images’ where myths have become diluted, and heritage and tradition lost, leaving us abandoned in a dry and relentless world where there is only anguish and ‘fear in a handful of dust’.
Two quotes from Wagner’s opera of doomed, passionate love Tristan und Isolde offset a scene of courtship in a hyacinth garden.
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing
This seemingly beautiful scene, on deeper analysis, draws on a motif Eliot explores throughout the poem. Just as the souls in Dante’s Divine Comedy are locked in purgatory, so the narrator here is neither ‘living nor dead’, he is mute and blinded, not through love but through mental and spiritual paralysis. Eliot deliberately ends the lines with the words ‘not’, ‘neither’, and ‘nothing’ to highlight the sense of abandonment. The theme of love transitioning from passion to desolation is echoed by another quote from Tristan und Isolde where the heartbroken Tristan waits in his castle for Isolde’s ship, a shepherd looks but replies: ‘Oed’ und leer das Meer’ (desolate and empty the sea).
The narrator’s desperate search for spirituality takes him to a clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, and her tarot cards. His card is ‘the drowned Phoenician Sailor’ (a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest). But, whereas drowning was once a symbol of rebirth in the myth of Osiris and Shakespeare’s play, the narrator is told to ‘fear death by water’ — such rebirth and purification is now seen as something to be feared. His spiritual destitution is further enforced when the clairvoyante states she does not find ‘The Hanged Man’ (a symbol for Christ).
Next, we see a crowd flowing over London Bridge in a surreal portrayal of modern working life that references French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, whose frightening descriptions of fog-bound, decrepit cities symbolised troubled, internal states of mind. The crowds mirror the lost souls in Dante’s purgatory with a quote borrowed from the Italian poet — ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’. These modern souls have become so blighted by concerns of work and drudgery that they have lost their way and are locked in our own personal limbo.
II. A Game of Chess
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Themes of emptiness and the death of love run throughout part II. It begins with a description of a luxurious and decadent boudoir that parodies Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, where a picture on the wall depicts the Greek myth of King Tereus who had raped his wife’s sister, Philomela, before cutting off her tongue. It is a story of brutality and sex with revenge begetting revenge until the gods change them into birds. Eliot’s inclusion of it highlights the violence and emptiness of loveless sexual desires in the modern world.
We now see a pair of lovers playing chess — a symbol for mind games in their relationship. They are portrayed as neurotic and paranoid, bound by distrust not love.
‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
‘Do/You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/Nothing?’ the narrator is asked. But he feels only emptiness and can only recall ‘rat’s alley’ (a reference to the trenches of World War I) and the drowned Phoenician Sailor from the tarot reading — both troubling symbols of death. They discuss how to tackle their ennui, they consider going out and ‘if it rains, a closed car a four’. Again water and its symbolic rebirth is seen as something to be avoided.
This part ends with a scene in an East End pub were a group of women talk about ageing, rotten teeth, abortions, and demobbed husbands who only want ‘to have a good time’. It’s a wonderful and disturbing picture of modern relationships in which Eliot draws a parallel between the women and Philomela’s need for escape from abusive love and brutality, before ending with a quote from Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet — another tale of revenge and doomed, empty love.
III. The Fire Sermon
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
The title for the third part is taken from a sermon given by the Buddha in which The Enlightened One describes everything — our smell, our sight, our touch, our thoughts — as being on fire. The fire signifies desire, desire for things to be different, desire for possessions. And it is the through an aversion to these fires not the fuelling of them that will lead to enlightenment.
We begin with an unromantic picture of the Thames; once seen as a place of love and celebration, it is now abandoned — ‘The nymphs are departed’ without even any ’empty bottles, sandwich papers,/Silk handkerchiefs’ (a possible reference to contraceptives). Another theme in The Waste Land is the Arthurian legend of the wounded Fisher King whose kingdom became an infertile Waste Land until he was healed by the Holy Grail. The narrator here becomes the Fisher King, ‘fishing in the dull canal’ and simultaneously Prince Ferdinand from The Tempest, ‘Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck’. He then hears the ‘sound of horns and motors’ bringing us back centuries to the present with a picture of lust as the character of Sweeney visits Mrs. Porter’s brothel.
The theme of empty, selfish love continues as ‘Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant’ tries to seduce the narrator with promises of lunch and a dirty weekend at a hotel. Smyrna was once part of ancient Greece, a place associated with culture and myths but, through Mr. Eugenides, the traditions have been lost and replaced by debauchery and greed.
We then visit an unnamed typist as she finishes work and goes home to her bedsit where she ‘clears her breakfast’, ‘lights/Her stove’ (another simmering symbol for desire) before waiting for her young lover. After the meal, ‘she is bored and tired’ but does not resist his ‘assaults’ as he ‘endeavours to engage her in caresses’, his ‘exploring hands encounter no defence’. This is a bleak and purposefully unromantic view of love — mechanical, dispassionate, and unfulfilling. Once her lover has groped his way down the unlit stairs, she is thankful it is over and, recalling Freud and his exploration of the unconscious, she ‘smooths her hair with automatic hand’.
We finally meet the narrator in this part — Tiresias, an ‘Old man with wrinkled female breasts’. Tiresias was the prophet who revealed to Oedipus the truth of his tragedy. He was made to live as a woman by Juno before being transformed back to a man and blinded. Therefore, as a symbolic, timeless figure who melts into all the characters of this poem, Tiresias is neither living nor dead, male or female, rather he is all at once, occupying the past, the present, and the future — similar to Jung’s later descriptions of the collective unconscious. Tiresias is both anima and animus, except that, in The Waste Land, our guide is equally lost and forlorn as we are.
