T. S. Eliot: “The Waste Land” (1922)


To declare “The Waste Land” (TWL) the most influential poem of the 20th century by no means makes it the best, and the same can be said of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. In marketing, however, there is a saying that it is better to be first than best. Both works qualify as firsts. My reservation about TWL is simply that it is not Eliot’s best poem; of his longer works I would rank it below “Prufrock,” “Preludes,” “Gerontion,” and Four Quartets. “Prufrock,” in my view, better deserves the prominence or notoriety which TWL engendered, as “Prufrock” contains all the elements that were necessary for the modern revolution in poetry.

That said, TWL is as grotesque as it is novel. It is the Frankenstein’s monster of modern literature, patched together from disparate, individual sketches into a larger poem, an attempt at an epic poem in shorthand, if you will. The shorthand consists of the allusive method by which Eliot’s incorporation of diverse sources, both ancient and contemporary, opens, as through a magnifying glass, the history of literature to the interested reader. The allusions, if pursued, can lead us from pre-Socratic Greeks to questionable anthropological surmises of the late 19th century, from Renaissance Italian to Sanskrit, from German opera to Cockney slang.

The original title of the poem, “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” is in some ways more instructive than its eventual title, since it tells us, quite simply, that the poem consists of a collection of voices—not one voice, not one speaker—which recalls a quote from Augustine near the end of “The Fire Sermon” (TFS): “‘To Carthage then I came, [where a cauldron of unholy loves sang about my ears].’”

Eliot claims in his Notes that the most important personage (or voice) in the poem is that of Tiresias, the hermaphroditic blind prophet of Thebes. Yet Tiresias’ commentary, though located in the poem’s middle, does not suffice either to explain or encompass the verbal patchwork of the poem, a poem which, somewhat arrogantly, asks the reader to accept itself as a poem when the traditional rules of narrative, sequence, even logic, no longer apply. I agree with Robert Graves, quoted by Louis Untermeyer in his Lives of the Poets (Simon and Schuster, NY, 1959):

[TWL consists of] “a sequence of disparate short pieces, some poems, some not, like the songs in Blake’s Island on the Moon, and experimental only in the sense that Mr. Eliot asks his readers to make a mythically significant connection between them” (p. 675).

This recalls, rather comically, what the speaker in Eliot’s earlier “Gerontion” says of his landlord:

“Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.”

Yes, it is a monster of a poem. But it need not be difficult—indeed, I don’t think Eliot intended the poem to be difficult, in fact was surprised by the difficulty it caused. Yet his own opinion of the work certainly changed with time. He wrote John Quinn, his New York benefactor, on June 25, 1922:

“I have written, mostly when I was at Lausanne for treatment last winter, a long poem of about 450 words [lines] which, with notes I am adding, will make a book of 30 to 40 pages. I think it is the best I have ever done, and Pound thinks so too.” (T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, Valerie Eliot, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY, 1971, hereafter referred to as TWL: MS)

Eliot prepared the notes to TWL by request only after the poem had been twice published, underscoring my belief that the author, at least, and at first, thought the poem needed no annotations. Yet more surprising than Eliot’s faith in the poetic readership of his time, or any time, given the motley erudition which informs the poem, is to compare his hopeful early assessment of the poem to his later, oft-quoted remark:

“Various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” (TWL: MS, p. 1)

Artists commonly devalue and re-value their earlier works upon later reflection, but few have gone so far as to say “I think it is the best I have ever done,” and later, “it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life.”

Naturally I disagree with both assessments. As a critic of poetry, at least the poetry of others, so does Eliot. Note his remarks on Rilke in the context of an address on Goethe:

“Now in so far as anything I have written on the subject in the past says or suggests that the poet need not believe a philosophical idea which he has chosen to embody in his verse, Professor Heller is, no doubt, quite right in contradicting me. For such a suggestion would appear to be a justification of insincerity, and would annihilate all poetic values except those of technical accomplishment.” (“Goethe as the Sage,” T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (hereafter OPP), Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, NY, 1957, p. 359)

Eliot’s reason for devaluing TWL in later life, for denying its sincerity, is, of course, a personal one, as the poem was written largely during Eliot’s convalescence from a nervous breakdown in a Swiss sanatorium, a period in his life deserving, as I pointed out in my first essay, the modern label of “clinical depression.”

Despite my rankings at the outset, TWL is not a bad poem. It is a strange poem, an experimental poem, a jagged poem, a discontinuous poem, but it is not a bad poem nor did Eliot mean it insincerely when he wrote it. It is only through the retrospective of denial that Eliot sought to avoid the emotional pain associated with its genesis Truly, some of its passages match the best poetry in English, as in:

     “What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes, swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air” (367–373)

Other passages are composed of street vernacular by design, as in the end of part II, “A Game of Chess” (AGOC):

“When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—

I didn’t mince words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.” (139–144)

All this, by way of introduction, is to establish the controversy TWL has always generated. Whether a landscape of near-psychotic depression, like a Heironymous Bosch painting (“Heironymo’s mad againe”), or a work of true literary genius, or both, the psychic conflict that birthed it is inevitably reflected by the critical disputes that have dogged it. Unlike Napoleon, if TWL had not been written, we would not have had to invent it. As noted in my previous essay, William Carlos Williams, far from Eliot in poetic theory and practice, bemoaned not TWL itself but the fact that it was written too soon, altering the natural progression of poetry’s development in English. Yet is this not one definition of genius? The same criticism could be applied to Milton, whom Eliot admired but did not like:

“Many people will agree that a man may be a great artist, and yet have a bad influence. There is more of Milton’s influence in the badness of the bad verse of the eighteenth century than of anybody’s else: he certainly did more harm than Dryden and Pope, and perhaps a good deal of the obloquy which has fallen on these two poets, especially the latter, because of their influence, ought to be transferred to Milton.” (OPP 156-57)

Williams did not say Eliot was a bad influence, only a premature one. I think TWL is a quantum leap in the history of poetry in English, indeed in any language, perhaps most resembling the dream quest conventions of the few surviving medieval poems like “Piers Plowman” or “The Dream of the Rood.” Like any truly new thing, like the telephone that makes me hate Alexander Graham Bell even as I chat long-distance, TWL’s influence has been both destructive and constructive.

