T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot was born in 1888 and by the age of 29 he had published his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) amidst the seemingly unending carnage of western civilization’s First World War (1914-1918). Along with this, his life during the early 1920s was under personal strain due to marriage difficulties with his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and Eliot, now near nervous-breakdown, spent two months in a Swiss Sanitorium. It was during this traumatic time that Eliot produced the fragmented and disturbing work known as “The Waste Land” (1921-22). He was 34, and though Eliot’s personal life is not necessarily the primary source of energy for his creative works, such a supplementary, personalized energy, on top of a cultural one, may explain the potency of his seemingly disparate imagism, juxtapositions and psychologically turbulent atmosphere.

According to Eliot, rather than losing an authentic interpretation, we actually gain it through distance. We may then apply such a temporal relativism to “The Waste Land” itself, saying that in our perception of Eliot’s poem, we have a temporal advantage over the poet, as his time is historical to us today. Remaining on the relationship of past and present, now in Eliot’s point in time (1921-22), we may elucidate his ordering device for relating disparate subjective modern experiences to a more coherent (albeit ugly) past. In this way, subjective and objective perceptions–past and present information, different classes, places, and times–act as mutual supports, a piling up of equivalent and contrasting metaphors and allegories of the modernist poet’s predicament. However, such a future-oriented approach breaks down into ambiguity and multiple interpretations. In the first place, the interpretations differ in whether the critic wishes to expand upon “The Waste Land”, if he or she decides to take a personal responsibility for post-modernity’s own impotence and sterility, or decides, more academically, simply to decipher a now-historical modernity alone.

Finally, in introducing “The Waste Land”, we must comment upon its structure, and its themes. The structure has been likened to a constellation of stars, spatial as opposed to linear, but this can be misleading, not to mention two-dimensional. Despite what some say, interpreting “The Waste Land” does leave a sense of at least partial linear movement. As to the themes of “The Waste Land”, there is a lack of thematic clarity, but this, in my view, is Eliot’s intention, and at least leaves room for redemption, if it doesn’t guarantee it. The lack of clarity may be due to the said ambiguous linear movement and also to the absence of an immediate narrative in the poem’s main body, though some clarity may be found in the poem’s references to external texts.

The Epigraph and Dedication

When the caged Sibyl is asked her desire, she replies “I want to die,” which evokes not just a world-weariness and absence of redeeming joy, but also invokes the eastern radical anti-materialistic philosophy of nirvana, in which one achieves a complete freedom. The self, we discover, is in fact imprisoned by its own very existence, and can become free only through its willed destruction. We come to see that it was the Sibyl’s desire for a worldly immortality (an immortal self) which condemned her to eternal decay.

The dedication to Ezra Pound then harks back to the Troubadour poets of twelfth-century Provence, who “represent the origins of great European traditions of high poetic art which go hand in hand with a refined but invigorated sexuality.” This allusion to refinement will appear again in “What the Thunder Said”, and this necessity for willed self-control (and a controlled desire) is one major element needed for redemption.

The Burial of the Dead

In the beginning of “The Burial of the Dead” we hear a “voice of propriety” that wishes to halt all new movement, change, or development. This sterile propriety wishes to remain in the darkness, the twilight consciousness of winter, to avoid the suffering and oncoming rending pains of approaching new birth. Stylistically speaking, this desire is unsuccessful as the poem quickly continues on, morphing into another voice, which alludes to a meeting with Countess Marie Larisch. Death by drowning is evoked (l. 8), which symbolizes the ancient narratives of sacrificial death, always necessary before renewal. However, in the present tense of metonymic details, and real time happenings, such renewal, though alluded to, seems entirely absent: “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” (l. 18)

The next section (l. 19-43) momentarily retreats to the original voice, but quickly ruptures into “you know only / a heap of broken images…” which makes clear both the modernist’s practical predicament, and the formal structure of “The Waste Land” itself. Such montage-imagism, a “heap of broken images” represents the incoherence of modernist social structures, and the mind it creates in its citizens. Spring, traditionally a seasonal process of rebirth and sexual and spiritual potency, is now perceived as painful. The lost love and desire of Tristan in lines 30-34, followed by the similar but more subjective and direct failure in the hyacinth garden, ending in “Waste and empty is the sea”, suggests here that such a renewal will not occur in the modern Waste Land. Other interpretations go further, to suggest that such a renewal will never occur. However, we must keep in mind that such a renewal depends upon a very real individual participation–a self-sacrifice that modern man avoids.

