Dry, Allusive, and Ambiguous: a Close Reading of “The Wasteland”
T.S. Eliot peppers “The Wasteland,” his apocalyptic poem, with images of modern aridity and inarticulacy that contrast with fertile allusions to previous times. Eliot’s language details a brittle era, rife with wars physical and sexual, spiritually broken, culturally decaying, dry and dusty. His references to the Fisher King and mythical vegetation rituals imply that the 20th-century world is in need of a Quester to irrigate the land. “The Wasteland” refuses to provide a simple solution; the properties of the language serve to make for an ambiguous narrative and conclusion, one as confusing and fragmented as Eliot’s era itself.
Eliot wastes no time drawing out the first irony of the poem. In the first lines of “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker comments on Jesus’ crucifixion and Chaucer while using brutal sounds to relate his spiritual coldness in a warm environment. In “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer poetically writes “Whan that April with his showres soote/ The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,/ And bathed every veine in swich licour,/ Of which vertu engrendred is the flowr” (Norton Anthology to English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1, p.81). For “The Wasteland’s” speaker, “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain” (Norton Anthology of Poetry, fourth edition, p.1236, lines 1-4). The harsh “c’s” and muted “d’s” throughout point to the speaker’s disenchantment with a world full of paradoxes and dichotomies. The “mixing” of “Memory and desire” only hurts him, as do all the verbs, which Eliot places at the ends of their lines to intensify their importance and action in an otherwise dead land.
The speaker continues his rants against the world and shows a personality at odds with normal conceptions of happiness. “Winter kept us warm” he says, as the delayed alliteration pairs up an unlikely couple (5). The speaker turns back time, and possibly changes identity, by reminiscing her childhood. Nostalgia is an essential component of “The Wasteland”; here, it relates a young girl’s escapist techniques of reading in the mountains and flying “south for the winter” like a bird, while later Eliot imposes literary and historical significance upon the poem’s allusions (18). Central to these allusion are images of the death of spirituality.
In the second stanza, Eliot moves into a new motif, that of stones and broken idols. He questions what became of his landscape: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images” (19-23). The roots, which were previously dull, now clutch in a sexually perverse image, and stem from a “stony rubbish” which is to be repeated later as a figure of dryness. The “Son of man,” noted by Eliot as Ezekiel, lives in a pagan era of “broken images,” and parallels modern man in “know[ing] only” such a corrupt time. Eliot develops the metaphor of stone as an object with “no sound of water. Only/ There is shadow under this red rock” (24-5). He again places “only” at the end of a line to draw the reader’s attention to it, forcing his audience to consider its relation to the poem’s character. Indeed, the speaker next addresses: “(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),/ 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” (26-9). In “The Hollow Men,” another meditation on broken spirituality, several stanzas use the word “between” to reflect its travelers paralyzed state between life and death: “Between the conception/ And the creation/ Between the emotion/ And the response/ Falls the Shadow” (“The Hollow Men,” V.). Using this as a reference point, “The Wasteland’s” next line explicitly suggests the inevitability of death: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (30).
That oncoming death is ironically compared to Wagner’s romantic opera, “Tristan und Isolde,” and further distances the speaker from any emotional attachment. Wagner’s sailor song shows love’s dominance over distance “Fresh blows the wind/ toward home” and even though the “hyacinth girl,” a love-object in the form of a vegetation ritual, has “arms full, and?hair wet,” the speaker confesses “I could not/ Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (footnote 8, 38-40). The girl’s fertility and moisture fails on the nihilistic speaker who straddles between life and death, who struggles to see and to communicate. The theme of sight and communication continues in the next stanza with Madam Sosostris, a “famous clairvoyante” (43).
“Sosostris” itself is a word of speech; the two instances of “os” in her name suggest the Latin word for “mouth.” She commands her audience to regain his sight: “(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!’”) (48). One of her cards is a “one-eyed merchant” who “carries [something] on his back which” she is “forbidden to see” (53-4). This lack of depth perception, both the one-eyed man’s and hers, leads her to issue the ironic command “Fear death by water” (55). Yet is it ironic, that one should fear a death that seemingly drenches the exsiccative landscape, or has even the Grail that the speaker searches for, water, failed him? Sosostris concludes with a vision of “crowds of people, walking round in a ring” (56). This ritual, devoid of any motion or meaning and similar to the children’s recitation and encircling of the prickly pear in “The Hollow Men,” favors the latter, that even a Fisher King or some other Quester is unable to help the land.
Eliot shifts into less abstract terms as he describes London, the “Unreal City/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn” as a land of the marching dead. Again using irony to magnify the barrenness of the land, Eliot describes the crowd that “flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many./ Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled” (62-4). These breathless lives of exhalations only become the object of the speaker’s sarcastic wrath: “‘Stetson!/ 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?” (69-73). “Stetson,” by association of his name and to the capitalist-driven battle at Mylae, ties modern commercialism to the death of rituals, in this case that of a corpse instead of vegetation. Jesse Weston, in “The Golden Bough,” states that broken lands in need of a Quest fall under two categories: those where the infertility is precedent to the Quest, and those where it is caused by a Hero’s failure to answer the call. Until this point, Eliot has refrained from fingering man as the root of the waste land’s problem, but in his description of vapid London, he seems to blame man’s own declining value system for his dying landscape.