What is most destructive about its influence is that it changed our definition of poetry. TWL lends justification to those who would call anything poetry, since it includes popular jingles (“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag-- / It’s so elegant / So intelligent” (128 – 130) ) while shamelessly defacing great quotations for its own purposes (“Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight. / Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.” (171-172). Thus if one looks at the material of TWL uncritically, it does seemingly grant permission to subsequent poets for the inclusion of anything in a poem, whether composed or merely “found.” One can use TWL to justify the poetry of Charles Bukowski or Charles Olson, to support New Formalism, The Nuyoricans, or the Elliptical School. Much like the Bible, which has been used to justify nearly any practice in religion, TWL can be used to justify nearly any practice in poetry, but such polemical employments are strawmen and ignore the work as a whole--the balance Eliot achieves between the formal, lyrical, conversational and banal. It is only because Eliot was a very good poet, one who had already demonstrated mastery of poetic form and the capacity for innovation, that his effort was taken seriously. Some thought it a hoax or a fraud and some still do, and Eliot did nothing to correct such misperceptions, as we have already seen his own perceptions of the poem, over time, were equally skewed.

To apply a modern proverb to TWL one might say, “Only Nixon could go to China.” Only Eliot could have written TWL. Whitman could never have done it, nor Pound, because although Pound’s Cantos are most similar in technique and breadth, he had not proven himself with a sufficient body of formal work to justify such a departure. Besides, his Cantos, for the most part, lack Eliot’s peculiar concentration. It took a poet whose skill in form and knowledge of literature were undeniable to depart so markedly from past conventions, bringing us back to Professor Bloom’s definition of literary genius: One must subsume the tradition and depart from it. Simply put, we accept TWL as a significant poem because Eliot had, by his previous efforts, earned the right to have it so considered.


Eliot claimed ignorance of the whereabouts of the original manuscript of TWL during his lifetime, though based on the correspondence included in its publication by Valerie Eliot in 1971, this is hard to believe. Just as Eliot forbade an official biography, it’s doubtful he wanted the manuscript discovered in his lifetime, for reasons already mentioned.

The discovery of the manuscript further complicates any assessment of TWL. It is bad enough to have to wade through the piles of criticism the poem has generated since its appearance, worse to take on a draft of the poem with three editors scribbling on it, namely Eliot, Pound, and Vivien (Eliot’s first wife). Any critic or scholar who now undertakes comment on TWL must decide at the outset how far he is prepared to go in contemplating the original draft vs. the final version. What other poem in literary history is studied in this way? Do we search for Yeats’ first draft of “The Second Coming,” or Frost’s drafts of “Death of the Hired Man”? Obviously not. We accept the final version of the authors as final. Yet with TWL comes the baggage of its genesis, particularly since its inscription, “For Ezra Pound il miglior fabbro [the better maker],” leads us to believe that Pound had a weighty hand in its shaping.

When I first read about the poem, my impression was that Eliot handed some 1000 lines to Pound, and out of frustration or exhaustion, asked him to fix it. This is not true. The manuscript demonstrates that Eliot did most of the editing, taking some of Pound’s suggestions (and most of Vivien’s). After the body of the poem in ms., Valerie Eliot saw fit to include a number of fragments which Eliot had already decided against for inclusion in TWL, and these make up the bulk of the discarded material associated with the 1000-line legend. The fragments are interesting as an example of some of Eliot’s writing from the same period, but it is not as if Pound said, “Don’t include these.” Eliot had already discarded them from the poem.

Briefly, let’s look at some of the points in which the ms. differs from the published version.

First, Eliot’s original epigram for TWL was taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and includes the famous exclamation, “The horror! The horror!” (Eliot later used “Mr. Kurtz, he dead” as an epigram for “The Hollow Men.”) Before publication Eliot changed his epigram for TWL to a passage from Petronius’ Satyricon, a work, like Conrad’s, also critical of a disintegrating culture. Here’s the quote: “For I saw with my own eyes that Sibyl hanging in a jar at Cunae, and when the acolytes said, ‘Sibyl, what do you wish?’ she replied, ‘I wish to die’”—a fitting introduction to TWL.

To proceed to the first section: “The Burial of the Dead” (TBOD) has a false start of 54 lines which Eliot himself eliminated with a stroke of pencil to arrive at the famous “April is the cruellest month” as a beginning. The abandoned lines are a tedious recounting of the social life of the English lower classes, the same sort of narrative we read in AGOC 139-72, from which I’ve already quoted. To have started the poem on this note would have been disastrous, not to mention boring, and Eliot was a good enough editor to avoid this pitfall. Except for minor suggestions by Pound and Vivien, the rest of TBOD does not markedly differ from the final version.

Part II, “A Game of Chess,” originally titled, “In the Cage,” is little altered in the final copy. Perhaps the best critical addition to this section was made by Vivien, who inserted into the working class dialogue, “What you get married for if you don’t want to have children?” (164).

It’s in Part III, “The Fire Sermon” (TFS), that Pound first asserts himself, essentially scrapping the first 42 lines, just as Eliot scrapped the opening of TBOD. It’s Pound’s editing that helps Eliot begin on the right note, “The river’s tent is broken.” Pound also scraps about 15 lines between lines 206 and 207 of the final text, of which Eliot had already stricken five.

The draft of Part IV, “Death by Water” (DBW), contains 92 lines, of which Eliot included only the last ten, actually a English translation of part of his earlier poem in French, “Dans Le Restaurant.” The discarded lines contain some lovely nautical imagery, through which Pound picked very carefully, attempting to salvage them. However, it was Eliot who decided only to include the short passage that remains. Perhaps the number of deletions and suggestions by Pound for this section encouraged Eliot to scrap nearly all of it, just as he had the beginning of TBOD, just as Pound cut the opening of TFS.

(I think it interesting to note that most poets capable of self-editing (without which they would never be good, with some rare exceptions) more frequently delete substantial material from the beginning of poems than elsewhere. As an editor I sometimes say, after reading several stanzas of an author’s poem, “Here’s where I think the poem begins.” An early draft of a poem, in my experience, often mimics starting a car on a winter’s day; until the engine starts humming, all the coughs and sputters are mere preparation for the actual drive, and not to be retained, though near impossible to avoid in the scheme of things.)

Perhaps Pound’s greatest contribution to the poem is his note above the last section, “What the Thunder Said” (WTTS): OK from here on I think (TWL: MS p. 71). This is great encouragement.

Vivien’s contributions are minor. She made few concrete suggestions, mostly marginal comments, e.g. “wonderful,” and her comments are almost exclusively confined to AGOC. I mentioned one already.