With Madame Sosostris (ll. 42-59) we discover how much ancient myth has been devalued and we are given the reason for modern misery and decay. Madame Sosostris does not portray useless myths, rather, she displays complete blindness towards myths in their real, quite fruitful meanings. Madame Sosostris is so telling because she does not possess the real meaning of such myths at all; she tells us to “fear death by water”, which symbolizes how much such myths have been forgotten. Avoiding such a death of self is to avoid renewal and remain in a living death. Myth in the hands of Sosostris becomes empty superstition, devoid of any personal self-sacrifice. There are intimations of redemption, and this may be symptomatic of Eliot’s reservations about overtly romantic optimism, blind hope, or easy, painless solutions.

Now, in lines 60-76 we see contemporary society, and it is not surprisingly deemed unreal. Clock-time, and a perpetual twilight of “brown fog” have overtaken seasonal changes of light and dark. It seems that man and woman have entered into a wasteland of twilight and are now unable to return to either darkness or light. Like the Sibyl, they are unable to die, and with the absence of deep feelings, they are barely alive, due to mere avoidance and a lack of true sacrifical meaning (honesty). Society has found itself to be “neither living nor dead”. This, in terms of Eliot’s historical position, may be the witching hour of civilization as it may still be today, or it may be an experience of the rending pains of new birth.

A Game of Chess

“A Game of Chess” begins with a style reminiscent of seventeenth and eighteenth century literature. By Eliot’s time, a very experientially different urban twentieth century, such a convoluted, luxurious, smooth style seemed unworthy of praise. A psychological interpretation of this matter of literary taste would point us again towards the modern neurasthenic. Clock-time, and a quickening society, was coupled with growing populations in machinated, cluttered, unreal cities that cinematically flashed the senses with commodities and advertisements, all of which became fragments of a new man-made artifice: consumerism, and the beginnings of TV culture. This broadcast-consumerism along with a routinized, conveyor-belt approach to production, would help to send the mind into cognitive dissonanc
e, anxiety. Indeed, such a modern dislocation of the senses from intensely felt experiences was, according to Eliot, rooted in this eighteenth century literary tradition, which initiated such a dissociation of emotions and their immediacy. Such a style is mirrored in lines 111-172.

So much have the senses been disassociated that the transformed Philomela’s bird-song of romantic passion is now heard by “dirty-ears” as a mere “Jug Jug”, or a call for raw, physical sex–intimacy without feeling. We hear disembodied voices (ll. 111 -137) close to nervous breakdown, but even then, they remain unaware of their plight. They avoid the rain, a water-symbol of salvation and redemption that, unbeknownst to them, is urgently required. On top of everything else about “The Waste Land”, is the fact that such a plight is unfelt, and therefore inescapable, at least for those who do not bring such anxieties to the sunlight. We might then see these first two sections as the initial stages of a cathartic process.

The Fire Sermon

In the beginning of “The Fire Sermon”, the season skips back to late autumn, or early winter:

“The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.”

We are reminded of The Fisher King, maimed and impotent, his land approaching its consequent decay. The seemingly timeless state of affairs here by the river blurs into modernity with the mention of horns and motors (l. 197) and there is a sense of approaching watershed. But the core of this section (ll. 187-204) is the allusion to Verlaine’s Parsifal and how the Knight, questing for the Grail that will renew spirituality, is tempted by sensual music, which is reminiscent of the temptations of Christ in the desert before his death and resurrection. What follows is a reminder that such a tempting sensuality has fallen down to basic impotent desire–“Jug Jug” and the rape of Philomela.

The Unreal City still under a brown fog, flashes again into consciousness, but this time it is in full winter that we find it, though it has barely changed.

Next, we are introduced to Tiresias, the poet’s anti-self who sees all impersonally. It is through Tiresias that we have been conscious of the Waste Land. The poem is his. However, there is one parallel possible between Tiresias and Eliot. Both are unable to affect any direct change. In the hyacinth garden, Eliot experiences the very feeling–he becomes the experience. If the problem is that we are removed from real experiences and feelings, and the goal is to diagnose, then such impersonality must be contrasted with the healthy state of experiencing direct emotions, whether they are positive emotions or not. It is no surprise then that such a lover’s scene as this (ll. 230-247) is the opposite of the lovers and scene of the hyacinth garden.

