Nothing could have prepared either the literary world in general or the curious reader who had been following Eliot’s career to date for the publication, in late 1922, of The Waste Land. Published in October of that year in Eliot’s own literary review, the Criterion, in London and in the Dial in New York, it was then released in book form in December of that year by the New York publishing house Boni & Liveright. Virtually overnight The Waste Land became a focal point and rallying cry for the culture wars of its time and brought Eliot a celebrity and iconic status that he would never live down and, within a short time, would be adamantly refusing to live up to.
Eliot’s The Waste Land is undoubtedly the most renowned if not notorious literary achievement in poetry in English of the 20th century, a poem so celebrated even in its own time that it generated a whole slew of legends, misinformation, and general myths about its origins, intentions, and impact on the contemporary scene of postwar Europe in the early 1920s, a scene of which the poem has by now come to be regarded as a perfect reflection. Surely, if nothing else, the notion that it is barely readable, let alone intelligible, is a part of The Waste Land’s reputation among readers. No one would dispute that The Waste Land stands among the handful of literary works from this time—other examples including most notably Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by Eliot’s close friend, literary confidante, and erstwhile mentor, the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound, and Ulysses, the highly experimental, innovative, and epic novel by Irish novelist James Joyce—that typified modernism in English language literature, both from the point of view of its most energetic practitioners and its most ardent detractors.
Modernists such as Eliot, Pound, and Joyce were obsessed with the idea that the literary artist could create a text in any medium, be it the novel, poetry, or a theatrical piece, that would freely and enthusiastically break all the rules and fly in the face of centuries of conventional wisdom and traditions, all for the sake of creating equally enduring works of literature that did more than just comment on human experience—that, instead, could effectively mirror its most obscure psychological and spiritual sources and dimensions. Other motives and issues compelled these younger artists as well, of course. The world had changed radically between 1800 and 1900, a century that was and continues to be regarded as an age of revolution in virtually all fields of human endeavor and on all fronts of human concerns. Efforts to revivify or revolutionize the arts coincided with these other efforts. What they themselves called modernism was the response of many of those involved with creative activities, particularly among the young, to these very real shifts, some of them quite cataclysmic, in what is called, for lack of a more inclusive term, the human condition. On the other side of what was then and possibly remains a great divide were those who saw nothing but anarchy and chaos, nihilism and irreverence, tastelessness and arrogance, in those who were practicing modernist techniques and utilizing modernist ways of thinking that eschewed authoritarianism and absolutes and advocated in their place relativistic ways of thinking and perceiving reality.
From his debut on the literary stage in the mid- 1910s, Eliot was unmistakably one who had cast his lot with these newer ways of thinking and of defining the relationship among the writer, the work, and the reader. In his most famous early poems, among which “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” stand out to this day as exceptionally new and original works, Eliot showed that he was far more interested in expressing his time and place, its moral and social dilemmas and inner anxieties, than in carrying on business as usual. Rather than becoming an artist of the beautiful, it was clear as he attempted to translate the vision and attitudes of the French symbolists into contemporary American poetry, that his aim was to be an artist of the real, even if that often meant the sordid, the squalid, and the boring. Whether it was for these reasons or for other characteristics that Eliot’s poetry exhibited, his intentional efforts to “resuscitate the dead art of poetry,” words from Pound’s Mauberley, led Pound to proclaim Eliot, in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe, a poet who had “made himself modern all on his own.”
For a while, it seemed, however, as if Eliot might not be able to continue to live up to this reputation. The quatrain poems that, with their iconoclastic and sophisticated tone, succeeded these early efforts may not have been quite up to the same mark of originality and meaningful innovations as the poetry composed in 1910–11, primarily during Eliot’s Paris sojourn. In these later poems, Eliot’s efforts to surprise and puzzle his readers with a petulant cleverness and an excessive erudition, including the use of obscure, Greek-based medical terms and other multisyllabic words that were more likely to be found in use in the academy than in the literary salon, may all too often have overwhelmed the reasonably serious themes underlying the poetry of works such as “The Hippopotamus” and “Whispers on Immortality.” Still, Eliot remained something of trailblazer from whom a more somber and sober poetry would emerge with “Gerontion” in 1919, as if he had learned to bring the frivolous erudition of the quatrains to bear with the power of the same sort of tragic vision that had given “Prufrock” and “Rhapsody” their deserved but unassuming gravity.
For those who despised the newfangled ways that modernism seemed to be espousing and to take a certain iconoclastic relish in embodying, The Waste Land was the last straw, the arch case in point for the argument that, with the modernist movement, serious literature, and poetry in particular, had reached a low point in its development, one from which it might never fully recover. The subsequent publication of the poem in book form with notes, of all things, appeared to them to clinch the argument for good. What kind of poet could imagine that his work needed notes in order for a reader to be able to understand it, some wondered, claiming that the notes only made any attempt toward comprehending The Waste Land worse, not better. Indeed, what with James Joyce having virtually simultaneously published in Ulysses what, from the point of view of even sophisticated readers, was an unreadable novel, many were inclined to begin to believe that the entire modernist movement was an elaborate hoax, a private joke executed by a few dozen overeducated and pretentiously self-absorbed literary snobs.
But there were as many, if not more, who embraced the poem for what they took it to be saying about their times, times that had just witnessed the conclusion of a four-year war that had virtually brought European civilization to its knees. This was a civilization that had brought the world unheard of technological and commercial progress at the expense of their own populations and of the rights of other peoples around the globe to self-determination and self-government. The catastrophe of World War I, or the Great War, had compelled Pound to label Europe “an old bitch gone in the teeth.” What price glory, after all, if that quest for glory had come to this: a Europe in ruins, if not quite literally, as was the case in many areas, at least economically and in terms of the morale of its people?
Oddly enough, both the Eliot poem and the Joyce novel won as much favor as recrimination for the uses that each author made of Europe’s classical past, although on reflection it is perhaps not odd at all. In Joyce’s case, he retold in modern terms the epic homeward journey of Homer’s hero, Odysseus. In Eliot’s case, allusions to sources as sundry as Sophocles and Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare and Ovid, make up much of the poetry of The Waste Land.
For those who were imagining that Europe had just gone to hell in a handbasket, the invidious comparisons that Eliot and Joyce seemed to be making between the great literary monuments of the past and the diminished scope for original creative vision in the present were seen as a fitting critique of a civilization that had fallen into a cultural and spiritual decline. On the other hand, those who still held out hope for the future lamented the fact that all that modernism appeared to be able to produce were works that looked back in sorrow, mimicking past triumphs but unable to equal them. The sides may not have been quite as neatly divided as this, but there were sides and the debate was furious, even if it was carried on mainly in the pages of little magazines, as the major reviews of those days were called, and in university classrooms.
Within time, however, both works took their places as literary masterpieces that, like the great works of ages past, tell the future something significant of their own times, even if the times themselves did not necessarily realize or recognize as much to be the case. It did not take long for Dante to become the voice of the Renaissance, for Shakespeare to be seen as a literary genius of worldwide importance, or for Joyce to be widely read and highly respected.
The Waste Land, however, remains a problem text. While no one would deny its importance as a literary document, the precise nature of its achievement as a work of literature, pure and simple, remains elusive for the very reason that the poetry remains difficult to read and is seldom rewarding for the novice reader. Some modest preparation, nevertheless, can make The Waste Land not only accessible but challengingly so. To understand the times that produced it, the place that it occupies in Eliot’s development to this point in his poetic career, the poetry’s sources, and Eliot’s methods of composition can all contribute to finding in the finished poem one of the most incredibly conceived works of literature ever composed.
In his effort to resist modeling his poem on any previous work while simultaneously paying an oblique homage to the accumulated accomplishments of past epochs, Eliot created a work that is a tribute neither to the past nor to the present and certainly not to European literature in particular or to culture in general, but to the human imagination and its capacity to make order out of the chaotic and random. That is the struggle of art in any age, but it seemed to be a more obvious and compelling struggle during the time that Eliot and his generation were both formulating and executing those masterworks of literary modernism among which The Waste Land shall remain a spectacularly shining example, albeit an occasionally blinding one as well.
Sometimes scholarship does not have to uncover the obscure for fear of appearing to belabor the obvious. That is certainly the case with the profoundly devastating impact that World War I had on all aspects of European civilization. The war’s causes remain as transparent as its effects, and neither paint a pretty picture of human nature or of the sorry consequences of greed, pride, and blatant stupidity. One might question the notion that Europe had indeed produced a civilization in the first place, for it was the ferocity, destructiveness, and futility of the war that inevitably gave rise to the disillusionment that the catastrophe of the war ultimately engendered in the young, who also were those who fought and died in it. It was this same disillusionment that the literature of the 1920s, The Waste Land a notable example in this regard, would reflect, according to some.
A brief overview of the causes and consequences of the war will expose the severely dissipating impact that it had on any and all notions of cultural and racial superiority that had been running rampant among Europeans up to that moment. The popular imagination would have it that the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914 was the direct result of the assassination by a Serbian nationalist of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophia, in Sarajevo, the capital of Serbia. An event of that order was a long time in both the coming and the making, however. As awful as such an act of political terrorism was, it was only the famous spark that ignited the tinderbox that Europe had become in the century since the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815. It had been a century during which the four great European powers—England, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary—jockeyed for military dominance and colonial and commercial one-upsmanship in a game of constantly shifting alliances and treaties amid bureaucratic and palace intrigues. By the last third of the 19th century, those four powers had been joined by Italy and Germany, which only recently had unified into the modern nations that we know today. An already stiff competition for territorial and market expansion only became that much stiffer.
To put it simply, the European powers started stepping on each other’s toes no matter where they turned and whenever they turned. Ultimatums and threats were made with an ever-increasing belligerency. Pledges of support and mutual defense were sworn to as freely. Sooner or later, someone or something was bound to slip up.
The bullets that killed Franz-Ferdinand and his consort in 1914 had been fired nearly a century before when in 1820 the same great powers had carved up post-Napoleonic Europe among themselves at the Congress of Vienna. Along with the royal couple, the same assassin’s bullets struck down a century of posturing that had convinced Europe if not the world that theirs was the most successful and refined civilization that history had seen to that time. When hostilities finally broke out in August 1914 on a continent that had been legendarily teetering on the brink of war for more than a decade, no one was particularly surprised, although nearly everyone was convinced that the conflict would be over in a matter of months if not weeks.
Germany and Austria-Hungary quickly found themselves allied against England, France, Russia, and Italy, and it was well nigh impossible for other, lesser European nations and powers to stay out of the way. A modern phenomenon came into being: world war. The catastrophic irony was that the very self-congratulatory pomposity that had led up to the outbreak of conflict now only underscored the war’s relentless brutality, and that irony was itself ironical.
In earlier works such as Heart of Darkness, such authors as the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad had already borne witness to the moral travesty of 19th-century European colonial and cultural imperialism, but so pervasive were its self-assured successes that the moral bankruptcy that it portended seemed nevertheless to defy easy analysis or even satire. The legal impunity and moral immunity with which the European ruling classes manipulated public opinion and the fate of nations worldwide gave rise to a new, cynical, and skeptical literature, like the French symbolist movement, a literature that was all the vogue among the avantgarde during Eliot’s youth and that would become the seedbed for the modernism that had then subsequently burst on the literary scene on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe, in the prewar years. If literary artists had found it difficult to grapple effectively with the contradictions of values and moral paradoxes that had led up to the war, however, they were to find it far more difficult to deal with the hypocrisy and fanatical nationalistic patriotism that the war itself produced. Indeed, so immune had prewar European self-aggrandizement become to the normal community channels of criticism and correction such as the arts, the church, and legitimate political dissidence, all of which as institutions had been either neutralized or radicalized into ineffectiveness, that it would finally take nothing less than a conflict on the scale of World War I to expose the essential corruption of vision at the heart of European cultural arrogance and put one abrupt stop to the whole awful show.
In a manner of speaking, the war unraveled all the lies that a civilization had been telling itself and the rest of the world for decades, perhaps even centuries, and left in their place only emptiness. The rationales of a racial, managerial, and entrepreneurial superiority by which Europe had justified colonizing and otherwise exploiting to some degree or another most of the known world from the 16th century onward were now revealed to be nothing more than a justification for those old standbys, greed and territorial expansion, that simply could not, when the true trial came, pan out. Europe’s vaunted superiority had been forever blasted.
Part of the value of The Waste Land, as its title suggests, is that its complexities are intended somewhat to mirror, portray, and embody this emptiness that the war left behind; but there was far more to the aftermath of the war than that. There was also the bitter irony that such a bloodbath had achieved, by demolishing the myth of European greatness, no other end than that. That it had left not opportunities for new beginnings but only emptiness and despair in the place of that previous self-confident arrogance. As much was an irony that not even art could successfully engage without seeming to distort itself as well. That is, great art, be it literary or musical or plastic, can portray great tragedy or great comedy, but it cannot easily portray smallmindedness, futility, and meaninglessness. A sense of that withering loss of all perspective and purpose is exactly what the war had engendered in those who survived it, particularly those of a more creative spirit like Eliot’s. A now-famous study published in 1973, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, makes an extremely convincing case that the cultural catastrophe that the war both was for and wreaked on Europe changed the very ways in which poets wrote about war and in which the public perceived its purpose and results.
Battles were fought in which casualties in the tens of thousands were produced in a matter of days if not hours. The front in the West became stalemated and shifted sometimes only in terms of yards over months on end. Rats in the no-man’sland between the heavily fortified trenches became as large as cats and dogs from feasting on the dead and wounded who had to be left where they lay. There was chemical warfare, so horrible a means of waging war that it has been condemned and outlawed as battlefield ordinance among civilized nations ever since. All of these gruesome details, meanwhile, were communicated willy-nilly and nearly instantaneously by a popular press that had become a major competitive industry in the last part of the 19th century and, so, like the 24-hour cable news channels of our own time, required reams of lurid copy and appropriately graphic photographs of the war in order to sell newspapers.
In one final, capping irony, when the war finally ended after more than four years, on November 11, 1918, it was not in any emphatic victory for one side or the other, but in an armistice, a truce of sorts (although Germany would be penalized with reparations and other territorial and economic sanctions that eventually would lead to a renewal of hostilities a mere 20 years later in what history now knows as World War II). Fussell summarized all these results and their impact on ways of thinking in the remainder of the 20th century in this manner: “there seems to be one dominating force of modern understanding; . . . it is essentially ironic; and . . . it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”
From start to finish, the war had had as devastating an effect on literary artists and their hope and belief in the future as on any other members of the communities affected by it. In a letter composed shortly after Great Britain’s entry into the war in August 1914, the American novelist Henry James, who had been residing in England for most of his adult life, spoke for the dashed hopes of many when he wrote that “the plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness . . . gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be . . . gradually bettering.” Ultimately, he declared the prospects of the cultural and social disaster that the war was forecasting for Europe to be “too tragic for any words.” Though already in his 70s, James was so moved by the cataclysmic struggle that then ensued as the result of Britain and the rest of “civilized” Europe’s waging total war that, to signal his moral support for the British cause in the conflict, he became, and, in 1915, died, a British subject.
Eliot, for his own part, was a man young enough for military service in a world where young men who were not supporting the war effort in some manner or another were becoming more and more scarce commodities on the so-called home front. He had been in London more or less permanently since the summer of 1914 as an Oxford student 428 Waste Land, The and later a figure on the London literary scene, part-time Latin teacher, and bank clerk, but he had remained a U.S. citizen, and the United States was a neutral power for most of the war years. (Late in 1918, Eliot would try to enlist for service with the U.S. armed forces but ran into so much red tape that he abandoned the effort.) Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that he was personally affected by an epic conflict that was laying waste his own generation. Lost to the future would be such brilliant and promising young thinkers, artists, and poets as T. E. Hulme, Henri Gaudier- Brzeska, and Wilfrid Owen.
In December 1917, as the war stretched into its fourth year and the United States had by then been dragged into the European conflict as well, Eliot could comment in a letter to his father on how much the lives of everyone around him, himself included, had been “so swallowed up in the one great tragedy that one almost ceases to have personal experiences or emotions, and such as one has seem so unimportant.” Eliot concluded the thought by remarking nevertheless that he had “a lot of things to write about if the time ever comes when people will attend to them,” but that does not mean that wartime was not otherwise a time for poetry and for poetic renewal. If World War I was a war that depoeticized warfare by deromanticizing it, it was nonetheless not a war that did not produce poetry—but it was a changed poetry, one that was capable of rendering the paradoxes and ironies of a human and cultural tragedy of colossal proportions in terms of its impact on individuals rather than on nations.
The most startling feature of the war, if that could be summarized in a single word, was in fact its waste—of time, of resources, of human energy, of life itself—young life, promising life, hopeful life. Every war exposes warfare as a terrible way to conduct human affairs. World War I, however, did this in a way that those who were left to survey the wreckage of a civilization that the war had left behind found to be intolerable and disgraceful.
One of the most immediate and devastating results was that traditional sources of authority and stability, the state and the military, but particularly the remnants of the ancient European aristocracy, were totally discredited. Of the six great European powers that waged the war (seven if the Ottoman Turkish Empire is included), three suffered irreparable fissures in their traditional power structures. The longtime hereditary rulers of Germany, Austria- Hungary, and Russia were sent packing.
The old order had vividly, demonstrably, finally changed, even if it had nearly brought the whole precarious structure of civilized society down with it. In the aftermath of such a stunningly unanticipated changing of the guard, modernism, with its emphasis on making the arts new, was none too surprised to find that it had been waiting in the wings since the turn of the century if not earlier and was more than ready to tackle the task of chronicling this new moment in European, perhaps even human history. No one will deny that Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem based on the ancient myth of a wounded king and a blasted land that is seeking a questing hero who will heal its deadly illness, holds an honored and most telling place in that chronicle.
The Immediate Sources
The Waste Land is done a serious disservice, however, if it is treated as only or even primarily being a poem about or in response to the war that had just ended in Europe. Eliot was always careful to distinguish between the work and the biographical, social, and historical sources that produced it, not to obfuscate matters but for the sake of emphasizing that a poem is not second-rate or even secondtier autobiography or journalism or history but is itself a species of human record, human knowing of an entirely different order. Perhaps no other form of human communication, and there are many, is so difficult to understand and accept in terms of itself and itself alone. That is an attitude, a prejudice, that Eliot sought to ameliorate if not overturn in the best of his critical commentaries, yet he has often been the poet most associated with autobiographical or documentary readings, perhaps for the very reason that his poetry, as poetry, is a difficult nut to crack to this day. (The poetry of The Waste Land provides the best example of that very difficulty and complexity.)
Another case in point is Eliot’s mental and emotional condition at the time of The Waste Land’s composition. While it would be foolhardy to deny that the horrors and fears generated by four years of unceasing warfare found their way into aspects of the tone and texture of the poetry of The Waste Land, those effects are as blended with the effects of other untold experiences, both conscious and unconscious, so that to try to disentangle or identify particular ones would be equally foolhardy. Nevertheless, legend has it that Eliot was either undergoing treatment for or actually having a mental breakdown at a psychiatric clinic in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the fall of 1921, during the period that he was writing The Waste Land. The fact is that the poem was hardly composed at one sitting or even several. It combines as many if not more bits and pieces from earlier, often discarded poetic treatments by Eliot himself, written at scattered times in his life, as from other poets.
A significant passage from early on in “The Burial of the Dead,” the first part of The Waste Land, for example, can be found virtually verbatim in “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” a poem that was set in galleys for the October 1915 issue of Poetry but was never published. Nearly the entire text of the fourth part, “Death by Water,” meanwhile, is taken from a poem of Eliot’s, “Dans le Restaurant,” that was published in the Little Review in October 1916. These lines cannot be said to be verbatim transcription, however, because the Eliot original is written in French. Furthermore, the nightmarish or hallucinatory and always fragmentary qualities of the poetry of The Waste Land, qualities that seem to support or at least suggest the view that they are either the results of or meant to mimic an unstable state of mind, can be found in Eliot’s finished poems from as early as the “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” written in 1911, all the way up to “Gerontion,” composed as late as 1919.
Pound’s severe editing out of some of Eliot’s original sections of the poem also had the effect of making the finished text seem far more fragmentary than Eliot’s initial design would have indicated. There was much more detailed narrative description in the manuscript that Pound worked from, a draft that began with a long episode of youthful revelers enjoying a night on the town in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reminiscent of Joyce’s famous Nighttown sequence in Ulysses. Another section, involving the typist and her erstwhile lover, was far longer, too, in keeping with the source after which it was modeled, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. There was, as a consequence, a more logical flow to the poetry and poem both than could ever be guessed at from the poem that was finally published.
Perhaps equally as important are the biographical data, however. Eliot’s nerves were often if not always bad under the stress of his marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood and her own ill health; he also suffered from the weakening effects of his own never sturdy physical constitution, which made him prone to chronic but never serious illnesses. In September 1921, a physician had recommended a period of rest and recuperation as treatment for headaches that Eliot was suffering (there had just been six months of drought in London). However, when Eliot applied to his employers, Lloyds Bank, for an extended vacation so that he might avail himself of such medical rest, the paperwork that his supervisors subsequently filed to justify his absence from work identified the reason for the three-month leave as a “nervous breakdown.” Finally, although Eliot, following a month on the Kent coast at Margate, initially planned to sojourn for the remaining two months of his leave in a country cottage belonging to Lady Rothermere, who was underwriting the Criterion, at the last moment Ottoline Morrell prevailed upon him to go instead to Lausanne and a clinic run there by a Dr. Vittoz, who had had some success with treating people who were emotionally run down, among them Lady Ottoline herself and Julian Huxley, brother of the novelist Aldous.
While the foregoing depiction of how Eliot came to be in treatment at a psychiatric clinic in Lausanne while he was composing the better part of The Waste Land hardly constitutes a comedy of errors, neither does it suggest that Eliot had suffered anything even remotely resembling a mental breakdown. The hints with which The Waste Land opens of people visiting one of those European health resorts or spas frequented by members of the leisure class further underscore what his time in Lausanne must have seemed like for him. In resorting in this way to biographical information to clarify poetic detail, it is important to remember that the issue is not whether biography and current events can shape poetic output but whether they do anything more than that, thereby giving the poetry all its purpose and meaning. Where does the life and its attendant experiences leave off and the poetry, which is what must matter, begin?
Eliot was acutely aware of this conundrum. At just about the same time that the aftermath of the war was sinking in on both public life and private mentalities, Eliot, in 1919, was penning the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he was forcefully arguing for the necessary separation between, as he put it, the person who suffers and the mind that creates. Eliot’s aim in proposing as much was not to deny that the poet writes out of personal experience—what more does anyone have?—but that creative processes transform that personal experience into something else altogether, much as digestive processes transform food into nutrients that then become muscle and blood cells.
To that notion that there is not a direct relationship between poets’ personal experiences and the poetry that they write could be added a corollary requiring a like separation between the times and the literary works that emerge from them. For Eliot, however, there is a greater consideration at hand than the transformative powers of art, and that is its transcendent qualities. If art only comments on the times that produce it, then it cannot possibly continue to serve as commentary on enduring or permanent aspects of human experience, which it clearly does.
Any reader who has ever confronted a work of literature from the past without any information other than the text itself knows this simple fact well. True, there may be a subsequent desire on a reader’s part to learn about the times or people or culture that produced the text as a result, and having that subsidiary information to begin with may make for an entirely different reading experience— but neither is a necessary condition or conclusion, and someone of Eliot’s way of thinking would argue that everyone’s reading experience, as well as every reading, is different in any case.
It is this transcendent aspect of poetry that had apparently been of critical interest to Eliot himself from his earliest attempts at poetic composition. That a young descendent of Puritan American stock could find not only inspiration but a voice and poetic techniques in the French symbolists, not to mention a 13th-century Italian adherent of Roman Catholicism, the poet Dante, as Eliot indeed did, speaks reams in favor of his having cultivated from the start an approach toward literature that stressed its timelessness, but not at the expense of its power as art. At the very least, his own wide literary interests would have been living proof to him that there was something in the poetic act that superseded cultures and even language systems, providing it with an essential capability to speak with fresh impact over great passages of both time and geographic distance and despite barriers of language and culture. It was as if for him and his methods of composition, literature formed a present and living whole in which all the works of all the ages were somehow contiguous with each other, shaped by and shaping one and the other.
Nor is that a very far-fetched proposition. If people are capable of accepting that there are only six degrees of separation between any two human beings chosen at random from out of the billions who are alive at any one moment, how much more reasonable it is to accept the idea that all works of the imagination, of which there are so many less, affect and are affected by each other. In any event, that had become by the time of the publication of The Waste Land the hallmark of Eliot’s style. The easy commerce in his texts among original lines of verse and both open and veiled allusions to the works of others, virtually always without attribution and never with any sort of advanced warning, bespeaks this attitude toward the uses and the presence of both past and present voices in his work. Nor was he alone in this. For just one outstanding example, the poetry of Ezra Pound also depended for its challenging effectiveness on his sprinkling the words and phrases of other poets, often in their original, non-English form, liberally among his own.
Indeed, while The Waste Land is not an easy text and does not even lie well on the page, what with its irregular stanzaic patterns and line lengths, not to mention frequent appearances of whole lines of verse, often consecutively, in languages other than English, no one who had been following Eliot’s poetry to this time would have been particularly struck by his methodology. (This time he even provided notes, when he published the work in book form.) Criticism has come to call this methodology intertextuality, referring to the processes of cultural and generic cross-pollination that have taken place among texts very likely from the beginnings of the use and easy dissemination of the written word. Virgil’s great epic the Aeneid is founded on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and anyone familiar with either text would know that, but someone who was not familiar with Homer would not hardly miss Virgil’s essential points.