The lesson of the manuscript is that Pound was a good editor but should in no way be mistaken as the co-author. Eliot eliminated the opening to TBOD; Pound helped eliminate the opening of TFS; Pound’s detailed criticism of DBW likely resulted in Eliot jettisoning most of it; and Pound’s affirmation of WTTS lent Eliot confidence in preserving the most powerful movement of the poem nearly whole. This is no more nor less than what a good editor does. Thus, in my view, for Eliot to call Pound “the better maker” seems hyperbole; Pound didn’t make anything, he simply affirmed some passages and suggested the elimination of others without substantially altering the meat of the poem. (It should be noted that the phrase il miglior fabbro comes from Dante’s tribute in the Purgatorio to the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, as “the better craftsman of the mother tongue.” Yet the original context does not lessen the weight of gratitude implied by its use in Eliot’s dedication.)


In discussing TWL I have chosen to use Eliot’s annotations sparingly, even dismissively, but for good reason. Mark this passage from Eliot’s essay, “The Frontiers of Criticism” (OPP, p. 121-22):

”Here I must admit that I am, on one conspicuous occasion, not guiltless of having led critics into temptation. The notes to The Waste Land! I had at first intended only to put down all the references for my quotations, with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism. Then, when it came to print The Waste Land as a little book—for the poem on its first appearance in The Dial and in The Criterion had no notes whatever—it was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short, so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter, with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day. I have sometimes thought of getting rid of these notes but now they can never be unstuck. They have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself—anyone who bought my book of poems, and found that the notes to “The Waste Land” were not in it, would demand his money back. But I don’t think that these notes did any harm to other poets: certainly I cannot think of any good contemporary poet who has abused this same practice. [As for Miss Marianne Moore, her notes to poems are always pertinent, curious, conclusive, delightful and give no encouragement whatever to the researcher of origins.] No, it is not because of my bad example to other poets that I am penitent: it is because my notes stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources. It was just, no doubt, that I should pay my tribute to the work of Miss Jessie Weston; but I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.”

As Eliot is famous for saying, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” For most readers, in the opinion of Eliot himself, the notes are little more than a distraction upon early acquaintance with the poem, though later acquaintance makes them marginally interesting (forgive the pun). The Notes were meant to: 1) use more paper to fit the printer’s needs; 2) “to spike the guns of critics” who had earlier accused Eliot of plagiarism. Despite the limited scope of their author’s intent, the Notes fueled a veritable bacchanalia of speculation regarding the poem, which Eliot, in his wry humor, found both amusing and regrettable: “They [the Notes] have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself.” No more need be said about them, but it may be wise to repeat Eliot’s advice on reading Dante to confirm my judgment of their utility:

“I do not recommend, in reading the first canto of the Inferno, worrying about the identity of the Leopard, the Lion, or the She-Wolf. It is really better, at the start, not to know or care what they do mean.” (“Dante” by T. S. Eliot, Gateway to the Great Books, Volume 5, Critical Essays, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1963, p. 375, hereafter referred to as “Dante”)


If one wished to understand the genesis of TWL more fully from other sources, I think it a better investment of time to meditate upon Dante’s Divine Comedy than Eliot’s Notes. Dante remained Eliot’s literary hero for life; Eliot used to carry a pocket edition of the Comedy around in his coat, likely around the time of TWL’s composition. Eliot’s admiration of Dante is best expressed by Eliot:

“What I have in mind is that Dante is, in a sense to be defined (for the word means little by itself), the most universal of poets in the modern languages. That does not mean that he is the greatest, or that he is the most comprehensive—there is greater variety and detail in Shakespeare.

“Dante’s universality is not solely a personal matter. The Italian language, and especially the Italian language in Dante’s age, gains much by being the product of universal Latin.

“The culture of Dante was not of one European country but of Europe… He not only thought in a way in which every man of his culture in the whole of Europe then thought, but he employed a method which was common and commonly understood throughout Europe … the allegorical method was a definite method and not confined to Italy; and [it is] a fact, apparently paradoxical, that the allegorical method makes for simplicity and intelligibility.” (“Dante,” pp. 372-75)

Eliot envied Dante’s position in history, since, in Eliot’s opinion, Dante wrote at a time in which a poet could know nearly everything important about his inherited culture, a culture long unified through traditions of Royalist and Catholic hegemony. Dante, in Eliot’s view, wrote the last true epic of European culture. Eliot tried, wished, strove to achieve the same grasp of his own time and culture, but naturally despaired, an unavoidable result after Gutenberg, the rise of nationalism and sectarianism, and the loss of Latin as a universal tongue.

As my mother-in-law is fond of saying, “I feel sorry for students today. There’s so much more history to learn than when I was a child.” Eliot says much the same thing in another essay:

“For is it not now a commonplace, that the sciences and even the humanities have reached a point in development at which there is so much to know about any specialty, that no student has the time to know much about anything else?” (“The Frontiers of Criticism,” OPP, p. 116)

Unlike his perhaps over-idealized vision of Dante, Eliot had to choose which authors to know well, which to be acquainted with, and which to ignore. This limitation frustrated him, clearly: he read voraciously in at least six languages (Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian and English), but knew he would never be able to encompass the whole of his culture, as he felt Dante had, or Virgil, or, to a lesser extent, Milton.

There are references to the Divine Comedy in Eliot’s Notes on TWL, and certainly no literate reader can mistake the homage done to Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio while plowing through the TWL. Fittingly, there are no direct quotes from the Paradisio in TWL, as the poem is most concerned with getting out of the infernal regions while barely approaching the border of paradise at its conclusion. (I like to think of Four Quartets as Eliot’s “Paradisio.”)

In addition to its homage to Dante, TWL is clearly modeled on the classic ingredients of the epic--as the compound protagonist makes his way through a cacophony of underworld voices, with the Thames functioning as the River Styx or one of Hades’ other rivers, perhaps the Lethe. And if Eliot’s notes are to be believed, the most important personage in the poem, Tiresias, is none other than that prophet Odysseus sought among the shades (with a bowl of fresh blood) to guide him back to Ithaca.

TWL is thus a compressed, though paradoxically (or necessarily) fragmented “epic” for the modern world, beginning with exile in TBOD, proceeding through the temptations and enchantments of AGOC and TFS, and ending in shipwreck in DBW--just as Odysseus suffered-- while WTTS may be loosely associated with Odysseus’ cleansing of his household after 20 years’ absence, though WTTS is more concerned with an inner cleansing. Yet both protagonists end up on a familiar shore. The one ingredient of the epic that TWL lacks is a battle, unless we accept the internal, psychological battle as a substitute.

