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Thomas Stearns Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
article [ Books ]
homage essay

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by [stradymarius ]

2008-05-01  |     | 

“Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata Shantih shantih shantih”

“The Waste Land” seems to carry the honour of being Eliot’s greatest masterpiece, maybe because of the simple fact that is such an attractive poem from many points of view, or maybe because of the critics that brought it on top of his works – and which is the best illustration of his narrative base and devices used, fused with dramatic ones protected by a lyricism roof. The poem is sprinkled with symbols; the cultural diversity of expressions is amazing.

In October 1922, Eliot publishes “The Waste Land” in “The Criterion” and has become a standard of modern literature. This poem may be considered a novel because of the amount of characters that appear during the entire development of the poem, and because of the actions that took place. It is full of eloquent elements and, the most imperative fact, is that in “The Waste Land” we can find all Eliot’s knowledge, about Latin, Greek, German and Sanskrit elements from mythology and history.

As Eliot said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”, on the entire body of the poem is to be found that he “draw” some “jewellery” literary sections from the most valuable writers and masterpieces of the human history (such as “Tristan und Isolde”, Baudelaire’s “Fleurs du Mal”, V. Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, Goldsmith’s “Vicar of Wakefield”, Sanskrit “Veda-Upanishad”, Greek mythology, etc.).

The title is probably originated from a similar poem as theme and language called “Waste Land”, written by Madison Cawein, which was published in 1913. The poem begins with a Latin epigraph: “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis / vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: / Σίβιλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: άποθανεϊν θέλω”  from Petronius’ “Satyricon” and which means: “I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her “What do you want?” She answered “I want to die”. The Cumaen Sibyl was the most famous of the Sibyls, the visionary old women of Greek mythology. The beginning dedication for Ezra Pound was taken from Dante’s “Divina Comedie” (Purgatorio, canto XXVI, 117) and means “The better craftsman” (T.S. Eliot’s “Notes”). The poem is structured in five parts: “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, “The Fire Sermon”, “Death by Water”, “What the Thunder Said”.

The first part of the poem is intended on the problems of life and death, on existentialism. The same manner is to be found also in“Prufrock” collection of poems; where if we talk about “Prufrock”, he dreamed and hallucinated about leaving the obsessive room and the town, to find refuge away from the dazing streets in the imagination of the perfect place from the bottom of the sea. Also the young man from “Portrait of a Lady” believed he was closer to the lady he tried to arrange in a portrait, beneath the musicality always present randomly: “Among the windings of the violins” and in a continuously race with Time: “Correct our watches by the public clocks”, “My self-possession flares up for a second”; his lady voluptuousness being described by the amazing stanza: “You are invulnerable, you have no Achilles’ heel”, would finally bring to daylight her real face in his sketch – the face expressions of death (“Now that we talk of dying—/ And should I have the right to smile?”). In “The Waste Land”, the need to cover anywhere is forgotten by the character, because there is no hope, is like walking against your will.

The poem begins with the fright ruling over the hero personality, in a whacked landscape, a departed place which is more obvious with the “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing” and which brings a melancholia, with a gentle wind because of the “Dull roots with spring rain”, where “rain” is obsessively repeated like other different stanzas from inside the whole poem. The summer will come very quickly so because of the rain two people are surprised in a very colourful painting on their way to Hofgarten (Munich): “With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, / And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, / And drank coffee, and talked for an hour”, but only the words of the woman are heard, her name is Marie. They both are going straight to the mountains where the happiness and freedom are to be found: “Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. / In the mountains, there you feel free”. So, fear for what he will find in the mountains will be the burden that the hero carries amongst his journey for finding the main purpose in life. He is the “Son of man”that through a momentary passage sees a part from entire fate of humanity: “And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. With time passing by and woman’s memory about lost childhood, he remembers and hears his lost youth love, the voice of a “hyacinth girl”: “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl”, introduced by a fragment from the Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”: “Frisch weht der Wind / Der Heimat zu / Mein Irisch Kind, / Wo weilest du?”. After the confessions about the childhood and youth he meets Madame Sosotris which is a clairvoyant that will tell his future from tarot cards (this gives me the idea of the similarities with the Pythia, the priestess from Apollo’s oracle from Delphi): “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold, nevertheless / Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, / With a wicked pack of cards”.

