Sunday, January 31, 2010

An Essay On T.S. Eliot's Waste Land.

John Wallen


I first studied The Waste Land many years ago as a new post-graduate student. At that time I—naturally enough—bought into many of the usual platitudes on this piece: “It’s all about the hopelessness of the post-first-world-war situation”; “It’s about the decadence of Western civilization which, after the First World War, had touched rock bottom”; “Its contrasting the rich cultural heritage of the past with today’s moral and cultural turpitude”. In fact, the Waste Land is about none of these things. It is the intimate record of a poet’s bleak depression due to his inability to cope with the sexual and sensual life he longed for. All the cultural references and copious notes should be seen as ways of disguising this mundane truth—and even as a means of heroically attemping to magnify the poet’s plight into something more meaningful than a shy young man’s uneasiness about sex and close relationships.


In this first section we are introduced to the sterile mind of the poet: paradoxically, this is a fecund sterility which produces profoundly meaningful language. The coming of Spring is seen as an unbearable intrusion on misery and loss.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Eliot now uses a technique that will be utilized extensively in this long poem: he misdirects us after making a personal statement. Suddenly we are in the world of a rich Hapsburg aristocrat of the type who had been ruined by the events of WW1. She reflects on her childhood and the world which has disappeared forever. Marie (for that apparently is her name)“reads much of the night and goes south in the winter”. After a bleak statement of his own despair, Eliot here refers to an older world of aristocratic manners and customs which, in his imagination, he feels a greater affinity with than the democratic sameness of the London he had adopted, but which he now feels has let him down.

After the famous passage about “fear in a handful of dust” we are given a brief interlude in the company of a rather aesthetic flower girl who seems to express Eliot’s asexual worship of a certain pure and virginal kind of nineteenth century girl. These virginal figures will occur frequently enough in Eliot’s subsequent work (and often in contrast with more worldly courtesan types). This first section finishes with the much written about figure of Madame Sosostris reading a pack of tarot cards. Clearly, Madame Sosostris is on the Madame Blavatsky model and is presented to us as a representative charlatan type figure—though she is also utilized as a means of adding inner coherence to the poem when she warns the sitter to “fear death by water” (a reference to the later death of Phlebas by drowning) and perhaps puts the author in mind of “Steson”: a rather fantastic character (subsequently introduced) who, we are told, fought with the writer in “the ships at Mylae”. This is a reference to the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage and its inclusion together with the grimly ironic talk of corpses in gardens “sprouting” and “blooming”, mostly has the effect of profoundly deepening the sense of discontinuity and despair.

Essentially, this first section can be seen as a means of establishing the bleakest of moods for the poem and pointing out what the author sees as the impossibility of enjoying a pure relationship in the grim and emotionally impoverished modern world. More specific admissions of sexual failure are to come later.


The scene now changes to the poet’s inner sanctum: for surely the famous passage beginning “The chair, she sat in like a burnished throne” and its subsequent development along lines of deceit (a deceit pointed out clearly enough by the “laquers”, “strange synthetic perfumes” and “unguents”) refers to nothing other than the boudoir of Eliot’s first wife Vivian (whose later insanity was perhaps, at least in part, due to Eliot’s emotional callousness). This lady, surrounded by her sophisticated arts of deceit, is a world away from the simple and pure flower girl evoked by the writer in the first part of the poem. The next transition is made clearly enough:

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.

Eliot, the husband, is here reluctantly coming up the stairs in order to speak with his wife: though any attempt at real communication between the comparatively uneducated Vivian and the super refined sensibility of the young poet, is doomed to failure from the outset. The lady (or Vivian) makes her frustration at this state of affairs very clear in the subsequent lines:

“My nerves are bad tonight. 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.”