Although TWL is an homage to Dante and the epic form, it is also an admission of failure, confirming Eliot’s frustration that no modern writer could ever achieve anything so universal as Dante. Eliot wrote that Dante had greater heights and depths than Shakespeare, greater exaltations and humiliations, while Shakespeare had greater breadth; that Shakespeare was more horizontal and Dante more vertical. Interesting thereby is that Eliot was never much good at character, even in his plays. He preferred archetypes more resembling the characters of allegory. Even the main character in TWL, Tiresias, Eliot labels a “personage” in his Notes, not a person or character. In his criticism Eliot writes about “personae” and “voices:” not character and personality but “the extinction of personality.” For the record I think J. Alfred Prufrock the greatest character Eliot created, but Prufrock most resembles Eliot, and most people can at least write about themselves. Given this literary limitation, it is easy to see how Eliot more easily identified with Dante than Shakespeare.

I think it fair to say that Dante’s Divine Comedy was Eliot’s Grail and TWL Eliot’s attempt to fashion something epically imitative of it in the face of a disintegrating culture. To repeat, the attempt fails and was doomed to failure and Eliot knew it: “These fragments have I shored against my ruins.” For all that, it is a noble failure and an influential one.

From the standpoint of its psychological genesis and Eliot’s realization of the literary limitations imposed by his times and his talent, I am sometimes tempted to burden TWL with yet a third title: “Dr. Faust Repents.” Eliot strove with superhuman concentration to do in literature what Prufrock could not do in life:

“Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.’”

The poem attempts a universal allegory, loosely based on the Grail legend, while failing and fragmenting at the same time. Since Eliot’s nervous breakdown in the winter of 1921 birthed the poem, we might say TWL is a nervous breakdown on paper, almost a personal anti-epic, an exorcism of an impossible ambition. Eliot’s later poems are more moderate in scope: he plays with smaller canvases, just as James Joyce confined his Ulysses to 24 hours in the environs of Dublin. It was simply impossible by the time of Eliot and Joyce to do what Homer, Virgil, and Dante had done. According to Eliot, Dante was the last writer who could truly say, “I shall tell you all.”

Perhaps those who come closest to the sensibility of the epic in our time are writers who engage in cross-cultural literary speculation, like V.S. Naipul. Having said this, I don’t think any poem more qualifies as an epic, in the modern sense, than TWL, with perhaps Ginsberg’s Howl a distant second. The fact that Robinson Jeffers, William Carlos Williams and countless others have written book-length poems since does not make their works epics. It is not about length but depth and power.


We’ve looked at the history, manuscript, Notes, and some influences on TWL. In my appendix, below, I attempt an abstract of the poem for readers who feel a need for more straightforward explication. But have we seen the poem?

I doubt anyone can see it; its elements go teasingly in and out of focus, its attractions and repulsions are protean and change with each reading, though after many readings one becomes more familiar with the terrain, both literary and psychological. Yet in appreciating TWL, there will always be a lingering doubt. As Eliot wrote later in Four Quartets, could it be that “We had the experience but we missed the meaning?” And if so, who can tell us the meaning? Certainly not Eliot. Below, the best he can do, from his Notes:

“Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.”

Although for Eliot this comment is fairly straightforward, it does boggle the mind to think that among the legion of voices in the poem, Eliot informs us, quite arbitrarily, that he considers Tiresias the poem’s central unifying voice; nor does it help us a great deal to know that what Tiresias sees is “the substance of the poem.” At first glance one wants to say, “Well, bully for Tiresias! I wish he would explain it to me!”

Yet it is the nature of Eliot to obscure his verse more by explanation than to illumine it. What other poet has said of a major work, in essence, “This fictional personage within the poem sees the substance of the poem,” when the personage is but a small part of the poem, not even a character? Tiresias is the seer who sees the poem from inside the poem, but does nothing to help us see it, only narrates the tawdry seduction of a typist by a house agent’s clerk in Augustan pentameter.

Here’s another gem from Eliot’s Notes regarding the climax of TFS, which employs quotes from Buddha’s Fire Sermon and Augustine’s Confessions (308-9):

“The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.”

Gee, I thought he was throwing darts! Even J. Alfred might have given us a more direct explanation.

Still, TWL goes far beyond Prufock’s neurotic timidity in exploring the disintegration of personality. If “Prufrock” is neurotically evasive, TWL is psychotically so, a mish-mash of voices triangulated through allusions, quotes, surrealistic imagery and borrowed Sanskrit wisdom. One is sometimes tempted to say about TWL that which Gertrude Stein said of Oakland: “There’s no ‘there’ there.” Yet to do so would be to admit the poem a fraud, “Oed und leer dass Meer.” Yet since I believe Eliot meant the poem sincerely when he wrote it, what shall I say of the “there?” “Cry, what shall I cry?”

Put another way, does the poem succeed or only change our definition of success for the genre of poetry? I have written in my Logopoetry essays about the need for man to impose order on randomness, to see patterns where perhaps no patterns are. Is whatever unity the poem pretends to only a function of individual, subjective perception, a Rorschach for the literary elite? Is all the ink spilt over TWL merely a homage to the therapeutic journaling of a gifted poet in a mental hospital?


The first principle by which to judge a work of art is its unity, and by that I mean the organic unity that Coleridge described, not the obvious unity of a monologue by Browning or a satire by Pope. For unity, I would give TWL at best a C-. And that’s being kind.

The poem’s unity could be easily improved by jettisoning AGOC and TFS. That way we could ignore the repetitive re-working of romantic and sexual failures that occupy the center of the poem and go straight from the desert (TBOD) through drowning (DBW) back to the desert and the restoration of the Fisher King personage in WTTS. AGOC and TFS are a bit of a detour from the spiritual crisis that occurs at the end of TBOD. Why tarry among the sterile detritus of meaningless heterosexual relationships for so long? It gets tedious. To commit psychobiography, perhaps the reason for the length of these two sections was Eliot’s need, while in a mental hospital, to exorcise his failed relationship with Vivien. Why couldn’t Eliot, a good self-editor, see this needless repetition? Likely because he needed to talk about it.

Here’s another gripe: TFS fails to excite any lust at all, making the closing quotes from Guatama and Augustine anticlimactic. In thinking about this, and Eliot’s delicacy about things physical, I am apt to believe he thought he had pictured lust in this, the longest section of the poem, unaware he had only sketched the mechanics. He writes like a man who has never truly experienced the joy of sex and its attendant lust, unlike Buddha or Augustine, men who loved the world and its pleasures and painfully sought to extricate themselves from it. The sexiest women in the poem (not saying much) are the Hyacinth Girl of TBOD and the woman who “drew her long black hair out tight” in WTTS. The Cleopatra figure, the neurotic voice of the insomniac wife persona, as well as the babblings of working-class women about false teeth and abortions, render sex only either distant or disgusting in AGOC. As Jonson said of Shakespeare, “Little Latin and less Greek”: one could say of TWL’s AGOC and TFS, “Little sex and less love.” The success of TFS, especially, depends upon us believing in Eliot’s joyless depiction of lust until we are forced to cry out against it, but by his very refinement of lust into the mechanical, TFS fails to engage our lust sufficiently to want deliverance.

