The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot -Summary & Analysis

Thomas Stearns Eliot is a multidimensional literary figure from the twentieth century. He is a prominent poet, critic, and dramatist who, according to Margaret Drabble, has been a significant presence in English literature since the 1920s.  There are two critical hints that will help you comprehend what T.S. Eliot is conveying through his depictions of conflict in his poetry and drama. The first is represented in his 1928 declaration, “He was a royalist in politics, an Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a classicist in literature.”  The second is stated explicitly in Vernon Hall’s description of T.S.Eliot: “He is, in more than the theological sense of the word, dogmatic, and he declares in one place that the only people who can understand what he is talking about are those for whom the doctrine of original sin is very real and tremendous thing.”  The Waste Land, Eliot’s perennial poem, is the clearest example of his ability to expand our understanding of him as a poet without bounds. The Waste Land is the aftermath of any battle that has occurred or may occur in the near future. The following article will conduct a critical analysis of The Waste Land as universally appealing poetry.

T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is by far the twentieth century’s most characteristic poem. It reveals the present generation’s very soul in all its atrocities – moral, spiritual, and intellectual bankruptcy, disappointment, and waste. It highlights the horrors of battle, as well as the waste and frigidity that accompany and follow the modern conflict. The ‘waste land’ in this case is Europe, which has been ravaged physically and emotionally by two global wars in a single generation. The poem jolted the world awake and compelled it to examine the numerous ailments and channels of emotional and spiritual breakdown into which it had slid. Eliot’s mood is pessimistic and analytic in ‘The Waste Land.’ He was more concerned with disintegrating realities than with the universal system of order and restoration. While the prospect of restoring order and cohesion exists, it remains a faraway picture. ‘The Waste Land’ stunned the globe, a shock that had a therapeutic impact on a planet consumed by conflict. It was a monumental accomplishment in the history of English poetry. In it, a mind well aware of the impressions of the era wrested a lyrical triumph from the exact problems that a poet of that era faced. War has the effect of heightening people’s sympathetic feelings of one another in situations when they might otherwise practise mutual contempt. Eliot was destined to live in London during the two world wars. The London of the First World War and the glimpses it provided of people, suffering, and courage honed his lyrical abilities, exposed him to the futility, horror, and boredom inherent in human existence, and ‘The Waste Land’ was born. It was once remarked of him that ‘The Waste Land’ was a “dead end.” That would have been the case had the Second World War not shaken his affections and senses, extending and deepening his sympathies and historical views. He completed the final two Quartets and then began writing the successful plays of which he had dreamed for so long. It is true that Eliot’s direct awareness of the ugliness, emptiness, and aimlessness of man’s spiritual estate during the post-war years inspired ‘The Waste Land’; Eliot spoke in the voice of the isolated prophet in a corrupt city. However, he was not alone in lamenting the desolation or disorder around him and in crying out for a reawakened sense of the old laws and values; he was unique in that he was the first to give that scream a voice and a form. This is a poem about the postwar battle for reorientation. Eliot created the book not just while influenced by war and London, but also while suffering from illness. Six years of intense effort, earning a living on the one hand while pursuing intellectual achievements on the other, had tired him. However, the time of a poet’s breakdown is frequently the moment of invention. Thus, he was able to gather everything he had encountered and, with bold and simple strokes, transform the sad noises and terrible images of his world into something beautiful and unusual.

‘The Waste Land’ is a poem in which the poet writes simultaneously about his personal illness and the world’s illness, which is a reflection of his own. He documents and condemns his own dismal situation and recommends, or rather, seeks to prescribe, a treatment for the city civilisation of which he is a representation.

Along with these were the influence of writers like La Forgue, Stravisky, Pound and Miss Weston, which settled for Eliot, the method he was to adopt. It is of the essence of Eliot’s method in the poem that the experiences created and enacted in his poems are both timeless and timely. The poem also holds up Eliot’s religious position, viz., that man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature that can yet apprehend perfection. The poem was, in fact, demand for such a realization.

The poem’s style and mode of expression, as well as its fragmentary character and fractured images, all hint at the poet’s meaning, and more specifically, to another focus on the poet’s mind at the time the poem was conceived. This was his complete despair at the prospect of ever completely communicating his meaning. The poem is primarily inspired by a sense of “isolation, alienation, and the impossibility of communication.” Much of ‘The Waste Land’s poetry is attained through the search for speaking symbols for a feeling that cannot be described. The difficulty of articulation, the inability to discover a mode of communication that adequately expressed his emotions, was what he was pursuing.

