Friday, September 2, 2011

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922. Ultimately, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Mary Karr, in the introduction to The Modern Library edition says the boundary between 20th century verse in English and it's 19th century predecessors came down with an axe swoop and the blade was T.S. Eliot's "Waste Land." Some believe The Waste Land to stand alone with Joyce's Ulysses as the greatest works of modernist literature. William Carlos Williams said the poem "wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it." Karr also admits it is the gold standard for difficulty. She says "I've been as guilty as any critic or academic of invoking the poem in essays and lectures as a voodoo mojo to vanquish the lesser spirits of my own intellectual insecurity."

Karr explains how to read The Waste Land. Treat it like a first date - only if you fall in love do you make a study of the beloved. The poem is a collage, with disparate pieces assembled to create in readers the kind of despair that infected Western Europe after WW1. Chemical weaponry had broadened the War's scope. Airplanes could fly over and dismantle troops. The glory of dying for one's country was a thing of the past. Karr views the poem as a vaccine against the horror it describes by injecting a nonlethal dosage.

Expect Eliot's text to be disorienting as battle. The narrator keeps changing through the stanzas. The poem's made of bits and overlays snatches of speech and songs - just as cities were. We see a sibyl pronouncing in Greek her longing to die. We hear an Australian drinking song. We hear Dante's language and pub chitchat. Homer's blind seer Tiresias acts as voyeur, a wacky clairvoyante makes the scene with a bogus tarot pack.

In order to add some length to the 433-line poem for book presentation, Eliot added notes that have generated an antlike industry of Ph.D. candidates for generations. Eliot dropped these notes like bread crumbs to entice and/or intimidate critics. Karr describes grad students looking to source the notes as comparable to dogs loping after any thrown Frisbee.

I have included the complete poem below in red and have interspersed comments within the text.

The Waste Land

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis

vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.

[The epigraph in Latin and Greek is from Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon. In the story, Sybil asks Apollo for as many years of life as possible, but forgets to ask that she keep her youth. The Latin and Greek translates to "For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sybil hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she answered 'I want to die.'" Already, before the first verse, we have a key theme of rebirth after death. For Sybil, death alone offers a means of escape. The Sybil's predicament mirrors what Eliot sees as his own: he lives in a culture that has decayed and withered but will not expire. He is forced to live with reminders of his former glory. Of course, this tees us up for the major theme of the first chapter: death. The first chapter consists of 4 vignettes, each from the perspective of a different speaker.]

The title comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. 1st vignette: The opening line is famous and is curious. Those familiar with Chaucer’s poem The Canterbury Tales will recognize that Eliot is taking Chaucer’s introductory line from the prologue—which is optimistic about the month of April and the regenerative, life-giving season of spring—and turning it on its head. Just as Chaucer’s line sets the tone for The Canterbury Tales, Eliot’s dark words inform the reader that this is going to be a dark poem. Knowledge of the better things in life (love, rebirth) that are represented by Spring causes deep anxiety in the mind of the narrator living in a post War era. "Memory and desire" mix in a very forlorn fashion. In the first stanza, the narrator, an aristocratic woman. Marie, clings to life through her memories, the Starnbergersee (lake in Munich), sledding with his cousin, etc. The Hofgarten memory precipitates a flurry of grammar, including the German phrase which translates as "I'm not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, a true German." This line is nonsensical, as Lithuania is not part of Germany. Yet, eerily, this line anticipates Europe's identity crisis nearly a century forward.]


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stammaus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’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.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

[2nd vignette: The second stanza continues to look into the past, after describing the waste land as "stony rubbish." "Son of man" evokes Ezekial 2.1 and Ecclesiastes 12.5. Eliot constructs a sort of dialogue between the son of man and a higher power. THe narrator is desperately seeking for a sign of life ("what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow ?"). Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss, is evoked in the German lines, culminating in "Where do you wait?" This scene is where her love begins. In the story, Isolde overhears Tristan singing this song, bringing ruminations of love promised. Wagner was the first modernizer of opera. The narrator changes, now it could be Eliot himself, pining for the hyacinth girl (maybe his ex wife Vivienne), yet he is rendered impotent ("I could not speak and my eyes failed.") by his love for her. Limbo is described by "neither Living nor dead." Tristan und Isolde is evoked once again, but now speaks to the tragedy of love lost ("Looking into the heart of light, the silence."). The German translates as "Desolate and empty is the sea" as told to Tristan as she waits for the return of Isolde's ship.]

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And 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.
Frisch weht der Wind
Heimat zu,
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—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.
Ödund leer das Meer.

[3rd vignette: The next stanza shifts the view forward, through the clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, a character from Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow. She is a tarot card reader, but not playing with a full deck. In this stanza the narrator becomes the Phoenician sailor. Eliot makes up some of the tarot cards, like the one-eyed merchant - the Lady of the Rocks is Da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks." She sees a forbidden scene on a blank card, telling the Sailor to fear death by water. A key theme is reiterated "I see crowds of people walking around in a ring," going nowhere. The stanza ends with her asking the narrator to leave a message for her client, Mrs. Equitone.]