Curiously, the original sources of many of TWL’s allusions contain more lust and violence than anything Eliot could muster. Take the “Rape of Philomel” from Ovid, for instance, a recurring figure. After Tereus rapes his sister-in-law, cuts her tongue out, and the gods transform her into a nightingale, his wife, Procne, Philomel’s sister, kills their son and serves it up to him Hannibal Lecter style, whereupon he eats his own son. Finally the unhappy couple are turned into birds, too, she a swallow and he a hoopoe eternally pursuing the two sisters.

Even Eliot’s Tiresias is desexualized in a way that Ovid, as quoted in Eliot’s Notes, does not support. Tiresias, according to Ovid, was not a hermaphrodite but a man who was transformed into a woman after he separating two large snakes mating; seven years later he was transformed back into a man when he performed the same act. The Tiresias of Ovid, therefore, whom Eliot quotes, experienced manhood and womanhood sequentially, but was never a sexless hermaphrodite “throbbing between two lives.” Ovid’s Tiresias is sexier. And Eliot’s use of Marvell’s “To My Coy Mistress” actually defangs the seductive charm of that poem rather than using it to advance any true feeling of lust.

I could proceed to more examples. Suffice it to say that Eliot sanitized the most savage and sexual allusions in TWL, undermining the very power needed to propel the poem forward, especially in TFS, whose failed climax I noted above.

Another failure of unity in TWL, again in TFS, is Eliot’s use of the Thames. Why all the river imagery when the point of TBOD and WTTS is a complete lack of water? Yes, the river is sterile, the canal is dull, there is a garret of dry bones, still, why bring so much water into the poem and undermine the power of the very deprivation the author sets out to communicate at the beginning? Why a sterile river instead of the fires of lust? In terms of unity, this is misguided.

The chief progress Eliot achieves in TWL personally, and to a lesser extent artistically, is that he manages to get his hands a little dirty, though he still pokes the crab in the pool with a stick (“Rhapsody on a Windy Night). Yet the stick he employs in TWL to make contact with the flesh is partly composed of some very bloody allusions, as in the story of Philomel. Still, at the age of 34, as a poet and a person, the author of TWL has yet to truly embrace his own flesh.

There is an old adage among boxing trainers that the pugilist should not engage in sex for two weeks prior to a bout. In TWL Eliot is still forced to sublimate his physical drives into language, which although lending his language power, also limits it. What prevents Eliot, for example, in TBOD, from writing: “You called me the Hyacinth Girl, and we made love all night in the summer rain, and in the morning I brought you fresh coffee and sticky buns and licked the caramel from your fingers. It was delicious.”?

In my parody see the secret and limitation of Eliot’s early genius: his lack of physical connection, the absence of an incarnate humanity, something Whitman, Jeffers, Williams and Lawrence had in spades. Yet they could never write like Eliot, whose repression of his own animal nature, at times, helps supercharge his language into something more sensual than the mere sensual by sublimation.

As with most humans, Eliot’s deficiencies are his gifts. He preferred the world of allegory and archetype, Dante’s world, over Shakespeare’s. He is more a Platonist than an Aristotelian. He preferred the world of ideas and language, which he manipulated through literary and psychological triangulation, to the world of organic life. In no writing of his can I recall the joy of sexual merging, which for most humans is the most accessible Grail.

Listen to this passage from his best-known essay:

“The poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the movement to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Gateway to the Great Books, Volume 5, Critical Essays, op cit., p. 407)

Eliot mentions Shakespeare in passing just before this quote. Eliot could not understand Shakespeare as he did Dante because of his own psychic limitations. Shakespeare did not try to extinguish his own personality, rather successfully imagined himself as other personalities for the sake of art. Because of the breadth of his psychological insight, Shakespeare sought not the extinction of his own personality but its expansion through verbal imagination. There is a great difference between becoming a character for the sake of art and trying to extinguish one’s own personality for the sake of art. The former is psychological, the latter archetypal—why Eliot preferred Dante over Shakespeare. Eliot could never have created a Falstaff, Lear, or Rosalind, and I doubt Dante could have, either.

If TWL is in some ways an attempt at exorcism of Eliot’s and Prufrock’s delicacy, an attempt to solve the isolation of depersonalization through an extinction of personality, then the poem offers a kind of spiritual relief not sought by normal people. When I say “normal,” I think not of Eliot or Dante, but a judge I once knew in a support group. Having suffered serious and prolonged depressions myself, I once asked him how he dealt with such feelings. “I don’t, really,” he said. “I just pick up an apple and bite into it, and once the juice starts to run down my chin, I seem to forget whatever it was that was bothering me.”

Unlike my portly jurist friend with his good appetites, Eliot was thin, even puny, near-sighted and a chain-smoker, a literary creature, if you will. It is hard to imagine him actually fishing, far less cleaning his catch..

In this regard I find Eliot’s citation (in his Notes on “TWL”) regarding his metaphor for explicating dayadhavam, or “sympathize” (WTTS), fascinating. Here’s the passage:

Dayadhavam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus” (412-17)

Here’s Eliot’s gloss for these lines (from F. H. Bradley):

“My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.”

Interesting, yes? Not the inclusivity of Shakespeare’s humanity but the privacy of Dante’s vision. In reading Eliot's passage, above, I receive the opposite sense—I find myself more connecting, in terms of “sympathize,” with the commonality of Phlebas entering the whirlpool of mankind’s ultimate connection through death in DBW than any personal isolation. To me, Eliot’s use of sympathize more implies that we are all in the same sea, even if our boats are separate. For Eliot, perhaps, simply affirming the fact of our inescapable isolation as unique minds was a step forward from Prufrock’s retreat.

Eliot the middle-aged bachelor had over 20 cats. Near the end of TBOD he writes, after Webster, “Oh keep the dog far hence that’s friend to men, / Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” It’s hard for me to imagine Eliot with a dog. Aren’t cats the embodiment of the inhuman, the separate, the uncontrollable? Weren’t they venerated by an Egyptian culture more concerned with death and eternity than with this life? Dogs are so easily affectionate, sloppy, loyal, and willing to die for you. I submit, without benefit of fact, that dogs were likely too easy and too easily personal for Eliot—just as his very confessional poetry had to be triangulated into a form he considered impersonal.