If he fails, his failure effectively depicts his ‘Waste Land’ as filled by ‘effigies’ for men. As a means of successful communication, ‘The Waste Land’ assisted Eliot in reorganising himself for another eight years of work, younger poets in reorganising themselves for another thirty, and it sparked the moralistic poetry of individuals like Auden. The original introduction to “The Waste Land” was an epigram from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Did he relive his life in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during the supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry no more than a breath – The horror! The horror!” (121) (Davidson). On the advice of Ezra Pound, who thought that the original citation lacked passion, the Conrad quotation was later substituted with a line from the Satyricon. While reading the poetry, the allusions frequently perplex us. We encounter allusions to the Bible, the Buddha’s words, and the Upanishads, as well as Sappho, Virgil, Ovid, St Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Kyd, Shakespeare, Webster, Middleton, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Goldsmith, Tennyson, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Conrad, among others.

Section 1

Part I, titled ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ begins with a group of cosmopolitan tourists moving from place to place. April is the cruellest month, according to Eliot, and the people of the wasteland do not desire rebirth. They desire hibernation. Their memories are so poor that they are unable to recall significant portions of their past lives. Winter maintains their happiness as a result of this memory loss during hibernation. They live the life of displaced tourists. German lines are significant in this instance. “I am not Russian in the slightest. I am a native of Lithuania and a pure German.” There is a reference to Marie Larisch’s sledging incident. She recalls an incident involving her cousin. There are two locations mentioned here: Starnbergesee (a lake resort near Munich) and Hofgarten (a public park in Munich). As it happens, we know the genuine person on whom Eliot based this episode: Countess Marie von Wallersee Larisch; Eliot met her, according to his widow, and also read her memoirs, titled My Past (1913).

The land is dry, arid and the soil infertile and waterless. It is stony rubbish. The poet tells the reader that he or she cannot say or guess what the roots of this wasteland are. Your mind is nothing but a collection of incoherent images. The crickets will not cry and even the stones do not give any sound of water. Echoing the words of Donne, the poet says “ I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. The song of the sailor, borrowed from Wagner’s opera, “ Fresh blows the wind, Towards the homeland, My Irish child, Where lingerest thou?” contrasts with the lack of yearning on the part of dwellers of the wasteland. The poet then introduces the Hyacinth girl passage. He introduces the conversation between the “hyacinth girl” and her friend. In Greek mythology, Hyacinth was a lover, after death turned into a blood-red colour flower. There is a hint of resurrection there. But the girl here admits that when they came back from the garden, there was only silence, a kind of intellectual blankness. The failure to reciprocate the love is referred to in the line, “ I was neither living nor dead”. To complete this sense of desolate mood, the poet once again brings in Wagner, by quoting “Desolate and empty is the sea”.  
Madame Sosostris, a fake fortune teller, is originally a character from Aldous Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow. In this poem, she employs a pack of cards, Tarot cards. She tells the future of the people and plays with their insecurity and credulousness. The expression “had a bad cold” is inserted primarily to make fun of her and to create a sense of bathos. Originally there are 78 Tarot cards, used by Egyptian priests to read the future and often this is for the sake of getting to know the rise and fall of the Nile. This ancient art has been vulgarised by people like Madame Sosostris. The main characters represented are ‘the drowned Phoenician Sailor’, ‘Belladona’, ‘the man with three staves, ‘the wheel’, ‘the one-eyed merchant” a blank card’ and ‘the hanged man’. Each of these images would carry symbolic significance and they reoccur in other parts of the narrative later. The reference to The Tempest is important.

READ ALSO:  Dover Beach By Matthew Arnold: Summary, Critical Analysis, Questions and Theme

Prospero, with the help of Ariel, ‘destroys’ his enemies. Though this fake act of annihilation depresses Prince Ferdinand, Ariel reports the supposed drowning of his father Alonso, the king of Naples: Full fathom five thy father lies/Of his bones are coral made/Those are pearls that were his eyes” However, Eliot subverts the theme in ‘The Wasteland’. Here, there is neither revival nor transformation. Only cruel death befalls mankind. Madame Sosostris is afraid of the police since she is not allowed legally to practice it. She gives a warning, “fear death by water”. This reverberates in many places in section IV.

