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In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot gives us a terrifying gaze at the spiritual reality of the world. All men are cracked, thirsty and longing for death…

“The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / which an age of prudence can never retract / by this, and this only, we have existed / which is not to be found in our obituaries.” — T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Endeavor to read T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land for the first time and, likely, you will remember little more than its iconic opening: “April is the cruelest month.”[1] Read it another time and perhaps you will pick up on themes which are laced throughout the sixteen-page poem such as violet light, dryness, and unreal cities. From the third time on, you will get the eerie experience of recalling, perfectly, whole lines of what comes next before you read it: “In the mountains, there you feel free; They called me the hyacinth girl; and, I think we are in rat’s alley / where the dead men lost their bones.”[2] Although these lines do not lend themselves to a pure interpretation, mere lyrical streams of consciousness, they nevertheless haunt the reader with some sort of meaning which is not fact but deeper than fact. There is an accordance with reality laced throughout the poem, even though it is nearly impossible to elucidate in words. What, then, is it that makes this twentieth-century poem so easily impressed upon the soul despite it being so inaccessible?

If one were to analyze The Waste Land’s structure, it might provide some help. The poem seems inaccessible, at least to those who have not received a Borgesian education. Even so, understanding the myriad of allusions and references only gains the reader a few feet, so to speak, in the battle to a lucid reading. Indeed, in his article “Reading The Waste Land,” Harriet Davidson says: “In general, the allusions disperse clear meaning into other contexts, undermine the notion of authentic speaking, and blur the boundaries between texts.”[3] What Dr. Davidson is saying is that, even if you had studied the character of Shakespeare’s Ophelia thoroughly, it would not be clearer to the reader why Eliot quotes Ophelia saying goodnight to the Danish court right after a perturbing scene in which a man abuses a woman for her ugliness, brought on by her habitual use of birth control pills. Is Eliot trying to put the British woman alongside Ophelia as a character whose person has been tragically distorted, taken advantage of sexually or, even, moved to commit suicide? For the reader, this is all guesswork. Such allusions seem to act more for the sake of opening up the poem to a larger world than anything else, to have the poem contain many doors which lead to Denmark, Germany, India and, ultimately, the entire world.

The poem is full of such doorways, but the meaning of the Waste Land is not contingent upon understanding what lies beyond the doors; it is enough to understand that the poem is full of obscurities. Eliot gives us a hint, however, about how we are to read the poem in the first part, “The Burial of the Dead:”

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.[4]

Though this passage is just as opaque as many other passages, it is the key to understanding Eliot’s use of imagery. On the first level, Eliot has painted for us a vignette of the world, especially the modern world which he has called the waste land. Whatever illusion of wholeness and nourishment that one might have about their modern life is here dissolved. For Eliot, modernity itself is an endless corridor with dilapidated doors leading onto disjointed rooms. In this particular passage, Eliot uses broken images in a desert to get the same idea passed. The old world has been shattered—who knows how or why—and what is left is a desert where the images are seen but not in their context—shattered. Modernity has made itself unmistakably distinct from the past while still desiring access to the riches of the past. Modernity rejects the ancient world while still living largely within its bulwarks. It is to this paradoxical point that Eliot wishes to direct the attention of his readers: Despite the fact that modernity’s technological advances have blasted humanity onto a level of super-human existence, other aspects of humanity have calcified and become museum pieces. Ironically, new technology does not remove our dependence upon these broken museum pieces. Davidson addresses the preeminence of this point in the poem:

But the power of the poem, I will argue, comes from its refusal to supply anything to appease the longing for propriety. The poem treats myth, history, art, and religion as subject to the same fragmentation, appropriation, and degradation as modern life—nothing transcends the effects of finitude and change brought on by the regeneration of April.[5]

The poem, therefore, is to be read as from the perspective of the modern man. All the things which had a metaphysical hierarchy in the past are now on the same level. Gone too is the conviction that came along with the ancient world of hierarchy; now there is uncertainty. To quote Eliot’s later poem, “The Four Quartets,” “Here is a place of disaffection.”[6] All we know are a heap of images from the past, worn by the sun’s quotidian use. The key to reading this poem lies in being dissatisfied and confused with it, to long for something beyond its broken images.

In Eliot’s hellish description of the will-o’-the-wisp people crossing London Bridge, these broken images are felt. Eliot incorporates a line from Dante to describe the London commuters: “I had not thought death had undone so many / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled.”[7] Though the people are in the world of the living, they are like ones who have died. This line not only expands the context from a bleak London scene to a vision of hell, it also brings to mind the extreme longing of those who Dante places in Limbo in the Inferno. Sighs of longing permeate the poem and make up its largest theme: desire, correct and incorrect. Many of the people in the poem have incorrect desires. They go after the shattered images of the past without having any life in themselves. They know only their own shadow of a world and their own base drives. There is no correct desire; there is only the everyday neurotic desperation. One is reminded of the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s song “Time”: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Hanging on for what? Eliot’s mixture of fractured allusions and dissatisfied desires combine to make the poem a fortification of hidden meanings.

