on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922)
Largely written at Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1921, the poem relies on themes Eliot addresses as early as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (written 1911, first published 1915). The dedication of the poem to Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro, is a quotation of Dante’s tribute in Purgatorio to the Provençal poet, Arnaut Daniel, as “the better craftsman of the mother tongue.” Eliot’s indebtedness to Pound for cuts and revisions in The Waste Land is well documented, primarily in the facsimile edition of The Waste Land published by Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot, in 1971. Pound cut several hundred lines, discouraged Eliot from prefacing the poem with “Gerontion,” and cut three short lyrics that Eliot planned as interludes.
Eliot’s reliance on Jesse Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) is recorded in his own notes (which were prepared for the book publication of the poem in 1922). The argument of Weston’s book is that the Arthurian legends of the quest for the Holy Grail are founded on basic fertility myths and rituals, such as those described by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough, a work of Victorian scholarship that argued all myths derive from common concerns of human survival—namely, the fertility and cultivation of the soil, seasonal changes, and other relevant natural phenomena. According to Weston, “In Arthurian legend, a Fisher King (the fish being an ancient symbol of life) has been maimed or killed, and his country has therefore become a dry Waste Land; he can only be regenerated and his land restored to fertility by a knight (Parsifal) who perseveres through various ordeals to the Perilous Chapel and learns the answers to certain ritual questions about the Grail.” And, we should add, the lance. The Grail (or Holy Cup) and the lance are the crucial symbols of Arthurian legend for Weston. They are obvious symbols of fertility—Cup=Mother, and Lance=Father. In the syncretic mythography (the anthropological study of myth designed to discover common sources for different cultural myths) of Weston, the Fisher King is the archetype for Christian (Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection), Greek (the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis), Egyptian (the seasonal dismemberment and reconstruction of Osiris) vegetation and fertility myths linked to seasonal cycles and the regeneration of plant, animal, and human life.
In many ways, then, The Waste Land brings together the mythic concerns of modernism in a particularly concrete manner. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance is a work of cultural anthropology that belongs to modernism, although it is not specifically a “literary” work. Weston’s work, like Frazer’s Golden Bough, helped give renewed authority to the founding legends of English history, in particular the Arthurian legends, because Weston and Frazer connected these legends with the most ancient myths and religions. In many ways, Eliot’s The Waste Land offers itself as a special kind of “cultural anthropology,” because it depends upon a complex set of mythic, religious, and literary references (allusions) that at first appear unrelated, but on “closer reading,” reveal shared concerns, thematic relations that are themselves part of the solution to the “waste land” condition. The “Grail Knight” who helps “answer” the riddles at the Chapel Perilous and thus revives the Fisher King is thus some version of the Poet for Eliot. The very act of creating the poetic relations among different historical materials incorporated into the poem is Eliot’s “answer” to the riddle of modern London. That “poetic” answer in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
From Petronius’ Satyricon, a work that also criticized a dying culture, that of the declining Roman Empire: “For I saw with my own eyes that Sibyl hanging in a jar at Cumae, and when the acolytes said, ‘Sibyl, what do you wish?’ she replied, ‘I wish to die.’”
I. The Burial of the
Dead (The title refers to the Anglican burial service)
This section sets up the main themes of the poem by associating the “Unreal City” of modern London and its living-dead with the loss of any genuine mythic consciousness.
The “cruel April” of the opening lines suggests that the natural order of things (Spring as bountiful, welcome, has become unnatural.
The “cosmopolitanism” of post-World War I Europe reflects a loss of a sense of place, origin, tradition.
German, 1, 12: “I’m definitely no Russian, I come from Lithuania, true German.” “Marie” seems to be the Countess Marie Larisch, whom Eliot uses here as a figure for the declining European aristocracy, its nostalgia, its sense of displacement. The Countess was a confidante of Empress Elizabeth of Austria and reminisced about pre-war Europe in conversations with Eliot.
The second stanza (l. 19 ff) begins with rapid-fire quotations from the Bible—Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah—as Eliot’s notes indicate. The Biblical passages suggest some metaphysical drama hidden by the bored, decadent cosmopolitanism of modern Europe.
Verses from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which a sailor recalls the girl he has left behind “Fresh blows the wind to the homeland; my Irish child, where are you waiting?” The lines establish the theme of desire/yearning for sexual and divine love.
