Lidia Vianu on The Waste Land


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)


Desperado Literature

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          © Lidia Vianu

Published in LIDIA VIANU, T. S. Eliot – An Author for All Seasons, Paideia, 1997


It may prove interesting to notice that all Eliot's poems which have no narrative pattern are obscure, very hard to understand. He is at his best when he starts telling a story, or describing its consequences. Usually, the story itself is only half present. It must be guessed from a character's enigmatical words. Narrative devices are thus fused with dramatic devices, and behind them a consistent lyrical mood unifies the lines. The best illustration of this technique is THE WASTE LAND. It can be considered Eliot's novel, because it is made up of numberless incidents which reveal a crowd of characters, and because these incidents and characters flow into one another, pointing to a common conclusion.


The first part of the poem, THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD, consists of four episodes, which concentrate on a mingled image of life and death. In the volumes of 1917 and 1920, the characters kept trying to run away from something that menaced their lives, from the hideous progress of life into death. One must admit that it takes a very young man to speak so insistently and insolently about death. Prufrock was dreaming of leaving the room and the town, in order to take refuge in an ideal world at the bottom of the sea. The young man in Portrait of a Lady believed he was drawing the lady's unattractive portrait, while in fact he was sketching the very image of death. When he realized what he was doing, he suddenly withdrew in fear, and left the portrait unfinished. All the other poems are races towards a protective shelter. Races prompted by a deep fear. There is in all of them a fear of death which goes hand in hand with the secret hope that it can be postponed. In The Waste Land, the need for refuge is forgotten because no hope follows it. For a while, life dejectedly shares the same house with death.

The first episode mixes ‘memory and desire’, ‘dull roots with spring rain’. Living lilacs grow out of the dead land in April, the ‘cruellest’ of months, because it stirs a ‘little’ life out of the ‘dead’ land to which it shall sometime return. Summer is not far away. With a ‘shower of rain’, it surprises two people who are walking in the ‘Hofgarten’ (Munich), talking. Only the words of one of them, the woman, are heard. Her name is Marie. The garden they are roaming through, the same as this name of Mary are recurrent motifs. They are used by Eliot to the subtle end of unifying the poem by making us remember its scattered reiterated images and piece them together. This Marie, for instance, is German. She is the first of a long line of feminine images that appear in the poem, and together with which she must be interpreted. There is, therefore, a maze of associations between all the words of this poem. It gives the poem a musical sense of both suspense and continuity. The name Marie turns up again in the name of a church, Saint Mary Woolnoth, mentioned in the last episode of this first part. Such imperfect recurrences of words and images are a newly found device of coherence used by Eliot.

Marie's words bring back a childhood memory:

‘And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,

My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went’.

This memory of the mountains, together with the garden the two characters are crossing, foretells the final place described by the poem: a ‘decayed hole in the mountains’, where the grass is ‘singing’ and ‘tumbled graves’ surround an ‘empty chapel’. They foreshadow the unfulfilled promise of rain in part V.

The concluding line of this memory,

‘In the mountains, there you feel free’,

implies, by indirect opposition, that the woman who speaks has not felt free ever since. That her feeling of freedom has been lost. When she describes herself in the present as reading ‘much of the night’ and going south in the winter, she creates the image of someone who has lost the peace of nights and the courage to face the cold heights of the mountains. Only retrospectively does she enjoy the past moment of freedom on a sled in the mountains. At the time it was actually happening, she was only frightened. It looks as if she were enjoying too late what she did not understand when it could be had. The woman's confession leaves a taste of sad loss, of unuttered regret, of frustration because time has elapsed and neither can the childhood fear be changed, nor the mature longing for life wasted be appeased.