Along with man’s flawed values comes a flawed sense of communication. In “A Game of Chess,” a queen-like woman sits in furniture that fits her magnificent yet empty existence: “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,/ Glowed on the marble, where the glass/Doubled the flames/ Reflecting light upon the table as/ The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it” (77-8, 82-4). The rich, seductive prose that lavishes words like “burnished,” “glowed,” and “glitter” onto the woman’s possessions implies that her worth is as false as her “strange synthetic perfumes,/ Unguent, powdered, or liquid troubled, confused/ And drowned the sense of odours; stirred by the air” (87-89). The “ed” or “id” endings, as in “powdered,” “troubled,” and “drowned,” connotes a passivity, as if the world is inflicting is troubles and confusions on the woman. In this midst, the “odours” now resemble the landscape from the first stanza as they, too, are stirred by the outside (as is the smoke from the candles, “Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling”) (93). A conversation between the woman and her husband is enacted: “‘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’” (111-4). The flat, short sentences that withhold even the barest emotion in their questions and statement overtly shift the poem into the theme of inarticulacy between the sexes. A nihilistic component comes out their abysmal comments: “‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?’” (121-2) The separation of “Nothing” is no accident, and allows Eliot to finish with his aristocratic duelists and explore a working-class example of desperate communication.
Eliot uses colloquial slang to relate a one-sided conversation in a pub. This bustling scene at first seems like a reminder of how humans can communicate, and Eliot leads the reader to this suspicion by using the word “said” twice in the first two lines: “When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said / I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself” (139-40). She is intermittently interrupted by the bartender, whose call to “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” carries ominous implications of death and comes at more rapid intervals. The woman tells of an abortion, and humanity’s infertility that dominates its need to avoid loneliness is summed up in her question “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (164)
That loneliness returns Eliot to the bleak landscape in “The Fire Sermon.” Personification aids the comparisons between human and environmental death: “the last fingers of leaf/ Clutch and sink into the wet bank” (173-4). The Fisher King makes an appearance here, but in the middle of a corrupted ritual: “A rat crept softly through the vegetation/ Dragging its slimy belly on the bank/ While I was fishing in the dull canal” (187-9). The snake-like rat is reminiscent of man’s Edenic fall, another example of man’s bringing this “dull” plague on himself. Further accusations are made against man for his robotic nature: “the human engine waits/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting” (216-7). Tiresias, explained by Eliot as the joining of both sexes, is recalled again to witness the sexually grotesque meeting between a man and woman. The man’s connections to a conqueror or colonizer comes through as he “assaults her at once;/ Exploring hands encounter no defence” (239-40). Following this encounter, “The Wasteland” becomes far less poetic; its lines shorten and make no effort at lyricism: “The river sweats/ Oil and tar/ The barges drift/ With the turning tide” (266-9).
The climax of the poem call on a series of images of water. In “Death by Water,” Madame Osostris’s admonition, Eliot laments the passing of Phlebas the Phoenician, when “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” (315-8). Indeed, the genitive form of “os” is “ossis,” meaning bones, and the clairvoyante’s morbid vision has come to fruition in this nostalgic look at a man “who was once as handsome and tall as you” (321). In the final section, “What the Thunder Said,” rocks and stones dominate: “After the agony in stony places/ Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water and the sandy road/?Which are mountains of rock without water/Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think/ If there were only water amongst the rock” (324, 331-2, 334, 336, 338). The alternating lines that include “rock” layer an image of dryness without salvation in the narrative. Where once Marie felt free in the mountains, now “There is not even solitude in the mountains” (343). The speaker feels there must be an intruder that has caused this: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?/..I do not know whether a man or woman/ But who is that on the other side of you?” (360, 365-6). Eliot again points to the “Falling towers” of “the city over the mountains” that “Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air” as the source of the problem.
The desolate air is interrupted by “a damp gust/ Bringing rain,” and the poem plants the translated words of “be restrained,” “give alms,” and “have compassion” much like the bartender shouted his closing call. The speaker concludes “The sea was calm, your heart would have responded/ Gaily, when invited, beating obedient/ To controlling hands” (421-3). Though the sea, which once separated lovers, is now a peaceful, wet arena for a gay heart, Eliot’s word choice “beating obedient/ To controlling hands” suggests a more sinister intent. Perhaps the struggle is now gone, and with that a drugged complacence. Death still looms; the Fisher King takes over the role of speaker: “I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/ Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (424-6). This is an allusion to a Biblical quote that gives an ambiguous view of death: “Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.” Is the Fisher King merely tying up the loose ends before the world ends with a whimper, or is he permanently fixing his land? The final three words “Shantih shantih shantih” with their lengthy spaces and meaning (“The Peace which passeth understanding”) hints that we will die first, then understand our folly, or that a peaceful death will supersede any hope of learning from our mistakes. In any case, the invocation of a spiritual chant returns the poem full circle, restoring the idea that a broken spirituality is the dull root of our wasted land.
The cryptic allusions to more fertile times has placed “The Wasteland” at the head of 20th-century alienation poetry. Eliot himself passed it off as a “personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life,” written during a hospitalized stay in the midst of the Lost Generation’s spiritual decay. Though he contended that the function of the poet’s mind is to present ideas and to withhold personal interaction, it is difficult to read “The Wasteland” without questioning authorial intent. Is the Fisher King in the last stanza, written in the first person, possibly the poet himself, come to rescue us in Nietzschean Über-Mensch form? Though he would certainly argue against the validity of such a self-enlarging statement (or maybe not), Eliot must have written “The Wasteland” with some hopes that it would somehow end his land’s drought. In this sense, then, the writer is a type of Fisher King, and the new ritual is not vegetable harvesting, but writing.
Abrams et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.
Ferguson et al. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.
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