The author does not have to be conscious of his or her borrowings, however, any more than a reader does. The only difference that a poet like Eliot, and poetry like Eliot’s, makes is that, because Eliot exposes his allusions, the reader is made conscious from the outset that literature is the product of a continuous human dialogue whose terms can crop up in the unlikeliest of places and often without either recognition or attribution on the author’s or reader’s part. If the mind is like a mirror, it is important to remember that a mirror has no memory. There is no before and after, earlier and later. The whole of the past is a simultaneous experience for anyone who knows it by the bits and pieces by which each of us know it as it rises, quite frequently totally unbidden, to the surface of the reflective mind.
Into the structure of The Waste Land, then, and onto its complicated surface detail, Eliot weaves centuries, millennia, of that mirror’s magic sights. His trick is that he lets his readers know that he is doing this, so that along with him, or at least along with the poem’s unnamed and unintroduced protagonist, Eliot’s readers share the quest that the poetry embodies, a quest, appropriately enough, for meaning on a stormy sea of signifiers (although, in keeping with The Waste Land’s ruling metaphor of cultural drought, it would be more like a desert sandstorm). Poetry’s aim is to quicken not the intellect, but the imagination, to make it make connections that cannot otherwise be easily spelled out, as it were. The device that Eliot has consistently used to achieve that end is the literary allusion. The Waste Land is no exception.
Throughout his critical career, Eliot maintained that nothing should be regarded as a substitute for engaging the poem, as poetry, in its own terms. The commentators and readers of poetry in general and of Eliot’s poetry in particular who seem adamant in insisting that his poetry is little more than veiled autobiography may not be missing the point, but they are most certainly missing the poetry. The danger is in imagining that identifying a source in The Waste Land constitutes an understanding of the verse or verses as they appear in that poem. It would be wise to recall Eliot’s own justification, from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” for having an awareness of voices of the past. It is in the voices of the present that the past speaks most clearly, and that to the only audience that ever can matter, the living. Anything more is guesswork, and anything less is severely restricted by the endless possibilities for other interpretations that offer themselves even as one meaning or interpretation is emerging.
Anyone familiar with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” knows that that poem’s unattributed epigraph, in the original Italian, from Dante’s Divine Comedy is far more than mere window dressing, a showing off of the poet’s erudition. Once identified, contextualized, and translated, Guido da Montefeltro’s words about his condition for speaking freely and truly set the tone for a poem in which another suffering soul, in this case, J. Alfred Prufrock, disburdens himself of the pains of a lifetime of being a wallflower.
Other examples of the importance of the epigraph to the substance of an Eliot poem abound, but “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” with its unattributed epigraph in the original Greek, provides for present purposes one more telling illustration of the epigraph’s importance to an appreciation of the complexities of meaning that Eliot weaves into even a relatively minor work. How else to parallel the shallowness of Sweeney’s moral fiber than to remind readers, once they know that the source of that poem’s epigraph is Aeschylus’s ancient tragedy, the Agamemnon, of how equally shallow were the self-serving motives of Agamemnon for killing his own flesh and blood, his daughter Iphigenia, so that the fleet that he commanded might set sail to lay waste the fabulous city of Troy, all to his own greater glory and wealth? How self-servingly shallow, too, were the motives of his wife, Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s first cousin, who then took revenge by killing the Greek leader virtually at his doorstep upon his triumphant return from that war some 10 long years later. And so his cry, “I am struck within by a mortal blow,” echoes across the centuries by virtue of Eliot’s giving the words a place and a meaning in a thoroughly modern context in the epigraph to his poem “Sweeney among the Nightingales.”
If the epigraph matters as much in poems that are otherwise reasonably self-sustaining poetic compositions, how much more it must matter in a poem such as The Waste Land, whose poetry is largely composed quite openly of the poetry of others, with its epigraph in Greek and Latin. The passage, in Latin and Greek, contains a report of what the Cumaean Sibyl is reputed to have said to a group of boys who were taunting her. Translated, it reads: “For I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a bottle, and when the boys said to her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she replied, ‘I want to die.’ ”
The Sibyl was originally a single Greek oracle, an elderly woman who wrote her prophecies in ecstatic trances and then would toss to the seeker the leaves on which they were written. It would be up to the seeker, then, to make sense of the prophecy. The Cumaean Sibyl was a later but no less celebrated manifestation of this ancient Greek original. In one of the most famous stories about the Sibyl of Cumae, a Greek settlement near Naples in the south of Italy, she offered the last Roman king a series of nine books containing prophecies regarding Rome, destroying each succeeding one the longer he refused to meet her price, until only three were left. These remained in Rome, in the temple to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, well into imperial times.
A reader who goes on to discover that The Waste Land, too, deals with a seeker, the Grail quester, and has another famous Greek soothsayer, Tiresias, the blind seer of Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, in its pages, has every right to feel that he or she is on to something. Oedipus, after all, is himself a seeker after the truth, even if he tragically misreads the significance of the Delphic oracle’s prediction that he will murder his father and have children by his own mother, and, like the seeker who must unravel the Sibyl’s tangled messages, he is a solver of riddles to boot, having solved the riddle of the Theban Sphinx. All this information in hand, any reader must feel quite justified in imagining that this epigraph sets just the right tone of a dire seriousness for the theme of the poem to come. The epigraph’s appropriateness in this regard is further underscored if the reader focuses immediately on the Sibyl’s withering reply to the boys’ taunts: “I want to die.” After all, if a quest is one of The Waste Land’s themes, so, apparently, is the poem’s equally heavy attention to the futility of action and to the range and depth of human desire as well, all of which themes the Sibyl’s reply seems to endorse.
The only problem is that the epigraph that underscores such potential meanings can just as nimbly undercut them. The further information, for example, that the source text for the epigraph is a first-century A.D. Roman social satire, the Satyricon, may undermine a reader’s confidence in the profundity of the epigraph and faith in Eliot’s own intentions for it. Indeed, Eliot is as liable to weave, and is capable of weaving, as tangled a web of potential meanings as any the Sibyl ever has, as anyone who knew the comings and goings of seriousness and frivolity in his poetry would have been well aware by the time of The Waste Land’s publication. If the content of the epigraph sounds profound, the knowledge that the context is a work of satire, traditionally not regarded as serious literature, makes that profundity immediately suspect.
Not only is the epigraph’s source a satire rather than a work of serious literature, but the satire’s title, Satyricon, with its reference to those notorious sexual libertines, the half-men, half-goat satyrs, does not bode well, either, for its being a sober commentary on seeking wisdom and overcoming desire in the midst of life’s vanity and futility. Indeed, the Roman source in question is attributed to Petronius, a wealthy Roman whose main claim to historical fame is that he was the director of revels for the notoriously decadent emperor, Nero, whose sexual and other outrageous exploits remain legendary. Petronius himself led a richly comfortable life as a favorite of the decadent emperor but died a suicide (having slit his wrists, he then went on to regale his friends with witty talk as he slowly bled to death) after he had been falsely accused of conspiring against Nero. About the only substantiated link, such as it is, between Petronius and the passage that Eliot uses as the epigraph to The Waste Land is that Petronius happened to have died at Cumae.
Eliot’s readers, the more they come to know of this epigraph, have every right to wonder if they are not being put on, not just by its putative author, Petronius, but by Eliot as well. An Eliot reader’s head ought by now to be spinning, as is often the case of encounters with any Eliot poem written during the first decade and more of his poetic career. The story of this particular epigraph, however, does not end even on this note of compounded double meanings of insidious intent.
Left for the curious reader is the task if not obligation of finally discovering that, in that allimportant textual area, context, the Sibyl’s withering words to those nasty boys are related in yet another person’s first-person account—confusing, but not unintentionally so. That latter person, Trimalchio, is being quoted by Encolpius, a man whose name in Latin pretty much means “encrotched” and who is himself the Satyricon’s fictitious narrator of a work by an author about whom little is otherwise known (since no one is certain that its author actually was Petronius, after all).
It may seem by now as if Eliot’s epigraph is a sort of literary black hole, absorbing all meaning whatsoever into its darkening bowels, but there are yet further depths to plumb. Words are not spoken in isolation from events, after all, and that is the case with Trimalchio’s eyewitness report about the Cumaean Sibyl. A very wealthy man who some think may have been modeled somewhat on Nero himself, Trimalchio tells his tale as he regales his guests, Encolpius among them, at a fabulous dinner party.
The party had begun with Trimalchio’s slaves carrying in a huge pig that was then disemboweled right in front of the assembled guests, who were sent flying as the guts came bursting out. But the joke was all on them, for the “guts” turned out to be cooked sausages. Having fooled his guests to their own delight, it is then that Trimalchio tells them stories of his various other exploits, including the story about seeing the ancient Sibyl, so withered by age that she could fit inside a jug, telling the boys that she wished only for death. What else is anyone to think except that this Trimalchio, famously generous host though he may be, is nothing more than a practical joker and teller of tall tales, among whose repertoire is this tale of his having seen the Cumaean Sibyl “with my own eyes”?
All is not lost, however, for the epigraph still, ironically enough, comes full circle, reminding the reader of the ancient wisdom that, in the midst of our revels, there is death. The story of the Sibyl hanging in a bottle and wishing only for death is not a happy one, after all, whether it is a true one or not. Furthermore, while Trimalchio’s report is in Latin, the words of the boys and of the Sibyl that he is reporting are in Greek. These words introduce a multilingual poem (seven distinct languages in a variety of dialects are cited directly within it) written some 2,000 years later for an audience that speaks English, itself a language partly derived from Latin and ancient Greek.
In simple terms, by the time a reader has even begun to try to unravel the substance of the Sibyl’s “meaning” when she says, “I want to die,” and then further attempts to apply that substance to the substance of the text, that reader has already had linguistic instincts and capacities exploited and left unsettled, in very much the same manner in which poetry exploits a reader’s verbal equilibrium and assumptions long before that same reader happily, almost desperately, can attach a meaning to the experience. This is precisely the effect Eliot wishes to have the epigraph achieve: The illusion of meaty meaning in the Sibyl’s words distracts us from the immediate work of the epigraph as a play on the veracity of firsthand observation, particularly as the artist utilizes the device—and that understanding can itself be arrived at only by one’s having complete access not only to understanding the languages of the epigraph in the first place but also to understanding the context of the words as well.
These kinds of complexities, however, serve a purpose for Eliot and for the complexities of the poem. It is possible, in fact, to read the epigraph not for the specific detail of its content as much as for taking it as a model, a miniature exemplar, of how the text of the poem is to be read. This idea is borne out by the fact that Eliot originally intended to use for the poem’s epigraph a passage from Joseph Conrad’s short novel, Heart of Darkness. In that novel, an anonymous narrator (like Encolpius in the Satyricon) tells the reader what Marlow, a seaman, told him about Kurtz, a fabled ivory trader who apparently went mad in the depths of jungle along the Congo in Africa. So, then, the epigraph from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that Eliot had originally intended for the poem shares with the passage from the Satyricon nothing more than the fact that it too is a report (in this case thrice removed, once by Marlow, a sort of Trimalchio in this case, and then by the anonymous narrator of the Conrad story, and finally by Conrad) of Kurtz’s last words, which would be the equivalent of what Trimalchio reported the Sibyl to have said: “Did he [Kurtz] live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—‘The horror! the horror!’ ”
The reader is left to imagine that those were Kurtz’s last words, for they seem to be very much in keeping with the guilt that the reader is also left to imagine that Kurtz must have been suffering as he lay dying. But the reader is only allowed to imagine what Marlow has made of it, and even Marlow’s recollection is filtered through a retelling by Conrad’s anonymous narrator. Furthermore, Kurtz’s cry is reported as being “no more than a breath.” Could Conrad, the fiction’s constructer, be asking us to imagine that it was Kurtz’s breath suspiring, not the words “the horror, the horror,” that Marlow heard, who heard, like all humans do, only generally what he expected to hear, not necessarily what was to be heard?
No one can speak for Conrad’s intentions, of course, any more than anyone can speak for Trimalchio’s, let alone Encolpius’s, let alone Petronius’s, let alone Eliot’s. Still, it seems that, the similarities between the Conrad and Petronius epigraphs being as structural as they are thematic, the poet of The Waste Land wants his readers to think about the structure as much as about the substance of the statements in both cases. While the reader/listener’s instinct is to take any report at face value, the poet seems to be demonstrating with both choices for epigraph how it is impossible to know another person’s words firsthand, let alone in context, let alone as meaning. And yet in literary experiences, readers foremost derive some species of meaning from the words before they ever consider any other purpose for their particular arrangement.
So much as a reader or listener can be tricked into assuming meaning where no clearly defined or intended meaning exists, Eliot would say, so much does this drive for meaning master the reader, who is then rendered liable to being tricked continuously, at least as he or she reads an Eliot poem, particularly The Waste Land. In his poetry, Eliot simply uses the neutral territory of language in action (and often other people’s language) to prove as much to the reader, should he or she care to take notice. The fact is that a reader is drawn toward the meaning toward which the artist wishes to draw the reader, but that is not necessarily the meaning the poet is himself aiming to achieve or exploit. Like all art forms, after all, poetry works on the reader before that person can determine whether the poem is enjoyable, let alone whether it is intelligible.
Eliot the poet/critic would later say, in The Use of Poetry, that the poet puts meaning into his poetry in much the same way that the burglar puts out a bit of meat for the guard dog, and that is to distract the reader while the poem does its “real work” on him or her. It is no accident certainly that this analogy of Eliot’s equates meaning with meat, for it would be like Eliot to play with the popular notion that meaning is the muscle of poetry to which technique and structure are merely genetic code and circulatory system. Physiologically speaking, muscle is vital but not primary. So with meaning in poetry, in Eliot’s view, who goes on to say that there are still poets who do not even care that much for meaning and who become instead “impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination.” One must wonder what that “real work” that Eliot speaks of might be, and it would not be too far amiss to suggest that it is poetry’s capacity to demonstrate vividly how meaning is arrived at, whatever the meaning might be, rather than to express a particular meaning to the exclusion of any other.
As much is illustrated in the curious case of the poem’s original title. This information became widely known in 1971, when the poet’s widow, Valerie Eliot, published the original manuscript of The Waste Land, as it had been considerably edited and revised by the poet’s then-wife, Vivien, and his friend and literary confidante, the fellow expatriated American poet, Ezra Pound. After the poem’s publication, Eliot had sent the manuscript, in October 1922, as a gift to John Quinn, a New York businessman, in recognition of Quinn’s continuing patronage and support of Eliot on the New York publishing scene. On Quinn’s death in July 1924, this fascinating piece of 20th-century literary history passed into relative obscurity until October 1968 when the New York Public Library, which had acquired the manuscript from a grandniece of Quinn’s, made public its existence.
Along with providing details such as, for example, Eliot’s initial plan to use the passage from Heart of Darkness for his epigraph (a plan that Pound talked him out of, leading Eliot to substitute the present epigraph from Petronius), Valerie Eliot’s later scholarly reproduction of the lost manuscript in book form was a genuine publishing event that provided scholars with a veritable treasure trove of new information, including the information that the poem was first titled He Do the Police in Different Voices. Fortunately, Valerie Eliot’s studious notes provided scholars with the precise source for such a quaint title, which, like so much else in a typical Eliot poem, turned out to be a literary allusion.
The sentence comes from Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend and is spoken by one character, an impoverished widow, about a young boy whom she has adopted. In describing how much of a joy the boy, Sloppy, has become for her, she says: “You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” In essence, she is saying that Sloppy reads her the police report section of the newspaper, and when he does, he changes his voice to characterize each of the different individuals being quoted by the reporter in each news item.
The idea, a fairly simple one, put Eliot scholars into high gear competing with each other in using this information as if it were a secret formula by which they could now unravel the complexities of one of the most enigmatic poems ever written. After all, and not surprisingly, there were connections among the line from Dickens, the novel itself, and the poem (and does not Eliot, in the poem, urge his readers not to be like his speaker who can “connect nothing with nothing”?). For one thing, then, The Waste Land, with its occasional emphasis on the forlorn and frustrated lives of the lower classes—Madam Sosostris and the young man carbuncular, Lil and Albert and the typist home at teatime—gives his readers a sort of police report world where people suffer from and with each other over their modest peccadilloes. (And in the earliest versions of the poem, before Pound severely edited the text back, there was much, much more of that kind of material.) Furthermore, for all that they are classical myths, the stories of rapes and mutilations and murders that fill the pages of Sophocles and Ovid are also the stuff of police reports, such as they are. Like Sloppy, then, The Waste Land as well does “the Police in different voices.”
Furthermore, Our Mutual Friend has an ostensible theme that also resonates with the ostensible theme of The Waste Land, that is, finding riches in the debris of the past. For at the center of the conflict in Our Mutual Friend is the question of who will inherit mounds of ashes left behind by a man who has been a trash collector all his life— the thought being, no one knew what incredible treasures he or she might find by sifting through the rubbish.
Once these connections between Our Mutual Friend and The Waste Land were made public in the flurry of reviews that had followed the publication of Valerie Eliot’s work, they seemed so obvious that it was hard for many to imagine that The Waste Land had not finally been deciphered. However, such euphoria did not last very long. If any scholarly career was eventually made by this particular critical escapade, it was made by the scholar who cried out, “Hold on, now!” To imagine that Eliot intended The Waste Land to do and to mean just this and just that because Our Mutual Friend included just this and just that was no less imagining, no less speculating, no less second-guessing. Thus ended the case of just what could be learned from the fact that Eliot had originally planned to call the poem He Do the Police in Different Voices.
This is a good lesson for any reader of The Waste Land to keep in mind as he or she ventures into the poem: To discover a source is not to discover a meaning. It may help circumscribe the possibilities for how far a meaning may be extended, but even then, someone else, not armed with the same source material, is no less likely to discover meanings as well. Sources, in other words, may have meant a great deal to the author and may continue to be meaningful experiences for the scholar to explore and perhaps exploit, but the less a reader is mindful of them, the more the poem itself becomes the thing itself, as it should be.
What, then, the frustrated student of Eliot’s first truly major work and one of the major literary achievements in English of the 20th century is liable to ask, is the purpose of all those source signposts that Eliot sprinkles liberally, to say the least, throughout his famously difficult text. Why make such a point of the poem’s being a combining of sources if to know the sources is not the point? But does Eliot in fact isolate each source, or does he assimilate them all into the far greater whole called The Waste Land, which is its own work with its own purposes? The fact of the matter is that Eliot is not hanging wallpaper. Eliot is a poet who has blended all these various sources and others never to be known so well into a unique creation of his own, its own, that scholars are, to this day, still finding new sources for those old lines. What else should that tell the frustrated Eliot scholar but that the sources are many things, the poem but one? When in doubt, stick to the poem and the poetry that it has made into its own self, whatever the original source may have been.
That said, there is still one other item of front matter to be considered, and that is the dedication to Ezra Pound. It too has a story, and that story will lead the reader to still another source, in this case a major one for Eliot—Dante.
The Dedication and Eliot’s Use of Dante
The dedication to The Waste Land is made to Ezra Pound, the American poet who had befriended the younger Eliot almost from the time of the latter’s arrival in London in 1914 and who had taken it on himself to help foster Eliot’s burgeoning literary career. Pound’s editorial advice had a great deal to do with the final shape of The Waste Land as a completed poetic composition. It should not be too surprising, then, to discover that, in the dedication, Eliot praises his mentor Pound by calling him “the better maker.”
No doubt, the finest compliment that one craftsman can pay another—and poets, like any other artists, are foremost craftsmen—is that the other is better at what they both do. As a poet and critic, not only was Pound an individual to whom Eliot turned constantly with early drafts of poems such as the quatrains, for example, and most assuredly with the original draft of The Waste Land, seeking his response and the benefit of his editorial judgment and acumen, but Pound’s was also a forceful and authoritative personality. His advice, no doubt, was neither given nor taken lightly. Not only that, but Eliot applied Pound’s advice with a liberal hand. Entire sections of The Waste Land as Eliot had initially conceived the poem were scrapped at Pound’s suggestion, and the history of the two poets’ editorial collaboration remains an interesting chapter in textual criticism. So, then, whatever other motives may have compelled Eliot to make the comparison, it seems fitting for Eliot to have praised his friend and to have acknowledged his contribution by not merely dedicating The Waste Land to Pound, but by declaring him to be the better poet, or at least craftsman, as well.
The only problem is that the dedication, which is in Italian, il miglior fabbro, is itself a literary allusion, in this case to Dante’s Purgatorio, the second part of his great masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Dante is one of those poets whom Eliot himself has identified as being among his literary models from his undergraduate days, and, for just one outstanding example of Eliot’s admiration for Dante, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has for its unattributed epigraph a passage from Dante’s Inferno, the first part of the Comedy. Once more, then, it should come as no surprise that, in a poem in which Eliot alludes to almost every major literary tradition and/or master up to his day (the list is long but includes, in addition to Dante, Sophocles, Ovid, Shakespeare, and CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, to give some brief sense here of its breadth and scope), Eliot should use the words of a master such as Dante to compliment that living poet, Pound, whom he apparently regards as his own master.
Another problem is, however, that Eliot’s use of Dante in The Waste Land does not stop there. Indeed, although disguised innocuously as nothing more than an erudite and appropriately accurate dedication to a fellow poet, the dedication, once it is put in the larger context of Eliot’s use of Dante in the total poem, serves a much broader thematic purpose. Maybe it is just the waste-not, want-not Yankee frugality of Eliot’s New England forebearers that made Eliot give his dedication a double purpose, but it is far more likely that it is merely another way for Eliot to illustrate, and to drive home, The Waste Land’s essential point: that there is nothing in a poem or on the page that does not contribute to what readers call, for lack of a better word, that elusive commodity known as “meaning.” To appreciate just how much even the dedication to The Waste Land, by virtue of its allusion to Dante, contributes to that poem’s meaning, it will first be necessary to locate the words of the dedication from Dante, “il miglior fabbro,” in the Dante poem.
As already mentioned, the phrase comes from Dante’s Purgatorio and is spoken to Dante by Guido Guinizzelli, whom he encounters in canto 26 of the Purgatorio, where Guido is suffering in purgative or refining, as opposed to infernal or damning, fires to be cleansed of the sin of a bestial carnality. When Guido inquires why Dante is apparently an admirer of his, Dante tells Guido that he admires him for his “sweet verses” that will be treasured “as long as modern usage endures.” It is at that moment that Guido declines the compliment, however, and points out to Dante another poet suffering in the same fires for sins of carnality, telling Dante that that one was “was a better craftsman [miglior fabbro] in the mother tongue.” The poet so honored by Dante through Guido’s compliment is none other than Arnaut Daniel, the greatest of the 13th-century Provençal troubadors, on whose work Dante had modeled his own love poetry. Furthermore, Arnaut Daniel was a poet whom Pound, in the earliest phases of his own career as both a language scholar and poet, had also studied and translated. Eliot puts himself in the dedication in the position of both Guido and, by extension, Dante, then, by not only praising Pound as the better modern poet but by comparing him favorably to Pound’s, and Dante’s, own poetic idol, Arnaut Daniel.
If Eliot’s use of Dante in The Waste Land stopped there, the dedication would be a rich and multilayered enough literary tribute from one poet to another, but things do not stop there by any means. In fact, they instead come full circle. To understand and appreciate, however, exactly how they do that, it is necessary to map out, quite literally, the subsequent uses that Eliot makes of Dante in The Waste Land.
The analogy to a map is a fitting one, inasmuch as both The Divine Comedy and The Waste Land are spatial in concept, each depending for its structural integrity in large part on its being designed as the representation of a journey or quest. In Dante’s case, it is a quest for spiritual enlightenment and eternal salvation within the rubrics of an orthodox, Western Christian theology. In Eliot’s, it is a quest for meaning within the disorienting chaos resulting from the counterclaims of tradition and modernity in the secular wasteland of post-Christian Europe. In either case, for the metaphor of the quest to be convincing, it must make its passage through the physical realities of a self-defined space, a geography, as it were, even if that space is fictional in its conceptualization, as much as through the lines of verse on the page.
. In Dante’s case, his protagonist, whom he portrays as himself at the midpoint in his life, actually traverses the environs of the pit that is hell and then mounts the physical mountain that is purgatory. In Eliot’s case, his protagonist, who manifests himself largely as the speaker that comments from time to time on the flow of the action, must traverse a psychological wasteland, a desert of the mind and soul that is no less real a geographical space simply because it cannot be found on any map. Appropriately, then, the first allusion to Dante comes reasonably early in The Waste Land, near the close of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead,” and from a point in the Dante text relatively near, as well, to the beginning not only of that lengthy poem but of the first, critical steps of Dante’s journey of discovery, his descent into the Inferno.
Though these first two allusions to Dante in Eliot’s text come back to back, lines 63 and 64 in the first section of The Waste Land, they are separated by nearly the length of a canto in Dante (approximately 150 lines). In The Waste Land, the immediate context is the moment at which, subsumed by the “brown fog of a winter dawn,” the speaker makes his way over London Bridge with a crowd of other early morning office workers and such. (Though this famous bridge has long since been replaced, its counterpart leads across the Thames into the City of London proper, not only the site of the original Roman settlement but the present-day commercial, financial, and administrative center of the metropolis. Not far from the bridge’s terminus in the city, for example, was the Exchange as well as the offices of Lloyds Bank, where Eliot was employed at the time.)