The poet returns to the Unreal City. ‘The Wasteland’ refers to London directly but from the poem, we come to know that it could be anywhere: Alexandria, Vienna, Paris, Jerusalem or Athens. Eliot refers to the poem by Baudelaire titled Les Septo Vieillards, Seven Old Men. This vision merges even with the Inferno which Dante refers to. The city is not seen through the brown fog of winter dawn. The visibility is affected. Everyone you see walks with diffidence, fixing their eyes on their feet. They walk beside St.Mary Woolnoth, the church strikes nine. In that hazy vision, I caught hold of someone I knew. I addressed him ‘ Stetson”. I enquired whether he recognised me as one who was together with him at Mylae, the ancient battle site between Roman and Carthaginians. The garden refers to the ancient fertility rite site in which the image of the god was buried in the field or thrown into the river. The dog will dig out the plant and it will be destroyed. The dog was a common symbol of aid to rebirth Or the ‘Dog’ with the capital ‘D’ might suggest the Dog Star, Sirius, who was the herald of the rising of the Nile Waters, a true friend to man. Eliot changes the reference of a wolf to a dog as referred to in Webster’s play, White Devil. The concluding line is from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. It is translated thus: O hypocrite reader, my fellow man, my brother.

Section 2

Part II, ‘A Game of Chess,’ juxtaposes two lives. The initial existence is one of splendour and wealth. The second exemplifies superficial, callous vulgarity. The section’s title is derived from Thomas Middleton’s play, Game of Chess (1624). It is a satire on an unhappy marriage compelled by political expediency. A chess game is mentioned in Middleton’s other play, Women Beware Women (1621). Livia is a character that works for the Duke and plays chess with Bianca’s mother (Act II, scene ii). Meanwhile, the Duke seduces Bianca, and the chess moves correspond to the stated seduction moves. Additionally, Eliot makes reference to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (II.ii. 195-205) as told by Enobarbus. Eliot conjures an image of a wealthy modern woman sitting in a chair “like a burnished throne” in the section’s opening lines. There are “satin cases poured in rich profusion” on the table. Each case contains odd synthetic scents that act as aphrodisiacs. Her desire is compared to Cleopatra’s willingness to sacrifice an empire for love. (When Cleopatra inquires, ” “if it be love indeed, tell me how much,” Antony responds, “let Rome be Tiber”). For the modern woman, there is no such thing as love; only lust and self-gratification exist. The poet vividly describes the entire setting. Cupid emerges from the centre of the fruited vines. The brightly illuminated seven-branched candelabra flames double the size of the figures and imagery. There is a clear reference here to Pope’s Belinda (Rape of the Lock).

Further, Virgil’s description of the banquet given by Dido, Queen of Carthage, in honour of her lover, Aeneas is also accommodated into the narrative as a suggestion. The room with the golden panelled ceiling, the huge chunks of wood seasoned with seawater, decorated with copper strips, coloured green orange, bedecked with jewels, and the painting of Dolphin give an exotic look to the ambience inside.  The painting of Philomel, who was savagely raped by King Tereus, is also depicted. John Lyly’s words are added to this scheme: (What bird so sings, yet so does wail?/ O ’tis the ravish’d nightingale/ Jug, jug, jug, tereu! she cries,/ And still her woes at midnight rise. “Spring’s Welcome” John Lyly). Eliot then moves on to a set of disparate passages. First, he reports a conversation between a woman and her lover/husband. Her tension is evident in her words. “My nerves are bad tonight”. The word ‘Think’ is oft-repeated. Everything frightens her. His monotonous answers arouse her temper.

The “rat’s alley” is a meaningful image of spiritual darkness and modern man’s sense of loss. Eliot repeats this pattern in another set of dialogues, in which he emphasises the words ‘noise’, ‘wind’, and ‘nothing’. The wind and the noise evoke an image of activity and life, but the final ‘nothing’ again underscores the lack of meaning that Eliot is trying to convey. A minor reference is also made about the dead Phoenician soldier integrating the song from Tempest. The well-known jazz sung during the First World War is referred to O O O O that Shakespeherian rag/ It’s so elegant/So intelligent. This was sung by American soldiers while returning in groups. Eliot then moves on to a conversation between a husband and a wife whose frustration about frozen time is evident. Ultimately they decide to play a game of chess, with a kind of sexual innuendo in continuation of Middleton’s play. The next passage switches from the rich to the poor. This scene concerns with Lil and her husband Albert. He has been demobbed (released from the army). It is reported to be a real-life experience of Ellen Kelland, the housemaid to Eliots.   We have two ladies with absolutely no morals talking about family relations. Lil’s husband who is coming back from the army might require a good time. He has even given money to buy to a new set of teeth to enhance her looks. She has become emaciated and unattractive (“antique”). She complains about the pills she uses. She is warned by her friend that if she failed to satisfy him, he might approach others who are only willing. Lil has already got five children. Then comes the ominous-sounding question, “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” This is linked with the idea presented earlier related to the fertility myth. In the meantime, the owner of the bar keeps urging them to leave because it is already late. “Hurry up please its time”. Then there is a direct reference to Ophelia. “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.” (Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5). Eliot contrasts the symbol of innocence (Ophelia) with the modern woman, who has lost their purity. The vitality and the procreative focus of sex have now debased itself to the meaningless act of immorality.

