So, You Want to Understand T.S. Eliot’s the Waste Land?

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The Scope of High Modernism: Eliot, the Waste Land

Paul-Newell Reaves
MA, English,
George Washington University, 2016

The full scope of High Modernism arrives in poetry with the 1922 publication of the Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s vision for the poem is a grand one, and the elements of achieving the vision are certainly in place: a society of inauthentic being towards death, biblical prophecies and Grail legends of resurrection, fractured relationships and war deaths, and a denouement from on high.  Poetry does not have this grand a scope since Muhammad the Prophet.

When Eliot struggled to perfect the poem, he sent his manuscript to Ezra Pound, who gave an extensive rewrite, mostly deletions.  Pound is responsible for moving poetry away from flowing Victorian language to the terseness of poems since, and Eliot dedicates the finalized poem to Pound, calling him “miglior fabbro”— meaning greater craftsman.  Between their hands, Eliot’s hints of biblical grandness fall apart, and only meaninglessness remains.  The poem gives us promises of structure, that fall away under scrutiny; and in Pound’s grandest statement, the Pisan Cantos, his would-be Dantean pseudo-structures of the larger Cantos project are much more quickly done away with.  But the promises are none-the-less made, and made within the textual microcosm.  The Waste Land becomes a statement of the meaninglessness of life.  But the meaninglessness of life, as well as done-away-with promises of meanings in life, are in themselves meanings, the central meanings to Eliot’s and Pound’s vision of High Modernism.  The scope of High Modern poetry is born.

The most profitable reading of this poem is a deeply personal one.  Despite insistence that author and characters are fundamentally alien, characters in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock resemble T.S. Eliot’s life.  The events and emotions of the Waste Land can certainly be read as very close to Eliot’s experiences— the loss of a friend in World War I, as well as alienation and divorce from his first wife.  Additionally, an authorial reading must include notions of resurrection— rather, promises thereof— as cryptically nodded toward in the authorial “Notes To the Waste Land” of later editions, notes Eliot was conscripted into writing to fill extra pages in a subsequent publication of the poem.

I now concern myself simply with the scope of this poem, and will ignore language not in English and most of Eliot’s authorial, but resoundingly unilluminating notes. The scope and promises of structure I identify are located most specifically in the poem’s division into five parts and the titles of these— this multi-part structure is only found in the poetry of the Modernists before this publication in Pound’s— Hugh Selwyn Mauberley— multi-part, yes, but not every part is titled.  This is found nowhere else in High Modernism, not in the rhythmic combinations of William Butler Yeats’ early verse, nor the artistic ambition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s first poem, Renaissance.

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD begins with a reversal of the poetic spring.  This is not the poetry of flowers and growing things, but of death and inauthentic being towards death— a term I explicate, below.  Permutations of the word death make their first appearance on line 40, “I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence.”  (Eliot, 39-42)  The narrator is not dead, but the heart of light— a notion of some sort of divinity— is not living in him.  This first section continues, “there was one I knew… Stetson!  You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!  That 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?” (Eliot, 69-73)  This corpse may be read as Eliot’s friend T.E. Hulme, killed during World War I.  The blooming of this corpse would be some reason or explanation for the loss and suffering— some greater good the killing has wrought— which never appears.

With the fortune teller Madame Sosostris begins the promises of mystical structure, though her wisdom is tampered by a bad cold.  The promise is a grand one, that motifs of water, rocks, a mysterious merchant, and death will all contain meanings.  In theory, the Tarot cards have mystical meanings to the characters in the poem.  The Lady of the Rocks would represent the Virgin Mary.  Rocks already developed in the poem as offering shade from the heat, calling her “the lady of situations” (Eliot, 50) implies the prospect of relief.  The drowned Phoenician Sailor is associated with the shipwrecked royalty of the Tempest, by “those were pearls that were his eyes,” (Eliot, 48; Shakespeare, 399) a productive reading, furthered in III. THE FIRE SERMON and IV. DEATH BY WATER.  This card would be the speaker, or narrative self.  And the Man with Three Staves, Eliot calls “the Fisher King,” (Eliot, note 46) a christ-like figure and savior of mankind, furthered in V. WHAT THE THUNDER SAID.