To depict this crowd of the nameless, faceless bureaucratic and clerical types who have come to be the heirs of city directors, as Eliot will allude to them later in the poem, he draws on two images from Dante’s Inferno. The first occurs in Dante’s Inferno, canto III, lines 55–57, not long, that is, after Dante has passed through the infernal portal with the ominous injunction, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The first sinners he sees are a swarm of faceless, nameless humanity. These are the Opportunists, those who in life had been neither hot nor cold so that in death heaven will not take them and hell does not want them. There are so many of them that Dante says “ch’io non avrei mai creduto / che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta” (“I would never have believed / that death would have undone so many of them”), a sentiment that Eliot echoes in line 63 of The Waste Land: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”
Line 64 echoes the moment shortly later in the Inferno, canto IV, lines 25–27, when Dante stands at the edge of the precipice overhanging the immense abyss that is hell. At that moment he says, “Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare, / non avea pianto, ma’ che di sospiri, / che l’aura eternal facevan tremare” (“There, according to what could be heard, / there was not weeping but sighs / that made the eternal air tremble”). Eliot, according to his own notes, paraphrases the sentiments of that moment in the Inferno with his own observation that “sighs short and infrequent” were being exhaled by the crowd flowing over London Bridge. These lines from early on in beginning cantos of the Inferno are set as markers along the way and come near the beginning, too, of Eliot’s speaker’s own journey through his personal, modernist Inferno, The Waste Land.
The next allusion to Dante comes from near the beginning of the Purgatorio, the middle section of Dante’s journey, at the end of canto V, in line 133. In Eliot, meanwhile, it falls at the end of the middle section of The Waste Land, “The Fire Sermon.” “The Fire Sermon,” of the five sections of The Waste Land, is the most explicit about the vagaries of human desire, especially and explicitly sexual desire. At the point in this section where the allusion to Dante occurs, the reader encounters quoted dialogue, apparently of a young woman, who is relating how she was born at Highbury but “undone”—that is, sexually compromised by a young man—in a canoe on the Thames between Richmond and Kew: “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me.”
According to Eliot’s notes, this line and a half of verse echoes a passage in the Purgatorio, where a woman, who identifies herself as “la Pia,” which may be her name or an attribute (in Italian, it would mean “the pious woman”), asks Dante to remember her when he returns to be among the living, telling him:
Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma. . . .
[Remember me, who is la Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma unmade me. . . .]
Sienese by birth, Pia goes on to tell Dante that the man who “did her in” in Maremma, as it were, was the same who had placed the ring on her finger, that is, her spouse. So, then, while Pia’s exact historical identity remains a matter of scholarly controversy, Eliot clearly makes her his marker at this point in The Waste Land because she represents another woman undone in one way or another in order to satisfy a man’s “needs.”
The next allusion to Dante in the Eliot poem, and the next to last, comes very close to the end of The Waste Land but falls very near the conclusion of the Inferno, in this case the next-to-last canto of the Inferno, canto 33. At first glance, that may seem odd. If the speaker’s progress through The Waste Land is being marked by Dante’s parallel progress through the Inferno on into the Purgatorio, as witnessed thus far, it may seem to be backtracking for the speaker of The Waste Land to have fallen back into the Inferno again. However, such a vacillation between the one and the other—near the end of the Inferno, at the beginning of the Purgatorio— could be regarded as a more realistic rendering, by Eliot, of the stop-and-start, back-and-forth nature of spiritual or moral progress and growth, which is never a perfectly straight line.
Whatever the case, this particular allusion to Dante’s Inferno is one of the most memorable from a particularly memorable poem. As he traverses the frozen lake, Cocytus, which lies at the very bottom of hell and comprises Circle Nine, where the sins of compound fraud or betrayal are punished, Dante comes on a man who is gnawing on the head of another man, both of whom are otherwise frozen up to their necks in the ice. The man doing the gnawing is Count Ugolino, his victim Archbishop Ruggieri, although in life their roles had been somewhat reversed. Ugolino stops chewing on Ruggieri’s head long enough to tell Dante the story of how the count and his young sons had been imprisoned in a tower by the archbishop’s trickery.
In and of itself, however, that was not the cause of the hellish retribution that the count is now being permitted to mete out to the archbishop. Ugolino describes the day that, at the time when they would normally bring Ugolino and his sons their meager prison rations, he heard instead his jailers turning the key to lock the single door to the tower—“io sentí chiavar l’uscio di sotto / a l’orribile torre” (XXXIII.45–46). Although his sons did not realize it at the moment, the count knew that they were now going to be left in the tower to starve to death, which they then did, one by one, the count dying last. Now both he and the archbishop are here in the very same circle of hell for their sins, and Ugolino is allowed to wreak such a perverse justice as Dante had just witnessed on the man who, in life, had made Ugolino and his sons suffer such a slow and horrible death by starvation.
Eliot’s allusion to this poignant episode from the Inferno itself has a place of honor in The Waste Land. Eliot uses it to define by analogy the second of the third injunctions from the Upanishads that form the core of the fifth and last section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said.” That second injunction, Damyadhvam, to sympathize, is symbolized by Eliot in the count’s having “heard the key / Turn in the door,” signaling for him how he and his sons are being cut off forever from the gifts of human compassion. Once more, fittingly, this allusion comes near the end of The Waste Land—lines 411 and 412 of a 433-line poem. If the first two allusions to Dante came from early in the Inferno and come early in The Waste Land, then, despite the momentary springing forward into the beginnings of the Purgatorio, this late allusion to Dante comes from near the end of the Inferno and at the very end of The Waste Land.
But there is one more allusion to Dante before The Waste Land ends a mere 21 lines later. Line 427 is a direct quotation from Dante’s poem and one of those fragments that the speaker, with “the arid plain behind him,” now uses as “shor[ing] against my ruins.” The line from Dante in question reads, Poi s’sacose nel foco che gli affina (“Then he hid himself in the fire that is purging him”). Its exact placement in Dante is line 148, the last line, of canto 26 of the Purgatorio.
That ought to give any reader pause. As The Waste Land ends, the symbolic markers of forward progress that allusions to Dante have provided suddenly take a quantum leap forward—from canto 33 of the Inferno to canto 26 of the Purgatorio—as if now that the speaker, having received the guid ance of the rain-bringing thunder, has the wasteland behind him, there is no further vacillation and he is free to make his way past the modern hell in which the poetry of The Waste Land had had him embroiled till now. That is, one must admit, a wonderful symmetry, but Eliot is not done yet. If the foregoing has been something of a demonstration of how Eliot uses allusions not to show off his learning but to underscore his poem’s meaning, such as it is, it should mainly serve as a demonstration of the delightfully rewarding complexities of structure and insinuation those same allusions serve.
The final allusion to Dante is spoken in regard to Arnaut Daniel, who has just greeted Dante after Guido Guinizzelli had called Daniel to Dante’s attention as the “miglior fabbro”—the better maker or craftsperson—the same words that Eliot used in the dedication to Ezra Pound. Indeed, the quotation from Dante in the dedication (one that Eliot, in his notes, does not attribute, by the way) comes a mere 31 lines—canto 26, line 117—before the line from Dante, canto 26, line 148, on which The Waste Land, lacking but six lines, virtually ends.
What is Eliot up to, the reader might well ask. This is one of those many instances where Eliot’s renowned and often unduly annoying complexities become disarmingly simple. The separation between the poet and the identity of the speaker in The Waste Land is a murky one. Indeed, there are those who will argue that The Waste Land has no speaker or at least one who is consistent from part to part, stanza to stanza. Unlike Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” where the speaker is easily identified as Prufrock, or, for the sake of contrast, “Whispers of Immortality,” where the speaker is clearly the poet, The Waste Land is a poetry more in keeping with “Portrait of a Lady” or “La Figlia che Piange,” in which it is difficult to discern if the “I” is the poet or a fictive projection that he simply has not taken the trouble to introduce and identify by name and function.
That said, with his dedication, Eliot is telling his readers, or at least those who recognize it as an allusion to Dante’s Purgatorio, that as The Waste Land opens and they are about to make their own descent into the hell that The Waste Land will depict in excruciatingly nightmarish detail, he, the poet and their guide, has already been there and made it out—has figuratively completed the Inferno as well as the better part of the Purgatorio, that is to say; otherwise, he would not be able to cite from it. If, then, by the end of The Waste Land, the speaker identifies the same passage from Dante as the poet had identified in his opening dedication, that is Eliot’s way of confirming for his readers that they, too, have now successfully made their way out of the hellishness that The Waste Land is intended to portray and, like him and his speaker, stand near the peak of Dante’s purgatorial mountain.
The following analysis of the poem, section by section, demonstrates that The Waste Land takes its readers on a hellish journey for the sake of bringing them, like Dante, to some point of positive recognition that the hell of self can be mastered and left behind. The question is, How?
A Note on the Notes
No doubt, there are still those who hold up the six or seven pages of author’s notes that follow The Waste Land as proof positive that Eliot must have regarded the completed poem as unintelligible without them. Only the poem’s earliest readers, that is, those who had the opportunity to read it when it was first published, in October 1922, in two reviews, the Criterion and the Dial, will ever know what the experience of encountering The Waste Land’s decidedly complex text must have been like without the benefit of Eliot’s notes. On the other hand, it has long since been recognized that the notes, by calling attention to any one particular detail at the expense of another in a richly detailed tapestry of allusions and other poetic devices, may as often be a hindrance to understanding and clarity as a help.
No one wants to approach The Waste Land unattended; still, it is unfortunate that that privilege has forever been denied readers once Eliot introduced his notes into the poem, with its publication in book form in December 1922. By now, the notes form as much of the experience of the poem as its lines of poetry, almost as if Eliot had always intended them to be a part of the poetic effect of The Waste Land from the first.
Whatever other reputation for often intentionally obfuscating the obvious that Eliot may deservedly have earned by now, however, his notes came to be appended to the text of The Waste Land completely by happenstance and most assuredly without any subtle motivation on his part. The story goes, and there is no reason to doubt its veracity, that when Boni & Liveright was preparing The Waste Land for publication in book form in late 1922, they discovered that there would be a quantity of extra pages. That was because the text of the poem would fill only 48 pages. To this day, the typical trade book is printed in a format to produce the standard 6 × 9-inch size. This book size is achieved by printing 16 pages at a time on each side of a 24 inch × 36-inch sheet that is then folded four times, so that each finished page is one-16th of the original size of the sheet. These 32-page units, which are subsequently trimmed back at the top, bottom, and outside edges so that they can be opened properly after binding, are called signatures. Once the text of The Waste Land was set in type, it was discovered that it would fill only 48 finished pages, but it would have to be printed in two signatures nevertheless, leaving 16 pages blank. Eliot was prevailed on to provide some additional poetry to complete the volume. He opted, however, to provide the notes instead, hoping, as he says, that they might assist “any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.”
That is not to say, nevertheless, that Eliot may not have eventually employed the notes as much to misdirect as to direct. The question remains whether he did so intentionally. Scholars have subsequently discovered many more possible sources and alternatives to sources for lines that Eliot himself identified than Eliot’s notes could have listed in the space allowed him. Still, one must question what mode of selection Eliot may have employed in determining what to omit, what only to point toward, and what to expatiate on in painstaking detail. Every choice, of course, shapes the response that the reader and the scholar formulate to the line or the source in question—a prejudicing of the evidence, as it were, that someone of Eliot’s astuteness and acute intelligence would have been highly aware.
In the following discussion, to identify a source of Eliot’s, the notes will be relied on for the most part, and it will be only when there is a powerful suggestiveness to look elsewhere—for example, the reference to the Starnbergersee, which calls up King Ludwig of Bavaria, or the reference to Marie, that seems to be a reference to the tragic suicides at Mayerling—that sources not identified by Eliot will be introduced into the discussion.
Incidentally, Eliot does not always identify an obvious source or provide an expected one. For example, the absence of an identification of a source for the epigraph is singularly conspicuous. For another example, Eliot does not let the reader in on the inside joke that the dedicatory words to Pound allude to the same passage from Dante alluded to elsewhere in the poem. That the title of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead,” is apparently taken from the Anglican burial service of the same name, is also not noted. Identifying the alleged allusion to Chaucer in the opening line, meanwhile, is left up to the agility of the reader’s imagination.
Still, anyone doubting the story of how the notes came to be there in the first place—that they were provided by Eliot to fill what would otherwise have been blank space—need only compare the number of pages occupied by the notes with the number of pages occupied by the poem itself. The ratio should come out at just about one to three, accounting for the same proportionality that would have resulted if there indeed were those 16 blank pages to account for out of two 32-page signatures, leaving 48 pages of poetry.
The following is a section-by-section if not quite line-by-line reading of The Waste Land. This reading is designed to be consistent and coherent, but not exhaustive. To be exhaustive, a treatment of the poem would easily take a volume equal in size to this present one, and even then it could not possibly take into account in any genuinely satisfactory manner all the various other commentaries that the poem has generated virtually from the day of its first publication.
Part I: “The Burial of the Dead”
Thus far, the information being presented has had a single aim, and that has been to prepare a novice reader of The Waste Land for the experience of its poetry without unnecessarily daunting that reader before he or she even begins. With the achievement of that aim in mind, such a reader will find useful as well the following characterization of the approach to the text of The Waste Land that is about to ensue. That approach is to think of The Waste Land as a verbal space, literally—a wilderness of words and word-images, allusions and literary sound bytes, nonsense syllables and foreign words and phrases, and anything else that may come to mind or eye or ear. Just as the poem’s speaker will have to, the reader too must traverse that imaginary space with only one goal in mind—surviving the experience so that, by poem’s end, he or she may sit on the shore, like the speaker, with the arid plain behind them both.
If a single principle can be isolated from all those foregoing presentations made thus far regarding The Waste Land, it would be that the richness and complexity of the poetry of The Waste Land should never be sacrificed for the sake of a facile reliance on stringing together the semblance of meaning by treating the wealth of background and source information as if it were the poem. It simply is not. However, a corollary principle has emerged, and that is that Eliot does rely on his readers’ having some sense of those general cultural reference points within the various texts and figures to which he calls attention by virtue of the poem’s many allusions. The danger would be to imagine that there might ever be a one-for-one connection between these allusions as they operate in their original sources and as they operate in Eliot. There is likely no better place to begin to demonstrate the validity of this corollary principle than with the opening line, which has traditionally been regarded as a direct allusion to the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 15th-century English treasure, The Canterbury Tales.
So complicated has the issue of Eliot’s use of literary and other allusions in The Waste Land become, however, that even the title of the first part of the Eliot poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” needs first to be quickly considered and then as quickly dismissed as an allusion to the funeral service from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. That service is indeed called the Burial of the Dead and, like any item of great liturgical interest, purpose, and history, it no doubt has in it much powerful and beautiful language, not to mention powerful and moving sentiments as well. Raised in his ancestors’ Unitarian traditions, Eliot would, later in the 1920s, begin to attend Anglican services and eventually convert to the Anglican church in 1927. Finally, as the actively intelligent, engaged, and curious human being that he was, Eliot would have known something of the Book of Common Prayer, even if that were only for its literary, historical, and cultural importance to English-speaking peoples.
Still, and all that said, it is pure speculation that Eliot had that source in mind at the moment that he selected the title for the first section of The Waste Land and, furthermore, even should it be proved conclusively that he did, the question remains whether it is necessary for a reader to have that information in order to feel the impact and import of the words, “the burial if the dead,” particularly in terms of the tone and the mood that they set for the poem that is to follow. “Of course not,” is the only fair answer that could be made to that speculative question, and that is the very point that Eliot makes by leaving so many putative allusions, including this present one, unattributed. The accidentals of reading and memory and writing surely play a part in anyone’s use of language. Words may come to mind in a particular order or echoing a particular source as much for their rhythms as for their initial meaning or source. In the case of Eliot, this particular horse—that every word must have its specific source, every source its specific implication for meaning—is one that cannot possibly be beaten to death too often inasmuch as it is the phoenix of dead horses and has a way of becoming an interpretative nightmare to boot.
That said, it is fair to examine the poem’s celebrated opening clause, “April is the cruelest month,” with the same spirit of skeptical reservation when it comes to imagining that that opening image, such as it is, is an allusion to Chaucer. The General Prologue to his celebrated collection of tales, in Middle English, told to each other by a band of pilgrims on their fictitious journey to Canterbury to visit the shrine to the martyred 13thcentury saint Thomas à Becket, opens by setting the following springtime scene:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
. . . . .
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
. . . . .
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
[When April with his showers sweet
The drought of March had pierced to the root,
And bathed every vine in such liquid
Of which virtue engendered is the flower;
. . . . .
Then long folks to go on pilgrimages, . . . . .
The holy blissful martyr for to seek,
That them had helped when they were sick.]
Equally celebrated by now are the opening seven lines of The Waste Land, which describe April as the “cruelest month” because the spring rain breeds “lilacs out of the dead land” and stirs with a quickening liveliness “dull roots” that would otherwise apparently be content to remain sluggishly embedded in their wintry torpor. To this mix of the conflict between an awakening natural universe and what, in Chaucer’s time, would have been called acedia, a tragic slothfulness of the spirit resulting in a disengagement from the processes of life, Eliot also adds how April mixes “memory and desire,” the longing for a past contentment, perhaps, contending with that same promise of new life, new activities, springing into being. The point seems to be that, for the speaker or observer of the event, that promise is clearly not necessarily a welcome one, since its aim is to rouse the sleeper out of the cocoon of acedia. The idea being promoted with little fanfare or argument as the poem begins, then, is essentially one that the spirit, much like the body or mind, is reluctant to be wakened, so April is “cruel” by awakening all living things whether they wish it or not.
This is not to say that there may not be good reason for imagining that Eliot wants his readers at the outset to be thinking of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, if only for the sake of contrasts. They, after all, have a fixed goal and purpose in mind. The reader of The Waste Land will discover quickly that if there is a protagonist inhabiting the lines of The Waste Land, his or her most outstanding characteristic is aimlessness and confusion of purpose or direction. Even so, the ability to make even that sort of a connection with Chaucer would require some familiarity with Chaucer to begin with. That familiarity absent, the question would then be, Would that ignorant reader obtain a meaning of some sort from Eliot’s words about April and the spring rain, dull roots, and dried tubers? The answer to such a question could be nothing less than a resounding yes.
For example, in the headnote that precedes the notes at the end of the poem, Eliot states that JESSE L. WESTON’s study, From Ritual to Romance, a work of fairly recent scholarship that had theorized that the origins of the Grail legend were to be found in ancient vegetation myths regarding the need for the earth to renew itself in new life after the death of winter, informs “not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism” of The Waste Land. Also involved in the quest for the Grail is the legendary cup from Christ’s last supper, another story involving a journey or pilgrimage. So, then, there are several points of contact in general with the Chaucer poem, but beyond that, they do not seem to point toward any particular meaning or in any particular direction so much as onward.
What that particular meaning and direction maybe should be the reader’s entire focus, of course, but Chaucer, having been brought up, must first be laid to rest. In other words, knowing Chaucer’s “meaning” will never clarify Eliot’s. To get past the first line, the reader must get past Chaucer—the reader must bury the dead. Throughout its pages, The Waste Land plays with and, to some degree, virtually milks humankind’s vastest and most common store of symbols and symbolical imagery and actions, those that have to do with life and death, birth and resurrection, sterility and fertility—in summary, the conflict between procreative sex and sexual recreation, as well as another conflict, that one between what has been sapped of all its vital energy and life and that sap that restores all vital energy and life.
If The Waste Land is a wasteland, the reader comes to feel that it is one because there has been no life-giving rain, there is no water in it, nothing of that sweet liquid that can restore the dead land. That water is the life-giving water celebrated in countless myths from countless human cultures over countless ages, every one of which associates life with the supple and the quickened, and death with the dried out or desiccated and the dulled, the numbed. April is indeed the cruelest month, then, not because the ghost of Chaucer or of his particular sentiments on the same ageless topic haunt those opening lines of Eliot’s, but because it is that month in which the struggle between the forces of death and the forces of life are there for all to see as most obviously in conflict—provided that one has awakened to see it. Rather than the spirit being willing but the flesh is weak, in April the flesh is willing, but the spirit may be weak, or weakened. Certainly, it may be more willing to sleep than to awaken.
It is this fear—that this spring there may be not that usual, age-old victory of spring over winter, but rather a defeat for the new life that is awakening, both literally and figuratively—that will permeate the entirety of the remainder of The Waste Land. That is how Eliot is able easily to slip between a poetry that at one moment seems to be a cultural critique of the shortcomings of his own time and, at others, seems to be merely yet another chapter in the enduring human tale of death versus life carried on in the terminology of a symbology as old, perhaps, as the human imagination itself.
“Winter kept us warm,” the speaker, or a speaker, says, and it is perfectly understandable that the winter should have but only if it is the false warmth of the body dying into a paralyzing numbness, not the true warmth of the spirit reviving. No wonder, then, that the poetry moves now very quickly, but not unexpectedly for the reader who has been cued in to what the essential crisis is, to persons who are content to haunt “health” resorts, where they may partake of artificial cures in artificial settings while the real work of the natural universe progresses all about them.
The reference to the Starnbergersee is particularly appropriate at this juncture. It is at that lake that the so-called crazy King Ludwig of Bavaria, the royal patron who underwrote much of Richard Wagner’s operatic efforts, including his Parsifal, which recounted the Grail legend for 19th-century Germans, not only built his renowned storybook castle that imitates the Grail castle but subsequently drowned himself, a suicide. The reference to Marie, meanwhile, is commonly thought to harken back to Baroness Marie Vestera, the mistress of the Archduke Rudolph of Habsburg, crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and first cousin to the same Archduke Franz-Ferdinand whose subsequent assassination would precipitate the outbreak of hostilities that became World War I). Rudolph and Marie, in one of the most famous scandals of the late 1880s, apparently committed suicide together on January 30, 1889, at his hunting lodge at Mayerling in Austria. Although the truth of the matter may never be known (some argue that he was brutally murdered), there is no doubt that Rudolph’s untimely death began the final series of crises and setbacks, involving matters of succession and alliances, that would bring Europe from the height of its glory as a human culture to the brink of a devastating war within a matter of decades.
Inasmuch as Eliot’s intentions are concerned, however, all of the forgoing is purely speculative. What the reader does know is that in the midst of the polyglot activity of winter with which The Waste Land opens, what is missing is any sense of the ancient foreboding: What if the springtime does not come? If, for example, the Grail legend is centered around a wounded king whose wounds must be healed if the land is itself to be healed, a story whose origins are far, far older than Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, then it is none too puzzling that The Waste Land opens with these allusions to “wounded” royals, both of them connected to those two powers, Germany and Austria, that would become the initial aggressors in World War I.
Do myth and reality live so near each other, The Waste Land asks, that one can be seen to blend easily into the other. The Waste Land can ask that question, however, only of the reader who is himself or herself conscious that he or she, too, is a living link in the ever-shifting present that resides between the past that is winter, memory, myth, and a future that could be possibly spring but may only be frustrated by confused signals and mixed desires.
Logically, compellingly enough, into the next stanza in this poem of irregular stanzas and irregular lines, lines that rhyme and lines that end abruptly leading nowhere, suddenly appearing in a foreign tongue only to disappear instantly into another tongue or into an English that itself often seems to make as little sense, as if it too were a language from another land, the wasteland, comes the speaker, speaking clearly but hardly cheerily. This speaker calls the reader directly into the poem, confronting him with dire questions and more dire consequences. In so many words, he tells the reader that, although it may be spring, they are both lost in the wilderness, in a desert that is the wasteland of their mind and spirit and culture.
Thus far in this commentary there have been passing references made to a speaker in and of The Waste Land, as if he is an easily identified entity, perhaps even a personage. Before proceeding, the reader might find it valuable to ponder briefly who that speaker may be. For he does now seem at this juncture to step suddenly out of the page and address The Waste Land’s readers directly: “you.”
If this forthright voice, the speaker, is to be the reader’s friend or taskmaster, the reader’s Virgil as that Roman poet was Dante’s guide, then as the reader continues the trek across the pages of The Waste Land, it may not hurt to try to get this spectral speaker’s measure before venturing much further or farther. For as Joseph Conrad’s narrator Marlow says of the mysterious Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Eliot’s speaker is more a voice, a presence, than any flesh-and-blood persona such as J. Alfred Prufrock. Exactly when this voice speaks, for example, and what he has to tell the reader, are neither easy matters to discern, because a great part of the power, the realism, of the poetry of The Waste Land is its uncanny, albeit disconcerting ability to mimic the cacophony of contending sensory claims on the distracted and often disconnected reader’s attention span. When that voice speaks, however, it seems to have the power to make its presence known, almost as if it were someone or something that existed simultaneously within and outside the poetic line. A long-noted feature of The Waste Land’s poetry is its ability to change tone and mood at the drop of a line, and that ability owes to the speaker’s uncanny power to master the poetic moment. With the opening of the first part’s second stanza, then, the whirlwind of voices and thoughts that both mar and mark the confusing energies and bewildering directions of the first stanza settle down.
It is just as if that whirlwind has dropped the reader in a sandy, stony, burning waste in stanza two, and the voice of someone who seems to know what is happening but may otherwise be as lost and bewildered intones, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” That stony rubbish is the tumble of voices and images and allusions that have just assaulted the reader’s sensibilities; that stony rubbish is as well the figurative acres of wasteland imagery and poetry still before the reader. But here, for a moment, the anonymous, faceless, bodiless but hardly speechless speaker briefs his fellow trekker. “Son of man,” he remarks, “you cannot know / For you know only a heap of broken images.”