The second episode is Biblically addressed to the ‘son of man’: form of address in which the reader is by all means included. It is the first warning that the silent hero, the anxious witness of all the episodes staged by the poem, is one of us. The last line of The Burial of the Dead, taken from Baudelaire,

'You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!' 

supports the idea. The Waste Land can therefore be read as the story of a coherent life told fragmentarily (in good stream-of-consciousness tradition), which is generalized into the image of everybody's fate. This silent witness of the poem, who wears numberless masks, who hardly ever speaks and most often just listens to other people's experiences (which may very well be his own too), is called to come ‘under the shadow of this red rock’. He is urged to leave the ‘heap of broken images, where the sun beats’ (sunlight: Eliot's chameleonic obsession), and where there is no sound of water. His travel across the Waste Land must soon begin. Since we know that the last point of this travel is the chapel in the mountains, we may infer that the red rock (later used by Eliot as a suggestion of the church) foretells it. The whole poem, this entire description of a waste land, may be seen as a heap of broken images. A collection of fragments, of episodes which the hero leaves behind step by step. Yet, this is not the poem of an escape. Nor is it the poem of a change from waste to fertility. It is merely the story of a travel towards the Thames, then along the Thames towards a larger river, then along a larger and a larger river still, up to its merging with the sea. Reaching the sea (one more image that obsessed Eliot for a lifetime), the hero does not take refuge in it. He simply sits down on the seashore and looks back.

For the time being, Eliot's hero is only just starting. Childhood has barely been mentioned, when this impersonal Biblical voice foretells not the future of one man alone, but the fate of humanity at large:

‘... I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust’.

John Donne, with his Lecture upon the Shadow, is of course (here and elsewhere) an old acquaintance of T.S. Eliot's. Not that it matters very much. The moods of the two poets are totally opposed. As far as Eliot is concerned, ‘fear’ is indeed going to be the main mood of all the human faces in the poem. Fear is the unavoidable burden of the peregrinating hero who intensely feels he is nothing more than a handful of ‘dust’ (see Evelyn Waugh’s novel thus entitled, which is one landmark in the appreciation of Eliot’s work).

After the woman's memory of lost childhood, time passes quickly. The hero himself remembers his lost adolescent love. We hear the voice of a ‘hyacinth girl’ telling him:

 'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

'They called me the hyacinth girl' .

It is her way of confessing that her love was essential to her life. Her words are introduced by a fragment in German from Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde. A mere song sung by a sailor, about the girl he loves and who is not with him. Ironically chosen, this fragment shows that Tristan’s story can be replaced with a lot of far less heroical incidents, which Eliot is determined to do. These words are followed by the girl's words, then the hero's own confession, present only as a flash back, a thought, a ‘remembrance of things past’:

‘– Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

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,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence’.

His memory of the girl,

‘your arms full, and your hair wet’,

is a repetition of the image in La Figlia Che Piange, where it appeared as

‘Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers’.

This time, with a firmer hand, Eliot has left out the unnecessary details (flowers), and has given up repeating words. The result is a more general image, with more numerous meanings, which the following parts of the poem will elicit. Ambiguity has been discovered by the indirect poet Eliot. ‘Wet’, for instance, could be associated with various images of insufficient water. Water that existed once and is now unable to appease the torturing sensation of thirst, which pervades the whole poem. The hero remembers that the experience of the hyacinth garden left him between life and death: a mood stirred in Eliot by any beginning, such as the birth of life in spring, in April, that ‘cruellest’ month. At a time of intense emotion, the man, who only now confesses his loss, ‘could not speak’, and his eyes ‘failed’; he knew nothing, he felt he was drowning in light and silence. This is one of the very few descriptions of intense love by Eliot. As usual with him, it can be intense only because it is remembered long after it was lost. The last line of the fragment (from the same Tristan and Isolde) confirms the loss. It describes the wide, empty sea, which brings no sign of Isolde to dying Tristan.

After two confessions of wasted childhood and youth, the famous ‘clairvoyante’, Madame Sosostris, tells somebody's, presumably the hero's, future. She talks about characters who actually turn up now and then, as the main hero crosses the poem. The hero's own card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor, appears in Death by Water, and is associated with a line from Shakespeare's Tempest:

‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’.

This line gives a new meaning to death; it describes it, like Shakespeare, as a


Into something rich and strange’.

Belladonna, the lady of the ‘rocks’ and of ‘situations’, appears in part II. The one-eyed merchant turns up as Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, in part III. ‘Death by water’ actually occurs, though it is not seen as an end: it implies a transformation of one kind of life into another (from eye to pearl). This attempt of looking upon death as a gate open towards another land did not exist in the previous poems. As a real hope, it fails to convince in The Waste Land. It will fail in Ash-Wednesday again, then it will be enlarged upon, in the Four Quartets.

The last episode, the same as the first, sees death and life hideously coexisting. London comes very close to the atmosphere of Dante's Inferno, out of which Eliot even borrows a few words:

‘Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many ...’