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

[4th vignette: This final stanza describes a burial procession. Unreal City (Paris for Baudelaire) is from Baudelaire's poem "Seven Old Men." The first few lines are rich with alliteration with the "n" sounds predominating and evoking discordant noise. "A crowd flowed over London" is from Dante's Inferno, in an apocryphal instant where the real world becomes a vision, "I had not thought death had undone so many" is from Canto 3 (evoking the Gates of Hell), "Sighs, short, and infrequent, were inhaled" is from Canto 4 (Limbo). The denizens of London remind Eliot of those without any blame or praise who are relegated to the Gates of Hell, and those who were never baptized and who now dwell in Limbo. The narrator recognizes a friend from the War - Stetson. Mylae refers to the 1st Punic War ! No matter, the point is that all wars are the same. This is echoed in the preface to Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal - "hypocrite reader - my likeness - my brother," viz all men are the same.]

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.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “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?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!

[The second chapter derives it's name from Thomas Middleton's play. Chess is the quintessential game of The Waste Land - interactions are reduced to movements on a checkered board. The 1st stanza refers to Cleopatra (viz Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra). Of course, Cleopatra suffered a failed love affair. Eliot loves Shakespeare as the first modern dramatist. This may also be a reference to Eliot's ex wife Vivienne. The stanza refers to the rape of Philomela by King Tereus in the "sylvan" woods from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Tereus cuts her tongue out to keep her quiet. She and her sister murder the King's son and feed him to the king. Philomela is turned into a nightingale.]


The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out 80
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair,
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

[The next stanza is a good example of the revolutionary use of common language, a discussion between a neurotic wife and a recalcitrant husband. The husband refuses to speak despite her whining insistence that he do so.]

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?”
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

[The next stanza describes a squalid pub scene at closing time (HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME). Lil is urged to fix herself up before Albert returns from the War. Lil claims the cause of her ravaged looks is from medications for an abortion ("it's them pills I took, to bring it off"). This section constitutes a loose series of phrases connected by "I said(s)" and "she said(s)," perhaps the most poetically experimental section of the poem. The lower class vernacular resists poetic treatment. This section refutes the prevalent claim that iambic pentameter mirrors normal English speech patterns. The rhythms of lower class London speech give way to words of Hamlet's Ophelia to Claudius.]

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said,
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
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.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said,
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be alright, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

[The title of this section is taken from a sermon given by Buddha. In short, the central theme of the next stanza is sex and the dangers of lust. The nymph references are from Spenser's Prothalamion. Images of modern life abound - handkerchiefs, cigarette ends. Leman refers to Lake Geneva - the phraseology comes from Psalm 137.]


The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

[The legend of the Fisher King is central to Eliot's masterpiece. He has been wounded in the genitals and his lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a dessicated waste land. Heal the Fisher King and the land will regain its fertility. Only the Holy Grail can reverse the spell. A prior crime or violation serves as cause for the Fisher King's malady. The rape of a maiden may lie at the root, hence Eliot's allusion to the tale of Philomela. We see this legend invoked below, as the narrator becomes the Fisher King. "My brother's wreck" is language taken from both the Tempest is blended with Parzival. Ancient mythology of Actaea and Diana from John Day's Parliament of Bees, is recast as Sweeney and Mrs. Porter. The French is from Verlaine's Parsifal sonnet.]

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse.
Musing 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 dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et, O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

[Below is another reference to the rape of Philomela ("so rudely forc'd") by Tereu (Tereus)]

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.

[Below the "one-eyed" merchant had been named by Sosostris the clairvoyante. The Cannon street Hotel was known in its day for homosexual trysts, as Eugenides was offering the narrator. The currants are symbolic of infertility, dessicated versions of once fertile fruits.]

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C. i. f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.

[The next stanza sees the narrator take on the role of Tiresius, the blind prophet who has lived both as a man and a woman, and is therefore "throbbing bwteen two lives." This Peeping Tom observes a tryst between a typist (pun on the idea that she's just any old type of woman) who is so poor she cannot afford a bed ("on the divan are piled (at night her bed)"). The young man, like Tereus, is full of lust. At the conclusion, she states "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over," confirming that absence of love in empty lust, portending sorrow. There is an interweaving of tenderness("caresses" and the word "lover") and violence ("assaults at once" and "His vanity requires no response") in the scene. The stanza ends with words from Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield.]

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
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.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
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 music transports the reader back to the city, opening with another line from the Tempest. Eliot describes a bustling bar on the Thames.]

“This music crept by me upon the waters”
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City City, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, 260
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold. 265

[The next stanza quotes Wagner's Die Gotterdammerung, in which maidens upon the Rhine, having lost their goldm sing a song of lament: "Weialala leia / Wallala leialala." Then, a quick allusion to Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, in an amorous encounter. Eliot is doing something here quite profound, antithetical to the legend of the Fisher King. For political reasons, QEI was required to represent herself as constantly available for marriage (to royalty from countries with whom England may have wanted an alliance) - out of this need came the myth of the Virgin Queen. This is the opposite of the Fisher King - to protect the vitality of the land, QEI had to compromise her own sexuality; whereas in the Fisher KIng story, the renewal of the land comes with the renewal of the Fisher King's sexual potency. The twisted logic underlying QEI's public sexuality mirrors and distorts the Fisher King plot and further questions the possibility for renewal, through sexuality, in the modern world.]

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails 270
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach 275
Past the Isle of Dogs.
Weialala leia
Wallala leialala
Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars 280
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores 285
South-west wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
Weialala leia 290
Wallala leialala

[QEI now speaks of birth in Highbury and lost virginity in Richmond and Kew, knowing her people expect nothing of her.]

“Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.“ 295

“My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent?”

“On Margate Sands. 300
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.” 305

la la

[We revisit the Punic War and end on the somber futile note of "burning" referring to Buddha's sermons. All of man's struggles are futile. There will be no resurrection, as we will learn in the final stanza.]

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest 310


[The title, a recurring theme, fulfills the prophesy of Madame Sosostris. The most formally organized section of the poem, it consists of four pairs of rhyming couplets. This section rebuts ideas of renewal and regeneration. Phlebas just dies - that's it. Phlebus is not resurrected or transfigured.]


Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea 315
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, 320
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

[The final section is dramatic in imagery and events. The first half builds to an apocalyptic climax. The "unreal" cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London are destroyed. A decaying chapel is described, suggesting the chapel in the Holy Grail. A cock crows and the rains come. No heroic figure arrives to claim the Grail.]


[The initial imagery is from the crucifixion of Christ. The garden is Gethsemane. Agony is torture and execution. Thunder of Spring is the earthquake following crucifixion. Significantly, Christ is not resurrected here - "He who was living, is now dead." Release comes from the random call of a barnyard animal.]

After the torch-light red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying 325
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience 330

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink 335
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit 340
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mud-cracked houses
If there were water 345
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring 350
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 355
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together 360
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you? 365

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only 370
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London 375

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings 380
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

[The scene shifts to the Ganges. Eliot draws on the traditional interpretation of "what the thunder says" as taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Hindu fables). According to these fables, the thunder (God delivering to his disciples) "gives," "sympathizes," and "controls" through its "speech." The meditations bring about a sort of reconciliation, or a chance to test the potential of the modern world. A Fisher King-type figure is shown sitting on the shore preparing to put his lands in order, a sign of his imminent death or abdication.

Eliot fails to find signs of giving - he links "Datta" with a description of lust. Is this the primary sin of man ? Yet Eliot concedes "By this, and this only, we have existed." Baudelaire argues that evil actions are better than none because they prove existence, better than inaction, which signifies nothing. Is this an antecedent for Existentialism ? Man's lustful deeds are "not to be found in our obituaries," they remain intangible. For once, Eliot suggests the value of a "moment's surrendor" of giving up control for one fleeting instant, no matter the consequences. Is "an age of prudence" worth the trouble ?

Next comes sympathy - "dayadvham." Eliot asks the reader to show compassion for lustful men and women. "I have heard the key" refers to Dante's Inferno, in which Count Ugolino starves to death after being locked in a tower for treason. Eliot implies that individuals are so caught up in his or her own fate, only thinking of the key to his or her own prison, oblivious to anything but ethereal rumors of others. The allusion to Coriolanus completes the cycle: a Roman who turned his back on Rome. Eliot asks us to acknowledge their pain.

Finally, control ("beating obedient to controlling hands") - "damyata." Control implies a series of domineering relationships and surrendors to the self. Yet he evokes the upbeat "Gaily to the hand expert with sail and oar," like the boat upon which Isolde hears the sailor's song. We have returned to the beginnings of love, the promise of a joyful future. "Your heart" may be a reference to Eliot's wife Vivienne, suggesting that romance may be rekindled, although "would have responded" implies a negative, a token of what might have been, and not what is.

In this decayed hole among the mountains 385
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one. 390
Only a cock stood on the roof-tree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves 395
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA 400
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed 405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA 410
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours 415
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded 420
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

[Eliot tempers the hope of the previous lines with the evocation of despair.]

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order? 425

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

[After more Dante, an excerpt from Nerval involving "Le Prince d'Aquitaine" points to a crumbling tower - "la tour abolie." The narrator is still attempting to stave off destruction "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." Fragments is such an apt word to describe the poem's form. "Ile fit you" comes from the archaic word "fit" - section of a poem. Eliot makes it a verb, he creates art in the face of madness. "Hieronymo's mad againe" is a reference to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedie, a 16th century text in which Hieronymo lapses into insanity after his son is murdered. The brutality and violence of man come to mind. What became of generosity, sympathy, and control ? Eliot repeats the Eastern dictum: "Datta, Dayadvham, Damyata." These three words hold out the promise of salvation. The benediction "Shantih shantih shantih" is a blessing, putting to rest the sins and faults that have preceded it. Interpretations of "The Waste Land" as unrelentingly pessimistic do little justice to the hopefulness of these last lines. Eliot implores Western and Eastern religious traditions to posit a more universal world view. Eliot serves up a global vision of the world as wasteland, awaiting the arrival of the Grail that will cure it of its ills. The poem suggests that Grail is still within reach.

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins 430
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

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