If Pound in 1919 in his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley could witheringly summarize the accomplishments of all European culture as “a few gross of broken statues / a few thousand battered books,” Eliot distills the total by that much more to its barest figurative minimum—a heap of broken images—lost gods, lost myths, lost symbols, broken dreams, and shattered hopes. Lost in the desert that the past can quickly become when there are no reference points to guide the way, there is indeed no relief from the relentless heat of time’s burning passage. The image of “fear in a handful of dust” brings to mind the Sibyl who, knowing all things, seeks only death, hardly an endorsement for continuing any kind of human enterprise at all.
If Christ has been invoked in the epithet “son of man,” the only title in the Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth claimed for himself, the relatively modern, post-Christian 19th-century New England transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, with his American philosophy of self-reliance and belief in the universal goodness of the oversoul, is also invoked, but all to no avail, in the image of the shadow that extends before and after all human endeavor. In “The Hollow Men,” near the middle of the 1920s, Eliot will use the image of the shadow to even greater advantage, but here in The Waste Land he uses it to call to mind his own direct reference to Emerson in “Sweeney Erect.” In that poem, one of the quatrains composed during 1917 and 1918, Eliot jokes that Emerson could not ever have envisioned the new man, embodied for Eliot in Sweeney, that the democratic masses of America could breed, nor could an idealist like Emerson have envisioned the catastrophe that modern history would become, either, in that shadow rising to meet us. Apparently, the only respite for the speaker of The Waste Land can be found in concealment from the blazing light of that kind of a searing truth, within whatever shade a red rock might provide, while what the body, what the soul, what the mind craves is the life-giving water, of which there is none, at least not here and not now. It is only ever “out there,” beyond the seeker’s reach but not his ken.
Although The Waste Land is more a poetry of point of view, reflecting a state of mind rather than any actual character development or other elements typical of plot and motive, it is nevertheless by giving The Waste Land at least this species of a narrative structure, using the concept of the quest as the motivating factor and driving force, that the poem’s forward progress can be observed, measured, and made sense of. For there is a forward progress to both the poem and the poetry, though it may be difficult to imagine that that is the case as one reads on from one moment, or one line, to the next.
Suddenly the reader, who has been asked to imagine a desert, is in a hyacinth garden, exactly as the scene might shift entirely by some odd quirk of association in a dream. Furthermore, the speaker, the reader’s friend, has fallen silent, although voices continue. Someone is telling someone else that he called her the hyacinth girl—or he may be telling that to a male, since the Hyacinthus of myth was a beautiful young man with whom the god Apollo fell in love. Here again, in a poem that will ultimately prove to be full of tales of and allusions to tragic or empty love relationships, is Apollo’s, which was another awful story of love gone fatally askew. Playing at discus with the young and handsome mortal, so the story goes, Apollo accidentally killed Hyacinthus, and the flower that now bears the young man’s name is traditionally regarded as a token of the god’s great grief.
In a poem in which Tiresias’s bisexuality will, in the third part, “The Fire Sermon,” become a central metaphor, gender is developing more as an impediment to understanding than any metaphorical gateway. The reader might recall how, in the first stanza of “The Burial of the Dead,” someone who is assumed to be a man (since the poem is written by one) suddenly morphs into Marie when words are spoken to him or her. So, too, these genderbending myths, and Eliot’s use of them, seem to be intended as a way of separating the theme of love, which must inherently transcend issues of gender, from sexual desire and human reproduction.
In the next part, “A Game of Chess,” for a further example, the reader will encounter two frustrated couples whose problem seems to be that they have confused connubial love with sexual coupling and its attendant results. In “The Fire Sermon,” meanwhile, an allusion to that passage from The Confessions in which Augustine admits that he was “in love with being in love” plays a key role.
Unavoidable is the further suggestion in this allusion to the tale of Apollo and Hyacinth as well that the relationship with the hyacinth girl did not end either happily or productively, a possibility encouraged by the verses that Eliot cites from Richard Wagner’s tragic opera Tristan und Isolde that come just before his reference to the hyacinth girl. Wagner has already appeared obliquely in stanza one of “The Burial of the Dead” by virtue of the allusion to his patron, King Ludwig, and now the tragic love affair of the Archduke Rudolph and the Baroness Marie Vestera of stanza one is echoed in Wagner’s tragedy of the lovers Tristan and Isolde, who also die as the result of a star-crossed love affair destined to end miserably. Their story had originated in the 12th century and by Wagner’s time had undergone many revisions and retellings, including being incorporated finally into the Arthurian literature, of which the Grail quest is a part. In every version, however, including Wagner’s, Tristan, the Cornwall knight, falls prey to the charms of the Irish beauty, Isolde, and as a result ends up betraying his master, King Mark, whose wife Isolde becomes.
Without a doubt, this theme of love’s betrayal, like the spring’s, will permeate the entire Eliot poem, but the speaker, and the reader, will come to learn that it is a betrayal that is fomented by unreasonable expectations and desires as well as by self-deceptions and self-serving machinations. The speaker’s reluctance to accept the bidding of the spring is as much his undoing, for example, as the unwillingness of the material universe to set its clocks by an individual human’s needs. In the same way, love is all too often the name given the irresistible desire to scratch a bodily itch by abusing someone else’s trust and confidence.
The verses that Eliot cites from Wagner contrast a sailor’s song, sung early in the opera in Isolde’s presence, with a report made much later in the opera, near its close. Quoted directly by Eliot in the original German, as was his wont, the first four lines portray a lover wondering where his beloved might be, because the winds that should be bringing her home to him over the sea from Ireland are favorable: “Frisch weht der Wind,” and so forth. The line with which the Eliot stanza closes—“Oed und leer das Meer”—relates to Isolde herself, who is coming by ship again, this time bringing a magic potion that can save Tristan’s life. Impatiently awaiting not only his beloved but a restorative (bringing to mind those restoring processes of spring with which the speaker of The Waste Land is obsessed), Tristan sends a servant to scan the horizon for sight of her vessel. While Isolde will eventually arrive, it is only to have her beloved die in her arms. However, at the moment in the opera when the words that end Eliot’s stanza are spoken—in English, “The sea is wide and empty”— the servant, a shepherd, has returned to tell Tristan that there are no sails, there is no ship in sight. The hoped-for restoration is derelict.
The reader, who began this stanza in one wasteland, one of burning sand, will end it with the vision of another, a wide and empty expanse of dismal seascape. The impact of this second stanza is a heavy blow: Looking for some sign of a meaningfully renewed engagement with the external universe, one is instead left speechless as eyes look only into the “heart of light, the silence”—a deafening and blinding emptiness. There is no hope, the poem seems to be saying, only loss.
But another stanza awaits, for always, although even the individual life and hope may cease to be, poetry continues—a thought that forms no small part of The Waste Land’s primary intent. They say that a body ache should be treated by alternating applications of heat and cold. Eliot appears to be a poet who subscribes to this remedy for his reader’s spirits as well, for Eliot follows the bittersweet tragedy of stanza two, with its dire predictions of disaster, with a comically ominous visit to a fortune-teller, “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant.” Perhaps the speaker, as troubled by his own confusions as the reader may be, has dropped in on a lark on his return home that evening after work and maybe will stop at the club for a bit of wine and cheese to hold him till supper.
After all, the news has not been good. There are wars and rumors of wars, even in the swanky resort where the speaker may have just spent his holiday hobknobbing with the rich and famous and powerful. Even they have been dropping like flies lately, suicides one and all, emblems of a culture set on a course for self-destruct. Although last night’s performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with its overwhelmingly tragic vision of love gone askew, was grand, tonight may be a night for something different, something not quite so depressing, so the speaker, suspended as he is between memory and desire, a past filled with regrets, a future vague and cloudy, visits a fortune-teller, and what does she tell him? Something depressing.
The Waste Land is built upon a constantly shifting but always thematically consistent array of parallels, and even in this third stanza of the first part of the poem, with its turn to parody if not even nonsense, those parallels continue to manifest themselves. This “blind” fortune-teller (she concludes her spiel by telling the speaker that “one must be so careful these days,” making it clear that she does not know what the next minute will bring, let alone the future) harkens back to the Sibyl, of course, but also to the mythic Greek soothsayer Tiresias, the figure that Eliot, in his notes, makes central to the poem’s drama.
Furthermore, Madame Sosostris reads the Tarot, the earliest form of the modern deck of playing cards, whose suits—the cup, the lance, the sword, and the dish—are derived from the Grail legend as well, according to Weston. As comical as the madame’s turn is, then, it ties together two of the major dynamics of the poem: The individual’s desire to seek the fulfillment that the future represents (that is, the quest) is matched only by his or her fear to know what that future may be. This attraction-repulsion relationship with the future, embodied in the alternating promise and nagging insistence of spring, will shortly be embodied in the fear of the resurrection of the wrong dead, that is, the infamous “sprouting” of the corpse that Stetson “planted last year in [his] garden.”
But, like the future, that moment in The Waste Land is yet to come. For now and for the speaker, there is the “future” that Madame Sosostris, reading the cards, has to tell him. That it is nonsense is made clear by the fact that she tells the speaker, who is lost in a wasteland where there is not even the sound of water, to fear death by drowning. Inadvertently on Madame Sosostris’s part, here again, nevertheless, is another foreshadowing, in this case of Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor of the fourth part of The Waste Land, “Death by Water.”
Not that Madame Sosostris, charlatan that she is, deserves any credit for that. Eliot gives her a cold and punningly jokes about her “wicked pack of cards.” (An old saying reminds us that even a broken clock is right twice a day. The point is that nothing is ever meaningless, not even a charlatan’s predictions.) Apparently left depressed by the madame’s sorry vision, however, the speaker, in the last stanza of “The Burial of the Dead,” heads the rest of the way home now, joining the crowd of other weary wayfarers wending their way across London Bridge.
Here comes that moment in The Waste Land, already dealt with in the earlier comments on Eliot’s dedication of the poem to Ezra Pound, where the literary ghost of Dante and his vision of the human soul in Eternity is first invoked. The crowd making its way across the ancient bridge (not that the structure is itself ancient, of course, but the Thames has been bridged at this point since Roman times) calls up for the speaker an image of the damned making their way across the Acheron into the hellish pit of the Inferno.
This area of the City of London that Eliot is describing is one with which he would have been personally very familiar. The Church of St. Mary Woolnoth, for example, is near where Eliot at that time worked, in the offices of Lloyds Bank. This locale in Eliot’s time would have been the financial and commercial center not just of London but as the seat of British imperial power, of the world, the equivalent in its time of the New York World Trade Center. To make it a fit landscape for hell is not any reference to its squalor or tawdriness, consequently (the squalid and the tawdry will come soon enough in The Waste Land) but to the transient service to the temples of materialism and of other temporal and empty pursuits that humans engage themselves in there.
The reader is now very near the end of the section entitled “The Burial of the Dead,” after all. How many and how much is buried under this square mile of English earth, one must ponder. Not too far from St. Mary Woolnoth, for example, stands Christopher Wren’s monument to Charles II for his restoration of the city following the Great Fire of September 1666 that literally laid waste to four-fifths of the city itself, thereby giving Wren one of the greatest architectural opportunities in modern history.
Caught up in this sensual music of birth, copulation, and death, destruction and restoration, loss and renewal that is all around him, the speaker feels not the lightness of the coming spring with whose promise the poem opened but the weight of the years and the toil and the sin. Rebirth spells responsibility, after all. The cry that the speaker thus calls out to Stetson, asking after that man’s particular guilty secret, sounds like the greetings that Dante makes to those among the damned that he recognizes on his own trek through hell itself.
Here is the moment where the fear that is in a handful of dust finds its name, and it is indubitably fear for one’s sins—the corpse that was planted last year may resurrect to point a withering finger of accusation. Fear makes the spirit reluctant to awaken and instead, Sibyl-like, makes it desire death, like those doomed lovers Rudolph and Marie, or like Tristan and Isolde, whose last great aria, in Wagner, is the Liebestod, death-love. Now, too, the quester, the speaker, knows his charge: to seek life or to seek death, to awaken or to die. Let the dead bury the dead, the Gospels say, but what are the living to do in the midst of so much buried death? the poem clearly asks.
But this message in The Waste Land, at the end of the first part at least, is not about religion; it is rather about dealing with the quiet, invisible terror— Kierkegaard not many decades earlier had called it fear and trembling—that is existence, and so in both the opening and the closing lines of final stanza of “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot invokes not one of the great religious poets of history such as Dante but one of literature’s most famous bad boys, Charles Baudelaire, a mid-19th-century atheist, French symbolist, and iconoclast. Though Eliot’s is a very free translation, the fragmentary line with which this final stanza begins—“Unreal city”—is from Baudelaire’s “Les sept vieillards,” or “The Seven Old Men,” a nightmarish vision of the modern city as a place inhabited by the walking dead, who may be vampires or even demons. The Baudelaire poem’s first image is of the city as an anthill, aswarm with subterranean dreams and ghosts and secrets, making the words “unreal city,” Eliot’s less vivid translation of Baudelaire’s original phrase, “fourmillante cité,” along with Eliot’s own subsequent use of images from straight out of Dante’s Inferno, all the more telling and appropriate.
It is Baudelaire’s vision of what commentators have come to call the urban apocalypse that is again invoked at the end of the stanza and of “The Burial of the Dead” itself. In “To the Reader,” the opening poem in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, or Flowers of Evil, the French poet accuses his reader of being, like himself, a hypocrite, unwilling to admit that it is in each other that each human individual is compelled to recognize himself or herself among the living and the dead, “mon semblable— mon frère!”—“my reflection, my brother!” These two uses by Eliot of Baudelaire’s uniquely modern urban vision to clarify the inescapably deadening reality of the commonalities that life takes on in a teeming modern city drive home the point that The Waste has been making throughout this first of its five parts: The distinction between life and death, and between the living and the dead, has become a far less vividly dramatic one than poets of yore, with the possible exception of Dante, were capable of imagining, that in order to cope in a modern urban landscape, humans require not a new vision (that is why Eliot can call up as many of the voices of past poets as he has and will) but a new way of seeing how the old visions may still apply.
The idea is not that the dead land whose imagery permeates the poetry of the poem’s opening section, “The Burial of the Dead,” will not yield something. The idea is that it is as likely to yield what has already died and been buried—the corpse interred in Stetson’s garden, for example—as to provide what is genuinely vital and inspiriting new growth. That is all the difference in the world, of course, a difference between repeating the past to no useful purpose or moving on into a future that may be uncertain but is nevertheless built on rather than mired in the past. The one course of action is redundant and stultifying, not to mention terrifying. The other is renewing and invigorating but perhaps, in its newness and strangeness, no less terrifying. And, so, the putative hero struggles with choices and mixed signals, neither of which are ever clear and both of which are always confused.
In any event, that seems to be how the speaker of the poem, who is “suspended between memory and desire,” between a past that is dead and a future that is uncertain, views the matter; for if “The Burial of the Dead” has a consistent tone, it is one of confusion and doubt. Faced with an array of bewildering avenues of thought and action and meaning that, rather than proving to be liberating for him, seem instead to have paralyzed the speaker’s capacity for choice, the speaker, if he is indeed on a quest, a meaningful journey, seems to be getting nowhere fast, as the saying goes. Rather he wanders the streets of a great metropolis, London, feeling, apparently, more as if he has died and gone to hell than as if spring and its promise of renewal and rebirth are in the air.
He has come to find himself stalemated, driven to a standstill by fear and doubt, both personal and cultural, and the second part of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess,” seals the speaker’s compact with the modern world’s only remaining sin, ennui—boredom. “The Burial of the Dead” ends with Baudelaire’s words to his readers, challenging them to deny the, for him, obvious truth that the greatest vice of all, and the most insidious, is boredom—insidious because it is a vice that everyone excuses and no one can resist. Eliot, indeed, may yet turn out to be the great poet of that elusive state of being in which more humans spend more time than any of us would ever care to calculate— boredom. The empty life of a Prufrock or the speaker of “Portrait of a Lady,” the insomniac world of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and “Preludes,” even the pointless antics of the Sweeney poems or the frenetic wit of the more personal-seeming quatrains, and most assuredly “Gerontion” ’s exhausted and monotonous monologue all point in one direction, and that is into the bottomless pit of vacant self-absorption called boredom.
Commenting on the 19th-century English poet and social critic Matthew Arnold’s observation that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life, Eliot astutely observed that one does not come away with criticism when one hits bottom. Rather, he asserted, one comes away with “a sense of the horror, the boredom, and the glory.” The issue is not whether it was Eliot or Arnold who was correct in this particular instance; the issue is that Eliot recognizes boredom as a major motivating factor in human life.
Perhaps that view was a part of the influence on Eliot of the French symbolists with their jaded and irreverent sensibilities and tastes. The words of Baudelaire identify boredom as the one vice that is more ugly and foul than all the rest, though not as spectacularly interesting or inviting, and that other symbolist whose work influenced Eliot far more than any other, Jules Laforgue, carved his disillusioned and jaded doubled personae out of a word that had ceased, it seemed, to engage the young poet’s intellect or heart any longer. There are many kinds of death, but none is perhaps worse than the death of the will to engage life with an active passion. Eliot’s early poetry had consistently chronicled the more superficial aspects of this very kind of a death; The Waste Land explores it in depth.
Part II: “A Game of Chess”
Identifying boredom as humankind’s greatest bane may reflect a uniquely modernist attitude on the French symbolists and Eliot’s part, indicative of the increase in middle- and leisure-class activities that had come about as a result of the Industrial Revolution. After all, the sort of subsistence living that most humans had endured for virtually all of the previous eons of human history seldom left them with enough leisure time to give rise to either the bane or the vice of boredom. Whatever the social causes of the phenomenal attention suddenly paid to boredom by poets in the mid- to late 19th century, few if any other previous literatures deal with and detail boredom as a motivating factor in human psychology as much as early 20th-century literature did, and from their earliest manifestations, Eliot’s works are prominent among those that do.
With the possible exception of “The Hollow Men,” no other poetry of Eliot’s captures the quality of the theme of boredom quite as well as does the second part of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess.” This should come as no surprise. It makes a certain kind of sense to settle on being bored as the one way to resolve the two conflicting choices with which “The Burial of the Dead” has presented the speaker—staying buried in a dead past or being restored to life in an uncertain present.
Boredom offers at least the simulacrum of activity; to an outsider, indeed, the bored individual might very well appear to be quite comfortably at ease, even content, amid the luxuries of an upper middle-class apartment or sharing a pint or two with his or her chums at the local working-class pub. In any event, those are the two opposing settings, rather like the ying and yang of the black and the white pieces in a game of chess, for the action of “A Game of Chess.” By exploring these two extremes of the social order, Eliot dismisses the ages-old myth that each end of the spectrum of human culture has regarding the other, the rich believing that only the poor are truly happy, the poor that only the rich are truly happy. In the scheme of things that The Waste Land is developing wherein happiness is not a superficial emotional detail to be found in possessions or in the forgetfulness brought about by empty sexual encounters or by an alcoholic stupor, no matter what one’s bank account may be, there is no getting away from boredom, which the characters all carry with them like a virus that they inflict on one another.
In the first half of “A Game of Chess,” then, is a middle-class couple who seem to be able to succeed at doing nothing better than getting on each other’s nerves. To set the scene, Eliot appeals to his reader’s acquaintance with an especially lush moment in act II of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra when Enobarbus, at the insistence of Agrippa, recounts the entrance that Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, made when she visited with, and succeeded in conquering the heart of, Marc Antony, the powerful Roman general and spiritual heir to the reputation of the assassinated Julius Caesar. Enobarbus waxes poetic as he describes how “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, / Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold; / Purple the sails, and so perfumed that / The winds were love-sick with them. . . .” These are memorable lines that anyone that has ever encountered them is not likely to forget; Eliot’s calling them to his reader’s attention immediately as he begins his own description of the room in which the bored 20th-century couple sits, playing a game of chess, does more than merely call to mind past splendors, however, be those splendors those of Shakespeare’s or the Caesars’ times.
Indeed, one must always be careful when taking the measure of a classical allusion in Eliot. All too often it as likely to deconstruct the past as to honor it. With this particular allusion to Shakespeare, which as much brings to mind Cleopatra as an iconic historical figure as it does those so-called glories of the past, the reader should be mindful yet again that sexual attraction and amorous interest are being employed not to any ameliorative or constructive or even only merely recreative effects or purposes. Much to the contrary, Cleopatra remains notorious for having used her considerable sexual charms to ensnare and exploit to her own best political advantages two of the most powerful men in the Roman world, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Shakespeare may make Antony and Cleopatra’s story a tragic love affair, but Antony’s love for and faith in her also brought about his defeat, ruin, and death. The larger lesson to be gained from all this is not one about sexual politics or gender issues, however, so much as one that reveals in dramatic terms how much self-centeredness and self-interest rule human behavior even in a context as ostensibly nurturing, sharing, and becoming intimate as the kind of human bonding that results in coupling and marriage.
Of course, Cleopatra’s way to a man’s heart also serves in the scene to follow as an ironic counterpoint to the fact that the couple whom the reader is about to meet apparently have lost the knack for arousing any sort of sexual, let alone amorous, interest in each other. For the reader to see how this particular modern couple fail to relate or to connect with each other, however, the reader must meet another tragic couple from ancient times. In this case, the source is Greek rather than Roman, the story finding its basis in a myth rather than in history. Still, in most of its details, it rings no less true or likely for being myth rather than history.
It is the story of Tereus, the king of Thrace, and his wife, Procne. Eliot introduces them into the poetry of The Waste Land at this point in the poem by calling to his reader’s attention a print that the London couple have hanging on the wall above the fireplace mantle. In this “sylvan scene,” the reader learns, is depicted “the change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced,” a tale that not only reflects on the modern couple but on much of the rest of the direction that The Waste Land takes.
Procne was the daughter of the king of Athens, and when Tereus won her hand in marriage, all Thrace rightly rejoiced. She soon gave Tereus an heir to the throne, their son, Itys, but after a while, Procne grew homesick and requested that her younger sister Philomela might come to visit them. Willingly, Tereus went to fetch her. The minute he laid eyes on her, however, he lusted after her, and, as Ovid, Eliot’s source for the horrible tale, tells it in the Metamorphoses, his collection of stories of mythic transformations, Tereus now burned only to have Philomela for himself. Instead of bringing her home to his palace and the waiting Procne, he took Philomela to a tower deep in a forest where he raped her, a virgin, and then, rather than killing her as she pleaded, cut out her tongue so that his horrible deed might never be known. There is the further suggestion that in that way, too, he could have his pleasure of her whenever he wished.
Tereus managed easily to convince Procne that her sister had died on the homeward journey from Athens, but unbeknownst to him, Philomela contrived to weave a cloth in whose threads she told the tale of Tereus’s awful treachery. Philomela tricked an old maid servant into bringing the telltale tapestry to Procne as a gift, and when the dishonored wife and mother learned of the shame that Tereus’s lust had brought on her family and their marriage bed, not only did she free her mutilated sister from her confinement but, to avenge his crime, the two sisters mercilessly slaughtered Itys, roasted his dead body, and served it to Tereus. When he discovered what they had done, they fled, with Tereus hot in pursuit. The gods transformed the three into birds: Philomela into a swallow, because the swallow cannot sing but only cries out; Tereus into a hoopoe, a bird of prey; and Procne into a nightingale, whose plaintive song is taken to be inspired by the grief of a mother perpetually mourning her lost child.
Anyone who would see in this story Eliot comparing a glorious past with a sordid present, as some contemporary readers of The Waste Land did, are certainly missing the point, which, again, in typical Eliot fashion, is multilayered. For one thing, in a poem whose overall theme is loss and waste, the tale of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus surely fill the bill whenever and wherever it may have occurred. In this particular instance, however, it is not just the adults who suffer, as in the case of Rudolph and Marie or Antony and Cleopatra, but the children, too. Itys is portrayed as a very small and innocent child, like Iphigenia in the Agamemnon, the tragedy that Eliot alludes to in “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” or the infant Oedipus, whom the presence of Tiresias in the pages of The Waste Land will bring shortly to mind as well. The ancient idea is that a culture that slaughters its young does not have long to survive, and so a constant condition of the wasteland that The Waste Land portrays is its slaughter of innocence and of the innocent.
That point will be much more fully developed shortly in the second part of “A Game of Chess,” the pub scene. For now, Philomela’s rape and the disgraced marriage bed appear more as a comment on the bored couple that the reader is about to hear as they engage in a fruitlessly one-sided conversation in their well-appointed apartment.
The reader is now told that, along with the print depicting the rape of Philomela, “Other withered stumps of time / Were told” on the apartment’s walls. The clear implication rather is that these emblems of and lessons from the human family’s mythic past, containing its store of conventional wisdom and cautionary tales regarding destructive behavior patterns, have become mere wallpaper, as it were, nothing more than window dressing and decorative elements inasmuch as this modern couple, who are starving in the midst of plenty, are concerned. A vast panoramic history of ideas and images hovers just at the edge of their consciousness, if even there, but otherwise has no abiding effect on or benefit to their lives. Like the “roots that clutch” to no avail in “The Burial of the Dead,” the ancient tales have become “withered stumps,” an image recalling Philomela’s severed tongue, to be sure, but also echoing the image, again from “The Burial of the Dead,” questioning what branches—new growth, new ideas—might “grow out of this stony rubbish.” A withered stump bears no fruit.