The final German line in the stanza, also from Tristan und Isolde, is the shepherd’s report to the dying Tristan, hoping for some sign of Isolde’s arrival: “Desolate and empty is the sea.” The “rhythm” of this stanza establishes that of the entire poem—desire/yearning for sexual and divine love is repeatedly frustrated by the “waste land” world.
The Tarot pack is linked by Jesse Weston with fertility myths. The four suits she discusses are the cup, lance, sword, and dish—the life symbols of the Grail legend. See Eliot’s note to this section regarding his use of the Tarot pack. Incorporating various figures of the Tarot pack in his poetic narrative, Eliot seems to be reaffirming Weston’s complaint, “Today the Tarot has fallen somewhat into disrepute, being principally used for purposes of divination.”
Madame Sosostris of l. 43 is a parody of Madame Blavatsky, a popular occultist among literary circles in the early 1900s. Her name also seems to be a parody of the Egyptian name, “Sesostris,” a pharaoh. Eliot probably borrowed this name from the character, “Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana,” in Aldous Huxley’s novel, Chrome Yellow.
“Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,” puns on the poisonous plant, belladonna, which as also used to make a cosmetic, which accords nicely with the other meaning, “Beautiful lady.” Like the “beautiful lady” in “A Game of Chess,” most of the women in the poem are dangerously seductive, threatening to masculinity.
l. 60-76: The final stanza of the first section is a mixture of references to Baudelaire, the French Symbolist poet, and Dante’s Inferno. The final line of the stanza is take from Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur” (“To the Reader”): “Hypocrite reader!—my double—my brother!” Eliot implicated the reader in this waste land, perhaps associating him with “Stetson” (a kind of hat) in the preceding lines, who has buried a “corpse” in the “garden.” Does this suggest that the reader is responsible for the waste land, insofar as the reader has failed to connect the fragments of myth and history that the poet has given the reader?
II. A Game of Chess
The title refers to Thomas Middleton’s (1580-1627) A Game of Chess and Women Beware Women, the latter of which has a scene in which a mother-in-law is distracted by a game of chess while her daughter-in-law is seduced. In our age, Eliot suggests, sexual reproduction (always a metaphor for cultural reproduction) has been reduced to a game of flirtation and seduction of conventional moves, like a game of chess.
This section concentrated on the failure of love/sexuality in this modern world.
The only regeneration possible is suggested ironically by Philomel. Raped by her sister’s husband, King Tereus, Philomel’s tongue was cut out to prevent her from telling. Philomel embroidered the story of her rape and this tells her sister, Procne, who took revenge by feeding Tereus their son, Itys, at a banquet. Philomel was changed into a nightingale to forever sing her story, which is her ultimate, perhaps poetic, revenge upon her violator. The mythic story is taken by Eliot from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as he notes. Unlike Romantic Nightingales, this nightingale sings not of beauty, but of false rule. King Tereus’ violation of his sister-in-law is “poetically” punished in that he consumes his own heir. The mythic story, then, is about the failure of the transmission of the right to rule, which is just what Philomel (and Eliot) sings.
The rest of this section, set primarily in an English pub, weaves myriad references from Milton, Ovid, Webster, Middleton, and other major literary figures from Classical times to the seventeenth Century (the Tradition Eliot thinks we have lost) into a fragment of modern life, which suggests how this rich tradition had been degraded. The barroom conversation focuses on “Lil” and “Albert,” and how Lil has had an abortion. The “Abortion” in this scene, of course, is that of the rich cultural tradition suggested by the literary references that drift through the dialogue.
l. 117-120: See Eliot’s note to Webster’s The Devil’s Law Case. In the particular scene, a doctor finds that the victim of a murder attempt is still breathing, he asks this question, “I the wind in that door still?”
The “Shakepeherian Rag” was an American ragtime song, a bit of Ziegfield’s Follies in 1912.
l. 139: “demobbed” refers to being demobilized from the army at the end of WWI.
The refrain, “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME,” is the traditional call of the British bartender at closing time, but also an ironic reference to a) the expediency of modern life; and b) the traditional call to judgment. This “double reference”—like the Tarot pack, to something richly suggestive and historical while at the same time to something modern and trivial—is characteristic of Eliot’s poetic technique in this poem.
III. The Fire Sermon
The title refers to Buddha’s Fire Sermon, in which he preached against the fires of lust and other passions which destroy men and prevent their spiritual regeneration. He counsels his disciples to pursue higher lives and freedom from earthly passions. This section this is a sort of “answer: to the various “seductions” represented in “A Game of Chess.”