Death by Water

In “Death by Water” Madame Sosostris is overcome because there occurs what we had been told to fear–a death by water. There is a sense of peace in such annihilation, but the death does not end “The Waste Land”. In what follows, we are also shown a Christ-like figure post-resurrection, the first explicit sign within the main body of the text that intimates an occurrence of resurrection, of redemption. Perhaps then, this same figure that has drowned, is returning again, purified and refined.

What the Thunder Said

“What the Thunder Said” directly appeals to Eastern philosophy, more specifically, Hinduism. The word “after” repeated three times (ll. 322-25) seems to suggest that something has been overcome, perhaps what has just passed, a death by water. What follows is more death (ll 327-330). We could interpret this as a rather radical assertion that “The Waste Land” is no longer a description of decaying, but rather, it is a portrayal of a civilization already dead. Indeed, the desire for water and the uncertainty of the post-death stage reaches a critical climax at line 366 – hallucination, illusion, deranged perception takes over, and with the signalling “co co…” from the rooftop cock, illusion and hallucination departs the poem.

Rain gathers at last (ll. 396-400), and there is excited anticipation. The thunder speaks: DA, DA, DA. The syllable reminds us of Jesus’ use of ‘Abba’ or Daddy to describe his intimate relationship with a Father God. But the Eastern interpretation is three-fold, developing into Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, meaning, respectively, “give”, “be compassionate”, “self-control”. In the first instance–Datta–Eliot brings us back to the hyacinth garden, suggesting that only by this surrender do we exist. The sorrowful realization here is that perhaps such a revelation has come too late for the speaker, that the paralysis experienced in the hyacinth garden was an inability to give love, to surrender one’s self to another completely. Thus these lines seem to suggest love to be the proper means and motive of giving. In the second instance–Dayadhvam–Eliot links the absence of compassion to the problem of solipsism and egoism–“each in his prison / thinking of the key”. Again we hear the suggestiveness of a moment’s surrender, and how pride blocks participation in love and perhaps leads to displaced revenge. In the third instance–Damyata–we are urged to control ourselves, like manning a boat upon a calm ocean with the help of the wind, as the heart seems to respond happily to controlling hands.

Indeed, this is a rather different, far more positive interpretation than is usually given to this section of “The Waste Land”. Eliot possibly leads us to believe that our private experiences are truly only our own, but, in terms of the Eastern philosophy which he evokes, such a perception is only true because we live in a world of samsara, the only escape from which is nirvana. But the prescriptions are ambiguous, and dogged by the past-present state of the modern Waste Land where people do not recognize such redemptive meaning. But speaking out more radically now, if we maintain an absence of salvation, we have to realize what we are really saying, and be responsible for the consequences of our words–proposing no salvation essentially condemns all futures to desolation.

In the final section, we meet the Fisher King again, and a crumbling society. There is an individual desire to order one’s own land. At line 427, we are reminded of purgatory’s refining flame, supported by “DA”, where self-control, compassion, and giving up one’s self (all in love) are healthy forms of passion, renewing desires, refined burning. This refinement overcomes the sterile avoidance of the voice of propriety (ll. 1 – 7; 19 – 20), the improper desires of emotionless sexuality (ll. 218 – 248) and emotionally detached existence in general (ll. 111 – 138). The swallow reference (l. 428) is reminiscent of Philomela, and of sadness, but with the hope of renewal, and intimations of spring again. We see that “The Waste Land” has been a process of personal maintenance–“These fragments I have shored against my ruin”. The process has also been one of warning, that the references to the past are not an attempt to escape, nor mere romantic nostalgia. This leaves us one choice, to turn and embrace the future. The thunder speaks again and we end in a peace which lies outside understanding, a nirvana-like state of positive nothingness, and a sense of completion–“Shantih shantih shantih”.


With the poem’s ambiguous intimations of salvation leaves an interpretation that salvation will not just occur, nor will it be automatically achieved by a mere movement of time. Redemption is left up to the will of individuals to create it. Essentially, when critiquing “The Waste Land” we must bear this self-willing in mind. Many interpretations choose not to find salvation, others choose to be more positive. The poem leaves these two doors open.

Thus, one must maintain hope and the way towar
ds salvation, especially in this post-modern point in time, where, if anything, the modern neurasthenic has reached paranoia levels, and permanent states of drudgery, induced by the sedentary, sedative, and dissociated visual-feeds from the popular culture. What the thunder said should not only be remembered as an ethic, but also lived as an individual life. This is the only way to escape the prison of the self, and renew our feelings, to reacquaint them with direct experience, to experience shantih, a peace beyond understanding.

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