Time itself hums an air of death: the church Saint Mary Woolnoth keeps (guards / announces) the hours with a ‘dead’ sound on the stroke of nine (the ‘final’ hour for those who work in offices and ‘flow’ to their jobs in the morning). The same as John Donne, Eliot uses images of death to extend his sense of life. He rejects what is beautiful when he writes his poems, and prefers to see beyond the glamour, to discover the ‘boredom, the horror and the glory’. Which implies that he enlarges, he urges his poetry into what used to be considered non-poetic. The disturbing unease aroused by the image of a corpse that was planted in a garden and has begun to sprout, even bloom, is indeed more intense than Tennyson's meditations on death. The feeling of disgust associated with the corpse is pushed even farther:

‘O keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,

Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!’

Eliot has an uncommonly vivid imagination when it comes to coining images suggestive of death. The poem abounds in bones, violent deaths (the sailor's death by water, the nightingale's death after the rape – although they are rather changes than deaths), dead bodies, etc. The first part ends as it had begun. The blooming corpse has the same meaning as the dead land breeding lilacs. When Baudelaire's line turns up, we have the feeling that the circle of life has closed. That there is no end to its revolving and no escape (for the heroes of the poem, for us, for anybody) from the cyclical revival, which announces an unavoidable new end. Life breeds death. That is how Eliot felt about it.



The second part, A GAME OF CHESS, opens with the description of a room engulfed by artificiality and oppressive history. A woman is seated in what might have once been Cleopatra's ‘burnished throne’. Two golden cupidons (lifeless image of once living love) watch her from the frame of a heavy mirror. ‘Sevenbranched candelabra’ pour light over the scene. The woman's repelling artificiality is generously displayed: jewels in satin cases, ‘strange synthetic’ (Eliot never had the strength of rejecting an alliteration) perfumes in unstoppered vials of ivory and coloured glass surround her. Above the mantel, a ‘sylvan’ scene is encarved:

‘The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king

So rudely forced’.

The mythological legend hinted at (the rape of Philomel by Tereus and her consequent change into a nightingale, while her sister Procné became a swallow) must be included among the gloomy sex affairs seen by Eliot in this poem with disgust, and reproached for their animality, their lack of feeling. The men and women involved in such relationships are emptied of their souls, dehumanized. Funny to think that the ‘objective correlatives’ (so to say) of the soul are not human beings here, but rather the objects that surround them. Everything (the land, the corpses, the sea, the river, the ground) is alive, except man. In Eliot's early poems, too, the objects were personified, humanized, while human beings barely survived. In The Waste Land, people almost become inanimate; they lose all their human attributes, and are exhibited merely to be stared at, as if they had become distasteful objects. Such is the ‘barbarous king’ who raped Philomel. In the following episodes, his descendants are Lil's demobbed husband, the young man carbuncular, the ‘loitering heirs of City directors’. The cry of the nightingale has not died yet. It is still pursued and heard by contemporary ‘dirty’ ears. History merges with the present.

Besides this sad story of humiliation, other ‘stumps of time’ are told upon the walls as well,

‘Leaning out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed’.

Inside this room stifled by ‘staring forms’ of the past, a woman is brushing her hair. Her absurd, meaningless words are left unanswered. They sometimes alternate with the hero’s silent and dejected thoughts. This whole second part exhales a sense of emptiness, of futility, of uselessness. While the woman talks incoherently, the man cannot help thinking of death. She shouts neurotically. He feels:

‘... we are in rats' alley

Where the dead men lost their bones’.

He also dreamingly remembers the fortune teller's words, about a death by water:

‘I remember

Those are pearls that were his eyes’.

When she speaks of ‘tomorrow’, all he can think of is:

‘... We shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door’.

The lidless eyes suggest the image of a skull. The knock upon the door might be connected with an unseen companion mentioned in the last part. It is also reminiscent of death, of that ‘fear in a handful of dust’, introduced in part I.

Lil, the woman whose story is told by a female friend of hers in the following episode, is even more closely connected with the act of dying. She is not even present on the stage. A silent witness learns about her husband Albert having been four years in the army (presumably World War I, but also, very possibly, in the navy). Lil is only 31, but she looks ‘antique’. She has five children, nearly ‘died’ of the fifth and has just ‘brought off’ the sixth. She has killed an unborn life, that is. As for her other accomplishments, she is toothless and joyless. Her female friend describes her without the least trace of pity:

‘Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you.

