T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
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When one reads The Waste Land for the first time, it may be difficult to extract some clear meanings out of the poem. The common reader is used to expect some uniformity and wholeness, some kind of unity or continuity in one or various aspects in any piece of writing he or she comes across. Therefore, when one has to face a poem like this one, the sensation of puzzlement, confusion and powerlessness is unavoidable. Even scholars who may perfectly know and feel familiar with all the allusions and intertextuality present in the poem, have often felt outraged at the obscurity and apparent lack of cohesive meaning in it. We have to bear in mind that the element that links the different parts of the poem is none other than the constant struggle between stability and change, the “proper” and the “improper”, fertility versus barrenness. If you realise this, you may approach the poem in a different way, and even if you fail to meet the “erudition requirements” that TWL seems (at first) to expect from the reader, you may extract some deeper meaning out of this Modernist masterpiece.
It has often been argued that T.S. Eliot’s poem lacks a theme or argument, because there is no spatial or temporal continuity in it. However, the whole poem may be seen as a series of sequences of dreamlike (or nightmarish) situations in which we may find a constant in the opposition between two juxtaposed worlds. First, a world full of order in which we can find a clear voice, a world where we may find a reference, a “proper” world; and then a chaotic one which expands into a whirlwind of voices and images difficult to comprehend, a world where the speakers are expressing their desire for reference and stability, the “improper” one. The tension which creates the desire of stability and the constant and inevitable change is what makes the poem flow rapidly from one image and situation to another, as we will see later on.
As Harriet Davidson points out in her article “Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land”, the proper side of the poem shows itself in “its scholarly apparatus, its respect for tradition, and its recoil from the chaos of life”, while the improper side manifests itself in “its equally apparent lack of respect for tradition and poetic method and its fascination with mutation, degradation, and fragmentation” (p. 2). Davidson accurately specifies that this “proper” quality does not only have to do with “propriety”, but also with the concept of “property”, as well as the “jealous guarding of boundaries”. As said before, what keeps the poem running is this constant tension between two opposing forces, one which intends to keep things clear, separated and fixed, and another one which brings chaos into it, fragmentation and the eruption of desire.
These two conflicting and yet necessary tendencies are displayed throughout the poem in the juxtaposition of fragments related with myths, history, art or religion (all of which imply the need for references and stability) with other pieces related to the “contemporary wasteland” we are living in. These tendencies are used to contrast the “proper” order of the previous world and the “improper” chaos modernity brings to the modern one. The poem constantly moves into a seemingly glorious past in order to find some clues to meaning, a meaning that is nowadays lost. In this “modern wasteland”, everything seems futile, everything seems corrupted to the very roots.
We will not deal with the allusions to WWI because it exceeds the scope of our essay, but we have to bear in mind that this poem was written just after one the most pointless and extensive (geographically speaking) conflicts in the history of mankind. Another aspect of this “modern wasteland”, which is closer to the surface, is the depiction of sexuality as empty, barren of meaning, progressively detached from fertility (consider the “pub scene” of the poem in Section II, or the invitation of the Smyrna merchant to a men’s hotel and the typist home passage in Section III).
Nothing is sacred in The Waste Land. The seemingly glorious past depicted throughout the poem becomes corrupted as well, when the boundaries become blurred. “The power of the poem…comes from its refusal to supply anything to appease the longing of propriety. The poem treats myth, history, art, and religion as subject to the same fragmentation, appropriation, and degradation as modern life” (Davidson: 2). References to the past appear mixed with modern ones; there is not a clear distinction between the past and the present. We find a clear example of this in the sixth stanza of Section V, “What the Thunder Said”: “Falling towers/ Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal” (Eliot, lines 374-377).
Then it is impossible to find constant entities, as boundaries become fuzzy. The desire for fixed things in a world where the only reference is change, metamorphosis, the improper constantly challenging the proper, this futile search for a clear, unchanging identity will be shown through the Babel of different voices presented throughout the poem, which leave us puzzled. Eliot fragments reality and with the employment of metamorphosis, allows the reader to reinterpret his words (Tomlinson: 122). Some examples of this change and metamorphosis are the different languages used by the author in the poem, going from English to French or German without warning or explanation: “They wash their feet in soda water / Et, O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!” (Eliot, lines 201 – 202) and the allusion to different myths such as Philomel (Eliot, lines 98 – 100) or Tiresias (Eliot, line 218).
“The poem, in its interest in metamorphosis and use of quick juxtapositions, blurs the proper boundaries between things; different characters and voices confusingly mutate into each other” (Davidson 2). For example, the first section of the poem, ““The Burial of the Dead”, begins with a desire for stasis and anxiety about the change, growth, and sexuality symbolized by April and the spring rain” (Davidson 4). The comfort and (under soil) stability of the dull roots (Eliot, line 4) is now changing because of the spring rain coming in April to fertilize them and make them grow. After this, the multiple voices of the poem begin to appear as if they were the roots which are not fertilized yet, voices without a goal, which are under soil and correspond to characters which are not developed yet because they are confused and lost in the waste land. Lines 15 to 18 are conversations of people imprisoned in their common lives as the roots are imprisoned under soil, waiting for an external agent to provide the change, the metamorphosis, to wake them up to a real and fruitful life.
The next lines “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / out of this stony rubbish?” (Eliot: lines 19-20) link with the final and previous ones in the section “’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?” (Eliot, lines 71-73) as a kind of rhetorical question about if people will really grow and wake up to a “real” life in which they develop, act and have goals or if the waste land will continue full of inhabitants lost and only worried about common things without aspirations of going further. That is why the crowd is also depicted from line 60 to 68 as kind of automatons in an unreal city walking without noticing the bells. Their stability or no-change, in this sense, will be depicted later again from lines 367 to 385 where the sound of the bells, the crowd, the unreal city, and a more detailed waste land will appear just to show that nothing has changed and that it is not the first time that it happens.
