The Waste Land
by T.S. Eliot

Review by Edward Tanguay
August 2, 1997

The first time I read the Wasteland, I did not understand it at all. Nor did I understand the accompanying commentary. It is one of those poems which scholars spend years researching the various references and underlying meanings. Their criticism becomes so complicated that it is hard to recognize that it came from the one simple, short poem. I bought a cassette with a recording of Eliot reading The Waste Land himself and enjoy it much more than reading the poem. The crackling and hissing of the old time radio and the monotone of Eliot's lone drone give the poem the feeling of aridness and desolation which I believe it is meant to portray.

1. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD: This is not a very positive poem. In the first part, The Burial of the Dead, you gather a type of groping 20th century soul looking for meaning. Visions of the desert, lack of water, and the drought and despair of human existence come to the forefront. Commentary bears these sentences: "Eliot suggests that the relationship of man and God has disintegrated beyond any point of possible repair . . . a flat statement of the complete baseness of man, his life, and the totality of his situation . . . the cause of moral decay is boredom . . . uncertainty . . . expression of hope . . . sense of despair." Eliot quotes cultural sources from the Old Testament, Wordsworth, Wagner, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire. There seems to be some kind of comparison between religious and secular approaches to the questions of existence. You start out in Germany, then you get a vision of the parching sun on rock and the "red rock" (which is supposed to recall the Grail) is the only temporary refuge from the parching sun. Then you have Madame Sosostris who reads tarot cards followed by a discussion about a corpse buried in the backyard and the French quote "You! hypocrite reader!--my double! my brother!" which talks directly to the reader and suggests that he, too, is part of the moral decay.

2. A GAME OF CHESS: Here you have a description of an unknown woman who sits in an elegantly decorated room. After you get the description of the chair, the atmosphere around the table, and candle flames, you come to the picture of Philomel which recalls the store of a beautiful princess raped by the barbaric ruler of a far-away place. The Gods take pity on the princess and turn her into a nightengale. She then flies back to her rapist and accompanies his downfall and destruction with her songs. Eliot then describes that "and still she cried, and still the world pursues, 'Jug Jug' to dirty ears." This reference to Jug Jug is actually to the cup or chalice which contains the blood of Christ. This implies a connection between the rape of the princess and the immaculate conception of Mary--not exactly your most pious insinuation! Next we have conterposed to the elegance of the room the vulgarness of the language of a poor, worried and uncertain man. This shows us that desolation is not only an attribute of the wealthy, but of all mankind. A voice keeps repeating "Hurry up please its time" while a man named Albert is expected. You experience the spiritual poverty of the mass who cannot get away from the dullness of the everyay routine. The conversation continues on about him until you hear a series of "goodnights".

3. THE FIRE SERMON: Here you have the imagery of a river. The line "By the waters of Leman I sat at down and wept" is a variation of Psalm 137 which suggests that period of Babylonian Captivity, a period marked by the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and unspeakable spiritual desolation. Eliot further describes rats, fishing in a canal, the sound of horns and motors which all apparently in one way or another refer to works by Wordsworth, Andrew Marvell, and Wagner. The "Weialala leia Wallala leialala" lines are from Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung. Note that Eliot brings all of these referenes into a very everyday atmosphere, an example of his secularizing of the traditional. Tiresias ("old man with wrinkled dugs, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest") then comes onto the scene. He is the soothsayer from the story Oedipus Rex. He was the one who knew the cause of unhappiness which seizes the state of Thebes. Here he represents a man who is in the middle of the Waste Land and understands the reason for the desolation and alone can prophesize the coming of salvation. The line near the end "To Carthage then I came" is from St. Augustine's Confessions where he reminisces on a profligate youth, recounting the emptiness of unholy love.

4. DEATH BY WATER: Being only ten lines long, this section primarily introduces the fifth and final section. Death by water recalls the Christian ritual of baptism, which suggests a hope of reestablishing the possibility of a vision of the eternal from the vantage point of the temporal.

5. WHAT THE THUNDER SAID: Here we begin with the familiar theme of arid dryness and lack of water. The following is my favorite section of the poem. It describes the reality that there is no water but the hope that there were:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

We have references to the Bible again such as "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" Here Eliot suggests that the disciple's failure to recognize the son of man stems from an inability to believe. The rest of the section is one reference to literature after another: Hesse, Shakespeare, Webster, Dante, Kyd, each expressing an idea from their work, for instance, chaos, improbability, necessity of purgation, the inevitable, and the inarticulateness of the poet-prophet. Then the section and the poem ends with a reference from the Upanishads in which a thunderous voice speaks the following words: Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata which translates as "The peace which passeth understanding" and are to be read in conjunction with the sing song "Shantih, Shantih, Shantih." Thus the poem ends.

Although the poem portrays our spirtual situation as desolate, there is hope that "the spiritual quest is valuable"--that we can attain a "peace which passeth understanding."

Edward Tanguay

Send your review on this book to The Online Reading Club.
Check out the
books we are currently reading.
Go the the
Online Reading Club Home Page.