Cut off from the past, from its instructive powers over the living human spirit meant to inherit and be shaped by it, and bereft of any unifying principle of their own, the twosome sit there, bored out of their skulls with each other, their surroundings, and themselves. What then follows is, once more, the couple’s one-sided conversation in which she complains that her nerves are bad and that they never do anything, and he pulls a long-suffering silent act, never apparently responding to her complaints directly but thinking, nevertheless, about how bored he is, too, with the whole show, the whole lot of them. “What shall we ever do?” she asks, or is it him and of himself, as they sit there, drowning in a sea of human voices, hearing nothing, connecting nothing with nothing? Eliot almost gets his readers to wish that they might at least find the passion and the conviction that individuals like Procne and Philomela, even the brute Tereus, had. For all their destructiveness, they at least engaged life and the living of it as if such things were meaningful and important experiences in and of themselves, as if life mattered. This new, modern scene of marital tragedy, however, ends not with mad pursuit, but with someone “pressing lidless eyes”—there is no rest, no relief, and there apparently will be none.
If this opening episode of “A Game of Chess” is one of the least difficult sections of The Waste Land to get a handle on because of its clarity as drama, as narrative, particularly after the challenges to order and coherence with which “The Burial of the Dead” has just presented the reader, then the pub scene that follows is a close competitor. The transition may be abrupt, but it should not be too difficult for the attentive reader to get his or her bearings because it is clear that, despite the lack of quotation marks, there is now someone being caught in the act of actually speaking, rather than the poet or the anonymous speaker speaking only to the reader.
“When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—,” this someone begins, and it quickly becomes apparent from her turns of speech that she is a working- class person unabashedly gossiping about a good friend as she goes on about the marital advice that she tried to give to this other person, Lil. The monologue—although a one-sided conversation may again be, like the stressed wife’s of the first episode, a more apt description in this case, too— introduces us to yet another married couple, Lil and Albert. If The Waste Land drives its “story” forward on an endless stream of parallel stories drawn from different human epochs and locales, Lil and Albert’s, though they may be far more just “common” folk, is a story that is no less sad or tragic than the couple’s sharing a loveless and sexless marriage in the midst of their comfortable surroundings, or than Tereus and Procne’s. (Indeed, it may very well be Eliot’s intention to use Lil and Albert to dispel the old literary myth that only the highborn can know what genuine suffering is. Eliot was the child of a democratic culture; he would have known that tragedy is no respecter of classes.)
Any reader can easily gather the details. Albert has just been released from military service after four years, having been in the war for the duration, no doubt, and the friend has been advising Lil to try to look her best if she wants to keep her man now that he has come home for good at last. Lil, however, has been having trouble with her teeth, and Albert would like to see her get them all pulled and replaced with false teeth. Lil’s excuse is that her bad teeth and her sorry looks are the result of her having taken drugs to abort her last pregnancy, having had five children by Albert already. Shades of the slaughtered Itys and Procne’s mournful tears aside, Lil’s friend makes it clear to her listeners that she has made it clear to Lil that if Lil does not give Albert the “good time” he wants, “there’s others will, I said.” “Then I’ll know who to thank,” Lil tells her. So the story goes.
Interspersed with this particular mournful tale of love gone awry and adultery on the wing is the bartender’s crying out, “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”— the last call in a London pub. If it will help keep a dramatic focus, the reader might wish to imagine that the husband of the couple in the first part of “A Game of Chess,” no longer able to bear his spouse’s irritable nagging, has stepped downstairs into a pub that occupies the street level in their or an adjacent apartment building. Eliot and his wife Vivien did indeed live in a London apartment near a pub at this time in their married life. Although theirs was not a loveless match by all accounts, it was, because to Vivien’s difficult menstrual cycles, a great deal more sexless than is natural or normal. Imagining that the couple bored to distraction, the husband driven to a late-night drink, might be Tom and Viv will not make the significance of the moment in The Waste Land have any greater or lesser significance, however, since it could be a thousand other couples in a thousand other cities on a thousand other nights—which is Eliot’s point. By dragging Lil and Albert, Tereus and Procne, and Antony and Cleopatra (and, shortly, Tiresias) into the endless tale of human betrayal and disappointment in the name of love, he is not telling his own tale; he is telling everyone’s tale to one degree or another.
For now, the poetry is mainly exposing the withering irony that there is no getting away from the agony that is human existence, its interminable boredom, and its seeking after quick and all too often violent pleasure in reaction. Seeking some surcease from his sorrow, such as it is, the speaker (for might not the husband driven from his apartment by his nerve-wracked wife not be the seekerspeaker of “The Burial of the Dead?”) has to sit and listen—at an adjoining table of his own, of course; he would hardly dare to mingle—to Lil’s friend go on and on as another dreary night draws to another dreary close.
The patrons finally begin to depart, bidding each “goonight,” and another echo of that “Shakespeherian Rag” creeps over the water, bringing to mind one last pair of doomed lovers, Hamlet and Ophelia. In the midst of all those good nights is Ophelia’s—“ Good night, ladies”—as she drowns, having been driven mad, first, by Hamlet’s abusive behavior toward her in his plot to feign madness and then when Hamlet’s kills her father, Polonius, mistaking him for yet another murderous king, Claudius. All stories are the same story, it has been said, and in “A Game of Chess,” Eliot’s aim is simply to prove this maxim in as few words and with as great an economy of stagecraft and fanfare as possible. If it were a stand-alone poem, “A Game of Chess” would still be an outstanding poetic achievement, combining the allusive, the dramatic, and the thematic in a way that both advances the immediate action—the quest is still on, after all, even if it seems that the text cannot get past square one, that being the City of London—and the universal dynamics of human relationships that compel that action.
If The Waste Land is the dead land, it is not that it is incapable of springing to life; it is that the hero must desire life. Otherwise, all is lost inasmuch as the human element is concerned. Procne’s mourning cry is what survives—“the inviolable voice” that can fill all the desert with its song. That song, Eliot tells his reader, is the poetry—the enduring beauty, if you will—that is made out of all of this otherwise transient suffering. Shakespeare, in another of his plays, The Tempest, will say it best, perhaps, when he says that song is that magic that turns all our suffering into something “rich and strange”—a phrase that Eliot will resort to frequently in his criticism. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that that very moment from The Tempest in which Shakespeare has the sprite Ariel utter those words underpins the opening movement (to shift to a musical analogy) of the next section of The Waste Land.
Part III: “The Fire Sermon”
The third part’s opening motifs of less-than-enticing scenes set by the River Thames as it wends it way through English literary history as well as past the sleeping modern metropolis of London is in keeping with the only somewhat convenient premise that The Waste Land, rather than a collage of mangled verse, is a narrative poem reflecting the thoughts and feelings of a single personage. Though he may be more a ruling intelligence than any easily isolated and identified agent or personality, the speaker whose presence periodically manifests itself clearly and distinctly among all those bit and pieces from sources as varied as past literary masterpieces, snatches of conversation caught as if in passing, and present-day popular songs does seem to take on more discernible characteristics and a personality as the poem proceeds, so that by the opening of “The Fire Sermon,” with its morning-after ambiance, this anonymous speaker’s trail follows logically upon the flow of the dramatic action that has just transpired in “A Game of Chess.”
It is not too difficult to imagine, for example, that this ruling or guiding personage, whose interior monologue and exterior meanderings form the substance of The Waste Land, having left his apartment and nagging spouse at some point the evening before and then hung out till closing in the early morning hours in a pub in part two of The Waste Land, now finds himself, in part three, wandering the deserted streets of London in the early morning hours. As one half of that middleclass couple, unhappy not just with each other so much as with life itself, or at least with the lifestyle they have found themselves compelled to live in this contemporary urban environment, he may very well be reluctant to return home. He has had his fill of nagging women the night before.
Whatever the case, he seems now to be retracing his steps from the closing passages of “The Burial of the Dead.” Shortly, for example, he will invoke those images of the “unreal city” again, and from the landmarks that he cites, it will be made clear that he is once more near London Bridge. This is certainly Eliot’s vivid way of suggesting that the speaker, like the aimless opportunists in the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno, is going around in meaningless circles. The only problem is that he is supposed to be on a quest if the wasteland is ever to be delivered from its awful doldrums. That will come later, however. For now the speaker seems to be haunting the waterfront itself, the seedy banks of the river, and as he does so, he bears an uneasy witness to the sordid detritus of the previous night’s furtive activities along those ancient banks littered with “other testimonies of summer nights.”
Such a conceit—that the speaker has lost his way as he walks off a hangover, perhaps—would enable the reader to make sense and even order out of this third part’s tangle of allusions, fragments, and images. If the sensibilities of this ruling intelligence, the speaker, are suffering a disorientation from the marital stress and heavy drinking of the sleepless night before, then all these dulled and confused memories of past trysts that will dominate virtually the whole of “The Fire Sermon” are still very much in keeping with the speaker’s own current interests and predicament, even if that is not as clear to him at the moment as it ought to be to the keenly observant reader. Assaulted on all sides by a culture top-heavy with the totems and tokens of the past, and unsure of the direction that his life and marriage have taken, the distracted speaker has not lost sight of his quest so much as not yet come to realize that he is even on one—a quest not for the Grail itself but for the ability to make the kind of sense and order out of experience that the reader also craves as the poetry of The Waste Land continues on its inexorably chaotic way.
Any pursuit that lacks direction or purpose must ultimately seem to be a vain one, and that is certainly the point that this section’s title, “The Fire Sermon,” makes. The title is a direct reference to a sermon, a teaching text from The Buddha, and as such The Buddha’s Fire Sermon emphasizes a spiritual lesson by means of the figure that all of the material universe is on fire—burning, that is, or changing—even as the soul witnesses it. The Buddha uses this figure to teach the lesson that the created world of time and space, which for the sensory, sensual self seems to be the only substantial reality that there is, is in fact nothing but an illusion. That as such, furthermore, it can only deceive the individual soul into imagining that what is “real” is this world, with its wealth, fame, power, and all its other attachments as well, including those to the flesh and its pleasures and to the flesh of others in the pleasures of sexual or connubial love. This world, however, is in fact illusory, according to The Buddha’s teachings, for the simple reason that it is always changing. Hence, nothing in it endures, whereas the soul does. So, then, the soul must seek the sources of its peace elsewhere.
The idea that nothing here matters because nothing here endures is at the heart of much wisdom literature from ancient times to the present, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (to which Eliot, in his notes, compares The Buddha’s Fire Sermon) included. With its exhortation to store one’s treasure in heaven, where it cannot rust, Christ’s guidance to his followers is based on the same principle as The Buddha’s: The world that the senses perceive to be the only world is instead a place of corruption, where nothing, not even thought or belief or love, lasts long—if, that is, it is built on nothing more than the shifting sands of human knowledge and human interaction.
So, too, then, the shifting scene that the speaker discovers as he wanders the riverside at early morning is one that emphasizes that no human pleasure endures either, not even the lustful dalliances of the night before, as the remnant debris that he encounters bears witness. Like the nymphs, who were only ever imagined anyhow, and the city directors and their heirs, who come and go on fame and fortune’s changing winds, lovers, too, are all or soon will be departed or parted, just like the power-brokers—Lil as well as Cleopatra, Antony as well as Albert. To underscore that poignant truth, Eliot plays on a refrain from Sir Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century poem in honor of a wedding, The Prothalamion: “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.” Spenser’s love song for the young bride and groom ended long ago, as did that young couple, as will this echo of it, the poetry suggests. The river runs on, no matter, in good Hercleitean fashion. (Heracleitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, is famous for having observed that no one can step into the same river twice.)
Echoes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest are heard here, too, another literary work that emphasizes loss. Ferdinand, a prince of Naples, fearing that his father, Alonso, the king, has been lost in a shipwreck, has his fears confirmed by “music that crept by me upon the waters,” so he weeps in grief while sitting on the bank. That this Alonso was not a very pleasant person is not factored in to Ferdinand’s grief, nor should it be. In any case, the report of Alonso’s death later turns out to be a lie, the basis for an illusion created by the magician Prospero, himself the former, usurped king of Naples exiled by Alonso to this lonely island with only his daughter Miranda for company. Who does not have a story of loss worthy of another’s tears? In a world of illusions, however, it makes no difference to the speaker what is true or what is false, for “son of man, / You cannot say or guess.” In the wasteland that the speaker inhabits, even the source of tears seems to have dried up (shades of Lil’s friend’s unsympathetic analysis of Lil’s “sorry” marriage).
The speaker now ends up fishing along the bank. Whether that is literal or he is pruriently fishing for clues about what sorts of amorous activities may have transpired there last night under the concealing cover of darkness, it brings to mind the Fisher King, who though wounded monitors the hero’s access to the Grail that can cure him. Still, this is a moment of a forced, false resolution that will not take; much more travail and learning lay ahead for the speaker before, at poem’s end, he will have earned the right to sit finally at the shore, fishing, the arid plain behind him.
For now, he is still lost in a wilderness of confusion, selfishness, and desire. That is why the dominant note struck in “The Fire Sermon” will be its almost obsessive emphasis upon sexual desire, lust. Dante was astute enough to consign the majority of the sinners confined to hell proper to Circle Two, where the lustful are punished, and Shakespeare never missed an opportunity to introduce a bit of bawd to liven up an otherwise weighty dramatic moment. Eliot, too, knows that, while the great mythic images of a lost or wounded king and blighted land longing to be rescued by a savior/hero/ Grail knight may tug at the heartstrings and appeal to the imagination of a certain kind of reader (Eliot himself included, no doubt), unadorned metaphors and images drawing on the raw energies of sexual desire and its related abuses will always strike a resounding clarion chord with most readers, since most humans know what it is to lose sight of goals, proper action, and even clear thinking when the heat of sexual passion clouds the intellect and moral judgment.
Nor should this emphasis be thought of as either a pandering to his readers’ baser instincts or as moralizing or preaching to them on Eliot’s part, since that is not the point. Human sexuality is merely and for the most part a convenient shorthand by which Eliot may define the essential problem of human existence, that being the individual’s attachment to the material universe, which, as The Buddha and the poets insist, is all only an illusion anyhow, changing ceaselessly even as it unfolds or undresses before the seeker’s eyes, hungry for the sight of something meaningful, maybe even just interesting. When in doubt, a comely naked torso will always do nicely to illustrate the point.
The locale of a river, then, also itself becomes a suitable metaphorical reference point for the river of time, of course, which, like time and tide, waits for no one. Art may seek the changeless, but as the 17th-century English poet Andrew Marvell says, “at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.” Those awful sentiments, from Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a cleverly witty invitation to his beloved to surrender her chastity to his desires, are alluded to twice over within 12 lines of this same opening stanza to “The Fire Sermon,” so that the reader is not allowed to escape what the old scholars and religious used to call a memento mori—a reminder of death. (Eliot, in his notes, identifies the second allusion to Marvell as an allusion to an obscure poem called “Parliament of Bees,” but this may be the sort of red herring that Eliot delighted in tossing under the noses of scholarly source hunters. He was alluding to Marvell’s duly celebrated poem as early as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and his criticism had a great deal to do with making this poem of Marvell’s celebrated among modern readers.)
By the end of the first stanza, nevertheless, the reader finds Eliot exercising his typical propensity for undercutting any earlier indications of a too serious intent for the poetry. The gloom and doom expressed in the poetry from The Tempest and from Marvell that has been alluded to, not to mention in the images of rats dragging “slimy” bellies or scurrying over bones cast into dry attics—shades of “Gerontion” or of “The Hollow Men” yet to come—suddenly take a turn toward the ludicrous but no less sexually seductive. Using the second allusion to Marvell to execute the segue—“But at my back from time to time I hear”—Eliot permits his caricature of the natural man, Sweeney, to swim into the picture. Followed by a ragged verse that comes from a relatively bawdy and contemporary song about a Mrs. Porter whose daughter “washes her feet in soda water,” reminiscent, perhaps, of the epileptic Doris from Mrs. Turner’s bawdy house in “Sweeney Erect,” Sweeney’s entrance into the pages of The Waste Land may lighten the moment but not the matter.
Whatever else the reader may think of someone who uses soda water to clean her feet, the idea calls to mind a very famous poetic tag by George Gordon, Lord Byron, the early 19th-century Scottish libertine, poet, and bon vivant. If the speaker is indeed suffering a hangover as he muses on dead kings and deader desire, he may be recalling, too, another gibe at drunkenness and sermons and soda water as this first stanza of “The Fire Sermon” ends. Although this gibe is hardly as sobering as The Buddha’s injunction, it has as its target the same sort of frivolously vain human behavior: “Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,” Byron’s couplet runs, “Sermons and soda water the morning after.”
Soda water would have been a dyspeptic, the Alka Seltzer of its day for those who had indulged too heavily the night before. That said, Byron’s sentiments are clear, almost indeed the drunken libertine’s age-old battle cry: If I have to hear preaching, let it be after I have enjoyed the pleasures of sinning. It is a worldly man’s morality, naturally, and hardly what The Buddha would have had in mind, although Sweeney would no doubt subscribe to the idea. Whether or not the speaker of The Waste Land does as well will be answered in the next stanza.
On balance, and despite this possible allusion to Byron through Sweeney and Mrs. Porter’s daughter, the first stanza of “The Fire Sermon” may seem to betoken on the part of a repentant speaker regret or at least some caution regarding sexual and other sorts of pleasure-seeking excess in the face of life’s brief candle—particularly when it is being burnt at both ends, as the saying goes. If there were any lessons to be learned, however, stanza two suggests strongly that they simply did not take. The speaker is back in the same locale of “unreal city” that he had already managed to find his way to in “The Burial of the Dead.” The morning has passed, and it is now a winter afternoon. Just as Madame Sosostris was a false start on Tiresias, who shall appear momentarily, Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, is a false start on the drowned Phoenician sailor that she read in the speaker’s future. That personage, too, will appear shortly in part four as Phlebas. For now, however, this scene, with its rather patent overtones of a homosexual pickup, appears to serve as a way for Eliot further to emphasize the speaker’s lack of any real forward progress, for here he is, still as suspended between memory and desire as he was within the first few lines of the entire poem.
What now is about to ensue is an assignation between a young woman—a typist—and a rental agent—the “young man carbuncular,” that is, pimple-faced. (Eliot refers crudely to young male adolescents’ faces that have apparently broken out in “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” as being “red and pustular”; he may, however, only be using that kind of an identifying characteristic as a sign of physical and, so, behavioral immaturity, rather than being insensitive.)
Whether the speaker is a witness to this scene, a participant in it, or absent from it is difficult to determine. Since this scene is also famously witnessed by Tiresias, it is perhaps one of the most critical in the Eliot text, not simply for Tiresias’s mythic importance as a seer but for the special significance that Eliot assigns him in the notes to the poem. It is doubtful, nevertheless, that the speaker and Tiresias are the same person, as some commentators have suggested; rather, introducing Tiresias at this point gives Eliot the opportunity to take the typist’s part as well as the young man’s for reasons that will be explained shortly.
That leaves two other options for where the speaker has gone. He has been until now present virtually without cease, after all, even if only as a sorry murmur from time to time since the second stanza of “The Burial of the Dead,” so why should he suddenly disappear from the scene at just this juncture? To imagine that he has not disappeared leaves only one option: that the speaker may be the carbuncular young man who by late afternoon and after a near sexual encounter with another male relieves all his own pent-up sexual frustration, energy, and stress with the typist, an old flame perhaps or maybe even a present one, given the tenuous state of the speaker’s marriage. Ultimately, it is not that important a matter, of course. The typist and young man’s moment of sexual intimacy is merely another one of those universal moments repeated ceaselessly “on this same divan or bed,” as Tiresias so astutely observes. So, too, this scene in The Waste Land is that single one toward which all of the poetry to this juncture has been pointing, the poem’s dramatic climax (coming, as is appropriate, three-fifths of the way through). It is, at least, the easiest scene in the poem for a reader to follow.
In a note, Eliot cites a longish passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses not only to give his own readers an introduction to Tiresias but also to tell them how that mythic personage is intended to function in this section of The Waste Land. Several issues arise immediately, however. For one thing, Eliot uses a Roman source for a mythic characterization that is Greek in origin. True, the source is a poet of no less stature than Ovid, but it is not as if the Greek sources for Tiresias are obscure or any less celebrated as poetic achievements. Indeed, few readers familiar with Greek literature, a category of individuals that would certainly include Eliot, would be likely to think first of Ovid when Tiresias comes to mind.
Such a reader would think foremost, no doubt, of the Tiresias whom Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, must visit in the Underworld in order to discover what perils still lie before him as he continues his homeward voyage to Ithaka. Failing that, such a reader would be as likely to recall Sophocles’ Oedipus the King or his Antigone, two tragic plays in which the same Tiresias, here portrayed as the blind seer, futilely informs others of the unassailable truths of their fate, truths that they cannot, or do not wish to, hear. To be sure, Eliot does make a point of reminding his own readers of those equally celebrated appearances of Tiresias in ancient Greek myths. His Tiresias speaks, for example, of his having sat outside the walls of Thebes, the locale of the two tragedies by Sophocles, and of his having walked among the lowest of the dead, that is, as he is seen to be doing in the Underworld of Homer.
A further connection between Sophocles’ use of Tiresias, incidentally, can be found in the fact that Oedipus the King deals with a city that has become a wasteland because it is unwittingly harboring the killer of the previous king. In other words, intentionally or not, Sophocles builds his Theban tragedy on the same primitive vegetation myths—with their sacrificed or wounded king and a blighted land awaiting its deliverance—a myth, Eliot tells his readers in his notes, that he has utilized as well to establish his own wasteland motifs in keeping with his reading of Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and SIR JAMES FRAZER’s The Golden Bough, which both contain “references to vegetation ceremonies.” But if Eliot does not think or wish his reader to be ignorant of Tiresias’s Greek pedigree, why, then, does Eliot call special attention neither to the Tiresias of Homer nor to the Tiresias of Sophocles, reasonably original Greek sources, but to Ovid’s tale of Tiresias, a tale based on those same original sources, no doubt, but otherwise composed in far distant Imperial Roman times?
Fortunately, Eliot’s extended note dealing with Tiresias answers this question in rather precise but not necessarily perfectly clear terms. For one thing, Eliot tells his reader that the myth of Tiresias that Ovid relates (Eliot cites it virtually in full but leaves it in the original Latin) is “of great anthropological interest”—hardly a minor detail but, as phrased, not a particularly useful one either. That myth relates how Jove teased Juno by telling her that wives had the better part of it in lovemaking. Juno disagreed, and to settle the argument, they turned to Tiresias, who had spent seven years of his life as a woman (explaining why Eliot portrays him as an “old man with wrinkled breasts”) as the miraculous result of his having struck two snakes while they were copulating. Tiresias decided the argument in Jove’s favor (whether in deference to Jove’s might or to the truth as he, Tiresias, knew it is not clarified by Ovid). Juno had to live with the decision, of course, but to punish Tiresias for siding with Jove, she struck Tiresias blind (an action that commented on what she thought of Tiresias’s opinion). Jove could not undo the punishment—no god can—but was able to compensate Tiresias for the loss of his physical sight by making him able to see the future.
Eliot does not miss the mark by much when he says that Ovid’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek rendering of the myth is of great interest, exposing as it does the far more ancient and epic battle of the sexes, which apparently goes on even among the immortal gods, and the drolly ironic subtext, which suggests that each gender thinks that the other side enjoys sexual activity more, thus implying that neither side does. Fortunately, too, Eliot’s note explains the significance of all this inasmuch as it affects The Waste Land, which, by this point in its unfolding progress as a poetic narrative, is as clearly obsessed with human sexuality as with anything. (A commentator once suggested that the poem ought to have been entitled The Waist Land.) In this same note, Eliot proposes that all the various male characters in The Waste Land are one male character, just as all the various women are one woman, and that the two sexes meet in Tiresias, “the most important personage in the poem.” Eliot goes on to explain that “What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.”
That sounds to be more than a hint as to the meaning of The Waste Land straight out of its poet’s own mouth, but the overzealous reader must be careful here, nevertheless. Eliot’s note, his words, are not necessarily a trap, but they require interpretation on the reader’s part as well. What Tiresias sees, for example, may seem obvious—a couple making rather perfunctory “love,” as it is often euphemistically put, almost as if the sex act were a duty or an obligation, like eating or sleeping or voting, rather than the intimate sharing of an abiding and pleasurable procreative energy with each other. However, what Tiresias also sees, as he comments—“ I Tiresias have foresuffered all”—is that this is how humans most often have engaged, and do engage, in such a powerfully life-giving, lifehealing action, not with zest, but with reluctance and relief: “ ‘I’m glad it’s over.’ ” So, then, what Tiresias sees is not the human tragedy but the human comedy, thus, too, explaining why, for his Tiresias, Eliot turned to the less somber and sober Roman source, Ovid.
Ovid’s Tiresias, the reader now should remember, speaks of the subject with an impressive authority, after all, one of which even the gods stand in awe, having known human sexual experience as both a male and a female. Indeed, Ovid’s Tiresias is one of the few, perhaps the only characterization, in all human literature, whose point of view can truly be called universal and so objective. On this basis it might be concluded that the substance of The Waste Land is its comment on the inability of the individual, be that person a man or a woman, to find peace and contentment and fulfillment in another human being on this side of the grave.
