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In his seminal poem “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot vividly externalizes what he perceives to be a very internal death of pandemic proportions. Calling upon a vast catalogue of religion, classical writings, music and art, the work depicts an entire Western culture virtually dead spiritually in the wake of World War I. Some are aware of their death yet many are not, moving about numbly in a world without any true resonance or meaning. The grim diagnosis presented by Eliot is nevertheless countered by an underlying yet pervasive optimism that an internal rebirth is possible. However, that optimism, often buried deeply within the labyrinth-like text, is accompanied by the promise that any such resurrection will be predicated by a grueling emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey. There is most definitely hope but before that hope can be fully realized, the most barren and arid landscapes of an individual’s spiritual death must be experienced and conquered.
Eliot chooses to preface his poem with a Latin quotation from Satyricon about the prophetess Sibyl who was blessed with eternal life but condemned to permanent old age. Translated, the brief passage reads, “For once I myself saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she replied, ‘I want to die.'” And thus begins the guided tour through spiritual death to an eventual resurrection. For Eliot, the promise of eternal life in misery is the greatest of condemnations to be endured and is an integral part of “The Wasteland’s” theme. There comes a time when the only way to escape from a situation is through death. There is no way to retreat or otherwise triumph. Spiritually, an individual’s connection to meaning and purpose has been severed and, unable to receive the necessary nourishment to enable spiritual life and progression, they simply must begin anew. This concept is further strengthened by Eliot’s allusions to the Fisher King and various rites of fertility and vegetation in the notes that accompany the poem. According to the Fisher King myth, the king is maimed and it is only through his eventual strengthening and physical healing that his land can return to prosperity. Similarly, it is only through sacrifice that one can attain an escape from the spiritual death. It is that death which occupies most of the first segment of ‘The Wasteland,” entitled “The Burial of the Dead.”
Spring traditionally brings feelings of happiness. Flowers are reborn from the soil and the climate begins to warm, all set to a score improvised by an orchestra of birds. However, the spring depicted by Eliot is anything by joyous.
April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (Lines 1-4)
There is no life left. Spring still occurs as always yet the elation it normally elicits is tempered by the lack of vibrancy in post-World War I Europe. People want to be happy but it simply is not there. The grim and woeful depiction is immediately contrasted with happier memories of a countess, recalling sledding down hills when staying at the Archduke’s. The reference to an Archduke may be an allusion to Francis Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered the eruption of World War I. Such an allusion would thus create a firm connection between pre- and post-WWI Europe.
Having established the loss of happiness and energy, Eliot proceeds to delve deeper into his description of the spiritual death while also incorporating the first of many references to Christianity, which is a critical part of the poem. In addition to the reference to Ezekiel in line 8, there is a distinct Messiah reference, “There is a shadow under this red rock/Come in under the shadow of this red rock”(25-26). The lines can be referenced to Isaiah 32:1-2 which reads, “Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment. And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” Again, we have the reference to a lack of water, to an arid, blistering world. Eliot utilizes very definite symbolism throughout “The Wasteland;” dryness is to be equated with death, water with birth. Such symbolism can be carried over to the dynamics of Christianity Eliot weaves into the poem’s narrative, providing what is to be a unifying thread throughout the work. In addition to the resurrection of Christ, there is also the concept of baptism in water, introducing yet another allusion to death and rebirth.
In Eliot’s description of the Hyacinth girl, “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing”(38-40), there is a distinct air of impropriety and utter disillusionment. Things are not the way they ought to be. Experiences that should be pure and life affirming are instead corrupt and dismal. That disillusionment is further enhanced by the episode regarding a visit to the clairvoyant Madam Sosostris. Upon an initial reading, the Sosostris section appears to be no more than a tarot card foretelling of the future, including death by water. The fear of death, however, is disconcerting. For the majority of the work, death is portrayed as a necessary step along the path to rebirth. Yet here Sosostris warns, “Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find/The Hanged Man. Fear death by water”(54-55. It is by a careful analysis of the passage that the true nature of Madame Sosostris may be revealed. Lines 43-45 read, “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante/Had a bad cold, nevertheless/Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe.” Why does Eliot mention she had a bad cold? Why might such a temporary condition have any bearing upon what one might presume to be her more permanent state as a psychic? The name Sosostris is in fact a play upon the name Madame Sesostris in Aldous Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow. In chapter 27 of the novel, a fair is thrown and Mr. Scogen volunteers to pose as a clairvoyant, Madame Sesostris. He is masquerading as a woman and the character of Madame Sesostris is a fraud that perpetuates people’s worst fears in a doomsayer style:
He had a terrifying way of shaking his head, frowning and clicking with his tongue as he looked at the lines. Sometimes he would whisper, as though to himself, “Terrible, terrible!” or “God preserve us!” sketching out the sign of the cross as he uttered the words. The clients who came in laughing grew suddenly grave; they began to take the witch seriously. She was a formidable- looking woman; could it be, was it possible, that there was something in this sort of thing after all?(Chrome Yellow, chapter 27)
In light of the allusion it is logical to conclude the reason Madame Sosostris’s “bad cold” is mentioned is because it is not a cold at all—just the deep voice one would expect of a man dressed as a woman. Sosostris, like Sesostris, is a fraud and her predictions misleading. As such, her warning of death by water is meant as a sort of red herring—a diversion from the path one must follow to escape the spiritual death that consumes them and be reborn. The fact that she/he is nevertheless esteemed as “the wisest woman in Europe,” despite the utter deception, is a criticism of the collective atmosphere of deception and false paths Eliot saw as an all-encompassing threat to Western Culture.