TWL seeks integration through disintegration, or peace through depersonalization. It is not as evasive as “Prufrock,” since Eliot confronts the demons of his disconnection from the human as best he can at this stage of his development as a person. The author of TWL is still uncomfortable in his own body, but his mind is no longer a haven of escape, having been overloaded to the point where we fear his head might explode. (One might say of the final passage of TWL that his head does explode.) The peace that the compound protagonist of TWL, (or Fisher King, if you will) obtains is the peace of exorcism or psychic regurgitation, much as a patient must ventilate in psychotherapy until he is done talking about his demons. That Eliot turned this experience into art is praiseworthy; that he was incapable of sufficient editing of his regurgitation is understandable, just as his antipathy towards the poem in later life is understandable. Yet I can’t recommend TWL as a great poem.

TWL contains many beautiful fragments and makes experimental inroads into the limits of what kind of language can constitute poetry, and its allusions are fascinating for their own sake although not terribly important to the poem. A great work of art, in order to achieve the very universality which Eliot admired in Dante, must first stand on its own. I have already suggested this might have been more nearly achieved if Eliot had combined and shortened AGOC and TFS, but in the time during which he prepared his final version, he as yet lacked the insight to dispense with those elements of the poem which were unnecessary to the whole. He did not perceive a unity, and therefore I truly doubt whether Tiresias perceived the substance of the poem (I say this tongue-in-cheek, of course, having entered into the spirit of Eliot’s evasions).

To end my discussion of the poem itself, I’ll repeat what I said earlier: If TWL had not been written, we wouldn’t have had to invent it. It is more of a literary dead end than a Pandora’s box, more of a tar baby than a marble statue. Because it was written we feel the need to account for it, but no one, I daresay, can really account for TWL, not even its author, as we have clearly seen. TWL is an accident of literary history intersecting Eliot’s personal history at a propitious time in history. History does play favorites.

Imagine if Eliot had never published it and the manuscript only appeared posthumously. Would this change our opinion of Eliot or the poem? I think it would more change our opinion of the poem, which would be seen as an anomaly not only in the history of literature but among Eliot’s other works. The poem would likely be viewed as a detour, a false start, a quaint experiment, even a cry in the wilderness, but ultimately more of an oddity than a triumph. It is interesting to speculate, since TWL was mentioned prominently in his Nobel award, whether he would have won the Nobel without it. I think he would have.

Did Picasso regret Guernica? Of course not. Eliot clearly regretted “The Waste Land.” Still, while accepting his personal judgment on the poem, we can nevertheless enjoy it for what it is—a grand experiment whose best lines almost redeem the whole—but not quite.


“The Waste Land” is the only one of Eliot’s major poems in which he not only divides the work into sections but actually titles them. As in each of his Four Quartets, TWL has five distinct movements. I have prepared an abstract by sections, below.

My method will be that of a tour guide speaking in the first person plural because it seems appropriate for the poem. My attempt may suffice as a crude map. Let us imagine we are on a tour bus together through “The Waste Land” while I play the man with the microphone.

I The Burial of the Dead

TBOD is the departure point for our journey or dream quest. Until the end of Part III, “The Fire Sermon,” we shall in fact be more concerned with putting the past behind us than exploring any future. TBOD, AGOC, and TFS (sections I, II, and III) all explore the burden of decay, the burden of the past, the burden of splintered personality, spiritual emptiness, sterility, all the things the speaker, incarnated through a legion of voices, seeks deliverance from.

We’ll take the four stanzas of TBOD in order.

To begin, we find spring a fearful season, prefer the comfort of winter (a kind of death) which “kept us warm,” “feeding a little life with dried tubers.” Despite some small confidence in summer, it, too, surprised us with rain, but we took shelter in a German Hofgarten, or beer garden, where we had a pleasant enough conversation with a Lithuanian who claims to be pure German--which brings back a recollection from childhood of a dangerous sled ride through the snow, although said recollection is pleasant because “In the mountains, there you feel free.” We return to the present in the body of an unspecified upper class European intellectual, who states: “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”

Comment: Notice that fall is not mentioned and that winter, representing the death of nature, is the safe season in the first stanza. The paradox of snow’s comfort juxtaposed with going south for the winter is somewhat comic, but going south for the winter also confirms winter as the time of safety. At all costs avoid the changes of spring!

In the second stanza we are suddenly addressed by a prophet who upbraids our ignorance and refers to the pastiche of our experience in the first stanza as “stony rubbish.” He tells us we only know “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief.” Yet he invites us to a deeper engagement than that of our immediate past within the poem, presenting us with the challenge, not of water, or relief of drought, but of shade: “(Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” There he promises to show us “fear in a handful of dust,” which like the last line of this section, “mon semblable, mon frere!”, means an encounter with ourselves. (For what is man but a handful of dust?) Suddenly we hear a song fragment from a German opera, signified by italics, actually a nostalgic plea to an Irish child to come home--which ignites another memory similar to that of sledding: an encounter with a young woman whom we call “the hyacinth girl.” Although she appears with flowers and wet hair, we are unable to connect with her and her promise of spring, love, fertility. So we are left with a feeling, not of nostalgia, as in the opera fragment, but of emptiness: “I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.”

The third stanza takes a wicked turn away from nostalgia and emptiness with the introduction of Madame Sosostris, whose cookie-cutter spiritualism reminds us of Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. She gives us a Tarot reading, hints of a mystery she can’t see, and cautions us to fear death by water (which, of course, is the title of the fourth section of the poem). The Tarot reading concludes with a banal message to give to Mrs. Equitone about her horoscope, confirming the comic discontinuity between spiritualism and commercialism, which renders Madame Sosostris, if not quite a fraud, then representative of modern man’s values: he is willing to pay for spirituality as a commodity but is unwilling to face the more substantial questions posed by the prophet in stanza I.

In the fourth stanza, having already navigated the fear of spring, of life, of risk, the prophet’s invitation, and our own spiritual emptiness, as well as the tawdry yet slightly spooky opinion of the Tarot pack, we devolve into frank madness and hallucination on London Bridge. Everything seems unreal, the crowd on London Bridge flows just like the river Thames below it, save it is a river of lost souls reminiscent of spirits in Hades or Dante’s Inferno, caught in a living death: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Seeing a familiar face, we address him:

‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with nails he’ll dig it up again!
‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable, mon frère !’

As in Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, here we recognize ourselves in the reflection of a doppelganger, more shocking for his very resemblance to us, a technique Eliot also employs in “Little Gidding” when he talks to “the compound familiar” (modeled after Dante’s Virgil).

