Exploring Death and Resurrection in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land is widely considered the most influential work of the twentieth century. Composed of five compelling parts, Eliot’s genius work forms an intricate collage of modern society. Many scholars view The Waste Land as Eliot expressing his fear and terror about the fate of humanity and culture. Modernists such as Eliot tend to focus on the decline of Western culture, and romanticize the beauty that their culture had once possessed. The world described in The Waste Land is full of human isolation and skepticism, similar to the everyday world Eliot lived in and observed post World War I. Though The Waste Land is centered on negative imagery and the overall theme of death, Eliot did not mean to have the work be without hope. Out of all of the negativity happening in society, The Waste Land Eliot focuses heavily on the theme of rebirth and resurrection.
In the aftermath and devastation of WWI, Eliot saw hope in society—because after death and desolation can only come rebirth and positivity. World War I was the turning point of the old world into the new world, the end of the Victorian Era, with its aftermath still effecting modern society today. In 1914 millions of people marched against each other in large groups, the way they usually marched in the Victorian era, but they were met by great devastation due to all of the advances in technology. What everyone thought was going to be a quick war dragged on for years. The modern advances in technology such as barbed wire, machine guns, submarines, chemical warfare, tanks, airplanes, and flamethrowers were things that armies had never seen, and had certainly never prepared for. The results of WWI were astounding; nearly a whole generation was killed off in battle, leaving those at home clinging to their mortality, and having to pick up the pieces of their broken existence. Eliot saw what WWI did to those around him, and how modern society was at its worst, in need of saving—a direct product of this is his genius work accurately chronicling the chaos of the times: The Waste Land.
In addition to the vast devastation from WWI, Eliot was also experiencing a devastation of sorts in his personal life. According to Fatima Falih Ahmed and Moayad Alshara Ahmad in their scholarly article, “Rejuvenation in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land” Eliot had come to a, “standstill in his writing career at this point. He was having a hard time thinking of things to write about and was afraid that he would never have another good idea again.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 164). So next to the impact and widespread death of WWI, Eliot had also experienced a death in him, inside his brain. In a sense writing The Waste Land was not only an act of catharsis for him, because of the rebirth and awakening of ideas and passions, and it also became a defining poem for his generation. Within The Waste Land rebirth and resurrection do not occur with ease, they can only come from hardships, negativity, and death—which the post WWI society was experiencing to the extreme. The post WWI world placed society in an era of, “depression, loss, and untimely death.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160). Throughout the work there are numerous allusions to death and destruction such as the overall dead, waterless, and rocky terrain of the land unable of sparking growth or rebirth. Nearly everything in this poem is sad and dead, “The people miss things that have passed or ended. They are also indifferent to what happens to them. The images and seasons are dark, cruel, and desolate.” (161). Or one can look to the many desolate characters that lead terrible lives and meet an untimely demise, such as Phlebas the conceited Phoenician sailor, the tragic Philomel, or any of the nameless people described who are essentially dead inside and lead scandalous and passionless lives. However, death and life can be easily blurred—though death is negative and devastating from, “death can spring life, and life in turn necessitates death.” (162).
As explored by Archana Parashar in her scholarly article, “Reverberations of Environmental Crisis and its Relevance in Managing Sustainability: An Ecocritical Reading of T. S. Eliot’s the Waste Land” the wasteland which could be categorized as Europe and Modern civilization as a whole stands for the, “loss of morals, values, [and the] degradation of environment in the modern world.” (Parashar). On one hand The Waste Land becomes a, “reflection of individual hopelessness and despair but a panoramic view of the total spiritual downfall that has overtaken the modern world… it is expressionless, aggressive, and full of escapist resentment.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160). An example of the spiritual downfall Eliot saw in his modern world would be that of Phlebas the Phoenician sailor. Phlebas was pridefilled, arrogant, and conceited and he is now dead floating alone at the bottom of the sea. Eliot uses Phlebas as a parable or cautionary tale to have one recall their own mortality, stating: “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” (Eliot, line 321). By killing off Phlebas from his modernist sins and rebirthing him to nature, Eliot humbles the character and gives him a new beginning.