And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said.

Oh is there, she said. Something o' that, I said.

Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look’.

Lil's story ends abruptly, with an intimation that its narrator actually undertook some of Lil's marital obligations. As the question suggests:

‘What you get married for if you don't want children?’

While this story is being told in vulgar, uneducated English, a voice (the innkeeper’s) keeps shouting impatiently:

Hurry up please its time

Written in capital letters, devoid of punctuation or any explanatory sentence, the prompting has several meanings. The most obvious would be that it is time for the pub to be closed. Another one ought to be connected with the last line of part II, vaguely taken from Shakespeare's Hamlet:

‘Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night,

                                                         good night’.

Ophelia's madness is hinted at, here. It might foretell the end of the poem, when the protagonist himself seems to experience it, as he concludes (in Thomas Kyd's words, this time):

‘... Hieronymo's mad againe’.

This peculiar emotional and intellectual confusion called ‘madness’ may also be a faint biographical echo. We know now that The Waste Land was written over a long span of years. Eliot concentrated his whole youth in it. The poem was completed after his first, hasty marriage. Wearied and wasted, Eliot took leave from his bank job and went to Switzerland (Lausanne) in 1921. He consulted a psychiatrist, and stayed there for about six weeks, alone. In a letter to Richard Aldington (November 6, 1921), he wrote that the state of his nerves was due

‘not to overwork but to an aboulie and emotional

derangement which has been a lifelong affliction. Nothing

wrong with my mind’.

It is not real madness, then, that the poem is about. Together with ‘ITS TIME’, this ‘good night, ladies’ also suggests that the condition of woman is here emptied of any meaning and has reached a grim end.



After life seen as a burial of dead wishes, then as a mechanic dry game of chess, the third part, THE FIRE SERMON follows. The dissatisfaction of the hero is here at its highest. The city where the poem takes place is likened to Carthage, the town that must by all means be destroyed. At the end of this part, the protagonist is ‘plucked out’ of his previous life,

‘burning burning burning burning’.

His gasping, desperate cry at the moment he is supposed to leave is most intensely personal:

‘O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest


As a matter of fact, he seems desperately unwilling to change residence. Yet, he will indomitably follow along the Thames, then farther, along the Ganga, up to the sea.

This first fragment describes the river Thames. Summer (which may also mean the summer of life) is ended. Even its empty signs have disappeared. There are no more empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends or ‘other testimony of summer nights’. The ‘nymphs’ and their friends, ‘the loitering heirs of City directors’, are departed. The last leaves sink into the wet bank. April, the cruellest month, is buried again. One cycle of life is over. Winter is again on the point of covering earth in ‘forgetful sow’. As winter draws near, the courage, the inner strength of the hero decreases. He had begun by shouting (You! hypocrite lecteur!); now his voice gradually dies down. He has lived through the losses of childhood, of youth in the hyacinth garden, of maturity wasted on a sterile game of chess, but now something in him gradually gives way. He seems to have come to a point where he cannot stand his misshapen life any longer. In a Biblical way, ‘by the waters of Leman’ (lake in Lausanne), he sits down and weeps. Then he addresses the river which is guiding him:

‘Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long’.

As he turns his back on the town, the scenes behind him wither faster and faster away. The images of decay in this part of the poem become unbearable. A rat is seen creeping through the vegetation, ‘dragging its slimy belly on the bank’, while the narrator fishes in a dull canal on a winter evening, ‘round behind the gashouse’. He will be fishing again at the end of the poem. Only there he will be fishing (killing life) in the sea. The ‘arid plain’ will, however, be behind him. For the time being, he is only beginning to cross it.

Thoughts of decaying life (death) mingle with repelling images of decayed love. The protagonist muses upon

‘... the king my brother's wreck

And on the king my father's death before him.

White bodies naked on the low damp ground

And bones cast in a little low garret,

Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year’.

At his back he hears what he has already left behind him: the sound of ‘horns and motors’ which bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter and her daughter, who ‘wash their feet in soda water’. The above mentioned incident occurs in spring (the cruellest month?). A line from Verlaine's Parsifal reminds us both of the sense of freedom in childhood, high up in the mountains, and of Lil's undesired children:

‘Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole!’

