Analysis Of The Section ‘What The Thunder Said’ Of ‘The Waste Land’ By T.S. Eliot

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Apocalyptic in nature, T.S. Eliot’s final section of ‘The Waste Land’ culminates in the transition from the decline of Western culture to the embracing of Eastern values. The theme of decay is made apparent through Eliot’s use of pathetic fallacy and figurative poetry, which underpins the context of destruction and devastation following the amassed tragedies of the Great War. Within ‘Whispers of Immortality’ (1919), written prior to ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), we see a similar nihilistic preoccupation of thought, where Eliot reflects upon the realisation that we are mere ‘skeletons’ passing through a fleeting life onto inexistence. However, following his conversion of faith to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, we see Eliot’s poetry turn towards religiously based themes of faith and morals in his later works. The high religious language of ‘Little Gidding’, the last of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ (1942), serves as an extended poetic meditation on time and timelessness, through which the audience witnesses the confirmation of his faith in God.

‘What the Thunder Said’ instigates two progressive streams of thought which are the pinnacle focal points of the poem: addressing the present-day decay of western European values and the notion of salvation through a transition to eastern culture. In the previous four sections of ‘The Wasteland’, Eliot has used a selection of poetic devices and metres, with fluctuating verse, but usually maintains its form. However, ‘What the Thunder Said’, contrastingly, is subject to unpunctuated, unrhymed, irregular free verse. The structure remains fragmented and irregular thereby reflecting the fragmentation of western society; through Eliot’s progression to the east, the concluding stanzas remain structured. Eliot emphasises the chaotic lifestyle of western Europeans using juxtaposing images such as ‘shouting’ and ‘crying’, and ‘prison’ and ‘palace’. The repetition of ‘prison’ further determines the entrapment of individuals in a circulatory environment, confined by a working-life, who are ‘now dying’. Elliot develops the idea of the western society never stopping to reflect upon their lives in the ‘waste land’ of the modern world. We become entrapped within the ‘unreal city’, bound to a circular life, only to ‘flow over London Bridge’, ‘undone’ by death. The repetition of distant ‘mountains’ insinuates undetermined fate in the moments following Jesus’ death; these mountains ‘of rock without water’ are identified with those in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, where ‘you feel free’, but in the absence of Jesus, we are left in desperation. Interestingly, Eliot captures our own death in a similar fashion to Jesus on line 330, ‘with a little patience’, signifying a slow and undignified process before our demise. Both structurally and thematically, this final section follows a pattern of fixation and acceptance.

Between lines 325 – 345, we see the desperation and restriction of society due to the lack of water. The image of water is needed to restore life to the earth, to return a sterile land to fertility. The harsh repetition of the phrases ‘no water’, ‘only rock’ and ‘sand’ show a loss of coherence, which is emphasised by the narrator saying, ‘among the rocks one cannot stop and think.’ The thunder, which before heralded the death of the Christ, is ‘dry and sterile’, foretelling of rain which does not come, giving us a sense of unfulfilled hope and life. We anticipate the rain because we hear the thunder, but the rain is not coming. The poet laments the absence of water as he imagines the ‘drip drop’ of water on rocks, but concludes by acknowledging that, alas, ‘there is no water’. The ‘cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air’ holds metaphorical reference to twilight, the ending of civilisation, in tandem with the physical signs of the destruction of civilisation as depicted by the imagery of the ‘falling towers’. The list of destroyed cities of ‘Jerusalem, Athens and Alexandria’, followed directly by those of the modern world of ‘Vienna and London’ serves only to remind the audience of oncoming doom and forewarn them of the destruction of society.

Just as ‘The Fire Sermon’ explores popular forms, such as music, the final section of The Waste Land moves away from more typical poetic forms to experiment with structures normally associated with religion and philosophy. The proposition and meditation structure from lines 414 – 434 looks forward to the more philosophically oriented Four Quartets, Eliot’s last major work. The reasoned, structured nature of the final stanzas comes as a relief after the obsessively repetitive language. The audience’s solace at the shift in style mirrors the physical relief brought by the rain midway through the section. The instructions of the thunder are repeated thrice, which is an acknowledgement of blessing or salvation. The three ‘DA’s recorded by Eliot are inspired from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – a Sanskrit scripture; in turn ‘Datta’, ‘Dayadhvam’ and ‘Damyata’ mean ‘give’, ‘compassion’ and ‘control’. Eliot engages with this eastern mantra by reversing the scriptural intention with his prophetic high poetry. He expresses through the first thunder clap, ‘Datta’, that only by way of charity and giving ‘we have existed’.

He shows caution when asking ‘what have we given?’ to others in our lives, worrying that humanity has become too selfish and absorbed in monetary matters. In order to achieve the salvation humanity searches for, they must practise ‘Datta’ and become detached. Through alluding to being locked up in a tower illustrated within Dante’s Inferno, within the second thunder clap, ‘Dayadhvam’, Eliot ‘thinks of the key’ to the metaphorical ‘prison’ that we are held captive by our human corruption. The reference to ‘a broken Coriolanus’ regards a soldier who acted from pride over duty, a further development of the attachment to ego and selfishness. The word ‘Damyata’ does not mean control over others but the practicing of self-control and allowing oneself to be controlled. Submitting to control also suggests submission to the will of God or a higher power such as spirituality. The boat responds ‘Gaily, to the hand expert with sail an oar’, which returns us to the joyous future explored by the sailor within Wagner’s Opera Tristan and Isolde spoken of in ‘The Burial of the Dead’. This is echoed by Eliot narrating as The Fisher King. In Arthurian legend, the wounded Fisher King is remedied by Perceval, now the embodiment of eastern spirituality, after having been asked a certain question. Eliot exploits this myth by asking ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’, which symbolises the healing of the King and by extension the ‘arid plain’ of ‘The Waste Land’.

Eliot concludes the poem on the peaceful note of ‘shantih shantih shantih’ and through this phrase we see that following the collapse of western civilisation, we can seek rebirth within Eliot leaves us with the prospect of peace and hope that may yet be found. The omission of the final ‘Om’ is testament to an incomplete future that is yet to be discovered; there is no resolution or closure at the end of this poem in his search for spirituality. There is evident progression from the physical imagery of seeing ‘the skull beneath the skin’ as written in ‘Whispers of Immortality’, to Eliot’s transition to metaphysical eastern culture within ‘The Waste Land’. After having wrestled with searching for a belief system, his liturgical observation of Anglo-Catholicism is displayed within ‘Little Gidding’ as confirmation of his embracing western religious culture.


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