Another important anecdote Eliot utilizes to illustrate the spiritual downfall of society and the necessary rebirth is the rape and transformation of the tragic Philomel. The rape of Philomel from Greek mythology and Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses was, “So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale/ Filled all the desert with inviolable voice/ And still she cried, and still the world pursues,/ ‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.” (100-103). By juxtaposing this myth with what is happening in his modern society, Eliot provides a unique insight on the act of rebirth and creation. Herein the act of creation is unwanted by Philomel, but wanted and taken by the, “barbarous king” (99). Philomel can be seen as a symbol for the wasteland that Eliot envisions, the modern world; so to speak, it is full of potential but unable to create anything worthwhile, incapable of a substantial rebirth. The story of Philomel can be interpreted in the sense that what the modern world needs is a change and rebirth must be thrust upon it, whether they like it or not, it is what is necessary for survival and further creation. In addition, the anecdote can also be seen as a commentary on how sex is romance-less and skewed as a characteristic of modern society, and therefore nothing of value can be created from those actions.
Though the theme of rebirth and resurrection can be traced throughout all five section of The Waste Land, the first section “The Burial of the Dead” begins the poem with a clear image of the theme. The first couple lines of the poem are arguably the most memorable: April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (1-4) Being the first few lines of the poem, Eliot initially establishes this theme of death, rebirth, and resurrection that is predominant throughout the rest of the poem. The month of April is usually seen as positive, hopeful, recreating, and life- giving, however, how Eliot forms it is an inversion on its usual connotation. Regeneration is, “painful, for it brings back reminders of a more fertile and happier past.” (Parashar). Meaning that everyone who is still alive post WWI have the shadows of their much happier pre WWI past looming over them—they have been living in desolation and despair for so long that they now solely live for the vanished glories of their past with no hope for the future. Thomas Michael LeCarner author of the scholarly article, “T.S. Eliot, Dharma Bum: Buddhist Lessons in The Waste Land” argues that April paradoxically being characterized as the cruel suggests, “that the process of rebirth and renewal is a source of pain and cruelty.” (LeCarner) therefore reaffirming the idea that modern society is stuck in their humdrum ways—incapable of rebirth. However, the spring rain indicated in the quote above also indicates a healing process, such as a rebuilding of society after it’s collapse from WWI. As well as the month of April, which would be categorized as the season of spring, Eliot also alludes to both winter and summer in the same stanza—all of the seasons except for fall. Herein the different seasons seem to be a symbol for the human condition.
Similar to how April was paradoxically categorized as desolate, Eliot’s description of winter is: “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow,” (Eliot 5-6), his description of winter varies from the normal connotations of frigidness and misery. Winter seems to act comforting, the snow covers the painful memories of the past and generally speaking out of the death of winter comes spring and new life, in order for there to be, “healing and happiness, a pain must occur first.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 159). And then as a result of the pain and struggle of the other seasons comes summer. In the first stanza of The Waste Land out of all of the seasons summer seems to be the ideal, summer is, “the result of the pain and healing process that spring takes people through. Eliot is suggesting in his poem that the world can overcome difficulties and barrenness.” (163). Eliot does not include the season of fall because it is the result of the end of summer, the end of the happy and carefree days, to Eliot and The Waste Land fall is the most undesirable, it marks the beginning of a struggle, the beginning of hard times, possibly even death. Though society is in a standstill from the aftermath of WWI, Eliot does ultimately believe that there is hope for everyone to band together and make it through the tough times, which is optimistic for a modernist such as himself. The sense of hope Eliot emulates does not fix the modern sense of despair, but rather asks for an appeal for regeneration.
Throughout the poem, Eliot utilizes flowers as a symbol for the rebirth and resurrection of society. In the first section, “The Burial of the Dead” Eliot references flowers such as the lilacs and hyacinths, the lilacs come out of the “dead land” (Eliot 2) signifying that something good can still arise from a bad situation. Hyacinths are given to a female mystery speaker in the second stanza, from what seems to be an innocent affair of the heart, the speaker reminisces pleasant times, which went south: — Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could no Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of the light, the silence. (37-41) Considering the context of the poem and when it was written, one can imagine that WWI tore the female mystery speaker apart from her beloved, the pair was ripped away from each other and the speaker was forced to romanticize the hyacinths. To her, the hyacinths represent the world untouched by peril and war, and because hyacinths can always regrow, then maybe for her and for everyone that state of mind can eventually be reborn as well. In the fourth stanza of “The Burial of the Dead” another unnamed mystery speaker asks the morbid question: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” (71-72). Though morose, this gloomy set of questioning reinforces the need for regeneration, the necessity of death in order to create new life. The string of questions, like many of aspects of The Waste Land traces back to WWI, herein people are trying to look for answers for the essentially meaningless slaughter of the First World War. Throughout the poem, going hand in hand with the theme of rebirth and resurrection is water.