Children's hidden faces are one more recurrent obsession of Eliot's. Their gravity stands in strong contrast with the obvious reality. The soiled voice of the raped Philomel follows this line. It also brings along an air of dirty sex, of human deterioration.

In Part III, Tiresias appears. In connection with this Tiresias, Eliot explains in the Notes what he considers to be the sense of unity, of coherence in the poem:

‘Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character', is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest’.

He explains that all characters melt into one another, until there are only two main figures left: that of man and that of woman. Then these last two mingle into a unique sensibility, which may as well bear the name of Tiresias, and which claims to appropriate all the experiences related by the poem. Ezra Pound had noticed from at first that The Waste Land had a strong emotional unity. He did not wait for Eliot's Notes to tell him that. Neither need we rely upon them, since they may only leave us, to use Eliot's own words, in a state of enlightened mystification. Anyway, in The Fire Sermon, ‘throbbing between two lives’, having ‘foresuffered all’, Tiresias sees and remembers (for all of us) the most devastatingly sordid scenes of the poem. He is one more device by means of which Eliot generalizes his meaning, besides the poetic Esperanto of quotations (cultured poetry) which he dotes upon, and besides many other tricks. Eliot now reminds us, by evoking Tiresias, that the poem deals with the past, present and future fate of mankind at large, our own included.

An unshaven Smyrna merchant (Mr. Eugenides) invites someone insidiously for a weekend at the Metropole (a luxury hotel in Brighton). A typist and a ‘young man carbuncular’ meet in a poor room, at the ‘violet’ hour, when the ‘human engine’ withdraws within the blind walls of home. The typist's room is full of food in tins and a disorderly heap of underwear items minutely listed. The young, self-assured house agent clerk has his meal with the woman. When

‘The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved if undesired.

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,

And makes a welcome of indifference’.

After which he gropes his way down the ‘unlit’ stairs. The woman is inert all the time. She merely thinks to herself:

‘Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over’.

A single line quoted from Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield acts upon the whole incident as a devouring fire, which reduces to ashes whatever is human. As usual, Eliot quotes irreverently. Which means that he delights in reversing  the meaning of the original context, as if he were mocking at it (as he mocked at the very titles of his own previous poems). He treats all authors he borrows from (except Shakespeare, maybe) with bitter irony. Because of this estranging irony, the words Eliot hums from his literary memory are no longer somebody else's words. They become Eliot's own. As an illustration, here is Goldsmith's original context (p. 123):

‘When lovely woman stoops to folly,

And finds, too late, that men betray,

What charm can soothe the melancholy,

What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,

To hide her shame from every eye,

To give repentance to her lover,

And wring his bosom – is to die’.

No question of feeling or melodramatic victims in Eliot's text:

‘When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone’.

The tears are done away with, replaced by a grin. Yet, behind Eliot's heavy humour, we do feel the protagonist's despair that now to him all real women seem to be dead. Only something of the past seems still to survive. The hero, then, remembers (from Shakespeare again):

‘ 'This music crept by me upon the waters; ‘.

He glances at Queen Victoria Street, which is close to the Thames, then at Lower Thames Street, near London Bridge. To think of all the towers and bridges that end by crumbling in this poem... He sees the Thames sweating oil and tar and hears Wagner's tragic cry of the Rhine daughters. The thames has its daughters as well, but in front of their doomed fate an unreal, lost (crumbled, too) image is unfurled. The love of ‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ floats on the river when it flows by Greenwich House, where Queen Elizabeth was born and where she entertained the Earl of Leicester. After this past light, the voices of the Thames’ daughters follow. They feel they have been ‘undone’. They find their hearts ‘under’ their feet. They expect nothing. The decay of love and humanity has reached the utmost limit. A cry dies into a faint, remote whisper, and the hero is afraid he might burn up together with doomed Carthage. Painful as that may be, he is however unwilling to be plucked out: ‘O Lord Thou pluckest me out’. He is ‘burning’. From the despair in his voice, we easily infer that he would rather burn together with the world he lives in, than leave it. Far from being a hopeful, visionary poet, Eliot is a withdrawing spirit, who fears his own wishes.