Death is in a continuously mixture with life, the images are as clear as possible, even the “brown fog of a winter dawn” will blur the picture’s stance; the London city is again drawn piece by piece through entire poem like we all knew: “Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” – though the final of this first part is taken even further in Eliot’s imagination: “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 his nails he'll dig it up again!” from where the final conclusion that life brings death and death brings life, like in a closed perpetual circle.

The second part, “A game of chess”, brings in front of the reader's eyes the picture of a room, which is presented by Elliot with“luxury” information for each square inch from inside: “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne”, “Doubled the flames of seven-branched candelabra”, “The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it, / From satin cases poured in rich profusion; / In vials of ivory and coloured glass”, all these sank in fragrance and the image with the “instruments” a woman needs for keeping her stage at the same level, using a soft alliteration first: “lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused / And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air”. The same vision about the sea appears in this poem (like in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), followed by a roughness fear when the woman starts to talk incoherently; this fear and agitation is raised to the top of his sensations by the repetition of irrelevant questions that Eliot perfectly assembled: “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.”, “What is that noise? / The wind under the door. / What is that noise now? What is the wind doing? / Nothing again nothing. / Do / You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing?” and then he remembers the Sosostris’ words about the death by water: “I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes”. In the disturbance created he considers that would be helpful to start a chess game, maybe for bringing the relaxing of the minds back to the reality: “And we shall play a game of chess / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door” – the knocking in the door might be related with a third unseen character that will appear in the last part of the poem. This third unseen travel mate might be his consciousness, needed when he feels like losing his associations with the authentic life. Again Eliot introduces powerfully his breaking style into the narration, passing from one stage of presentation to another one, when her female friend describes another woman called Lil, which seems to be very ugly and looks“antique”, and she is toothless: “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”. While the story goes on, a voice appears pronouncing neurotically the phrase: “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” – like the end is closer, or is time for somebody to get out from a strip-bar or English bar maybe: “Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. / Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight./ Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night”. The same idea of repetition is needed, like time and space extends giving us the impression of a drunken man passing near the main characters.

The third part comes after a broken fusion of life with death strings, after a mechanical chess game where the mind is the most important instrument for getting through the labyrinth-like possibilities of this kind of game, the main character must keep his natural way and think to the consequences that each possibility offers. “The Fire Sermon” is rather woozy introduced, the hero has the moral statute of his own being glued to the ground, and his aspirations are killed since the beginning (also in a dull repetition of words and phrases): “The river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank.”, “The nymphs are departed. / Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. / The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights. / The nymphs are departed”. The problem of waters meaning life is again pointed out by the author, having focused his thought on the Thames River: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.”, revealing also his love for the London elements, beautiful or ugly, his dreams … for he did not leave America just for pleasure of leaving but for the love for the English culture and geographical mysteries he would have found.

The hero, in his memory lack of dreams he has to fight for, to observe things he had not observed before as: “The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear. / A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal”, “White bodies naked on the low damp ground / And bones cast in a little low dry garret” – this would be the first similes of decay, the hero passes through. In this part Tiresias appears (inspired from the Publius Ovidius Naso’s “Metamorphoses”-“The story of Tiresias”):“I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see / At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea”, “I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs / Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest— / I too awaited the expected guest.” – Which seems to be, as Eliot explained in his “Notes”: “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character', is yet the most important personage in poem, uniting all the rest”.

Elizabeth Drew, in her book about Eliot's poetry, actually shapes Tiresias aspect saying: "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". Evoking Tiresias, Eliot reminds us that the entire poem brings together the past, present and future of the generally humanity's fate, the conditions and the motifs for each one’s destiny. We contribute to our destiny with each “brick” of perception we encounter during our life’s period.