This section will weave together three basic lines of religious influence: Buddhism (the Fire Sermon), Classical prophecy (Tiresias), and Christianity (St. Augustine). Like Frazer and Weston, Eliot is performing his won sort of “mythic synthesis” in this section of the poem.
Now is season is autumn, and the regeneration of the fertility myths is denied. The “Fisher King” is reduced to the speaker reflecting on his “brother’s wreck” and “on the king my father’s death before him.”
In a sense, we have reached the center of the “waste land” or of the Inferno (thus the fire imagery).
It is at this moment of utter despair, nearly complete alienation, that a prophetic figure like Tiresias can be reborn. Tiresias, like Philomel, is some version of the poet, Eliot. What begins to become clear in this poem is that the frustrated sexuality of “A Game of Chess” and of the typist and the “young man carbuncular” in this poem is to be replaced by a more authentic sort of reproduction, which for Eliot is the power of poetic language as it recalls and reshapes the cultural heritage. Thus the poet may become androgynous, like Tiresias.
The river Thames winds through this section. At first it seems merely to bring the waste of the urban world, but gradually it is associated with the “Song of the Thames-daughters,” who are derived from Wagner’s Rhine-maidens in both Das Reingold (The Rhine Gold) and Götterdämerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The Rhine-maidens signify both the beginning and the end, the birth and the death of the Norse gods as associated with the Norse tale Das Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Niebelungs), the story associated with the Norse Ring cycle. The river, then, begins to resume some of its magical, mythical qualities, in part because it becomes a poetic river that carries us back into history. The River, then, will become one source of fertility.
l. 197-98: “Mrs. Porter” takes the place of the mythic Diana to suggest how far myth has fallen. Diana and her prototype, Artemis, were Greek fertility goddesses. Sweeney and Mrs. Porter (characters from other poems by Eliot) have replaced Actaeon and Diana. The degradation of the classical myth of the “hunt” and “chase” into “the sound of horns and motors” is obvious enough.
French, l. 202: “And O those children’s voices singing in the dome” is from Verlaine’s Parsifal. Verlaine’s Parsifal, the Questing Knight, is trying to resist all sensual temptations to keep himself pure for the Grail.
“Mr. Eugenides” picks up the Tarot pack prophesies from the first section. Here the economic forces at work to “cheapen the age” and the failure of communication (“asked me in demotic French”) and the perversion of love to mere carnality )“to luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole”) repeat common themes of the poem.
Tiresias. The Latin in Eliot’s note to this section: “The story goes that once Jove, having drunk a great deal, jested with Juno. He said, “Your pleasure in love is really greater than that enjoyed by men. She denied it, so they decided to seek the opinion of wise Tiresias, for he know both aspects of love. For once, with a blow of his staff, he had committed violence on two huge snakes as they copulated in the green forest; and—wonderful to tell—was turned from a man into a woman and thus spent seven years. In the eighth year, he saw the same snakes again and said, ‘If a blow struck at you is so powerful that it changes the sex of the giver, I will now strike at you again.’ With these words he struck the snakes, and his former shape was restored to him and he became as he had been born. So he was appointed arbitrator in that playful quarell, and supported Jove’s statement. It is said that Juno was quite disproportionately upset, and condemned the arbitrator to perpetual blindness. But the almighty father (for no god may undo what has been done by another god), in return for the sight that had been taken away, gave him the power to know the future and so lightened the penalty paid by the honor.” Tiresias lived in Thebes for many generations, where he witnessed the tragic fates of Oedipus and Creon; he prophesied in the market place by the wall of Thebes (see l. 245).
l. 279. “Elizabeth and Leicester.” The poem has focused at various points on the failure of proper governance as a cause for the Waste Land. King Tereus is a good example of a bad ruler. Here Eliot refers to Queen Elizabeth I’s love affair with the Earl of Leicester. Eliot’s note to this passage provides the reference to Froude’s biography of Elizabeth, but the passage is particularly important, since Elizabeth did not marry Leicester, in part because she recognized the difference between her role as ruler and her romantic interests. Sexist as Eliot can be in this poem—with all his fears of seductive feminine charms as tokens of the Modern Age and its corrupt sexuality—he seems to suggest here that Woman (Elizabeth I) need not be simply a decorative, seductive, and finally dependent part of man, but can approach the sort of authority claimed by Philomel, the androgynous Tiresias, and finally Eliot, the Poet.
thus the final references in this section to St. Augustine’s Confessions, which are to Augustine’s efforts to overcome the temptations of Carthage and the pagan world, suggests that poetry, like religion and good governance, ought to be the sublimation of a sexual drive that otherwise leads only to biological reproduction a fragmentation.