DEATH BY WATER (part IV) explores that ‘sea change’ Shakespeare described in The Tempest, in connection with the line ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’. Phlebas the Phoenician died a fortnight ago. He entered the ‘whirlpool’. Currents under sea pick his bones clean. These very bones may become pearls some day.  He rises and falls, led by the sea. In the meantime, the same as the protagonist of the poem, he re-enacts his experiences of youth and old age. Another direct address, similar to that taken from Baudelaire (‘You! hypocrite lecteur!’), reminds the reader that Phlebas is one of us, that his way is our way, it being the way of all flesh.



This is the mood which opens the last part of the poem, WHAT THE THUNDER SAID. After the sight of ‘sweaty faces’, after gardens, stony places, agony, shouting and crying,

‘He who was living is now dead

We who were living are now dying ...’

Nothing can be changed in the order of things. Time has stamped upon the world the evil called death. Children inherit it from their parents. Once born, there is nothing left for living beings to do in Eliot's world but to begin the process of dying. This is one of the reasons why children are an awkward presence in the poem.

The hero seems to have left the city. While he is crossing the ‘arid plain’, echoes of his past life crowd in upon his mind. He crosses a space of rock without water, a ‘sandy road’ winding among mountains. He feels trapped in a ‘dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit’. The image is reminiscent of Robert Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Close to the protagonist's side, a dark, hooded face glides, insubstantial like the air itself. The question

‘... who is that on the other side of you?’

remains unanswered. Guessed ‘ahead up the white road’, wrapt in a brown mantle, the mysterious companion remains unknown, as it happened in part II, with the author of the menacing ‘knock upon the door’. Seen from outside, from a distance, the world looks as if it had been lifted and tossed, turned upside down. Sounds are heard ‘high in the air’. Now the city is laid ‘over the mountains’. A softening feeling of unreality steals into what has been so far perceived as piercingly real. No more prostitutes, no more incoherent Ladies of situations, no more soiled Thames daughters, disabused typists, or young men carbuncular. People have become immaterial. They ‘swarm’ in ghostly hordes, all hooded, stumbling over endless, cracked plains. Out of ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London’, only falling towers are left. All the existing cities are far, far away. They keep cracking, reforming, then bursting again, endlessly repeating the cycle of life and death, out of which the hero was on the point of being ‘plucked’. Now he merely endeavours to see them as ‘unreal’.

Improbable images, terrifying, as if picked out of a Gothic novel, hover over this unreal ground, unreal cities, unreal life. A woman fiddles ‘whisper’ music on the long strings of her black hair drawn out tight. In the corpse-like, violet light (which reminds of the hour when ‘the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk’), bats with baby faces (children again, and as awkward a presence as ever) crawl head downward down blackened walls. The hours are no longer kept by Saint Mary Woolnoth, with a ‘dead’ sound on the final stroke of nine. The towers which ought to keep the time are only images of lost towers, seen upside down in the air, heard tolling bells reminiscent of withered realities, of the once foretold ‘burial of the dead’. The insistent repetition of images (a life long habit with Eliot) lends additional coherence to the poem. As if really buried, voices sing from deep below, ‘out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells’. This immaterial landscape of what once was and is no more (but may be again) is pervaded by a sound high in the air: a ‘murmur of maternal lamentation’ (interesting recurrence of the consonant ‘m’), which was never heard as such (sympathetic) in real life. A sadness of failed human beings, failed men, failed women, failed mothers moreover, is brought into the poem to counterbalance the previous feeling of disgust.

On the very spot where the dead were buried, where their dry bones which can harm no one lie under ‘tumbled’ graves, the silent traveller finds a chapel in a ‘decayed hole among the mountains’. A cock sings on its roof. Will it bring rain? A new life might sprout in what was once a waste land. Whether it will be (as Death by Water envisaged) a more precious kind of life, or whether it will be the same life in which every birth is a premonition of death, the traveller does not know. He is at a loss. Clouds are seen, damp gusts are felt, the sound of the thunder is heard. Yet the rain cannot come. Water and fertility are in The Waste Land a promise never fulfilled.