Immediately, death is explicated; the duly famous “Unreal city” (Eliot, 60) passage reveals a society of inauthentic being towards death.  “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many./  Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ and each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” (Eliot, 62-65)  This death that undoes living people fits with notions developed by Martin Heidegger.  What he calls authentic being toward death is addressed in part 52 of his Being and Time.  In his cryptic style, Heidegger says,

“One says that death certainly comes, but not right away.  With this ‘but…,‘ the they denies that death is certain.  ‘Not right away‘ is not a purely negative statement, but a self-interpretation of the they with which it refers itself to what is initially accessible to Da-sein to take care of.  Everydayness penetrates to the urgency of taking care of things, and divests itself of the fetters of a weary, ‘inactive thinking about death.‘  Death is postponed to ‘sometime later,‘ by relying on the so-called ‘general opinion.‘  Thus the they covers over what is peculiar to the certainty of death that it is possible in every moment.” (Heidegger, 325)

So, by being conscious everyday that death could come anytime, not some fictional later, authentic being towards death is a more worthwhile way of being then the lives of “the they,” or people unaware of Existentialist wisdom.  The important phrase, here, is “taking care.”  To oversimplify, slightly, the existential dilemma is solved for Heidegger by giving a care and having care.  “Care… forms the totality of the structural whole of Da-sein.” (Heidegger, 325)  Eliot’s crowds of people do not care, or do not care about important things– which can be called inauthentic being towards death.  Eliot’s second section, II. A GAME OF CHESS is a mish-mash of these inauthentic people, undone by death.  But the first section of the poem announces a burial of the dead, a recognizing and a recompensing, a doing away with.

The Buddha gave a speech historically known as the Fire Sermon, in which he critiques, “Those who are ashamed of what they ought not to be ashamed of, who fear when they ought not to fear, those who forbid when there is nothing to be forbidden.” (the Buddha)  By alluding to this sermon as the title of III. THE FIRE SERMON, Eliot drastically widens his scope, and promises religious significance to come.  Continuing with the characters as Tarot Card reading, the river water imagery brings back the narrator as Phoenician Sailor, and foreshadows the next section.  The merchant appears, named Mr. Eugenides– who by offering a weekend in his homeland, reveals the “this card, which is blank, is something he carries on his back, which I am forbidden to see.” (Eliot, 52-55)  And the character of the female typist could be seen as the Lady of the Rocks, the Virgin Mary, but her male visitor is hardly the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and this is a Conception scene of indifference.  In another reading, alongside the personal and mystical, this section has mythology, the narrator is identified with Tiresias, a Greek who was granted unending life, but not unending youth, so grows immensely old.  Extrapolating, the narrator represents the history of narration, now grown old in Eliot’s poem.  In this poem of High Modernism, the human race has lived too long and wishes only to die.

The shortest section IV. DEATH BY WATER revolves around the symbolic death of the narrator.  This could be a.) the literal death of the narrator character, b.) a literary death of poetry, c.) a spiritual death—  the heart of light is already as good as dead, so this spiritual death would involve a death leading to reunion with divinity—  or d.) the death of death in the societal sense of the end of inauthentic being towards death.  Regardless, this death makes possible the denouement from on high— a trope which O’Conner some thirty years later would describe as “violence to grace”.  V. WHAT THE THUNDER SAID begins with death and dying, and no promise of resurrection.  In Eliot’s dry wit, “he who was living is now dead/ We who were living are now dying/ with a little patience.” (Eliot, 328-330)  This is followed by more rock and water imagery– previously associated with comforting shade, and death, respectively.  This reading of the two motifs still holds up in this section, but now it is the water that is longed for in the dry, dusty mountains.  This could be a reversal of images and associations from the first section, but it could be interpreted as a longing for death, Tiresias-like, a longing for apocalypse and the end of human life.