Section 3

In Part III, ‘Fire Sermon’, Eliot starts with the sermon rendered by the Buddha. Lord Buddha had cautioned his disciples not to get tempted by the fires of anger, lust and malice. Fire is symbolically associated with two aspects: purification and lust. It can sustain people spiritually or it can degenerate into lust. The scene projected is that of orgy and lust. The setting is the banks of the Thames. Tents have now broken down and even the last leaf has sunk. The dry arid land is having a deserted look. Eliot compares the river during the Elizabethan days with the modern days. The refrain, “Sweet Thames” is from Prothalamion by Spenser. Written for the nuptial of the daughters of Earl of Worcester, Elizabeth and Katherine, Spenser glorifies the ceremony and the ensuing raptures of marital life. But for Eliot, the nymphs are gone and the call girls of London replace them. ‘Oil’ and ‘tar’ have replaced the immaculate swans. The reference to Leman is significant. Leman is the French name of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman); the reference is to the convalescent leave from Lloyd’s Bank that Eliot spent in Lausanne, on the shores of the lake, in order to receive psychological treatment. It also refers to the lamentation and sorrow of the Israelites recalling their exile in Babylon, when they remembered Zion. In Bible, the Israelites lament their bondage in Babylon, the Babylonian captivity. It was Moses who brought them out of their captivity. The common name ‘leman’ is also associated with a mistress; hence the waters of leman are linked with the fires of lust. Eliot makes a direct reference to Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his Coy Mistress’. “But at my back, I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”. The narrator perceives the mood of death which lacks spirituality. He sees skulls everywhere. (“Chuckle spread ear to ear”). Eliot’s rattling bones signify not the reanimation of the dead, but spiritual and bodily death. Two references merge here, one from John Day’s ‘The Parliament of Bees’ and also that of the Actaeon Myth. The next passage also contains sordid imagery of the polluted environment surrounding the Thames River. Slimy rats are creeping; white naked dead bodies are lying on the low damp ground; and the scattered bones in the garret are rattled by the rat’s foot. In the meantime, the narrator hears the sound of horns and motors bringing Sweeney to Mrs Porter. Mrs Porter and her daughter are washing their feet in soda water to attract more males suggesting a unified sensibility of the physical and spiritual degeneration of the wasteland. (Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole! “And oh! the chime of children’s voices in the dome.”) Eliot purposefully creates an irony here.  At the end of his quest, Parsifal, the chief Grail knight has his feet washed in holy water to “be free from stain; from devious wandering’s dust.” Next set of lines: “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug / So rudely forc’d. / Tereu” refers to John Lyly’s Campaspe (1584). Mrs Porter was a familiar figure, famous for her Brothel at Cairo. In the next passage, Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant invites the narrator “to luncheon at Cannon Street Hotel”, which according to Elizabeth Drew, “is to share promiscuous (homosexual) pleasures. He invites the narrator to have a “weekened at the Metropole”. Smyrna refers to Modern Izmir in the western part of Turkey. The letters “cif” refers to cost, insurance and freight. 
At this crucial moment of the poem, the most important character is introduced. Tiresias, the blind seer who combines both sexes. The experiences of men and women are condensed into one individual. He thus provides an aesthetic continuity for the poem in addition to functioning as unifying the past, present and future. He symbolically represents a unified human consciousness. Eliot quotes from the relevant passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