Comment: This passage forms the greatest climax in the poem until its end, though each section concludes with its own climax. However, this frank experience of madness conveys to us a death of self, or at least a loss of self, as we, along with all those weary pilgrims trudging across London Bridge, no longer know where we are, who we are, even in what century we are. And we end up screaming at another who is really ourselves, unable to distinguish self from non-self, lost in a sea of broken images in a brown city.

II A Game of Chess

Of the four long movements in TWL, “A Game of Chess” (AGOC) is the most straightforward. Its subject is woman, who devolves from a godlike Cleopatra figure, remote and magical, to a lower class Englishwoman who suffers an abortion and is now being urged by her friends to obtain false teeth before her husband gets out of the army.

To begin: We find ourselves in the lair of an archetypal woman who remains nameless and without description except by device of her surroundings, in which her jewels, perfumes, and interior décor are catalogued. She remains static until the very end of the stanza, when “Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.” (108-110).

The most important symbol we encounter in her room is that of Philomel, in a figure above the fireplace, where Ovid’s tale of her rape and subsequent transformation into a nightingale is pictured. Philomel afterwards becomes a recurrent symbol in the poem.

When the archetypal woman finally speaks it surprises us, because she speaks not as a mythical queen but a neurotic housewife:

“‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’” (111-114)

(I have read, though I cannot recall the source, that the voice in this passage mimics the actual voice of Vivien Eliot, whose nerves truly were “bad,” who suffered insomnia, and whom Eliot strove to help through consultations with doctors he could not afford, including such measures as changing lodgings and supervising a strict diet for her.)

A male voice answers the woman’s complaints but not in her hearing; his responses are internal. He replies:

“I think we are in a rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.” (115-116)

As this disconnected conversation continues, the man drifts further and further away from the reality of the confrontation, musing, “I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes.” A mindless jingle comes to mind, stirred by Ariel’s Song from The Tempest, about “that Shakespeherian Rag.” The woman concludes the “conversation” with lines that have haunted me since I first read the poem, almost an adult rendition of the child’s question during summer vacation, “Mom, what’s there to do?”

“‘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?
‘What shall we ever do?’”

A new voice answers the question sardonically:

“‘The hot water at ten.
‘And if it rains, a closed car at four.
‘And we shall play a game of chess,
‘Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.’”

The mindless routine here envisioned mocks our neurotic fear, defeating any nascent inner desire for adventure or freedom. Yet its style is that of barely controlled hysteria, emphasized by regular meter, and though an insufficient reason to live, at least holds out the comfort of routine.

In the final stanza of AGOC, in several voices, without benefit of quotation marks, Eliot re-creates the milieu of an overburdened working class mother and her friends. Sandwiched between remarks comes the insistent warning, “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME,” which mocks their mode of existence, because there is really no reason to hurry and it’s never quite time, while also echoing a British bartender’s standard warning near closing. As the passage proceeds we are again reminded of the futility of our human existence as it is, a gerbil wheel of existence without meaning, activity without fulfillment. There is at once in this English vernacular a sense of helplessness and futility about changing anything, and the friend’s advice to the mother expecting her husband, Albert, portends the end of male-female relationships, a theme raised to a higher pitch in “The Fire Sermon.”

III The Fire Sermon

In the first stanza we find ourselves in early winter when the “last fingers of leaf” have fallen and no foliage remains above the Thames. There is no sign of life, neither nymphs nor sandwich papers. Some low vegetation appears, but only along the riverbank, enough for a rat to drag “its slimy belly” under. In the rat’s muddy wake we find ourselves “fishing in the dull canal,” and memory fuses disparate images again, memories of royal birth, naked bodies on the damp ground, and bones in a garret “rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.” The stanza concludes mockingly (again) with a reference to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” but instead of idealized romantic love we find only Sweeney and Mrs. Porter, who washes her feet “in soda water.”

In the second stanza we are reminded in four short lines of the rape of Philomel: “So rudely forced / Tereu.” (205-6)

The third stanza returns us to the “Unreal City” of TBOD, recounting the invitation of a mysterious merchant (Mr. Eugenides, as in eugenics) to lunch and a weekend at the Metropole.

The sterility of the river, the comic romance of Sweeney and Mrs. Porter, the reminder of Philomel’s transformation, and the London invitation give way in stanza four to a meditative passage by Tiresias. His speech begins with the introduction of an important image that recurs in WTTS: “the violet hour,” the suspension between night and day, or as in TBOD, “neither living nor dead:”

“At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing, waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour.” (215-220)

Tiresias continues, in some of the best formal verse written in the century, to describe a tawdry, bloodless seduction. A few lines will suffice to show Eliot’s brilliance and compression—sufficient to rival Dryden, Pope or Johnson. Describing the scene through the eyes of Tiresias, Eliot writes:

“He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved if undesired.”

The tale needs no explication, but I can’t resist reproducing the lines below as well, concluding the fifth stanza, where Tiresias neatly summarizes the depth of the typist’s experience:

“When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.”

The sixth stanza (line 251) signals the end of Tiresias’ speech with another quote from The Tempest, then takes us sightseeing in London to a pub near The Church of Magnus Martyr, one of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural marvels. Stanzas seven through eleven comprise, according to Eliot’s notes, the songs of the three “Thames-daughters,” corresponding to the Rhine-daughters of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung.

Stanzas seven and eight are presumably a chorus of all three daughters. In the first they sing of barges, of a river that sweats oil and tar as it flows out past the Isle of Dogs into the Atlantic. Note that no signs of organic life appear in this passage, only dead logs.

Stanza eight recalls Queen Elizabeth and the parties hosted on the Thames in sumptuously appointed barges. Eliot’s notes alert us to a Spanish prelate’s letter in which Lord Robert is described proposing (in jest) to Elizabeth during one of these river parties, though Elizabeth’s reputation as “the virgin queen” reminds us once again of the sterility of the river, the waste land.