A lyrical description of the Thames moves us from modern to Elizabethan London and back again, as time flows like the river until we reach the beach at Margate Sands, which appear as dry as the desert in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, where the narrator ‘can connect/Nothing with nothing.’ Time alone, it seems, cannot redeem and only serves to heighten Tiresias’ feeling of desolation.
Eliot draws a parallel between east and west and leaves us with a reference to St. Augustine who, before converting to Christianity, went to Carthage as a youth wanting to immerse himself in the fires of physical love but was left feeling unfulfilled by them.
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
IV. Death by Water
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool
This short section sees a figure who is at once Prince Ferdinand and Mr. Eugenides converging via Tiresias. He has drowned but unlike the old myths and the characters in The Tempest there is no miraculous resurrection — only physical death — the effects of spirituality and the restorative powers of water are lost to him.
V. What the Thunder said
Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
The final part of The Waste Land begins with the New Testament. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane following Jesus’s crucifixion. The air is dry, there is ‘agony in stony places’ as ‘He who was living is now dead’ and ‘We who were living are now dying’ — echoing Nietzsche.
Eliot continues to describe a mountainous Waste Land, literally and metaphorically devoid of salvation where there is ‘no water but only rock’, where the road winds among ‘mountains of rock without water’ and even ‘sweat is dry’ and we are paralysed with our feet in the sand, we are in limbo again as we can ‘neither stand nor lie nor sit’. After a journey through this barren land, just as Jesus returned and passed his followers on the road to Emmaus, here the narrator does not recognise salvation when he is presented with it, ‘who is the third who walks always beside you?’ he asks.
As dry thunder forms in the sky it ‘cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air’ over fallen cities across history: Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London; here Eliot repeats the Baudelaire reference, ‘Unreal’, reinforcing the idea that the fallen cities and Waste Lands are internal and spiritual as well as political and physical.
After some horrific images of ‘bats with baby faces’ crawling downward ‘down a blackened wall’ and a chorus singing out of ’empty cisterns and exhausted wells’, we reach a chapel — a reference to the Holy Grail. But the chapel is empty and ‘only the wind’s home’. The narrator has reached his destination but has found nothing but emptiness.
But this realisation stirs the thunder and soon, a ‘flash of lightning’ and a ‘damp gust’ brings much-needed rain. The thunder is the voice of God from the fable of the Thunder from the Hindu Upanishads. Prajapati, The Lord of Children, said one syllable: ‘Da’; the humans understood it as ‘Datta’ (to give); the demons, ‘Dayadhvam’ (compassion); and the gods heard ‘Damyata’ (self-control). And so it is through all these things that a sense of salvation may be gleamed — giving and the loss of self, ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract’; compassion for others and understanding that each person’s view of reality is unknowable and private, ‘We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key’; and self-control: ‘The boat responded/Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar’.
The last few lines are some of the most obscure and cryptic, but also the most revealing in the poem.
We find Tiresias embodying the Fisher King again, ‘Fishing, with the arid plain behind me’. Although the dry land maybe distant, he is still wounded, still without permanent salvation. ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’ he asks alluding to the Book of Isaiah, if nothing else, if he cannot heal the world can he at least heal himself?
The world is still in chaos and heading towards collapse — ‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’. The quote from Dante’s Purgatory, ‘Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina’ concerns poet Arnaut Daniel returning to the fires ‘that purifies them’, perhaps indicating that we will always be drawn to those desires that lead to sufferance. Another reference to the Tereus myth, ‘Quando fiam uti chelidon’ translates as ‘When shall I become like the swallow?’ — Philomela was transformed into a swallow, a bird associated with joy and spring and therefore rebirth. ‘Le Prince d’Aquitane a la tour abolie’ is from a French poem, translates as ‘The Aquitainian prince with the ruined tower’ and references a man who is left alone within a land of cultural wreckage.
It is the salvaged fragments of this wrecked Waste Land that the narrator hopes will shore him against ruin. Another quote, ‘Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.’ is from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy in which the protagonist bites off his own tongue (becoming mute like Philomela), but, like Hamlet, although he becomes insane, his madness is with purpose and intent in an equally insane world. The poem then ends with the repeated refrain of ‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.’ And ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ — Sanskrit for peace — which Eliot translates as ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’. Perhaps in the end, through the rage, desolation, and madness, the peace we seek remains beyond the realms of logic and understanding. But if we surrender, be compassionate, and show self-control we may gleam it, at least for a short while before we are drawn to the fires again.
As we have seen The Waste Land is a complicated and fragmented poem that itself reads like a ‘heap of broken images’. In constructing the poem in such a fragmented way Eliot tells us something of our heritage and our predicament, we are in a literal, metaphorical, cultural, and moral Waste Land, like the prince in his tower trying to make sense of what remains. We are also the permanently wounded Fisher King seeking salvation, in which the pursuit of physical desires brings no relief.
Although Eliot borrows heavily from Dante, he never takes us much further than purgatory. And although paradise can no longer be gleamed in the traditional sense, we can at least hope for moments of enlightenment like the flashing of lightening that brings brief periods of rain to help shore us against perpetual ruin.
One final point that must be made is that The Waste Land was written before Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and as such its search is a universal one, its predicament transcends all faiths, its quest is spiritual rather than religious, and is as relevant now as it was then.