The final, “Unreal City” segment of “The Burial of the Dead” provides some of the most striking, evocative imagery. We are presented the image of London beneath a dense brown fog. The tone is foreboding even before it is made known that what at first seems to be a very realistic scene is in fact a horrifying, nightmarish vision, the brown fog in fact a sea of dead people floating above:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled. (60-64)
The description is the externalization of the internal death. The final line quoted, regarding the “sighs, short and infrequent”, further addresses the response of the dead to their condition. According to Eliot’s notes, the line is a reference to Canto IV of Dante’s Inferno in which those who were good yet Pagan, and who died before Christ’s ministry, were sentenced to an eternity in Limbo. Comprised of many of the world’s greatest thinkers, the group is obliged to accept their fate, the only discontent expressed in their short, infrequent sighs. Similarly, Eliot is suggesting, those who are dead spiritually are accepting their fate as well—with only occasional sighs of dismay. Any hope of a rebirth or triumph is subdued by what has become a pervasive apathy. The alarming nature of the section is extended by the conversation which concludes “The Burial of the Dead;” “The 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?”(71-73). The lines are in reference to the fragility of the necessary death. With spring comes rebirth but it takes little to disturb the state required for one to rise again. Another reference is made to the risk of a dog digging the corpse up (74)—essentially awakening the dead before they are completely prepared for the promised rebirth. Finally, in the one of the poem’s most striking lines to this point, the protagonist essentially turns on the reader with the direct statement, “You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,– mon frere!”(76). Translated from French, the line reads “You! Hypocrite reader! My likeness, my brother!” Suddenly, the reader is transformed from a passive observer to active participant, forced to confront his own, personal spiritual death. The victims of the death are no longer only anonymous faces in a vast sea of people but instead, take on a much more personal, individual identity—that of the reader.
“What the Thunder Said,” the final segment of “The Waste Land,” brings to a close the arduous journey of the poem. The opening stanza is a clear allusion to the suffering of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and his crucifixion:
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
He who was living is now dead (322-28)
By opening this segment of the poem with such a direct allusion, the Christ imagery throughout the work is strongly affirmed. The individual’s own death and rebirth, Eliot argues, will in many ways parallel that of Christ. And just as Christ was resurrected, resurrection is the very heart of this particular segment; the rebirth and the subsequent steps needed to assure continued prosperity.
Following the allusions to Christ, Eliot etches an agonizing depiction of the most dry, lifeless state of being. As aforementioned, water is a symbol throughout “The Wasteland” of life while dryness represents death. In the second stanza of “What the Thunder Said,” the environment is so parched and barren that there is no question as to the degree of death. The imagery is distinctly desolate, “Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit/Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit”(339-40). At this phase of the journey, complete death is assured. There is no longer a risk of the corpse being disturbed by a sudden frost or the clawing of a dog. The death and burial of the previous identity, paralleling the burial of Christ, is nearly complete. The depiction reaches its pinnacle of suffering in lines 346 to 359 as Eliot’s style abruptly shifts, most lines comprised of two or three short words. Madness has been brought on by the dehydration, reflected by the onomatopoeia of line 358-59; “Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/ But there is no water.” The tone has become more desperate, frantically reaching for anything. The protagonist is no longer able to communicate, completely overwhelmed by their condition.
After yet another reference to Christ (360-65), shelter is sought in a chapel with no windows. Death is once more alluded to, “Dry bones can harm no one”(391), this time making clear that the death has occurred much earlier. We are no longer dealing with a corpse buried but rather, dry bones completely stripped of any flesh or signs of life. Then, death having been thoroughly established and all remnants of the previous life completely eliminated, the cock crows “Co co rico co co rico /In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/Bringing rain”(393-95). Finally, the long-promised water replenishes the miserable, arid landscape. The fulfillment of the promise is signaled by the cock’s crow, as was Peter’s denial of Christ for the third time. The resurrection has taken place.
A rebirth is futile if the reborn quickly dies once again. To evade such pervasive death, the thunder delivers what can be interpreted as advice to maintain spiritual virility. In a reference to Hindu legend, line 401 simply reads, “Da,” which has in fact three separate meanings; Datta (to give), Dayadhvam (sympathize), and Damyata (to control oneself). Eliot concludes by providing examples of each part of the thunder’s advice and then, in the final stanza of the poem, alludes once more to the Fisher King. This time, the king has returned to full health and is sitting along the shore (424-25). Full fertility has been restored and the poem’s journey has finally reached its destination. However, it is equally important Eliot notes that one eliminate all connections to the previous death lest be at risk of a relapse2E This is conveyed in line 427, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down.” At once, Eliot is referring to the elimination of any linking connection to the past while also alluding to the pure innocence of a child by including the children’s nursery rhyme lyrics. The poem then bursts into a final flurry of allusions, including Dante, and is done.
Ultimately, the journey is a personal one. While an entire culture has perished together, it is only independently that such death can be overcome and only at great sacrifice and effort. The allusions to Christ throughout are distinct, as are those to Dante’s Inferno. In many ways, Dante’s journey through hell and final escape by first descending only to find that the directions have suddenly shifted and he is actually emerging from the twelfth circle is very similar to the journey to rebirth as depicted by Eliot. It is only through death itself that death can be overcome. Similarly, Eliot may be suggesting that it is only by broadening one’s mind sufficiently as to be able to fully comprehend his poem, complete with its myriad, esoteric allusions, that a person may be able to attain a level of enlightenment comprehensive enough to allow the undertaking of such a challenging journey. The journey to enlightenment and a reawakening is, as promised, to be a difficult one but nonetheless worthwhile. To Eliot, the greatest tragedy would be for us all to adopt the same defeated, hopeless sighs uttered by those in Limbo and floating along amidst the brown fog, our emotional numbness joined by apathy to our woeful state.
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