When Eliot states that Tiresias “sees the substance of the poem”, it would seem that this information supports the idea that Tiresias is hinting at the key to understanding the poem. The story of his change of sex is reported first. Tiresias came across two snakes copulating in a forest. He hit them with his staff and in consequence, was later changed into a woman. Eight years later he repeated the blow in a similar situation and regained his masculinity. Later a dispute arose between Jove and Juno on the issue of whether in love the woman derives more pleasure than man. Tiresias, (“throbbing with two lives”), was asked to adjudicate. Jupiter Asked Tiresias: “In their act of love/who takes the greater pleasure, man or woman?”/“Woman,” replied Tiresias, “takes nine-tenths.”/Juno was so angry — angrier/Than is easily understandable —She struck Tiresias and blinded him./“You’ve seen your last pretty snake, forever.”/But Jove consoled him: “That same blow,” he said,/“Has opened your inner eye like a nightscope. See:/“The secrets of the future — they are yours.” To compensate for this Jove gave him the gift of prophecy and long life. Tiresias forgot to ask for the gift of youth. Coming back to the poem, Tiresias witnesses a sexual encounter between “a typist home at tea time” and “a small house against clerk”. The home of the typist is a small place. The narrator could foretell what was going to happen. The woman prepared food until the man arrives, and they eat. After the meal, “she is bored and tired”, but he nevertheless starts “to engage her in caress”. “Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; Exploring hands encounter no defence;” She does not attempt to stop the man. Once the act is over, he leaves after bestowing “one final patronising kiss”. She is relieved now, and murmurs, “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.” Eliot also makes reference to the famous line from Vicar of Wakefield (“When lovely woman stoops to folly”). Eliot quotes the song sung by Olivia, who recollects her first meeting with Squire Thornhill. She recognises her folly because the Squire had already abandoned half a dozen women after abusing them. Eliot, however, contrasts the situation here with the life of the typist. For her, matrimony and procreation are of the least importance. In line 257, Eliot is quoting from The Tempest. The quote, “This music crept by me upon the waters,” suggests the theme of death by water.

At this point, Eliot includes a long montage of scenes from London interspersed with many literary references to failed relationships through the ages. The indented passage that begins with the line, “The river sweat” invokes a Wagner poem that describes the downfall of ancient gods. The reference is to Richard Wagner’s lengthy opera, The Ring of the Nibelung (1874). The Rhine daughters express their sorrow over the loss of the magic hoard of gold of the Nibelungs, which they had guarded. The loss of the gold is symbolic of the loss of the beauty and charm of the Rhine. Eliot uses Wagner’s melodies for creating this effect. What is significant for us is the matter that happens on the river bank to the daughters of the Thames in the modern world. The first girl who comes from Highbury tells the story of her immoral adventure. In her boat, she passed through Richmond and Kew. At Richmond, she was sexually assaulted by a reveller on the floor of the boat. The second girl gives a similar story of her share of experience. She belongs to Moorgate. She was criminally assaulted by a young man. He felt dejected over his act and he was regretful. He promised that he would behave better. The girl felt ashamed but did not express her displeasure. She opted to remain quiet. Eliot was from the very beginning was in doubt at the validity of love’s capacity to provide a solution in the world where ‘everything exists, nothing has value. So in the first part of the poem, there is among the ‘stony rubbish ’, the Red Rock with the invitation:“(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),” which the critic M.L.Rosenthal believes as ‘ultimately a symbol of the church’ (Rosenthal 1960). According to Eliot, line 293 refers to Purgatorio, V. 133: “Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia; / “Siena mi fe’, disfecemi Maremma.” Here the reference is to the chilling story of the murder of La Pia in 1295 by the orders of her husband Paganello de’ Pannocchieschi. As some say, she was dropped from a castle window so that after her death her husband would be able to marry his neighbour, a widowed countess. The third girl belongs to Moorgate sands. Tiresias had been to this place/space. After the assault, her mind was blank. She could not recollect anything. Eliot then alludes to the repentance of St. Augustine and the teaching of the Buddha. Before getting initiated to the religious practices, Augustine was a noted lecher. From the fire of lust, Christ released him. The unreal city of London, burning in the fire of lust is compared to Carthage. Carthage was referred to as the cauldron of sensuality by St. Augustine. The section is complete with the collocation of two levels of mysticism i.e. Eastern and Western. 