The reader of The Waste Land has already seen a parade of lovers, like players in a French sexual farce, come sweeping past, much like the heterosexual lovers in Circle Two of Dante’s Inferno who are blown on a hot and stirring wind, the very emblem of their restless desire for rest in another’s embrace—Rudolph and Marie, Tristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra, Tereus and Procne and Philomela, the couple at their game of chess, Lil and Albert, the typist and the rental clerk, Tiresias. All have been left frustrated by that which ought to fulfill—love. And all are at a loss for what went wrong.
Shortly the reader will be introduced to other examples of love, sex, attachments that went nowhere except into the sadness of what was wasted. The reader, continuing a journey down a river that is both the river of time, of history, and the real Thames, encounters Elizabeth and Leicester, whose legendary dalliance ended nowhere. Then the reader hears from each of the three young modern women whom Eliot, in another note, calls the Thames-daughters. Each one makes her confession of surrendering her virtue to a male companion who was all too willing to take it, and none of them found satisfaction or fulfillment in that awful daring of a moment’s surrender that is the complete submission of oneself, emotionally and physically, to another person in the throes of love, be it another name for sex or for passion.
First, however, the speaker must stand one last time, as he has done twice before, on or near London Bridge (Wren’s church of St. Magnus the Martyr, a fishers’ parish, is close by). Once again he must survey the unreal, the swarming human city, filled with thousands of individuals seeking or already lost in the arms of a significant other, each one in the tangle of the ultimate human embrace imagining, like Ovid’s Jove and Juno, that it is the other one who is getting the better part of the bargain. Eliot’s point, if not the anonymous speaker’s, too, by now seems to be rather obvious: There must be something else. This sad and apparently timeless, ceaseless parade of human hope and folly cannot be all there is—cannot be what it is or was meant to be all about.
That it is not, was not, is, of course, the thrust of both the entire poem and the seeker/speaker’s quest. That much is clear. But if the lives of most humans are lives lost in the errors of misplaced longings, as Eliot suggests by his use of so much past poetry as examples, the reader now has the right to demand of the poet something more than just the critique, something more in keeping with a possible solution to this universal human dilemma. What, then, is human happiness?
Eliot had already introduced in the section’s title, “The Fire Sermon,” one possible solution, found in the asceticism promoted by The Buddha— happiness can come only through the complete renunciation of all the allure of the physical universe, since it is all only an illusion in any event. Now, as the third part of The Waste Land draws to a close, Eliot introduces words from another ancient text that also offers a solution to the question of, the quest for, human happiness. “To Carthage then I came,” are the words that open Book III of The Confessions of St. Augustine. In that work, a book that is regarded as the first autobiography and that was written in A.D. 397 when he was 43, Augustine, then the Catholic bishop of Hippo Begius in North Africa, recounts the history of his life not as the actions of a man but as the quest of a soul craving only one thing—to come to know, love, and serve its God.
That Augustine, as a result of that quest, chose to know, love, and serve the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments is not to Eliot’s point, so much as that in coming to do so, Augustine had to learn to put behind him his sinfulness, which, from his viewpoint, was his attachment to the things of this world. Among those attachments were the usual run-of-the-mill varieties—fame, fortune, glory—but the one that was particularly troublesome and difficult for him to overcome from his own point of view was his inability, from the time that he entered puberty, to keep himself away from the sexual pleasures that he found in women. As Book III of The Confessions opens, it continues, “a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me. I was not yet in love, but I was in love with love.” More than anything else, Augustine found his carnality to be the foremost impediment to his finding peace with God and so peace with himself— in a word, happiness. And in those closing five truncated lines of poetry with which “The Fire Sermon” closes, there is, in essence, another appeal to the tradition of renunciation of the flesh and the things of this world that also forms the basis of The Buddha’s teaching.
In Eliot’s view, Augustine’s Confessions is to the traditions of Western asceticism what The Buddha’s Fire Sermon is to the traditions of Eastern asceticism, an observation on which Eliot himself elaborates in his note to these closing verses of “The Fire Sermon” and their allusion to St. Augustine’s Confessions. The only difference, perhaps, is that if The Buddha calls for personal renunciation, Augustine calls for surrender to the will of a greater person, God: “O Lord Thou pluckest me out.” In either case, the solution is the same: self-denial, or in preparation for the next section of The Waste Land, “Death by Water,” the extinction of self.
Suspended as he is between memory and desire, the speaker till now has been learning that desire is the danger and that all the sources of renewal, or at least a clue to them, are to be found in, are stored in, memory. Just as, in virtually real terms, spring is the vegetable world re-creating itself and, with it, the living Earth out of the cellular memory of past springs, past rebirths, and renewals, stored in a dormant natural universe, so, then, dormant within the speaker is the memory of hope. Lest he die to the animal appetite that drives him— desire—that memory will not be freed to awaken, however. Overcoming desire will be the focus of “What the Thunder Said,” the fifth and final section of The Waste Land. But first, like Phlebas, the speaker must experience a death—must recognize that physical death itself only symbolizes the death of the will to chart one’s own destiny.
Part IV: “Death by Water”
The fourth section of The Waste Land must, at first glance, come as a relief to any reader who has made it this far into the poem. Not only does “Death by Water” run a mere 10 lines, but there does not appear to be a single non sequitur among them. Indeed, the four sentences of which the single stanza is composed not only are all grammatically complete, but they present a consecutive and logical exposition from beginning to end, and the form of the stanza, divided by breaking lines three and seven into two half-lines apiece, make for a rather pleasant-looking pattern on the page, resembling somewhat the rolling waves of the sea in which Phlebas the Phoenician sailor-merchant must have drowned.
Furthermore, the text is all in English, and there is only one literary allusion among the stanza’s 70 words. That allusion, such as it is, is to a poem by Eliot himself, “Dans le Restaurant,” or “In the Restaurant,” composed, as the title suggests, originally in French and first published in the Little Review in September 1918. Eliot had been a longtime student of recent French verse. Not only did he model many of his earliest poems after the style of Jules Laforgue, but he developed the latter quatrains in imitation of Théophile Gautier, particularly “The Hippopotamus,” which was adapted from one of Gautier’s own quatrain poems.
During his student year in Paris (1910–11), Eliot would later confess in a Paris Review interview in 1959, he had toyed with the idea of settling down in Paris where he would “scrape along . . . and gradually write French.” That went the way of many another young person’s romantic dream of throwing all career and caution to the wind. Later still, after his early successes, Eliot admitted in the same interview that he thought that his poetic talent had “dried up completely.” He continued, “I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate. I started writing a few things in French and found I could.” Eliot admitted, too, to having had some help in editing these poems from Pound and another French-speaking friend, Edmund du Lac. “Dans le Restaurant” was one of the better products of that period and is to this day included among the minor poems in The Complete Poems and Plays. Otherwise, its main claim to fame is that “Death by Water” is virtually a direct translation of the closing stanza of “Dans le Restaurant.”
The stanza on Phlebas does not seem to have a place in Eliot’s French-language original, which involves an elderly waiter recounting a curiously erotic episode that he had had with a young girl when he was just a boy. The only discernible connection seems to be that the patron requires change for a bathhouse, bringing to mind the possibility of a homosexual liaison, as well, perhaps, as the homosexual encounter that the speaker of The Waste Land has just had in “The Fire Sermon” with Mr. Eugenides, the one-eyed Smyrna merchant, who invited him to a weekend at Brighton, a popular seaside resort (and whose own French, “demotic,” was not of the highest standards either, by the way).
Any hints of the sea or water have implications of the notion of an imminent rescue from the oppressive dryness of The Waste Land, although in both of Eliot’s poetic treatments, water proves to be deadly for Phlebas. However, if death of self, in a spiritual sense, is the only salvation from the endless round of sexual desire, mayhem, and exploitation that the reader has thus far witnessed in The Waste Land, then “death by water” can easily connote a saving grace. Christian baptism, for example, utilizes the symbolic death of immersion in water to remind the initiate that he has died to sin and been reborn in Christ. So, then, the overall significance of the death of Phlebas, who is held up as a reminder, in the fourth part of The Waste Land, to both “Gentile or Jew” that Phlebas’s is the common human fate—each of us is mortal, dies—fits neatly into the overall movement of The Waste Land to this point.
Thus far, that is to say, the reader has seen Eliot using the resources of myth, history, literature, and even current events—“He Do the Police in Different Voices”—to present a vision of humanity that has universal implications. The human individual is presented as a creature bearing the double burden of consciousness (“memory”) and an animal nature (“desire”), frequently unable to satisfy the rigorous demands of either, and afflicted on all sides with the need for constant interaction with other similarly burdened human creatures, leaving trails of loneliness, grief, regret, and violence in their wake. To that catastrophe sages like The Buddha and St. Augustine offer the antidote of self-denial and surrender to a greater will and, one must hope, purpose.
Phlebas has certainly found a certain sort of peace; in death, he has “forgotten the profit and the loss”—the scorekeeping, as it were, that keeps the game going—but the benefit seems minimal. He is caught in the whirlpool, after all. Is death just another round of frustration and fruitless hope? the poetry seems to be asking, even if it asks the reader to recognize in Phlebas’s fate the fate that awaits every individual.
The reader might wonder why here, at a juncture that is clearly a crossroads in the poem, Eliot did not choose to use a more publicly available and accessible reference point than an obscure passage and characterization from one of his own poems. If he had chosen a more commonly known mythic reference point, for example, there may have been a clearer signal as to whether Phlebas is intended as a model or an admonishment. The key to a suitable answer to that question may be found, however, in a detail from the original appearance of Phlebas in Eliot. In “Dans le Restaurant,” Eliot tells us an intriguing piece of information that is omitted from the same story as it is retold in The Waste Land. Eliot tells us exactly where Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor, drowned.
It was off the coast of Cornwall, in the farthest southwestern reaches of England. That locale has its own historical legitimacy for playing host to such a significant event. Cornwall has been a source for tin from ancient into relatively recent times, and it is a well-known historical fact that the ancient Phoenicians, a seafaring and mercantile people who hailed from the area now occupied by modern Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, carried on an active trade in Cornish tin perhaps from as far back as that tin was first being mined. Phoenician traders bartering with Celtic tribesman even happens to be the subject of a mural in the old Exchange Building in the City of London. Although a recent redevelopment of that impressive temple of trade and banking into an upscale dining and shopping mall now obscures the mural along with all the others depicting the economic history of the British peoples, it is hard to imagine that Eliot, as he made his workday excursions week after week in those very same environs of the “unreal” city, where he was himself employed, did not see that mural frequently.
There is, however, another, far more telling connection among the Cornish tin trade, Middle Eastern merchant adventurers, and The Waste Land. Not too far inland up the Cornish peninsula from Cornwall is Somerset, home to Glastonbury, which is famed in British legend both as the burial place of Arthur and Guinevere and as the site in Britain to which Joseph of Arimathea came, fleeing the persecution of the Christ’s followers in the Holy Land following the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. With him, in fact, Joseph, who is named in the Gospels for having provided both the burial garments and the tomb for Jesus’s interment, is reputed to have brought the chalice that Christ blessed and from which he and the Apostles drank the wine of the First Eucharist at the Last Supper— a chalice that came down into medieval times as the legendary Holy Grail whose quest would obsess certain among Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. Eliot’s allusion, by bringing Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor, to the reader’s attention at this critical juncture in The Waste Land, to his own earlier poem also, by extension, brings the Grail quest back to the forefront once more as well, but in a manner at odds with Jesse L. Weston’s reading of the quest, which Eliot himself cites quite favorably in his headnote.
By establishing in the old vegetation rituals that permeated ancient Indo-European cultures the likelihood of a pagan Welsh origin to the Grail legend, whereby the blood-sacrifice of the Fisher King in the autumn was a fertility act required to ensure the Earth’s rebirth in the spring, Weston builds her entire thesis to overthrow the longstanding notion that the Grail is connected with the chalice of the Last Supper through Joseph of Glastonbury and, so, connected as well not simply with the subsequent Arthurian sagas but with the origins and beliefs of Christianity. As in any scholarly argument, Weston does not disprove the possibility of a Christian origin and significance for the Grail legend but merely casts it into scholarly doubt, and Eliot soon seems to hedge his own bets by introducing Christ and elements of Christianity into the closing section of The Waste Land, which openly emphasizes elements from the Grail quest that have been only implied this far.
There is one last significant detail regarding the Phlebas-Cornwall-Glastonbury-Joseph linkages that Eliot is establishing in “Death by Water.” Legend also has it that Joseph of Arimathea’s ultimately settling in Glastonbury, which would then have been the far reaches of the world for a man born and raised in ancient Israel, is the result of his having, as a wealthy merchant, visited Cornwall many times before in the company of Phoenician traders. Providing the inspiration for William Blake’s famous couplet—“And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?”—this legend claims that Joseph may have even on occasion brought his young nephew along with him—Joseph and Mary’s son, Jesus.
Perhaps now the reader can better appreciate why Eliot, in a poem in which he unabashedly uses past myths and poetry with an abandon that is forgivable only because, on reflection, it serves The Waste Land’s larger purposes, not only fails to give his readers their usual mythic bearings in part IV but cribs some obscure poetry of his own for the sake of giving the moment clarity. That is to say, there is a direct line, for any reader willing to follow it, from part IV of The Waste Land back through “Dans le Restaurant” to the reference to Cornwall. Through this connection to Cornwall, Phlebas brings to mind not only Joseph of Arimathea and thereby Christ and the Grail but the entire Arthurian literature, as well as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for Tristan was a Cornish knight. Wagner, meanwhile, calls to mind Ludwig and Rudolph and Marie. Through Phlebas’s connection to Phonenicia, meanwhile, his presence in the poem also brings to mind Mr. Eugenides and Madame Sosostris’s drowned sailor, and through the fortune-telling Madame Sosostris the reader is made mindful of the Sibyl and Tiresias. Phlebas’s connection with the sea provides a further connection to the Fisher King, and so on.
Combined in the characterization of Eliot’s own creation, Phlebas, in other words, is a veritable Everyman for The Waste Land, bearing the weight not only of all the lovers, comic and tragic, that people the poetry but also the rest of a doomed humanity as well. Thanks to Eliot’s providing a roadmap based on his own previous poetry, added to that critical role that Phlebas plays in The Waste Land are the further connections that his presence implies to Glastonbury and the Grail, baptism and redemption, mystery and wonder. To “consider Phlebas,” as the speaker enjoins the reader, requires considering all those relationships and significances. His epitaph is a reminder found on many a tombstone in many a graveyard: “As I am now, so shall you be.” That is not a threat but a truth; Eliot permits the truth of Phlebas’s fate to enlarge itself into each reader’s fate—Gentile or Jew, Buddhist or Hindu, for that matter—by suggestion rather than preaching.
Any reader fearful that the foregoing suggests that Eliot may be waxing religious, nevertheless, is missing the point. The same holds true, however, for any reader who may think, either to Eliot’s credit or his shame, that he is simply trying to be ingenious or even precocious by planting these insidiously clever breadcrumbs leading back, through “Death by Water,” to “Dans le Restaurant,” and from that poem to a gushing wellspring of mythic, historical, and religious potential for meaning. Eliot is not purveying a mythic sampler, after all; rather, Eliot’s poetry is attempting to achieve a mythic understanding and to work out a mythic calculus of its own, in its own terms, and on its own terms. Otherwise, it is not poetry, not art; instead, it is polemic at best, a collation of “favorite hits of human culture” at worst.
It stands to reason, then, that at this key juncture Eliot could do nothing more or less than turn to his own poetic powers of personal mythmaking, where his own talents are not inconsiderable, and bring to bear, from his own store of images and symbols, the most powerful totems that he could conjure up of human spiritual aspiration. He then presents those, likely enough, as they had already occurred in the context of a poem that he himself had previously written, “Dans le Restaurant.” By not referring to an external myth or literary work at this point in a poem that is notorious for doing as much (“Death by Water” does not have a single note, for example), Eliot is granting his readers and his speaker a moment of quiet in which to contemplate and regroup—“consider Phlebas”—in preparation for the assault on the senses and sensibilities that is about to come in The Waste Land’s lengthy closing section, part V, “What the Thunder Said.” The thunder will bring to the wasteland refreshing rain, after all, but water can also bring death by drowning (the old “too much of a good thing” problem). To survive the necessary immersion in the saving graces of wisdom, the reader and the speaker both must be prepared to overcome the other kind of surrender, not to life, but to death; that latter surrender, though far less attractive in hindsight, is the easier by far.
For all his value as a key marker in the complex poetic and narrative structure that makes up The Waste Land, Phlebas stands as an emblem not of surrendering the self to a greater good and goal, as The Buddha and Augustine both suggest, but to letting go, to giving up, to drowning. The theme of The Waste Land can now be defined as seduction— life itself, enforced in the spring, seducing back to its own primal vitality the weary soul that would, if it could, remain numb and motionless otherwise. However, if all positive and affirmative things are deceptively mirrored in their own lesser, negating manifestation, then when the call to awaken to life comes, there will be the temptation to yield to the more appealing and opposing seduction of death, which can give the image, but not the substance, of a genuine release.
In “The Hollow Men,” Eliot will shortly play with ideas of life-in-death and death-in-life; they do not constitute that difficult a distinction to discern. The first is the triumph of the spring over winter; the other is a surrender to that winter that keeps the individual warm with the illusion of warmth that is actually a gradual numbing of the senses into extinction. When that extinction is the actual physical death of an individual, as in Phlebas’s case, for example, who could fail to observe its cold finality. But the poem has focused all along thus far on those walking dead—those who have embraced death-in-life, who think that they are living but are in fact dead to all of nature’s life-giving powers and forces. The thing is, as the speaker has been learning, unlike with a physical death, that it is impossible to know just when that other sort of a death, the death of the spirit, has occurred.
If, however, the speaker chooses life, he must undergo a symbolic death of self. All things are mirrored in their own lesser manifestation, so it is easy for the individual to become misled and misdirected. The seductive power of life, for example, finds its own parody and grotesque debasement in the seductive power of sexuality for sexuality’s sake. Cleopatra’s encounter with Antony, Lil’s friend’s designs on Albert, Tereus’s betrayal of Philomela, the Thames-daughters’ three consecutive confessions of having been taken in and taken by listening to the empty promises of lustful males, the waiter’s boyhood encounter with a female friend—these examples of the powerful driving force of sexual energy gone askew are not introduced into the poetry for their prurient interest but rather as symbolic moments illustrative of life’s seductively all-consuming allure gone awry. In Eliot’s hands, the whole sordid history of sexual seduction that The Waste Land portrays is introduced primarily as a vivid and dramatic way of demonstrating and emphasizing how the seductive vitality of life itself, of the call to risk life, can be debased into its own brutal, brutish opposite in acts of violence, emotional or physical or both, one against another.
If that is humanity’s common burden—to miss the forest for the trees, the rose for its odor— then Phlebas’s is humanity’s common fate. But the only choices are not death or death-in-life. One may also choose life itself, the promise of the spring, of renewal and rebirth. For that choice, it is never too late. For his part, then, the speaker, with Augustine, has cried to be plucked out of the whirlpool, the senselessly pointless cycles of birth, copulation, death, that is proclaimed by Sweeney to be the order of things in “Sweeney Agonistes,” an aborted work of Eliot’s that would come shortly after The Waste Land. But, Sweeney, like the waiter in “Dans le Restaurant,” is not the Grail knight, the hero. The speaker of The Waste Land is not, either—not yet at least. Before him now lies the burning plain, the arid vista of death-in-life. It had first confronted him back in the second stanza of “The Burial of the Dead.”
By now, however, the speaker has taken the desert’s measure. Having trekked his confused way across it, he knows that the terror of the wasteland, like its emptiness, is an interior event, a space within himself. It exists because he—humankind immemorial—has, except for a precious few, The Buddha and Augustine among them, imagined that it exists. With the dead, who are embodied in Phlebas, behind him, the speaker forges on, hoping to hear what the thunder, the giver, the bringer, of rain, has to say. (Incidentally, the word restaurant is based itself on the notion of restoring, renewing, revitalizing. Dans le restaurant, indeed.)
Part V: “What the Thunder Said”
In the fifth section, a poem that has kept its focus primarily on life in a contemporary Western European city, London, and its environs now moves both eastward in space and backward in time, as if the speaker himself is aboard the ancient ship off the Cornwall coast with Phlebas, but unlike him who drowned there, has made the successful voyage home to Phoenicia just in time to be on hand in Jerusalem to witness the passion of the Christ.
According to Eliot’s headnote to this last section of the poem, one of its themes is the journey to Emmaus when the risen Christ anonymously joined with several of his disciples, seeking to know, as if he were a stranger in these parts, why they were so low in spirit. They shared with him as best they could the horror and tragedy of the Crucifixion that had just transpired. It was only later, as he shared with them a repast of fish, that, in the breaking of the bread, he revealed himself to them as Christ.
The hooded figure who inhabits this section of The Waste Land is that same mysterious figure, “the third who walks always beside you”—the presence that is both unreal and real, threatening and familiar, companionable and distant. Eliot takes that idea, he explains in another note, from the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s account of the arduous journey that he and another crewman took to reach a radio station and obtain help after their ship had foundered. Theirs was a remarkable story of survival in the face of incredible odds, as book jacket blurbs are wont to put it. Eliot seems to be implying that every human story is a remarkable story of survival in the face of incredible odds, as Christ’s Resurrection is meant to attest.
Before there can be a Resurrection, however, let alone a road to Emmaus, there must first be the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Crucifixion on Golgotha. The first stanza takes the reader from the Agony in the Garden through Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. He is now dead, the speaker and poet, merged here, tells the reader, and the living are dying.
In the emptiness left by that catastrophe, the speaker is thrust back into the desert that is all around him, ever threatening to overcome him, where there is only rock and sand and no water— not even the sound of water. The poetry makes clear that there is nothing, indeed, other than this vacant, lifeless, pitiless desert, a place of the phantasmagoric and apocalyptic, where “red sullen faces sneer and snarl” from behind the doors of mud houses and hooded hordes swarm “over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth.” Yet, in the midst of it all, there is the moment of revelation on the road to Emmaus, although even it is rendered as if it were a hallucination. In this dark and desperate delirium, the speaker now begins to suffer through a vision as dispiriting as anything witnessed by John on Patmos in the Book of the Apocalypse.
The great cities of Western history—Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London—are named in quick succession, reminding the reader of all the doomed souls already encountered among them. These locales, however, no sooner are permitted to bring back to mind the stories of Rudolf and Marie (Vienna), Antony and Cleopatra (Alexandria), Elizabeth and Leicester and Lil and Albert (London) than each of those cities is dismissed as “unreal,” a human hive of ghostly frustrations.
This is the fourth time that the poet has pulled out from under his readers any appeal to the fruits of civilization, that is, its great metropolises, for justification of so much human misery and misunderstanding, even if it is on those same fruitful results that the authority of The Waste Land’s poetry is based. The reader is being asked, simultaneously, to both abhor and exalt the cultures that have brought the poet the skills to question the achievements of those cultures. But there is a method to this madness: What if civilization’s own methods have been flawed all along? There is the recent memory and witness of the war to warrant such a suspicion and validate such a wild surmise on the speaker’s, and Eliot’s, part. In the same headnote in which he identified Emmaus as one of the themes of part V, Eliot also identifies the “present decay of eastern Europe” as another of its themes.
Eliot’s note to this passage in the poetry gets more to the point. He cites, in the original German, novelist Hermann Hesse’s Blick ins Chaos (Glance into Chaos), in which Hesse laments that same decline, calling up an image of the drunken laughter of Dmitri Karamazov from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, to do so. Whatever else Hesse might have in mind, Eliot surely would have in mind the chaos brought about by the socialist and communist revolutions that had brought down the Russian czar in 1917 and were still, in 1922, wreaking havoc on that nation’s suffering populace. No wonder sounds of “maternal lamentation” fill the air and call to mind, yet again, Procne’s mourning song for her lost son, Itys.
In one last terrifying descent into sheer madness, then, it is as if the speaker has succumbed to despair himself and entered the all-consuming whirlpool of life-in-death and death-in-life that had engulfed Phlebas. The reader, too, is assaulted by a series of unsettlingly grotesque images that have neither meaning nor purpose, yet beg for clarity: A woman plays her stretched out hair with a fiddlestick, bats with baby faces crawl down a blackened wall, towers hang upside down in air, voices sing out of cisterns and exhausted wells. If these are merely more glimpses of the sorts of vistas one might expect to find in Dante’s Inferno, of which the reference to “unreal” cities ought to have reminded the reader, then it may be time to scream, “Enough!” And, to be honest, the poetry seems to anticipate that very frustration on the reader’s part.
As Dante climbed down Satan’s body to exit the Inferno, having reached the absolute bottom of the pit of hell, at Satan’s waist Dante passed the midpoint of the Earth and looked down to see the rest of Satan pointing upward, like those towers of Eliot’s hanging “upside down in air.” This disorienting display has been Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole as well, and in the next full stanza, it is now as if the speaker, having passed through and been thrown out of his own personal whirlpool, awakes to find himself in a “decayed hole” in the mountains, where reality seems, if not better, then at least a bit more stable and orderly, tame. There is faint moonlight, and in it the Chapel Perilous is in sight.