IV. Death by Water
Like the water imagery in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the “water” in this section of the poem can be taken in two ways: a) as the “drowning” the reader has been experiencing in these unrelated bits an pieces that Eliot had deliberately jumbled together from modern life and from history; and b) as a sacrificial, baptismal immersion in Culture and History that has been made possible by purging the “Self” (the Ego of sexual desire). Such “purgation” has been addressed explicitly in “The Fire Sermon.” One form of “purgation” is religious, as Buddha and Augustine recommend; another is governance (Elizabeth I). Still another is the discipline of poetry.
V. What the Thunder Said
Whether the drowning of section 4 is a warning or a preparation, in this section we travel to the Chapel itself, only to find it empty and ruined, then wait for the rain that comes with this awareness. Perhaps the discovery of the “heap of broken images”—i.e., of a modern age that has lost its traditions—is itself the basis for a new mythology.
Despite the Christian imagery in the first third of this final section (Christ, his resurrection, the journey to Emmaus), the Christian savior does not seem to offer a viable solution for Eliot. The poem does not appear to be an anticipation of Eliot’s conversion to the Anglican Church in 1927, as some critics have suggested.
Instead, it is the poetic “I” who breaks out of his prison at the end, assumes both the role of the Fisher King and the madman (Hieronymo), both of which seem appropriate to Eliot’s themes. Hieronymo is, after all, the man who uses his “madness” to create an art (a play) that will revenge him on a world that has betrayed him (and murdered his son). Hieronymo seems another version of Philomel, both of whom become versions of the Poet taking “revenge” on the world for its failure to respect Myth-Religion-Poetry.
The thunder’s message, “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata” is from the Upanishads, the Hindu Sacred Texts, and means: “Give, sympathize, control.” As a “moral,” these bits of wisdom are disappointing, but when read in terms of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” make considerably more sense.
l. 412: “I have heard the key.” Eliot refers the reader to Dante’s Inferno, where Ugolino recalls his imprisonment in the tower with his children, where they starved to death. Clearly, the themes of “imprisonment” and imagery of “towers” refers to our narrow egotism, our self-entrapment within our own desires, and our failures to connect our lives with what the very references in these passages are attempting to revive: the rich cultural traditions that give our individual lives meaning and continuity.
l. 428: the Italian is from Dante’s Purgatorio, where Arnaut Daniel, the Provençal poet, addresses Dante: “No I pray you, by that virtue which guides you to the summit of the stairway, be mindful in due time of my pain.” Eliot quotes the conclusion from this appeal, “he hid himself in the fire which refines them.” The purgatorial vision of refining fire, rather than infernal flames, is invoked here.
l. 429: the Latin phrase means, “When shall I Be as the swallow?” It comes from the Pervigilim Veneris (“Vigil of Venus”), an anonymous late Latin poem combining a hymn to Venus with a description of Spring. The poem marks the crossing of pagan and Christian traditions. In the rest of the poem, there is another telling of the Tereus-Procne-Philomel story, except that Philomel has been turned into a swallow, rather than a nightingale.
l. 430: the French reference to Gerard de Nerval (see Eliot’s note) reads: “The Prince of Aquitaine at the ruined tower.” One of the cards in the Tarot pack is the “tower struck by lightning.” The “ruined tower” is also the ruined Chapel Perilous, and, of course, the “fragments” of the entire cultural-literary-religious-mythic tradition of the West that Eliot has at once called attention to and attempted to reintegrate into a poetic work.
Hieronymo is from Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1594), in which he creates a court entertainment that casts his son’s murderers in roles that cause them to be killed as the play turns real. Obviously, the revenge of Hieronymo is comparable to Eliot’s own, as he forces the reader to “act out” just what the reader has helped produce: the fragmentation of the mythic-religious-poetic tradition/heritage.
Final line: “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.” See Eliot’s note. Eliot is attempting here to invoke a “conclusion” that cannot be translated, that is beyond formulated language, in order to discourage the reader from assuming that this “conclusion” resolves the issues in the poem. It is also a magical incantation to the poetic act itself.
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