The Thames-daughters’ individual songs, stanzas nine through eleven, beginning with line 292, rehearse romantic disappointment and an unsatisfactory seduction in a canoe, but without regret: “He wept. He promised “a new start.” / I made no comment. What should I resent?” (298-299) Again, here we do not encounter love but a mechanical negotiation much like the typist’s, which in the last individual song of the Thames-daughters, proceeds once again to depersonalization, as in the end of TBOD:

     “‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.’” (300-304)

The musical refrain of “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala” from Wagner sung in stanzas seven and eight fades to a truncated “la la” in this last Thames-daughter song (306) before quotes by Augustine and Guatama converge: “To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning / O Lord thou pluckest me out.” (307-309)

IV Death by Water

In “Death by Water” we drown. The shortest movement of TWL is at once a baptism, an epitaph, a warning, and a fulfilment of prophecy as foretold by Madame Sosotris in TBOD: “Fear death by water.” We drown with and through Phlebas the Phoenician. The cruelty of life, of water, of spring, the threat of disturbing death with life, has been the central threat and promise of our journey thus far. In DBW we face this doom and experience the paradox that we must die by water to discover water, just as death must precede resurrection in baptism. Besides the obvious reference to Ariel’s song in The Tempest, it is interesting to note that the drowned sailor is a Phoenician, from the race of the most famed sailors of the ancient world and presumably the most skilled. For although a sailor must master the sea, ultimately the sea, or death, masters us all. In the Old Testament the sea is a symbol of chaos and destruction. The Jews were not, in general, a seafaring people, unlike the Phoenicians. As for “Phlebas,” as your tour guide, I assume it to be a pun on “Phoebus,” the poetical convention for the sun, or Apollo--also the god of poetry. As such it may represent the blotting out of the sun by the darkness of water but also sounds curiously like “leave us.” In any event, we may assume Eliot meant something by the name although he says nothing about it in his notes (not that they would help us if he had!).

V What the Thunder Said

Having died through Phlebas in Part IV we find ourselves, in the first stanza of WTTS, in the aftermath of Christ’s passion: “After the torchlight red on sweaty faces” (323), but before his resurrection: “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience” (329-30). Curiously, though our death was by water, we awake to a waterless planet: “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road.” (332-33). We are haunted by water; we search for water as if it were the Grail. Through anaphora and Eliot’s special practice of incorporating the last noun of the previous line into the opening of the next (“The road winding above among the mountains / Which are mountains of rock without water / If there were water we should stop and drink” (333-35)), we are mesmerized by a hypnotic rain chant, which continues for three stanzas. In the fourth stanza comes a hint of the resurrected Christ, an invisible third who walks beside us, though the figure is never identified. Suddenly in stanza five, comes the symphony of a storm, a storm not only in the landscape of the poem, but of history:

     “What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes, swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling Towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal.” (367-77)

In his note on this passage Eliot mentions Herman Hesse’s vision of the decay of Eastern Europe, but our decay is not confined to Eastern Europe, as the five cities mentioned belong to the larger European Theater. Following without pause (in the same stanza) is the figure of a dark woman playing with her hair, clearly the most sensuous woman in the poem since “The Hyacinth Girl,” associated not with human offspring but only half-human, “bats with baby faces.” Our search for water deepens to the dark holes of the earth, “empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (385), which Eliot, in his notes, associates with the Chapel Perilous of the Grail myth, an association nevertheless unnecessary for enjoyment of the poetry.

The first five stanzas of WTTS build suspense for the denouement of rain, which finally comes in stanza six, though first prefigured by a fertility sign combined with the figure of the cross:

“Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain.” (392-95)

When we recall all the preceding water figures before the advent of rain, we recognize that this is the first hint of good water, life-giving water. April rain was cruel; the sea was void and empty (“Oed and leer das Meer”); the river of TFS was essentially sterile, and in DBW, although there is life in the ocean, the water is clearly the water of death--not potable. Even so, our quest for water goes on, as the damp gust is bringing rain though rain has not yet come; witness the opening of stanza seven:

“Ganga [the river Ganges] was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder.” (396-400)

To the end of the poem rain is only implied, though it is easy to imagine ourselves being rained upon while the thunder continues; yet it is a very elegant omission on Eliot’s part to imply rain without describing it, which more emphasizes the sound of the thunder for dramatic purposes.

And what does the thunder, the onomatopoeic “DA,” say to us? Eliot’s translation of the three Sanskrit words following DA is “give, sympathize, control.” Yet only “give,” or datta, is explained within the poem:

“Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed.” (402-406)

This passage recalls Eliot’s lifelong preoccupation with an experience of “the timeless moment,” a mystical apprehension of the of reality granted him in his life on only a few brief occasions, and, of course, explored at greater length in Four Quartets.

Sympathize, or dayadhvam, is given to us in metaphor:

“We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” (414-17).

If to give means surrender of the self beyond self in a leap of faith or death, then to sympathize must mean to identify with the suffering of others, to perceive the universality of human connection, being reborn in this life but still broken, just as Christ rose with his wounds transfigured but not healed. This explains the reference to Coriolanus, who ultimately surrendered to love of family and country over love of honor, breaking his word to the barbarian invaders he led to Rome’s gates.

Finally, damyata, or control:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.” (419-23)

This is clearly the most joyful passage in the poem, a statement of confidence and relief. It represents the return from a mountaintop mystical experience to the business of life, much as St. Paul exhorted Christians, after long theological explanations of how they are already dead, buried, resurrected, and “seated in the heavenlies with Christ,” to love their neighbors and do good works in this world.

The last stanza compresses more allusions than any other passage in the poem, likely more than any poetry written before it. It is a glimpse back to the horror, sterility and chaos from which we have been delivered, sandwiched between the words of one delivered:

                                        “I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon
—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
The fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta Dyadhvam. Damyata
Shantih shantih shantih.” (424-34)

This passage is reminiscent of Jacob’s struggle with the Angel of the Lord before entering Canaan, the last backward glance at our past that has led us to this juncture, with references to history’s collapse (“London bridge is falling down”), Dante’s Purgatorio, the rape of Philomel (“swallow swallow”), and more obscure quotes, all meant to create a feeling of madness, of dissociation and depersonalization, before the buoy of the thunder’s advice is once again grasped—followed by the benediction of peace (“shantih”).

The final stanza of WTTS thus recalls the hysterical madness of the end of TBOD (“mon semblable--mon frere!”); the infantile, insipid madness of AGOC's ending (“Goonight. Goonight.”); and the spiritual crisis which concludes TFS (“To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out”). It propels us once more through the waste land of cultural detritus and inner sterility out to the waters of peace, as if we were shot by a cannon, and I can never read the poem without feeling launched into space at the end. I don’t think a careful examination of all the sources here incorporated would add much to the poetic experience.

We have now come to the end of our journey through TWL, although Eliot later wrote that “every end is also a beginning.” The rains have come and we are not afraid; the sea that was either dead or storm-tossed is now calm, and the inner transformation effected by the thunder’s message has freed us to navigate the business of our lives in renewal and blessing. Yet given Eliot’s further development I can’t resist quoting Frost on this matter, who called poetry “a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.”