Weston identifies the chapel as the locale in which the Grail knight faces a serious and mysterious peril, and she cites similar instances from a number of variant versions of the Grail quest. Since Eliot in his headnote to “What the Thunder Said” himself identifies as another of its themes the approach to the chapel as Weston presents it, the importance of the Chapel scene for the reader may be explicated in what Weston makes of the general meaning of these various episodes, since they appear in all the major Grail romances. The Grail quest, in all its variants, is the story of an initiation, Weston proposes. She writes that
the Mystery ritual comprised a double initiation, the Lower, into the mysteries of generation, i.e., of physical Life; the higher into the Spiritual Divine Life, where man is made one with God. . . . the tradition of the Perilous Chapel, which survives in the Grail romances in confused and contaminated form, was a reminiscence of the test for this lower initiation.
Armed with that information, the reader might then well question why, when Eliot’s speaker reaches the Chapel, he does not face a terrifying test of his courage (in one of the Grail romances, for example, a black hand reaches out of a mirror to snuff a single taper lit on an otherwise bare altar), but instead finds the chapel “empty . . . only the wind’s home.” At first glance, that set of circumstances may seem to imply that the speaker has proved unworthy of the quest and, hence, this lower level of his initiation. A more likely reading, however, particularly in view of what ensues, is that he has already undergone the process of initiation, which, according to Weston, is “into the mysteries of generation.”
In the course of the text thus far, after all, the speaker has borne his own often tedious witness to the pain and the boredom that can result from sex without love and misdirected emotion. He has transcended the need for initiation because he knows full well the common abuses that that natural, generative power undergoes as it becomes entangled with other motives on a day-to-day basis in the “unreal city,” where swarms of humanity take advantage of each other in myriad ways. Eliot’s myth, like most, nevertheless uses the amorous and the sexual to best dramatize the tangle of motives and their results.
For this modern Grail hero, then, having witnessed the hopelessness that he has witnessed, not to mention the horrors and waste of war, what possible terror can any mystical chapel hold for him? “Dry bones can harm no one,” he observes, for the Grail quest and all its “mysteries,” like those “other withered stumps of time” that had become mere decoration in the lives of the couple in “A Game of Chess,” are all just dry bones by now, as are all those humans alive then who had created its romance to answer their own need for order and understanding. The need itself has not changed, however, only the individual’s way of satisfying it. The terms of the quest for a transcendent meaning may long since have altered, become “contaminated and confused,” as Weston puts it, but not the impulse to seek, to find, and not to yield as one pursues what meager clues are available at any one time in human history for making sense and purpose out of experience.
The speaker is now ready to learn the lesson of The Waste Land: The goal to accomplish meaning can be achieved only individually, one person at a time, and not collectively. A culture cannot resolve its conflicts, but each individual who makes up that culture can resolve his or her own. That was the original meaning of the Grail quest—that it is to be undertaken by the lone individual, not by an army of lonely souls or a swarm of equally confused humanity. Knowing this—that he need save only himself, heal only himself—the speaker finds that revelation comes as there is a “flash of lightning” and then, to a parched land, a parched soul, “a damp gust / Bringing rain.”
If the reader, like the speaker, has been traveling backward through time and through space to the sources of memory, the fonts of humanity’s first discoveries of mystery and wonder and wisdom, it is no doubt appropriate that the quester, having survived the Chapel Perilous quite handily, finds himself on the banks of the Ganges in distant India. The word that the thunder is about to speak is in Sanskrit, the mother tongue of all of the various other Indo-European languages—Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Provençal, and, of course, English—that have been employed thus far throughout the poem at one time or another, in one setting or another. Furthermore, the Asian subcontinent is also the primal breeding grounds for the various myths that the poem has also employed.
Taking her cue from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the compendium of comparative mythology and ritual to which Eliot, in his notes, also refers his readers, Weston, for example, finds evidence for the earliest types of the Grail king, or Fisher King, of whom more will be now witnessed and heard as the poem draws to its close, in early Babylonian rituals. She concludes that he is “that strange mysterious figure whose presence hovers in the shadowy background of the history of our Aryan race,” by which she would have meant Caucasians. As such, this prototypical Fisher King is a “divine or semi-divine ruler, at once god and king, upon whose life, and unimpaired vitality, the existence of his land and people directly depends.” In the Grail romances, this vitality has been impaired by an injury to the king that is most often depicted as or associated with a debilitated sexual potency (generally, for example, there has been a wound to the thigh that is impairing sexual function). The idea that the Grail quest introduces into the ancient mythos is that there must be a hero who can somehow recover or activate the talisman or talismans by which the Fisher King will be healed of his wound and thus restored to a lost vitality, and, with him, the land and people will be, too.
Impelled by the vivid metaphorical implications of the wounded king and a blighted land, Eliot uses the Grail legend to describe a contemporary Europe debilitated by a failed cultural and political leadership, a land laid waste by war and the impotence of grief. However, he must replace the outer process of healing the king with an inner process, an act of healing one’s own sense of selfhood and purpose. One of the consequences of war is that it removes from individuals any sense of a capacity to change their own condition for the better, so much are they caught up in vast events beyond their control. The crowds flowing over London Bridge are no different, inside, than the hooded hordes sweeping over the arid plains. All are lost, all are aimless, because none of them sees, let alone believes, that he or she has still has access to the most potent of transformative powers—the power to change oneself. But how to activate it? That is the question that the thunder is now about to answer.
At this moment in the Eliot poem, then, the speaker, having passed the initiation, is ready to fulfill his goal of healing the Fisher King. Eliot’s twist is that he will make the Grail knight and the Grail king the same person; by healing himself of the illnesses of the spirit to which his land, people, and culture have succumbed, he will heal himself and restore the land and its people, his culture, to its vitality, one person at a time, beginning with himself. It is a brilliant conception on Eliot’s part and even more brilliantly executed, particularly now, as he pulls out all the stops for this grand and mythic finale for which all of the preceding text has been, for all its complexities, only so much preparation.
By being located in India, the speaker has, in obvious and direct terms, arrived at the source— “what roots clutch”—that he has been seeking all along. The entire figurative structure is unmistakable as well. Though the Ganga is sunken (that is, the water level is down), it has not yet dried up, and the help needed to restore it to its full flow— the healing rain—is on the way, announced by the thunder. Replacing the dry, sterile thunder that echoed earlier in the poem, this thunder not only brings rain but will speak primal truths. Eliot’s note tells us that the words the thunder speaks come from a fable in the Upanishads, a vast collection of Hindu wisdom literature intended to impart secret truths, through fables and parables, to its initiates. Eliot uses a fable from the fifth chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
The story, according to Eliot’s original source, is intended to teach the three principal virtues, hardly a small matter, and it goes like this: The three orders of beings—the gods, humans, and demons— having observed self-restraint, approached Brahma, the Creator, to seek instruction in how they ought to behave if they wished to be virtuous. To each, Brahma imparted a single word, more syllable than a word, more letter than a syllable: DA. Each group understood what Brahma said to them perfectly, although each heard the instruction differently.
The gods or celestials, who live in paradise, never grow old, and know only pleasure, are bound to get carried away with enjoyment. They need to practice restraint, so when Brahma uttered “Da,” to them, they heard him saying, “Damyata,” which means to restrain or control. In other words, they need to practice subduing their senses if they wish to be virtuous. Humans, who are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy acquiring things—food, shelter, clothing—are liable to become too acquisitive and, as a result, greedy and selfish, hoarding everything for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. In Brahma’s “Da,” they heard him saying, “Datta”—give, be charitable, inasmuch as practicing the virtue of charity is the only check on greediness and selfishness. Finally, the demons, who can be very cruel and have no scruple against hurting others with insults and injury, heard Brahma say, “Dayadhvam,” which means to be merciful or compassionate.
In each case, the instruction requires the recipient or initiate to overcome his or her own worst nature. In the case of the humans and the demons, that is to be done for the sake of being mindful of the needs of others. In essence, that is what virtue is—thinking of the other person before one thinks of oneself.
Eliot adapts this fable, as he is wont to do with all his various source materials, to fit the needs of his own thematic and narrative aims. So, then, the thunder, with each clap, speaks the primal syllable, Da, three times to the Grail seeker, and in each case, the seeker hears the instruction that Brahma gave in the fable, although in the seeker’s case, they are slightly out of order (the instruction that Brahma gave to the gods came last instead of first), and they are regarded as personal in nature. In each case as well, Eliot illustrates the instruction with an episodic gloss, so that his reader need not be familiar with the source story or even with the meaning of the Sanskrit, for that matter.
Datta, give, is the first instruction that Eliot’s speaker hears, and he reflects, quite bluntly, “What have we given?” Sometimes, the poetry makes clear, one gives too much or not wisely, into temptation, for example, “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender,” being uncharitable to himself. Other times, when the giving could have been to another and positive, the individual is, conversely, reluctant to let go; the poetry here suggests that one’s charity in his or her lifetime will not be measured by what there was left to leave to others in a will or in an obituary’s record of that individual’s “accomplishments.”
In a poem that was originally intended to have a tag from a novel by Charles Dickens for its title, it is not too difficult at this juncture in The Waste Land’s closing lines to hear Marley’s response to Scrooge when, in A Christmas Carol, the latter insists that Marley should not be damned because he was always a good businessman. To that bit of wishful thinking and moral obfuscation on Scrooge’s part, Marley, whose ghostly remorsefulness is more than a bit redolent of those lost souls that Dante encounters in the Inferno, replies, “Mankind should have been my business,” as apt an illustration as any of what Eliot is driving at here.
Then comes the next clap of thunder, giving the instruction, Dayadhvam—to sympathize. Here, by way of an illustrative definition, Eliot brings to bear the allusion to one of the episodes from Dante’s Inferno discussed earlier in this commentary, in conjunction with Eliot’s dedication of the poem to Ezra Pound. This is where Eliot’s speaker recalls Count Ugolino’s being locked in the tower to starve to death with his sons, but Eliot makes that event itself only a metaphor for how each human is locked within the prison of self, in terms of the physical limitations that the body imposes on the individual, but more in terms of the psychological limitations that experience itself also imposes. While it is hardly a unique idea that every human individual has a point of view that is wholly subjective and limited, Eliot, along with most of the world’s great religions and other ethical and philosophical systems, stresses that very few humans behave accordingly. Most of us, in the give and take of day-to-day relationships and reactions, imagine that the reality that we perceive is the reality that is in fact there. The conflict between appearance and reality and the confusions, ironies, ambiguities, and paradoxes that attend it is one of the mainstays of much of the modernist way of thinking. Eliot, however, whose field of graduate study at Harvard was not just philosophy but idealist philosophy, which deals with the ways in which mind and matter interact in processes of thought, was especially interested and expert in these kinds of inquiries.
At its extreme, the individual can become genuinely self-imprisoned, behaving as if, but otherwise not realizing the error in thinking that, reality is what he or she makes it to be. That state of mind is called solipsistic (from the Latin solus ipse, oneself alone). It does not take much imagination to understand, by this point in The Waste Land, at which the idea of sympathizing is being emphasized, how much of the suffering that has been witnessed in the poem can be attributed to the destructive or abusive or exploitative behavior that can result when individuals think only of themselves. The question, the problem, of solipsism is, in other words, much more than an academic or philosophical one inasmuch as the dramatic necessities of The Waste Land are concerned. Its speaker/hero, for whom the Grail is not an object but wisdom, must learn to overcome self-centeredness and selfcentered interests, even though to be self-centered is itself a part of the nature of human intelligence and psychology.
As F. H. BRADLEY, the contemporary English idealist philosopher whose examination of this question was the topic of Eliot’s Harvard doctoral dissertation, puts it—and Eliot himself cites in his note to this passage from The Waste Land:— Regarded as an existence that appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul. Caught within what Bradley calls their opaque spheres, nevertheless, individuals imagine that the external existence that they are witnessing is the same, and is being evaluated in the same way, as their neighbors’. As Eliot defines the resulting psychological and spiritual problem, locked in his or her prison, “each confirms a prison.” There is no getting out of that sort of a prison; it comes, quite literally, with the territory, in this case, human flesh and bone. But there is developing the understanding that one’s point of view may not be another’s, yet it is equally as valid. Thus, the second injunction, to sympathize. Such a point of view enables one to transcend the other, more selfish approach, which could lead a Coriolanus to betray an enemy and then betray Rome to them when, in his view, Rome betrayed him. That sort of vicious circle of selfishness can lead the hero only nowhere.
By now, it should stand to reason why the third injunction should be Damyata, control, for it is the equilibrium and poise that are needed in order to engage and exercise the other two, which alone can free the quester from the endless cycle of selfishness and desire. Here Eliot, so capable a sailor from years of his family’s spending their summer vacations along Massachusetts’s North Shore that he wished to be known to his closest friends in his young adulthood by the nickname The Captain, uses the image of the pleasantly breathtaking experience that expert sailing can be when sea, man, boat, and wind become one single and harmoniously blended action.
The lessons learned, and the wasteland watered by the restorative rain, the last stanza of The Waste Land, and the end of a trek that began with April’s cruel awakening and then the merciless desert vistas both of mind and soul, flesh and spirit, begins with the speaker sitting “upon the shore / Fishing . . . the arid plain behind me.” In one final transformation, the Grail hero has become the Fisher King, the physician the healed patient, the seeker the found.
Weston, despite all the various symbolic significances that can be, and have been, assigned to the idea of a “fisher king” throughout history and cultures (including, of course, the Christian concept of the Apostles as Fishers of Men), reminds her readers that the Fisher King was called as much “because of his devotion to the pastime of fishing.” That is not a very earth-shattering conclusion to be arrived at unless there is added to it, however, the ancient notion that both the fish and the fisher are “Life symbols of immemorial antiquity.” To be the Fisher King, then, is to be that one, whoever he or she may be, who is adept at tapping the life-source, exactly as our speaker is now doing as he sits on the shore fishing. Nor will he not “set [his] lands in order,” exactly as the Fisher King, once he has been restored to full health and vigor, is immemorially fabled to do, according, once more, to Weston.
His is, of course, a figurative, a spiritual, a transcendent kingship, just as the land that will now be set in order is the interior landscape of the mind and spirit of each individual, in this case, the speaker/poet of The Waste Land. Similarly, if the individual psyche can figuratively constitute a land laid waste by doubt and confusion but that is now being delivered by the restored vigor and vitality of its personal Fisher King, who is the chastened and instructed ego that commands the individual being, so can it also be represented as a structure, a house or temple, for example, against whose ruins, and ruin, the same commanding ego, who has learned to give, to sympathize, and to control, has shored fragments like hewn posts to keep it from collapsing.
There the metaphor is rather transparent. The fragments shored against the speaker’s ruin, his personal collapse into the madness of desire and misunderstanding that has been The Waste Land till now, are all those bits and pieces of other poems and of myth and of history scattered hither and yon throughout the poem, and drawn from hither and yon among the epochs of preceding human cultures, in which other humans, over time, like Tiresias, have suffered similar doubts and confusions and desires to no good purpose other than that they resulted in poetry. So, then, very much like a man who knows that one can never build sturdily enough, in the last few lines of the poem, the speaker adds still more of those fragment beams and piers and struts, lines recalled for no other purpose than that they sustain him with their supporting scaffolding.
These last few follow no particular order, nor can they, emerging as they do helter skelter from the pools of memory: a children’s nursery rhyme about London Bridge, recalling the passages over it made earlier in the poem; the words spoken by Arnaut Daniel in Dante’s Purgatorio, recalling the poem’s opening dedication to Ezra Pound; a refrain translated from an ancient love poem, recalling Philomela raped and mutilated and then transformed by the gods; a verse from a sonnet by Gerard de Nerval, another near-contemporary French poet, this time recalling, through Aquitaine, Provence, the source of many of the elements in the Grail romances; a passage from an Elizabethan play, recalling that Shakespherian rag, perhaps; and then, not silence, but the next best thing.
After the three injunctions from the Upanishads are repeated, the poetry all but comes to a stop as the word shantih is repeated three times. In his final note, Eliot says that the word essentially denotes “the peace that passeth understanding.” In other words, it is the word that is used when words are no longer available or, better yet, required.
The speaker has learned simple truths: He cannot save the world from disorder and chaos. He cannot make perfect sense out of the ceaseless disparities of human experience and the bewildering assaults of otherness. But he can resolve his own inner conflicts. He can set his own house in order and then make a comfortable abode there, within himself, for himself. That kind of a separate peace, to borrow a phrase that Ernest Hemingway would coin relatively shortly in his World War I novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), may sound like a far more selfish choice on the speaker’s part than not, as if he is turning his back on everyone else’s distress, but the poem recommends this same resolution to and for everyone, not just its anonymous speaker. For no one would deny that the world would be a far better place if everyone sought inner peace and outer calm—in a word, contentment.
In the 18th century, the French philosopher and wit Voltaire composed a bitingly clever satire to ridicule the notion that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Candide tells a tale of relentless human cruelty and stupidity in hilarious terms, but it ends on a positive note. After all their travails, the sundry protagonists find themselves at last leading relatively comfortable lives on the outskirts of Constantinople, and an equally contented farmer lives nearby. What, they ask him, is his secret. “Let each man cultivate his own garden,” this simple man says, imparting, of course, a great deal of unintended wisdom. In the same manner, The Waste Land ends by saying, “Let each one find his own inner peace.” But that can be done only if each person overcomes his or her own inner wasteland.
THE CONTEMPORARY CRITICAL RESPONSE
One might think that, despite the worldwide celebrity that The Waste Land eventually has obtained, the initial response to the poem was a rather closeted literary event, limited to those reviewers and critics who were themselves among the vanguard of individuals devoted to the pursuing the latest trends in literature. Despite the high regard in which his pre–Waste Land poetry is now held, after all, Eliot had a reputation solely among fellow modernists poets and critics, as well as the handful of readers of the so-called little magazines. His name was hardly a household word, nor was it likely that the poem in question would be one that everyone would be anxious to have sitting on the coffee table at home.
Nevertheless, the New York publication of The Waste Land in book form in December 1922, two months after its simultaneous publication in the Criterion and the Dial, hardly went unnoticed, nor was this attention by the reviewers limited only to those periodicals of interest to the specialized reading audience that typically follows such developments. Indeed, given the haste of the production methods whereby they could go to press with copy within a matter of days rather than weeks or months, the earliest public notice given The Waste Land can be found in major media outlets, which, in those days, were mainly the large-circulation metropolitan dailies. These reviews often appeared in these daily’s even more widely circulated Sunday editions and, in some cases, as if to underscore the significance of the event, were in response to the poem’s initial periodical publication rather than its appearance in book form.
It must be emphasized as well that these early reviews were not the sort of brief notices that one might generally expect for a publication that is hardly aimed at a mass-market audience. The reviews were, rather, assigned apparently to the best staffers or literary stringers that these publications had available, and often these individuals were themselves, or soon would be, other poets and critics who had made a respected name for themselves in modernist circles. At the very least, their names are by now a veritable roll call of those who played significant roles in framing the critical tradition that emerged from literary modernism.
As if in an intuitive recognition of the importance that The Waste Land would indeed achieve as a watershed icon in the cultural history of the 20th century, and perhaps in large part the cause of its achieving that reputation, the reviewers went out of their way to be circumspect, taking pains to place the poem in its contemporary cultural and social context. By treating the Eliot poem as something more than a publishing event, one that would do until the next “major” book came along, these reviewers and critics seemed to indicate that they were conscious that they were writing not simply book reviews but continuing chapters in a historical record that would be of equal interest to later generations of readers, scholars, and critics. This record of their response, then, should have something more than a passing value to any student not just of The Waste Land but of modernism in general. In fact, the interest that the poem then generated in both the little reviews and the popular press would last for the rest of the 1920s, itself a very literary decade.
Nothing can garner that sort of attention without engaging a genuine interest and then satisfying that interest. Clearly, somehow, the Eliot poem struck a chord loudly and clearly among those who were alive at the time to hear it. Whether or not that was the case, it has certainly proved to be the net result. The Waste Land turned out to be, no doubt, what we would now call a phenomenon, and the extent of its contemporary response provides us with a very telling record of precisely what the poetry of The Waste Land said to readers then and of its time. Their response is, of course, ultimately no more valid than any other, but an irony is that this virtually unheard-of attention among its immediate contemporaries to an otherwise relatively isolated publishing event continues to color responses to The Waste Land, certainly among the general reading public, and possibly to the detriment of the poem’s and the poet’s original intentions.
In view of the richness of both cultural and personal experience that the poetry of The Waste Land can provide typical readers, it is surprising how polarized were the common notes struck in this initial public response to The Waste Land, and they quickly became a melody of like opinion that persisted for the better part of the 1920s and may, in the popular imagination, persist to this day. These likeminded responses, more than the poetry, set the tone for what The Waste Land “means,” that being that the poem was, by and large, a bitter and invective indictment of a contemporary culture that had failed. Such a measure of critical consistency can be attributed only to either a sort of critical bandwagon effect (once a few reviewers had set a “prevailing opinion,” few dared or cared to contradict it) or to an otherwise unspoken consensus as to the poem’s negative qualities.
In that latter regard, and from the first, it would seem, The Waste Land is taken by its contemporaries to be a poem whose viewpoint is, in a word, despairing. Burton Rascoe, reviewing the theme of The Waste Land for the New York Tribune in November 1922, admired the poem primarily as an accurate assessment of this well-founded modern despair. Exhibiting what becomes a common bias toward reading and evaluating the poem as social criticism rather than literature or poetry, Rascoe found The Waste Land to be “analysis and realism, psychology and criticism, anguish, bitterness and disillusion.” If he could finally also see in the poem “a thing of bitterness and beauty,” even these are aspects “arising from the spiritual and economic consequences of the war, the cross purposes of modern civilization, the cul-de-sac into which both science and philosophy have got themselves and the breakdown of all great directive purposes which give zest and joy to the business of living. It is an erudite despair.”
For another early critic of The Waste Land, Gilbert Seldes, who reviewed the poem for The Nation in December, the theme of the poem was equally as pessimistic, nor was it “a romantic pessimism of any kind”:
. . . [O]ne feels simply that even in the cruelty and madness which have left their record in history and in art, there was an intensity of life, a germination and fruitfulness which are now gone, and that even the creative imagination, even hallucination and vision have atrophied, so that water shall never again be struck from a rock in the desert.
The font of inspiration has gone, and all hope is “buried deep.” Clearly, both these early reviewers saw The Waste Land as a valid assessment of the absolute decline of the modern Western world, an assessment free of the taint of any romantically subjective self-deception about the true state of things.
Another early reviewer was Edmund Wilson, who reviewed the Eliot poem in conjunction with several other recent works, most notably James Joyce’s Ulysses, for the New York Evening Post Literary Review of November 25, 1922. Wilson, who went on to achieve an outstanding reputation of his own as a modernist critic, calls his article, “The Rag-Bag of the Soul”: “The characteristic literary form today . . . [presents] the whole world sunk in the subjective life of a single human soul—beyond whose vague and impassable walls there is nothing solid or clear, there is nothing which exists in itself as part of an objective order.”
Though this tack on Wilson’s part may seem to oppose Seldes’s antiromanticizing effort, Wilson arrived at the same reading of The Waste Land—it is a subjectification of social realities—but, unlike Rascoe or Seldes who admired Eliot’s analysis, Wilson faulted Eliot’s vision on that basis, for such works as The Waste Land “involve no belief in any sort of order—either moral or aesthetic.” Summarizing Eliot’s approach, Wilson castigated its amoral, virtually clinical nonchalance: “Let us merely explore a single human consciousness and make a record of what we find there without venturing even the most rudimentary ideas as to what their significance may be or as to which of them may be considered the most valuable.” Playing off his thesis against the sort of The Waste Land/wasteland motif Eliot’s poem suggests, Wilson concluded that by virtue of such an aesthetic approach, “the human consciousness becomes a rag-bag, a rubbish heap—there is nothing more to be done with it.”
Wilson reviewed The Waste Land again in December, this time for the Dial. Although he entitled his later remarks “The Poetry of Drouth,” he was now much kinder to Eliot. Since Wilson was now using the annotated Boni & Liveright edition of The Waste Land, his kindness may be attributable to the assistance that Eliot’s notes rendered to critics attempting to understand the poem for itself. Wilson seems to have become a convert and succumbed, like Rascoe and Seldes, to the validity of the poem as a statement of justifiable despair in the face of the vacuity of modern life:
Mr. Eliot uses the Waste Land as the concrete image of a spiritual drouth. His poem takes place half in the real world—the world of contemporary London, and half in a haunted wilderness— the Waste Land of mediaeval legend; but the Waste Land is only the hero’s arid soul and the intolerable world about him. The water which he longs for in the twilit desert is to quench the thirst which torments him in the London dusk.—And he exists not only upon these two planes, but as if throughout the whole of human history.
Again like Rascoe and Seldes, Wilson eschews giving the poem a hearing on the basis of more universal truths for the sake of its contemporary applicability:
[Eliot] is speaking not only for a personal distress, but for the starvation of a whole civilization—. . . It is the world in which the pursuit of grace and beauty is something which is felt to be obsolete—the reflections which reach us from the past cannot illumine so dingy a scene; that heroic prelude has ironic echoes among the streets and the drawing rooms where we live.
Louis Untermeyer, in a review of The Waste Land for The Freeman in January 1923, echoed both Wilson’s earlier reservations and his later admiration when Untermeyer called the poem “Mr. Eliot’s poetic variations on the theme of a super-refined futility.” It quickly becomes clear, however, that Untermeyer did not intend that remark as praise, even guardedly so. The Waste Land, in consequence, may be “a pompous parade of erudition,” Untermeyer observed, but “[a]s an echo of contemporary despair, as a picture of dissolution, of the breaking down of the very structures on which life has modeled itself, The Waste Land has definite authenticity.”