In Section II, “A Game of Chess”, we find another example of no-change. This whole section is occupied by the different stories of three women, they are different in social status, different in the register of the language they use, different in the settings, but are the women representing the trivial life and spiritual emptiness of the inhabitants of the waste land. As the first woman is spiritually alone in a room full of perfumes and Baroque decoration, the third one is also worried about banal things like false teeth, abortive pills, money, etc. just gossiping about another woman and her life. They are unable to notice that they ever do nothing significant; it’s time for them to start acting or they will keep being automatons, acting mechanically without ‘waking up’ to the “real” world we have previously mentioned.
This awakening can also be seen as a metamorphosis, a topic which appears constantly in the poem, There are some classical characters related to change and metamorphosis in the poem, such as Philomel and Procne, characters from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Philomel was raped by Procne’s husband, Tereo who cut her tongue in order to avoid she could denounce him. The two sisters tried to take revenge but Tereus chased them, so the Gods decided to transform Procne into a swallow and Philomel into a nightingale. There is a comparison with these characters in Section II, “A Game of Chess”, suggesting that the woman who Philomel is compared to, is unable to communicate her inner self “As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene /
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king, So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale / filled all the desert with inviolable voice” (Eliot, lines 98 – 100). Although Philomel had her tongue cut, she is suggested to sing, as the nightingale she is, and later in the poem onomatopoeic, bird sounds appear: “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug” (Eliot, lines 203 – 204). For Eliot, this nightingale is significant and transforms this waste land (Tomlinson, 129) Throughout the whole poem, we can observe a series of sounds that could seem impossible to understand for us, like “Weialala leia, Wallala leialala” (Eliot, lines 277 – 278) or “la la” (Eliot, line 306). However, it is possible to say that what Eliot tries is to transform meaning into sound (Tomlinson, 130) which is also another kind of metamorphosis. Another important relation with metamorphosis is the constant change of landscape, going from a place full of water to a dry desert, with no life at all. In Section III, we visit London, a land full of garbage “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, /Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends” (Eliot, lines 177 – 178) and which is covered with rats “A rat crept softly through the vegetation,/ Dragging its slimy belly on the bank” (Eliot, lines 187 – 188)
The juxtaposition we mentioned previously appears constantly along The Waste Land also in a series of metaphors regarding water, fire, rocks and vegetation, symbolizing, in their many forms and states, the poem’s struggle between fertility and barrenness. Images that deal with water (or the absence of it) and rocks are the most clear and constant along the poem and the easiest to identify in different fragments. Wherever we find water in the poem we find the most calm, stable passages, as we can see in Section III, “The Fire Sermon”. The first stanza in this section, in which the speaker makes a description of the river Thames, is quite ordered. In lines 183 and 184 (“Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song/ Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.”) we find the speaker addressing the river; here we see an implicit manifestation of a natural desire for stability, even at the expense of living in this modern waste land from where “the nymphs are departed” (Eliot, lines 175, 179).
The same happens in the fourth section of the poem “Death by Water”, in which Madame Sosostris’ cheap prophecy is fulfilled: “Fear death by water” (Eliot, line 55). Here we can find one voice only, which tells us of Phlebas the Phoenician, a symbol of the ‘proper’ old times who drowned. According to Davidson, this could be seen as surrendering to change, a symbol of resignation in a state of peace that contrasts with the previous section: “The peaceful surrender of the body to the water suggests an acceptance of death and change, a gentle memento mori in opposition to the anxiety about change at the end of ‘The Fire Sermon’” (Davidson 5).
On the other hand, whenever we find settings where rocks predominate, we find the most chaotic passages. For example, at the beginning of the fifth section, “What the Thunder Said”, in which we find dry, apocalyptic voices, which have a desperate, imperious need for water: “If there were water/ And no rock/ If there were rock/ And also water/… But there is no water” (Eliot, lines 346-359). After this obsessively repetitive language and use of alliteration, the reasoned, structured nature of the final stanzas comes as a relief. By changing the style, Eliot also changes how we feel about the life in the waste land. This relief by the shift in style evidently mirrors the physical and mental relief brought by the rain. Both formally and thematically, then, this final section follows a pattern of obsession and resignation. Rocks then represent a chaotic, changing world; the first image that comes to our mind is that of a volcanic eruption. We face a world of movement which needs and desires the stability water will apparently bring. But it seems that the ultimate meaning of water in The Waste Land is none other than peaceful resignation because no one seems capable of change.
It is interesting how the image that symbolises stability is the same used for death (as shown in Section V and Section IV, respectively). From this perspective we could adopt an entropic reading of the poem: the only resource we have to stop chaos is death. Life is essentially chaotic, a cumulus of “improper” desires, and the only “proper” one is the desire of dying because it is the only thing that will put an end to worries and the feeling of being lost. At the same time, human beings are always looking for a reference in proper, stable things. According to this vision, this kind of “anchor” we are constantly looking for does not exist. The only solution we have to stop all this nonsense and confusion that surrounds us is death, the only perfect and absolute thing we can manage to attain.
Davidson, Harriet. “Improper desire: reading The Waste Land”. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. David Moody ed., Cambridge: C.U.P., 1994.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume D, 7th edition, 2007, pp. 1587-1599.
Tomlinson, Charles. T. S. Eliot: Significado y Metamorfosis. Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 2008.