The Thames was left behind long ago. Ganga is now in sight, meandering through the jungle which is ‘crouched, humped in silence’. Black clouds of (unreal) storm are gathered far away, over the holy mountain of Himavant (in the Himalaya range). The place looks like ‘England and nowhere’, as the Quartets later put it. The hero fails to describe the land. It is as if he were heading for the edge of the Earth, where he could sit undecided on the shore, dangling his feet in the waters of a primordial sea, and look back upon his arid life with painless indifference. This arid life, Eliot repeatedly stated, did not in the least symbolize the dismay of a whole generation. He made very clear assertions against this type of generalizations which literary critics of The Waste Land resorted to. First, he cut it short ironically:

‘When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the 'disillusionment of a generation', which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention’.


Later, in 1947, he claimed to have written this long disputed and decoded poem only to ‘relieve’ his own feelings, and consequently it came out as a piece of ‘rhythmical grumbling’. These two sentences are as enigmatical as a third one:

‘In The Waste Land I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying’ (1959).

Whatever the truth may have been, the hero of the poem is still on his way. His guide is now the Thunder (the promise of rain). The rain will only be granted if the commands of the Thunder are obeyed. The first one is ‘Datta’ (give). It speaks of affectionate warmth, of true love, of feelings that can fill one's soul. The Thunder means that the only reality of life is the ‘moment's surrender’ in love for another human being. Nothing else but real feelings can fill our ‘empty rooms’ and fortify the human being, help it steadily face the prospect of certain death. The hero confesses he has not obeyed this first command. He complains:

‘The awful daring of a moment's surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed ...’

The same as the ‘murmur of maternal lamentation’, the real emotional surrender to another human being was totally absent (either missed or discredited) in the former parts of the poem. So far, all the characters have been wrapped, hooded in dry loneliness.

The second command of the Thunder is a sequel to the first: ‘Dayadhvam’ (sympathize). It suggests that the feeling of loneliness can be annihilated if shared with somebody else. The Thunder first taught the hero to say,

‘My fried, blood shaking my heart ...’

Instead of that, the hero thinks of a key to his ‘prison’. Thinking of that key, he confirms the existence of his solitary cell. The first command was inviting and lenient. The second is perceived as neutre, and the protagonist does not seem very eager to follow it. Even worse than this, the third command has already been disobeyed. It is remembered in the Past Conditional, after who knows how long a time since it was first ignored. The Thunder says, ‘Damyata’ (control). It offers the impossible image of tender hands that protect a loved soul from the feeling of the waste land, from the burial of the dead, from the trial of being burnt together with what must be wrecked by passing time. An image in the Past Tense introduces this lost brotherhood of souls:

‘... The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar’.

This third command can no longer be followed. It belongs to Eliot's favourite grammatical mood, the might have been:

‘... your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient,

To controlling hands’

As the commands of the Thunder will not / cannot be obeyed, the hero must resign himself to the punishment of living without rain. The torturing thirst that has haunted him all through the poem is not quenched: now or ever. The silent traveller is exhausted. He sits fishing upon the seashore (hoping to catch a magic sign of sea life?), with the arid plain behind him. A heap of words escaped from other authors assault his mind. He neglects their spring: they are made to express his own plight. The Biblical ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order’ is the hero's first glance backwards: his first admission that the waste land cannot be escaped, because there is nowhere else to go. The discovery shatters him. He feels his strength crumble, and can only mumble helplessly:

‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’.

What refuge can he look for? One place is falling down. Another is burning (‘Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina’ – Dante). Another is far too high (‘O swallow swallow’ – Tennyson), he can hardly hope to reach it (‘Quando fiam uti chelidon’ – Pervigilium Veneris, anonymous Latin poem). He must live with what he has, like ‘Le Prince d'Acquitaine la Tour abolie’ (Gérard de Nerval). The protagonist's only gesture is to shore (in a former variant to ‘spell’) these ‘fragments’ of feelings and thoughts against his ‘ruins’. He will pretend he understands, pretend that he can bravely go on. He even shouts with assumed confidence:

‘Why then Ile fit you’ (Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy).

But the shout falters, and before long he stammers helplessly:

‘Hieronymo's mad againe’.

The last six words,

‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih’,

seem to be the dying whisper of the poem. Shantih, the ‘peace that passeth understanding’, is begged for. Can it be granted? Will it ever be? No visible peace, no thirst-quenching water, no hope for this inhabitant of the waste land. He must live with the awareness of defeat. Defeat of life, loss of love. The Waste Land is therefore a heap of fragments (fragmentariness is its technique, indeed) which convey a coherent aspiration towards ... who knows what?