Still, although “as an analyst of desiccated sensations, as a recorder of the nostalgia of this age,” Eliot has “created something whose value is, at least, documentary,” even at that archival rate, The Waste Land remains a “misleading” document. According to Untermeyer,
The world distrusts the illusions which the last few years have destroyed. One grants this latterday truism. But it is groping among new ones: the power of the unconscious, an astringent skepticism, a mystical renaissance—these are some of the current illusions to which the Western World is turning for assurance of their, and its, reality. Man may be desperately insecure, but he has not yet lost the greatest of his emotional needs, the need to believe in something—even in his disbelief. For an ideal-demanding race, there is always one more God—and Mr. Eliot is not his prophet.
It is noteworthy that the preceding reviewers all agree on the cardinal point that the poem, as the aspiring poet Hart Crane would put it in a letter to his friend Gorham Munson, is “good, . . . but so damned dead.” (Crane in fact was so inspired by Untermeyer’s comments that the 24-year-old poet sent a copy of his just completed “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” to the elder reviewer as an example of the sort of positive, vital poetry Crane heard Untermeyer calling for.)
Harold Monro’s review in the Chapbook for February 1923, for another example, was an openly facetious little piece that nevertheless touches what are rapidly becoming all the mandatory thematic bases. He observed that The Waste Land
is at the same time a representation, a criticism, and the disgusted outcry of a heart turned cynical. It is calm, fierce, and horrible: the poetry of despair itself becomes desperate. Those poor little people who string their disjointed ejaculations into prosaic semblances of verse—they pale as one reads The Waste Land. . . . Our epoch sprawls, a desert, between an unrealised past and an unimaginable future.
In the same month, however, Eliot’s friend from their Harvard undergraduate days, Conrad Aiken, for the New Republic, wrote just about the only published contemporary response that recognized the poem for its poetry (which even then becomes virtually coincidental with recognizing its technique): “The Waste Land is unquestionably important, unquestionably brilliant . . . partly because it embodies . . . the theory of the ‘allusive’ method in poetry. The Waste Land is, indeed, a poem of allusion all compact.”
Aiken’s approach was structural. Taking issue with another reviewer who commended the artfulness of the poem’s structure, Aiken questioned whether the poem is “a perfect piece of construction.” He went on to ponder, “Has it the formal and intellectual complex unity of a microscopic Divine Comedy; or is its unity . . . of another sort?” Aiken then, by illustrating how misleading the allusions are for any attempt to consign them to the category of precise referents required for meaning to be elicited, argued that we must “conclude that the poem is not, in any formal sense, coherent”; “With or without the notes the poem belongs rather to symbolical order in which one may justly say that the ‘meaning’ is not explicitly, or exactly, worked out.” Rather, as Aiken saw it, the poem achieves a different order of unity, of coherence, by being “a brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion; . . . a series of sharp discrete, slightly related perceptions and feelings . . . giv[ing] an impression of an intensely modern, intensely literary consciousness which perceives itself to be not a unit but a chance correlation or conglomerate of mutually discolorative fragments.” He continued:
If we perceive the poem in this light, as a series of brilliant, brief, unrelated or dimly related pictures . . . [t]he “plan” of the poem would not greatly suffer . . . by the elimination of “April is the cruelest month” or Phlebas, or the Thames daughters. . . . These things are not important parts of an important or careful intellectual pattern; but they are important parts of an important emotional ensemble . . . a dim and tonal one, not exact.
For Aiken, the poem as meaningful statement “will not bear analysis.” Rather, “the poem succeeds . . . by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations [including those provided by Eliot in his notes]. Its incoherence is a virtue.” For all its critical complexities, Aiken’s technical approach to the poetry and theme of The Waste Land allowed the poetry some much needed breathing space, and yet despite the widespread critical validity such structural readings would subsequently obtain, his remained for now a voice crying in the wilderness.
The extremely influential editor Harriet Monroe, who did not review The Waste Land for Poetry until March, was back among the madding crowd, especially since the delay gave her a volume by Lew Sarett called The Box of God to hold up for comparison’s sake. Though the Sarett volume is now happily otherwise quite forgotten, the result, in Monroe’s hands, was what amounted to a commonplace book of these contemporary responses to The Waste Land.
She saw the distinction between Sarett and Eliot as a distinction between “the man who affirms and the man who denies; the simple-hearted and the sophisticated man; the doer, the believer, and the observant and intellectual questioner . . . led by separating paths to opposite instincts and conclusions.” In this context, Eliot did not come out ahead; rather, Monroe told her readers, Eliot
gives us the malaise of our time, its agony, its conviction of futility, its wild dance on an ashheap before a clouded and distorted mirror. . . . He shows us confusion and dismay and disintegration, the world crumbling to pieces before our eyes and patching itself with desperate gayety into new and strangely irregular forms.
For her, then, as well as for many of his other contemporaries, Eliot was the nay-sayer, one of those “poets of idle hands and legs and super-sensitized brains; varied by a bank clerk routine with second- rate minds” who cannot consort with “heroes or highwaymen, or [get] on intimate terms with Thomas A. Edison” (which would be our equivalent of navigating the Internet). Says Monroe:
We live in a period of swift and tremendous change: Mr. Eliot feels it as chaos and disintegration, and a kind of wild impudent dance-ofdeath joy, Mr. Sarett feels it as a new and larger summons to faith in life and art. . . . He could talk with Thomas A. Edison, or perhaps with a sequoia or skyscraper.
Sarett’s prodigious powers of communication aside, Monroe did give Eliot some due recognition for meeting squarely, “with an artist’s invocation of beauty,” the condition of the modern world as Eliot’s too “city-closeted” mind nevertheless misperceived that condition.
Monroe’s view soon became a choral effort out to put Eliot in his place. In March 1923, N. P. Dawson’s review, “Enjoying Poor Literature,” scored The Waste Land for its instant celebrity. Dawson chalked up the whole distasteful phenomenon to the debilitated sensibilities of a reading public overly enamored of the “bad, obscure, ‘frank’ and especially ‘despairing.’ ” In all these particulars, Eliot’s Waste Land, of course, fitted the bill, and Dawson’s own despair was that, if the reading public was paying so much attention to “all the despair and all the dryness and the lamentation” best typified in the Eliot poem, “sane and intelligible and humorous” literature must languish as a result. Thus, Dawson concluded, if the reading public were to spend more time with good literature instead of indulging themselves in the faddish despair of such stuff as The Waste Land, they too would realize that “the world will be saved. The end of civilization will once more have been postponed.”
By April, Herbert S. Gorman, apparently feeling called on to take up a renewed defense of The Waste Land for the Literary Digest, began by calling the poem “a battle-field.” But it is unclear whether he ultimately did Eliot or the poem any service, for Gorman merely reemphasized the ying/yang dynamics of the debate by retrenching behind the original critical lines. For Gorman, The Waste Land was great poetry because it more than sufficiently and accurately expressed a contemporary despair over the state of Western civilization:
The laborious subterfuges that have carried Man forward into the arid stretches of modern civilization have failed. That is what Mr. Eliot states in “The Waste Land.” We have come to a dry desolation, and there is nothing here but hard rock and the faint mirages of a freshness that actually existed once, but which has now dwindled into the haunting fragments of broken memories.
An especially interesting exchange of views on The Waste Land occurred during the summer of 1923. John Crowe Ransom, then an English professor at Vanderbilt University, reviewed the poem for the New York Evening Post Literary Review in mid-July. During the first week of August, a reader sent a letter refuting Ransom’s position. The reader was Allen Tate, a former student of Ransom’s and future fellow “Fugitive.” Ransom had essentially assaulted Eliot for distorting both reality and aesthetic representations of reality. While “Mr. Eliot’s performance is the apotheosis of modernity,” Ransom did not think much of that “modernity” if such a poem was its apex, for The Waste Land finally “seems to bring to a head all the specifically modern errors, and to cry for critic’s ink of a volume quite disproportionate to its merits as a poem.”
Those errors, Ransom would have it, are largely errors of modes of perception. Art, he insisted ought not to partake of the disunities of the sensibility that science has forced on the modern mind. But for him The Waste Land exhibited an aesthetics that did precisely that, “as if he [Eliot] were naming cosmos Chaos. His intention is evidently to present a wilderness in which both he and the reader are bewildered.”
Ransom’s position was that the poet ought to be an imaginative synthesizer who counteracts rather than contributes to the disruptiveness of modern life, and it is that point that Tate’s letter took up: “Mr. Ransom . . . has offered only an abstract restatement of superannuated theories of consciousness . . . all to the end that a philosophy of discontinuity is not only lamentable but entirely wrong.” For his part, Tate insisted that there is form in The Waste Land’s apparent formlessness and that the form is found in Eliot’s use of literary allusions. Ransom had relegated them to nothing more than parody; Tate argued that they are effective irony and that the very “form” of the poem is “this ironic attitude.” Unfortunately, given the context of the remarks, Tate did not elaborate on this insight, nor did he more fully explain his closing remark: “it is likely that the value of The Waste Land as art is historical rather than intrinsic.”
If we can see here the beginnings of a criticism that did more recondite justice to the thematic complexities of allusion in The Waste Land, it was not until 1939 that Cleanth Brooks brought such a critical approach to full bloom in his essay “The Waste Land: Critique of the Myth.” The rest of 1923 would see further treatments of The Waste Land remain within the narrow critical confines already established. Regarding the theme of the poem, there seemed to be no in-between. Whether the reviewers praised The Waste Land or lambasted it, nothing that passes for a thematic consideration seemed capable of removing it from the boon-orbane of its being social commentary and, in that context, an unequivocating, unequivocal statement of absolute despair.
Helen McAfee touched on the poem briefly in an Atlantic article, assessing what she called “the literature of disillusion” of the postwar era. Speaking of the disastrous psychic scars that the war had left on the creative sensibilities of an entire generation of young writers, she noted that:
the most striking example of this depth of confusion and bitterness is Mr. Eliot’s The Waste Land. As if by lightning it reveals the wreck of the storm. For this effect it is clear that the author has consciously striven—indeed he refers to his works as ‘my ruins.’ . . . It is mood more than idea that gives the poem its unity. And that mood is black. It is as bitter as gall; not only with a personal bitterness, but also with the bitterness of a man facing a world devastated but for a war by a peace without ideals. The humor—for it has humor—is sordid and grotesque.
It should come as no surprise that by September 1923, readers would find the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement repeating the usual cant: “From the opening part of The Waste Land to the final one we seem to see a world, or a mind, in disaster and mocking its despair. We are aware of the toppling of aspirations, the swift disintegration of accepted stability, the crash of an ideal.” F. L. Lucas, reviewing the poem for The New Statesman a month later, wrapped the poem up in largely the same manner: “The gist of the poem is apparently a wild revolt from the abomination of desolation which is human life, combined with a belief in salvation by the usual catchwords of renunciation.”
The year of The Waste Land’s initial celebrity past, there now followed a hiatus in significant commentary on The Waste Land. But the occasional comment in the succeeding years did not bring any new point of view to bear. Edmund Wilson, for example, reviewing Stravinsky’s music for the New Republic in 1926, had finally grown tired, it seems, of Eliot’s despair (“The Hollow Men” had just been published in a new collection of Eliot’s poetry), yet he never considered whether the Eliot whose despair he was growing tired of might simply be a fictive element in his own intellectual and emotional growth. Like his friend Hart Crane, Wilson had apparently had an experience of Eliot that was now becoming rather tedious, without wondering if Eliot’s “faults” might not lie in the commonplaces of critical misconceptions of that poet, the very sort of misreadings to which Eliot has never ceased to fall prey. In any case, Wilson observes that
no artist has felt more keenly than Mr. Eliot the desperate condition of Europe since the War nor written about it more poignantly. Yet, as we find this mood of hopelessness and impotence eating into his poetry so deeply, we begin to wonder whether it is really the problems of European civilization which are keeping him awake nights.
Harriet Monroe resurfaced, too, on the question of Eliot and his terrible poem when she was quoted extensively in an anonymous review in The Literary Digest for November 26, 1927. Echoing her Eliot- Sarett review of four years earlier, Monroe told of an offer made by “a designer of power-plants” to award a prize for a poem “ ‘touching adequately, whether in praise or dispraise, modern science or industry.’ The poets have not risen to the offer”:
Indeed, the poets . . . have been more preoccupied with the negative than the positive side. I have spoken of Eliot’s “Waste Land,” which gives a vivid suggestion of the whole vast modern fabric crashing down in ruinous chaos; and there are many other poems which present or imply or prophesy failure or spiritual disaster in the modern scheme. In other words, the poets have preferred weakness to strength.
Perhaps the ultimate expression of an entire critical generation’s paradoxical love/hate affair with a figment of their own imaginations, and of their own emotional longings for a time before despair became a character called “Mr. T. S. Eliot,” can be found in “Waste of Time or, T. S. Eliot of Boston: A Yawn by Jack Lindsey,” published in London Aphrodite for December, 1928. Having read “en bloc” all of Eliot’s works, Lindsey wondered where Eliot’s reputation ever came from:
Has Eliot given us anything positive at all? Has he stated anything beyond a fear of death? A feebly corrective intellectualistic viewpoint (borrowed from Valéry) dwindling more and more to a kind of Calvinistic Roman Catholicism (!) and a few formal experiments that are exemplified far better in the at least gargantuan hurly-burly of Ulysses or the technical modulations of Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell. Always nothing but a thin terror, and from fear of death come all rottenness and abstractions ghosting life.
Lindsey concluded, “[Eliot] is the last remnant of the pre-war generation, disillusioned further by the war, frightened of life, desperately but unconsciously expressing this fear in an effort to castrate life of its dangers by the blade of intellectualism.” Edmund Wilson weighed in one last time during the first decade of criticism inspired by The Waste Land, and it would be appropriate to regard his as the last word of that initial critical response before forming our own conclusions about the wide disparity between The Waste Land as poetry and the poem’s reception among its contemporaries. In his landmark critical survey of modernism, Axel’s Castle (1931), Wilson took his text from an earlier observation of his own. In 1926, he had written, “one suspects that [Eliot’s] real significance is less that of a prophet of European disintegration than of a poet of the American Puritan temperament.”
Wilson now developed this idea into what appears to be a new view of Eliot and his poetic vision:
The present is more timid than the past: the bourgeois are afraid to let themselves go. The French had been preoccupied with this idea ever since the first days of romanticism; but Eliot was to deal with the theme from a somewhat different point of view, a point of view characteristically American. . . . One of the principal subjects of Eliot’s poetry is really that regret at situations unexplored, that dark rankling of passions inhibited, which has figured so conspicuously in the work of the American writers of New England and New York from Hawthorne to Edith Wharton. T. S. Eliot, in this respect, has much in common with Henry James.
As such, “Eliot’s most complete expression of this theme of emotional starvation,” Wilson continued, “is to be found in . . . ‘The Waste Land’ ” whose expression of “sterility we soon identify as the sterility of the Puritan temperament” (104–105).
We recognize throughout “The Waste Land” the peculiar conflicts of the Puritan turned artist: the horror of vulgarity and the shy sympathy with the common life, the ascetic shrinking from sexual experience and the distress at the drying up of the springs of sexual emotion, with the straining after a religious emotion which may be made to take its place.
Although on the surface this appears to be a refreshingly radical approach to The Waste Land (which is, after all, set in London), Wilson has really only brought Eliot’s despairing corpus home to native shores, so that the bane of despair and negativism still hangs over the poet and what was then his most ambitious work to date.
Other readings of, and ways of reading, The Waste Land aside, readers must wonder why Eliot’s own generation was so apparently thick-headedly single-minded in its reading of the poem and if there is anything that can be learned from their shortsightedness, if not their out and out wrongheadedness and narrow-mindedness. There is an interesting parallel in that the poem is itself about the dangers of shortsightedness and wrongheadedness and narrow-mindedness. Another is that Eliot himself did all he could to derail the prevailing critical insistence on seeing the poem as an expression of disillusionment (although to this day many see that disclaimer as Eliot’s way of trying to sidetrack certain potentially explosive personal issues). He did not deny that the poem had its negative quality; a bit of rhythmical grousing against the world, he once called it. But even at that rate, it is a grouse that serves the purpose of transcending rather than wallowing in bitterness and despair.
Everything must begin from somewhere, but it does not then automatically end there as well. Such a thought sounds very much like the sort of observation that T. S. Eliot, student of F. H. Bradley and connoisseur of delicious epistemological dilemmas, may have made himself. It certainly sounds like the Eliot who found himself 20 years later in Four Quartets ending where he began but now knowing the place for the first time. In comparison with him, then, his contemporaries, at least those who took the time to comment publicly on what The Waste Land was all about, were chasing a tail that did not even have the good grace to be their own.
Perhaps that is the rub, however. To appreciate The Waste Land as a contemporary event, one must become its contemporary. Then the interested individual would read the poem not as universal meaning versus post–World War I angst and despair but as the indictment, as likely intended as not, of a reading culture lost not in its own myths but, like any other, in its own smug assumptions. Such an individual would have to be among a lot of other well-educated, well-read, well-fed, and well-placed young men and women who think that the world is literally what these scions of the ruling class and inheritors of Western civilization make it, knowing, meanwhile, that they and their fathers and grandfathers had just gone and made it something awful and confusing and despairing because of a war. Yet that in itself, whether it is good or is bad, only has added to their certain belief that it is they, for good or for ill, who are calling the shots.
Such a smugness, compounded by denial, cannot be awakened to any universal truths, not because these people are dead or asleep but because they have fallen into the insomnia of individuals and of a culture that is wrapped up in itself without any due regard for the past or the future or each other, “read[ing] much of the night,” “pressing lidless eyes.” It is in this context that The Waste Land must continue to be regarded, for whether or not the poem has a speaker or protagonist, let alone a hero, it certainly at least has a point of view, and that point of view exposes boredom and complacency and self-satisfied certainties far more than it expresses despair or an embittered nostalgia for the past. The hero of The Waste Land—and for the sake of this argument it must be said that there is one— is typical of those same well-educated, well-read, well-fed, well-placed young people of the time, all of them up and comers, but with one glaring difference: The hero of The Waste Land knows that the world is what he makes of it only in figurative terms. His problem is not that he knows nothing, but that he knows too much, so that there is no center or purpose or direction to his knowing. His despair is not that there has been an awful war (he hardly mentions it) but that all of his learning and training and seeking has come up spades, particularly when he finally resorts to fortune-tellers. His lesson is that all of that despair is typical, however, not just for anyone else of his own time, but for anyone who has ever lived, real or imagined, be it The Buddha or Augustine, Tiresias or Lil, even Jesus Christ, and certainly Phlebas the Phoenician. And yet our hero, perhaps unlike anyone who has ever lived before, has been brought up to believe that he and his age are anything but typical, are in fact the inheritors of the ages, the modern world fulfilled at last in system, thought, and institution, gramophone and taxi cab.
That realization—that he is, after all is said and all is done, only human—is the source of his disillusion. But a liberating disillusionment it is, for his solution is now to learn how to be human, not smug and European and upper middle class, but holistically human. Then, through sympathy and self-discipline and service, he finds the beginning of the springs of an inner peace that will culminate in a genuine self-acceptance, a story, at least Sophocles’ Tiresias would agree, as old as Oedipus of Thebes.
The Waste Land is a critique of neither the myth nor the urban apocalypse. The Waste Land is the first work of Western secular literature to recognize and, more important, to illustrate, that no human value system is central to the needs of the entire human race, and yet “regarded as an experience which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.” That is Eliot’s citation from F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, which the poet of The Waste Land quotes in his note to line 412. As much as it is also an expression of the theme of the poem, the myopia of the poem’s contemporary responses confirms that theme’s validity.
The Waste Land may have meaning only as a commentary on the severe limitations on our ability to arrive at universally acceptable meanings, and it achieves that “meaning” of its own by disassociating itself from the techniques of meaningful literature, a goal it further achieves by bringing to bear, for examination and consideration, fragments of that very kind of literature as it has developed, in the West, through several millennia. It is not, however, the thematic substance of the poetry’s literary fragments, or their sources, for that matter, that constitute the poem’s meaning, which is instead arrived at as its readers undergo the same processes of self-discovery as the speaker undergoes. We are The Waste Land while The Waste Land lasts, and then it is gone.
Rather like Bertrand Russell’s teacher’s paradox of the two sides of the sheet of paper that perpetually refute each other—the statement on the opposite side of this sheet is true, reads one side; the statement on the opposite side of this sheet is false, reads the other—so Eliot continually confirms meaning by as continually denying its possibility by just as constantly echoing its myriad formulations in the past. The reader who studies each particular fragment fails to realize that it is a whole, not a partial vision, that matters. Thus this “theme” of The Waste Land, though it is assuredly the heart of the poem’s poetic experience, is developed by example, never stated, for the simple reason that to even hint at it as a theme would be to undermine its validity. The poet is a liar trying to tell his reader the truth, but for the reader to hear what truth the poet is speaking, he must know when the poet is lying.
To approximate something as cataclysmically profound as each human individual’s longing to hear a truth by which he or she may live a meaningful life with some mere token from the poetry of the past—the quest for the Holy Grail, for example, or the romantic tragedy of Tristan and Isolde—or with the mechanical lovemaking of the typist and the clerk, or with the bisexuality of Tiresias, or even with the ennui of the middleclass couple playing chess or of the working-class locals gabbing at their pub, all of which is what the poetry of The Waste Land will do, is to lie, but it is the human bane never to know for certain that the truth one hears is indeed the truth, let alone a truth that can be applied to one’s own circumstances. That is the point of art—that it can only ever approximate things that are indefinite to begin with. That, too, is the point of Eliot’s epigraph, both the one from Petronius as well as the discarded one from Conrad. That, finally, is why the poem extends beyond all those accumulated images and those various kinds of circumstantial moments into a approximated image of its own, the wasteland, but will end at the seashore with—an incredible irony here for a poetry that uses seven languages—a pointing toward the ineffable: Shantih shantih shantih.
If the Sanskrit word is generally translated to mean the peace that surpasses understanding, then that is itself another way of identifying that point at which words fail but life goes, happily, on. Such an ending to such a word-intensive poem is a self-evident mockery of the efficacy of words to do anything more than confuse readers out of the very peace they seek to find through and in them. That is one reason that it is fair to see The Waste Land, for all its bookish erudition, as a cautionary against trusting anything too much, particularly literature. If the poem can be summed up in the words, “Physician, heal thyself,” then the poem would be giving itself the lie to end by implying that it is the answer. It presents itself only as a way to finding an answer.
But what, then, is left? One could safely conclude that it is the spirit of the quest itself. The hope, blind though it may be (what hope is not?), that one can find one’s own way through the wasteland of The Waste Land is, after all, the same hope that enables each one of us to find his or her way through the far more real wasteland that is experience itself, particularly when that experience does not offer the wayfarer specific and objective moral and ethical guidance. The journey through the wasteland that Eliot depicts in his poem is finally nothing more than a metaphor, perhaps among the most apt ever devised, of each individual’s journey through the confusing maelstrom that is life itself. The poet might very well caution the reader to sort through the chaos of data to find one’s own satisfactory meaning, guidance, and path.
Bedient, Calvin. He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Bolgan, Anne C. What the Thunder Really Said: A Retrospective Essay on the Making of The Waste Land. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1973.
Brooker, Jewel Spears. “ ‘The Second Coming” and The Waste Land: Capstones in the Western Civilization Course.” College Literature 13 (1986): 240–253.
Brooker, Jewel Spears, and Joseph Bentley. Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Waste Land: The Critique of Myth.” In Modern Poetry and the Tradition. 1939.
Reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967, 136–172. Childs, Donald J. “Stetson in The Waste Land.” Essays in Criticism 38 (1988): 131–148.
Chinitz, David. T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Cox, C. B., and A. P. Hinchcliffe, eds. The Waste Land: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1968.
Crawford, Robert. The Savage and the City in the Works of T. S. Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Drew, Elizabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York: Scribner’s, 1949.
Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.
Freedman, Morris. “Jazz Rhythms and T. S. Eliot.” South Atlantic Quarterly 51 (1952): 419–453.
Gardner, Helen. The Art of T. S. Eliot. New York: Dutton, 1950.
Greene, Gayle. “Shakespeare’s Tempest and Eliot’s Waste Land: ‘What the Thunder Said.’ ” Orbis Litterarum 34 (1979): 287–300.
Gunter, Bradley, ed. The Merrill Studies in The Waste Land. Colombus, Ohio: Merrill, 1971.
Hargrove, Nancy. Landscape as Symbol in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1978.
Hinchliffe, Arnold P. The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday: An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1987.
Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
Knoll, Robert E., ed. Storm over The Waste Land. Chicago: Scott, 1964.
Leon, Juan. “ ‘Meeting Mr. Eugenides”: T. S. Eliot and Eugenic Anxiety.” Yeats Eliot Review 9, no. 4 (Summer/ Fall 1988): 169–177.
Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Lockerd, Benjamin G., Jr. Aethereal Rumours: T. S. Eliot’s Physics and Poetics. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.
Manganiello, Dominic. T. S. Eliot and Dante. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Martin, Jay, ed. A Collection of Critical Essays on The Waste Land. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968.
Matthiessen, F. O., and C. L. Barber. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Miller, James E., Jr. T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.
Miller, Milton. “What the Thunder Meant.” ELH 36 (1969): 440–454.
Schwarz, Robert L. Broken Images: A Study of The Waste Land. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1988.
Smith, Grover. The Waste Land. London: Allen and Unwin, 1983.
Unger, Leonard. T. S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.