Then, the savior figure might be showing up, or his wife might be cheating on him: in the hermeneutical reading, both simultaneously.  “Who is the third who walks always beside you?/  When I count there are only you and I together/ but when I look ahead up the white road/ there is always another one walking beside you” (Eliot, 360-363)  Is this a questioning of his wife’s faithfulness, or an Arthurian grail?  Whichever or both, Eliot makes his chapel empty, “only the wind’s home… dry bones can harm nobody.” (Eliot, 389-391)  A chapel, as apposed to a temple or an alter, is a specifically Christian place of worship, and this seems a condemnation when followed by the Hindu words “Datta… Dayadhvam… Damyata.” (Eliot, 402-419)  This stanza ends on the sea, and the final stanza follows, fishing again on the Thames.  This section, after longing for water among the rock, ends with water, and what this symbolizes is left open.  But fishing seems to reference what Eliot calls the Fisher King— fish being a Christian symbol.  V. WHAT THE THUNDER SPOKE seems to offer an Arthurian rebirth of the Christ figure; but in the end, Eliot has not necessarily caught anything.

These hints, changing motifs, open symbols, multiple and synthetic meanings and multi-part structure create the High Modernist scope in poetry, a scope achieved to this point only by Joyce, Henry James, Woolf and Marcel Proust, and the same year, Jean Toomer— all novelists.  This has frequently been described as epic, but I do not believe should be called Epic, as in the Modernist Epic.  The scope is indeed epic, but the poems are removed from the Epic, so nicely done away with until Derek Walcott’s reviving in the tradition of difficulty.  This is High Modernist poetry, in no way Epic poetry.  The Epic tells an individualist, character based story of overcoming great obstacles; High Modernism does much more, more closely akin to the Book of Proverbs of the Hebrew Testament, the Qur’an, and Sufi poetry in the meanings they point to, and, on occasion, reveal.

In the Arabic and Persian poetic tradition, poets are frequently known by a single line, or by only a few lines.  Statements by Islamic poets such as Ibn Arabi offer would-be truths, such as “In knowing him, I create him.” (Ibn Arabi)  The 14th century poet Rumi is full of would-be truths, such as,

“The worker is hidden in the workshop:/ enter the workshop and behold him!/ Inasmuch as the work has woven a veil over the worker,/ you cannot see him outside of his work,/ The worker dwells in the workshop:/ none who stays outside is aware of him./ Come, then, into the workshop of Not-being,/ that you may contemplate the work and the worker together.  Every moment thou art dying and returning, sayeth the prophet.” (Rumi)

Again, I am not yet concerned with the message or meanings, and not at all with any truth, but the scope.  These poets are attempting to enlighten and spread wisdom, not simply engage the reader with pretty language and bright images.  And the father of this tradition, Muhammad the Prophet, engages with beautiful language and imagery, then teaches.  Take Sura 89 from the Qur’an,

“In the name of God the compassionate the caring/ By the Dawn/ By the nights ten/ By the odd then the even/ by the night as it eases away/ Is there not in that an oath for the thoughtful mind…/Such is the human being that when his lord treats him with generosity and bounty he says: my lord has honored me/ but when the lord tries him with hunger and lack he says: my lord treats me with disdain/  But no.  To the orphan you are ungiving/ You do not demand food for those who hunger/ You feed on inheritances and devour/ You love possessions with a love consuming” (Sells, 1-20)

The High Modernists were seen as creating a new bible: a Crisis religion, a religion of the industrialized world.  But these works are examined as novels and poems and essays; the texts of other religions can be examined in this light, as well.

The meanings I do find in the Waste Land lie in meaninglessness, and in promises not kept.  The five part structure and the titles of these offer to build to something grand, a visionary statement or prophetic revelation, but ultimately do not allow this.  The promises of Christianity and Arthurian Grail legend are not kept, and no second coming of the Christ or apocalypse has been given us.  For Eliot, biblical prophecies of apocalypse, Day of Judgement and the relief of the end of human existence have not been fulfilled, and we remain, Tiresias-like, extremely old, longing for death.  To engage in some non-Eurocentric Hegelian mysticism, myself, I would interpret the Crisis, pollution and exaggerated warfare of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries more closely akin to the puberty faze of human evolution– but that is irrelevant.  However, Eliot’s statement of meaninglessness in itself is something grand.  And now, this form and this scope are available to other High Modernists poets— such as Hart Crane, Kahlil Gibran, and Langston Hughes— available for them to fill with their own meanings: the expression of their unique cultures.

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(a slight, though worthwhile appropriation of the Rancid song “Bravest Kids”)

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