What is the connection, though, between the dissatisfying form of the poem and its memorable quality? It seems that troublesome verse would be more difficult to remember than beautifully lucid verse. It is because Eliot is not writing poetry in the medium of formulated thought but in the language of our primordial subconscious. The quality of the verse speaks to this effect: it rapidly shifts from place to place, situation to memory, desire to desperation:

O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent
What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?[8]

This particular passage speaks to a flippant intellectual facade that quickly disintegrates into panic and a rushed walk through the streets, reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. The lines remind us of our own mind’s progression when we are distracted or upset to such an extent that we have to rush out of wherever we are. The lines of The Waste Land are so memorable to us because we have heard them thousands of times, they flit nervously through our heads: from song to calm, to false intellectualism, to lustful longing… In many ways, the corridors of modernity are in our restless minds, not just in the desert around us: “Son of man / you cannot say, or guess, for you know only / a heap of broken images.” We are accustomed to these flashes of broken images in our heads. Eliot knew that desire and frustration come to us foremost in this broken language, and he miraculously takes this language—the sort which we are submerged in constantly— and uses it to open our eyes and redirect our desires.

True to its form, however, the poem does not transcend or offer a solution; there is no solution to be had yet. As ethereal as it may be, the poem is still written with words and images. Both the waste land of our minds and the world need purging to reach fulfillment. But what is this fulfillment? Surely it cannot be found on this earth. Despite Eliot’s own agnosticism while writing The Waste Land, he curiously uses water throughout the poem as a symbol for purgation: “Fear death by water,”[9] but even when the poem makes a dramatic transition in “Death by Water,” through the universal drowning of Phlebas, all is not well: “Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”[10] Though this scene might represent a sort of baptism, in the final section “What the Thunder Said,” we return to the waste land, though now it is stripped of all illusion:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses.[12]

Eliot gives us a terrifying gaze at the spiritual reality of the world. All men are cracked, thirsty and longing for death. Only now, after the death by water, is there change. Though the desert now surrounds us, we are aware of it and we long for water again. The narrator acknowledges his need for water and the verse is regularly interspersed with “If there were water…”[13] Even by the end of the poem, therefore, we are not satisfied by a literary description of some sort of heaven; rather, we are made conscious of the virtues we need to escape, given by the thunder’s voice: “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.”[14] These virtues are to give, to have compassion and to control oneself; these virtues only lead to sahantih, (peace) the last word of the poem.

If there were a true point to The Waste Land, it would be to make us aware of our improper desires. When we first start reading the poem, we are in the waste land. We are the commuters; we are Albert who just got demobbed, etc… At first, we love the poem for it “best modernist spirit.”[15] We love how it charmingly makes very little sense and we are allowed to interpret into it anything that we please. Soon, however, we start to recognize our own subconscious in the poem to an uncomfortable degree. While the actions of a character in a novel might remind us of something which we have done ourselves, there is always a comfortable distance; we have to suspend our disbelief to read a novel. Eliot, however, has invaded the human conscious to an alarming degree when he writes such lines as: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. / What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / I never know what you are thinking. Think.”[16] Eliot engages the modern spirit in a candid conversation about what we think when we are sitting in our rooms, alone and desperate. We realize that we ourselves are distracted from our own thirstiness. We might think that we have the truth through success, orthodox Catholicity or a great relationship, but our desires are informed by shattered images.

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[1] T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems The Waste Land (New York: Harcourt Publishers, 1963), p. 53, v. 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 53, v. 17; p. 54, v. 36; p. 57, v. 115-116.

[3] Harriet Davidson, The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot, ed. A David Moody, “Reading The Waste Land”(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 128.

[4] Eliot, p. 53, v. 19-22.

[5] Davidson, 123.

[6] Eliot, p. 178.

[7] Ibid., p.55, v. 64.

[8] Ibid,. p. 57, v. 129-134.

[9] Ibid., p. 54, v. 55.

[10] Ibid., p. 65, v. 319-321.

[11] Ibid., p. 67, v. 372-377.

[12] Ibid., p. 66, v. 340-345.

[13] Ibid., p. 66, v. 335.

[14] Ibid., p. 69, v. 433.

[15] Davidson, 126

[16] Eliot, p. 57, v. 111-114.

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Published: Oct 30, 2017
Ryan Hess
Ryan Hess is an alumnus of Wyoming Catholic College, where his studies culminated in his thesis titled: “El Que no Está en el Verso: Borges’ Search for Beauty Beyond Being.” Mr. Hess’ thesis explores the strong similarities between Jorge Luis Borges’ puzzling short stories and the philosophy of Saint Augustine as handed down from Plotinus and others. Mr. Hess will be attending the University of Dallas to pursue his Master’s degree in English beginning in the Fall of 2018.
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2 replies to this post
  1. After reading this thoughtful essay, I conclude that the perspective of the poem, The Waste Land, could be said to have been written through the eyes of Cain, the one who was marked and separated from the promise of the coming one, the redeemer; the divide between the good and the evil.

  2. “a perturbing scene in which a man abuses a woman for her ugliness, brought on by her habitual use of birth control pills.”

    The passage can be understood as one woman recounting what she said to another (“then I’ll know who to thank…”), and “them pills I took, to bring it off” a chemically induced abortion.

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