READ ALSO:  Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Summary, Analysis and Solved Questions

Section 4

The fourth section, which is brief, starts off with a reference to ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’, the dead sailor, who was mentioned in the second section. Two weeks after his drowning, Phlebas has forgotten his maritime activities. He is now reduced to bones under the sea. The title refers to the ritual of the burying of the Corn God at the end of the summer and reclaiming them at the beginning of the spring season. Death followed by resurrection finds expression in Christianity. But here, there is no hope of revival. Water only drowns the people and does not sustain people. Phlebas could not be given a decent religious burial. He forgot the cry of the sea and the demands of life-related to profit and loss. His bones were picked up by the sea in whispers. At that crucial phase of life, he saw everything, from youth to the present, all the stages. These visions crossed his mind. Thus, he entered the ‘undiscovered country’, the whirlpool of death. Through Phlebas, Eliot gives a warning signal to the twentieth-century generation. This materialistic generation could meet the same end if they remain attached to material conditions. This section is identical to the poem written by Eliot himself titled ‘Dans le Restaurant’. When translated this poem read like this: Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight drowned, forgot the cry of gulls and the swell of the Cornish seas, and the profit and the loss, and the cargo of tin. An undercurrent carried him far, took him back through the ages of his past. Imagine it-a a terrible end for a man once so handsome and tall”. Eliot refers to William Morris’s Life and Death of Jason (1867). In Book IV the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts speaks of a Phoenician sailor as a victim of the sea. The passage also echoes St. Paul’s message to the gentile and the Jew that there is no difference that all stand guilty before God and require his life-giving grace. The prophecy of Madame Sosostris turns out to be true in this section.

Section – 5

The final section, ‘What the Thunder Said’, explores three themes at the beginning. In the first theme, the episode from Bible is adapted (Luke XXIV: 13-31) of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus (a village near Jerusalem) on the day of Christ’s resurrection.

He joins them, but they don’t know him until the evening meal when he blesses them. The disciples, meanwhile, speak about the arrest, trial and Crucifixion. Eliot’s second theme is the first stage of Grail Quest and the journey to Chapel Perilous of the knight. This theme is interwoven with the theme of Emmaus journey. Eliot’s third theme is modern: the decay of Europe in the twentieth century.

The initial lines evoke the course of events from the betrayal and arrest of Jesus Christ. ‘After the torchlight red on sweaty faces/After the frosty silence in the gardens…’But when I look ahead up the white road/There is always another one walking beside you’ (322-362). The stanza refers to the agony and the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane to the moment of Crucifixion (John 18:3). Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns, torches and weapons. Christ was taken to the palace of the High Priest where he was publicly interrogated before being taken to Pilate, the Roman governor, in the Hall of Judgement. In Mark 15:13-14, “And they cried out again, crucify him!” At the death of Christ, the whole world shook. Matthew 27: 51 states, “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent”. The lines 331-59 give a grand description of the wasteland. Eliot thought very highly of these 29 lines and wrote about them to Ford Madox Ford in a letter. The condition of sterility is asserted in the lines, “Here is no water…rock without water”. Our mental faculties fail, we suffer a lot, and illusions control us. There are murmurs and lamentations. Then the question comes, “who is the third who walks always beside you?” The hooded figure can be seen as some sort of guardian, a guide through the chaotic mess of the world that is left behind. 

Eliot alludes to the scene of battle, “hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth”. The poet includes more images of war and destruction, referring to “Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers”. The image is one of a castle being destroyed and the poet deliberately sustains this idea with the list of historical cities that were destroyed or that fell into ruin and decay: “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London”. All look unreal now. Only the agony lingers. Two images, phases are combined together; bats and babyfaces, ugliness and innocence. Towers are now upside down. The music of death is being played in these towers. What now left are dry and empty wells. There is a reference to the paintings of the fourteenth-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. Medieval versions of the Grail Legend portray the harrows of the entry into the Chapel Perilous which were intended to test the knight’s nerves and the nightmarish visions, including bats with baby faces (see: In the modern age, we do not see the ‘hanged man’. When the questing knight reaches the Chapel Perilous, he sees that the site has become almost haunted. It is just a “decayed hole among the mountains”. Except for the crowing cock, the knight finds nothing meaningful. There is a distant echo of the Biblical story of Peter denying the Lord three times. Then he breaks down in tears at his own cowardice. 

The river Ganga had sunken and dried up. All waited for rain where there was a flash of lightning. Himavant is referred to by Eliot to show his cosmic vision, a universal appeal of experiences. Ganga is first called the Bhagirathi, taking the name Ganga after the Alakananda joins with it. The sound DA is the voice of the thunder. The reference is to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Eliot alludes to a very significant episode in the Upanishad which describes how Gods (Devas), Asuras (Demons) and Men (mortal human beings) approach Prajapathi, their father-preceptor, for instruction and message after completing their formal education.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter