From West to East: Changing Traditions in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land begins with a latin epigraph that refers to the story of the prophetess to Apollo, Sibyl of Cumae. Apollo wanted to take the prophetess as his lover and offered her anything she wanted in return. Sibyl asked to live as long as there were grains in a handful of dust but still refused to be Apollo’s lover after he granted that wish. She soon realized that she had been granted eternal life and not eternal youth and to her dismay got older and, older as the world stayed young around her. The prophetess choosing eternal life on earth is symbolic of the western tradition of defining yourself through your earthly legacy. The first world war then destroys western culture and society and, turns it into the barren waste land that Eliot describes. The Latin epigraph in The Waste Land represents the deterioration of western culture because of its beliefs in a dead tradition. The poem shifts to an eastern tradition because of its values in truth, compassion and, ethical practice being the possible solution to healing western culture.
The Wasteland begins with The Burial of the Dead, which symbolizes the death of a traditional western religion by presenting knowledge through the absence of a physical god and, in the void of a handful of dust. The first 19 lines depict a story of an aristocratic german woman recalling the nostalgia of her childhood in contrast to the, “Dull roots with spring rain”(4) that symbolize the fruitless state of her current life despite the regenerative rain of spring. April is the cruelest month to her because, a time that was once symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus and, the salvation of humanity, now symbolizes death and hopelessness. “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…”(20-22) This speaker now questions western religion in itself and, raises doubt in believing in what we have been told is God but, have not experienced ourselves. The speaker is questioning what is to be gained through following this god we do not actually know of. I think they relate western religion to ‘stony rubbish’ because, western religion offers the same illusion of solidity that a stone may but, offers nothing of actual substance. They then go on to say, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”(30) This relates directly to the latin epigraph of Sibyl and her void of a meaningless long life. Western tradition ends in a feeling of void, despite what you have acquired, because of its beliefs in meaninglessness.
Eliot ends this hopeless western epic with an offer of a solution through an alternative understanding in values. This solution comes in, “…a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain.”(394-5) This rain comes as a relief to the barren wasteland and in the next lines we are taken to the shores of the improvised Ganga, where its limp leafs finally feel rain too. The speaker then expresses the three duties and values of Eastern Hindu tradition: Datta, Dayadhyam and, Damyata. Datta, in Hindu means “give” and the speaker asks us what we have given and in reflection of the poem we realize that we have only given destruction in return of the dead culture we live in. This was illustrated perfectly in the first section of the poem, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden/ Has it begun to sprout?… Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”(70-72) I thought this symbolized the unnecessary death cause by the war and how victory, a feeling of accomplishment and warmth, was replaced with the cold feeling of death and loss. We are given the last two duties of Hinduism; Dayadhyam and, Damyata which mean “compassion” and “self-control”. They both lead to the peace that passes understanding or Shantih which the poem ends with. The western tradition offers no values of compassion or self-control and instead promotes a “key to salvation” view of faith, “I have heard the key/ Turn in the door once and turn once only/ We think of the key, each in his prison/ Thinking of the key”(412-14) Everyone is striving to do what they believe is best by god to gain the ‘key’ to salvation but, their prayers ring on dead ears, leaving them in a prison of their own closed mind.
Eastern tradition promotes giving, compassion and, self-control because it believes that everyone is one with each other and therefore, should share and help in each others struggles. This is a concept alien to a western tradition that values gain through destruction or even Utilitarianism. This is the same concept Eliot wanted the reader to take away from the introduction of Hindu verse towards the end of a hopeless poem. At the end of A Fire Sermon there are chants in western tradition and eastern tradition. Western tradition’s dependency on god for salvation is shown, “O Lord Thou pluckest me out/ O Lord Thou pluckest,”(309-10) and garners no response while eastern tradition basks in the purifying fire as from a sermon by Buddha about nirvana. Eliot does not want every reader to suddenly convert to a eastern tradition but, for every reader to include these concepts in their bag of broken images as a hope of gaining understanding to achieve “Shantih”. The poem finishes with the image of the Fisher king experiencing peace through the three duties of Hinduism. There is no certain answer but the reader is told the kind is setting his lands in order which can be taken as a metaphor of his life. He tells the reader, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/ Why they [might]Ile fit you.”(431-2) Here does he tell the reader that he has found value in the duties and that they might be our solution to? Theres a fleck of doubt on this solution with the quick elude to Hieronymo, which through it’s story symbolizes that the deepest truth will ring silent in the worlds ear (western society) because it rejects those values. Though this does not leave the play hopeless because Hieronymo still strove to revive his tradition, despite the worlds view, because it was still truth. The first four sections of a poem are symbolic of western tradition’s death through foundations in an empty faith. The reader is shown and reminded that our self-motivated wars have destroyed the god we believe in.
Eliot offers us an alternative way of understanding and, chooses Eastern traditional values because the self-salvation value held so highly in western tradition is what killed it. Eastern religions of Buddhism and Hinduism both stress: On giving back, having compassion for others and, self-control as the only way to salvation. This is important because although the bottom line is still self salvation, your salvation is derived through actively contributing to your environment and instead of following another persons path, we create our own, which in turn gives us the meaning we are searching for in our void of a handful of dust.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land” and Other Poems. Dover Publications, 1998. pg 31-42
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