Here is to be found a borrowed passage from Goldsmith’s poem “The Vicar of Wakefield”, but only the first line is kept original: “When lovely woman stoops to folly / And finds, too late, that men betray, / What charm can soothe the melancholy, / What art can wash her guilt away?...”, but Eliot makes from this a more altered aspect of the woman that Goldsmith’s talking about, making all more funny with a taste of sclerotic drama in a lost mind: “When lovely woman stoops to folly and / Paces about her room again, alone, / She smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone” – giving us the impression that all the women he met before are lifeless, are not present any longer in his mental dimension, trailing him into nowhere, but the only thing that keep him awake is (borrowed from Shakespeare again) that sound that follows him: “This music crept by me upon the waters”, after which is presented a short description of the towers of England, of Thames, of Queen Victoria Street, the London Bridge, creating him a position in space, a place where he can feel its entire being. The final is a “burning” expression for the world he lives in, for the existence without hope and fear, asking for Lord’s help: “To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning”.

The fourth part, “Death by the water” is a short version of the last seven lines from one of the Eliot’s earlier poems called “Dans le Restaurant”: “Phlébas, le Phénicien, pendant quinze jours noyé, / Oubliait les cris des mouettes et la houle de Cornouaille, / Et les profits et les pertes, et la cargaison d’étain: / Un courant de sous-mer l’emporta très loin, / Le repassant aux étapes de sa vie antérieure. / Figurez-vous donc, c’était un sort pénible; / Cependant, ce fut jadis un bel homme, de haute taille”.

The hero returns again to the sea route – where, as far as I see, the “sea” is the embodiment of the life itself, waves of the sea indicates the troubles he confront in life and he passes through life getting older…straight to the death, which consumes his being like in a whirlpool: “A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell / He passed the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool”.

This is how Eliot opens the last part of the poem “What the thunder said”. This last part starts with a short description of what happened before, of what the hero felt and the places he visited, the problems he defied: “After the torchlight red on sweaty faces / After the frosty silence in the gardens / After the agony in stony places / The shouting and the crying / Prison and palace and reverberation / Of thunder of spring over distant mountains”. After all these, the time of death is near for all of us: “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying”. The landscape of the city, the Thames, the London's streets, the people he met, seems now to be replaced by a desert scenery, where is nothing but rock; there is no water, there is no life, no silence, not even solitude – it seems that the hero started to be delirious because of the need of water, that Eliot obsessively introduced it: “Here is no water but only rock”, “If there were water we should stop and drink”, “Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think / Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand”, “But dry sterile thunder without rain”, “If there were rock / And also water / And water / A spring / A pool among the rock / If there were the sound of water only”. He feels trapped in a “dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit”.

As I mentioned before in the second part of the poem, close to the protagonist's side another entity appears, a mysterious companion, who now doesn't “knock upon the door”but walks side by side with them: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”, “When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you / Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded / I do not know whether a man or a woman / —But who is that on the other side of you?” – Again this might be only his phantasm because of the vital functions a body has, which are taken to the extreme of its possibilities. Finally he attains the city that is laid “over the mountains”, where people have become immaterial: “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”. He sees the images of the fallen towers, all here is unreal (fantastic cities and ground, deceptive life), his mind goes even further, beyond the real facts when he sees weird creatures like “bats with baby faces in the violet light” – the end is closer, his journey soon will end. The inquisitive images gives us the idea that these are his last struggles for keeping his mind clear; he finds an empty chapel with “no windows”, where the “door swings”, a cock sings on the roof “Only a cock stood on the rooftree / Co co rico co co rico” and maybe will bring“rain”, or a new horizon will rise upon the wasted land, brought by the voice of the thunder that ends outstanding the poem with the spelling of the Brihadaranyaka- Veda Upanishad: “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata / Shantih shantih shantih” (Eliot’s “Notes”) meaning “Give, Sympathize, Control / Peace that passeth understanding”. The rain does not come, so water and fertility are some chimeras we all dream of. Black clouds of storm are gathered over the holy mountain of Himavant (Himalaya), Ganga falls were sunken, all having Sanskrit relation to the goddess Shiva.

The peace is begged for, there is no hope when the orders above are not respected, and his fate and the fate of us all are ruled by these words. “The Waste Land”is a poem that reflects this thought and all his content is reduced to the last two stanzas.

“Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata Shantih shantih shantih”



- "T. S. Eliot – An Author for All Seasons", Paideia, 1997 - by Lidia Vianu

- "T.S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry", Malhotra, 1970 - by Elizabeth Drew

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