Eliot references water constantly; water can be traced through nearly every stanza in every part of the poem. Water imagery appears through cleansing rain, the “Sweet Thames” (176) that runs through the immoral and modern London, and nautical imagery. Eliot, “constantly uses the lack of water in connection with infertility, which conveys to us the sense that the modern world cannot produce anything new or beautiful.” (Ahmad and Ahmed). In Eliot’s made up world of the wasteland, there is a desperate need for water, the land is in a drought, which is an absence of water and therefore a symbol of death. There seems to be a repetition and juxtaposition of dryness and wetness: Here is no water but only rock Rock and no water… If there were water And no rock If there were rock And also water And water (Eliot 331-349) This quote, which is near the end of the poem, illustrates desperation for the lack of water, to the point where the speaker seems hysterical—this is a commentary on how terrible modern society is doing and how they so badly require rebirth. The, “world that Eliot portrays in his poem is supposed to be one in which faith in divinely ordered events and a rationally organized universe has been totally lost,” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160) which ultimately explains how desperate the speaker is for rebirth. Though lack of water is a major problem in the wasteland, Eliot also warns the readers about excess of water. In the third stanza, the famous clairvoyant Madame Sosostris warns the speaker to “Fear death by water,” (Eliot 55). The phrase “Death by Water” resurfaces again in part four of the poem, when Eliot tells the parable of Phlebas the Phoenician’s drowning. What Eliot is trying to say about water is that it is necessary for rebirth; however, an excess of water can be dangerous as well—excess has led to the downfall of modern society and it will not aid in fixing it.
The Waste Land is riddled with allusions to religion and knowledge concerning the topic of an afterlife and rebirth. Eliot’s poem is filled to the brim with, “literary, cultural, and artistic allusions from a variety of sources, including the Upanishads, Greek Mythology, the Bible, Chaucer, Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Leonardo Da Vinci.” (LeCarner). All of the knowledge and culture packed into The Waste Land is meant to give a modern society a rebirth of knowledge. Reading the long and intricate poem was not a simple task in 1922, and it is still not a simple task today. Herein at the peak of modernism, there was a literary shift— ambiguity takes center stage and narrators no longer explain every aspect of a work, people are now expected to dust off their brains and think for themselves, a rebirth of knowledge of sorts. In addition to a lack of knowledge, Eliot also observed that his modern society was experiencing a serve lack of faith. Blame it on WWI or all of technology and advancements of the modern age, but religion no longer had the same effect. People were questioning their existence, and no longer relying on religion to give them the answers they so desperately needed, life felt meaningless. As a result of the modern godless condition, Eliot interjected both Christian and Buddhist themes into The Waste Land. Buddhism fits in perfectly with the world of the wasteland because the religion believes the, “idea that life is fleeting and filled with suffering… [Which] is at the core of Buddhist thought.” (LeCarner). Eliot mainly references Buddhism and the idea of rebirth or reincarnation in the final section of the poem, “What the Thunder Said.” The last lines of the poem are a Buddhist mantra: “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” (Eliot 432) which respectively mean give, show compassion, and control, and then “Shantih shantih shantih” (433) which means, “the peace which passeth all understanding.” (LeCarner). It is interesting that as Western culture begins to crash and burn, Eliot’s solution is to turn to Eastern culture in attempt to restore faith through an old religion, to undo the modernist sins.
Overall, Eliot’s poem functions as a, “didactic artistic representation of the Buddhist doctrine of samsara, an idea that views the world as transitory, overcome with lustful desires, and forever bound to a cycle of life, death, and rebirth.” (LeCarner). In addition to Buddhism, Eliot also references his own religion, Christianity. Barry Spurr, author of the article, “The Impact of T.S. Eliot’s Christianity on His Poetry” argues for all of the negativity in The Waste Land the, “poem is rich in Christian symbolism and, for the first time, there is at least the sense that the journey is not absolutely pointless, but, rather, a challenging experience.” (Spurr). Spurr views The Waste Land as a personal journey, one where if one can stay clear from sin they will be reborn or resurrected, similar to the miracle of Jesus Christ. Though the world in front of Eliot was fractured and in peril, unlike many other modernist writers, Eliot was able to see the good that could result from humanity. The, “sterile, modern-day human society waits in dire distress for a revival or regeneration that may never come.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160) And that revival and regeneration just may have been Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land. Throughout, the poem challenges the modern reader’s intelligence forcing them to branch out of their humdrum, devastating lives and seek knowledge and enlightenment of a higher class. By provoking thought and exhibiting hope in the themes of rebirth and resurrection, Eliot gave a special light to modern society through his timeless and transcending masterpiece: The Waste Land.
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