The poet’s unspoken reply is both arrogant and full of despair at the same time:

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

Neither person can understand the other. Both are lost in their own self-made fantasies: a psychological hypochondria in Vivian’s case and an intellectually inspired, hermetic egotism in Eliot’s. Next Vivian (for we shall call this neurotic lady Vivian) and Eliot (for we shall call this unresponsive and egotistical husband Eliot)clash over Vivian’s highly strung nerves. She asks her husband if he can hear anything strange and in response to his (presumably) monosyllabic answer in the negative, Vivian demands of her taciturn husband whether he can hear anything at all other than the intellectual fabrications of his own mind:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?
O O O O that Shakespeherean Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

Immediately Vivian’s anger dissipates into despair and Eliot’s psyche retreats into the meaningless recital of the day’s events that will provide him with some kind of warped protection from his wife’s “vulgarity”:

“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 tomorrow?
“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 section that takes place in a pub, is probably the least successful in the poem. Eliot decides to contrast the sexual and emotional desert of his own intimate life with Vivian with the lusty and unthinking sexuality of the common populace of London. Here, working class people speak of their love-making and their children. If an over refined sensibility prevents Eliot from fully engaging in the sexual act ( and this is a reality we come back to again and again in this poem) then his plight is mocked at by the sheer fertility and sexual lustiness of the poor. One feels there is not really much sympathy here for ordinary folk (who were very much off Eliot’s radar in any case) in spite of the apparently tender ending. Rather, Eliot rather ghoulishly and in a spirit of self flagellation, contrasts his own super refined sensibility with the hearty lustfulness of the poor: and the unspoken conclusion seems to be the same as that of his mentor, Ezra Pound, in his poem, "The Garden":

And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.


The third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon” revisits and reemphasizes some ideas and themes we have already noted, while also introducing some new ones. In particular there is the barren hopelessness of contemporary London, where only isolation seems to offer any antidote to the depressing nihilism around. Doggerel returns as a way of emphasizing the bestial sexuality enjoyed by everyday folk, unencumbered by the high values of “Western Civilization”. At this point we are introduced to “Apeneck” Sweeney and Mrs Porter as representative characters of this type. They may not be able to understand the whole nexus of cultural and civilizational values that should go along with human procreation, but they can, at any rate, keep the race sexually alive (unlike the too refined aesthetic sensibility of the poet).

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water

As before, the dominant tone is one of deep contempt for the vulgarity of those who engage easily in the activity of sex without understanding its deeper significance (for Eliot, intellectually, this would mean a connection to the values of a long flourishing civilization that would give a more profound meaning to the union of man and woman). An alternative form of intimacy is introduced with the character of Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant.

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 weekend at the Metropole.

This is a candid reference to the possibility of gay sex between men of a certain culture and sensitivity who find the mindless coupling of Sweeney and Mrs. Porter’s daughter demeaning and vulgar. Of course, the portrayal is ironic and, between these two men, it is only the poet who truly possesses a high culture. Mr. Eugenides may be Greek, but his “demotic” French and brazen overtures typify him as a hardened seeker after gay sex. Consequently, he is considered to be just as vulgar by the poet as the everyday folk, earlier and later referenced, who enjoy thoughtless heterosexual sex together. Homosexuality, then, offers the poet no satisfactory way out of his isolated predicament: he can only impotently express his own sexual fastidiousness in relation to those other less particular inhabitants of the metropolis. In this frame of mind, the poet takes on the identity of the all-knowing Tiresias, a mythical hermaphrodite, and watches (with deep contempt and impotent frustration) the meaningless coupling of two “lower class” inhabitants of London: a secretary and a house agent’s clerk.

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.

Eliot here leaves us in no doubt of his opinion of the young man, puffed up with his own importance. He is one of “the low” and his assurance is that of the bumptious made good. The secretary ‘s dominating emotion is indifference in the face of her lover’s amorous advances:

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.

Just months before his marriage to Vivian, Eliot had written to a friend complaining about the fact that he still remained a virgin at the age of 26. Is it too fantastic to suppose that the highly educated, but emotionally inexperienced Eliot, was unable to deal with Vivian’s sexual and emotional needs and it was this that led to her later profound emotional and mental instability? If so, then it might be reasonable to also suggest that it was Eliot’s overwhelming sense of shame and guilt associated with this situation that led directly to the writing of The Waste Land.
Being unable to accept or to participate either in the ordinary sexuality of everyday people or the arch gayness of the refined homosexual community, Eliot is emotionally thrown back upon his own hyper-aestheticism which, like the flower girl, is able to give him no human solace. In these circumstances, the poet is forced to consider if his sterile aestheticism can be in some way transformed (almost by using tantric means) into something sustaining, and permanent. In the church of Saint Magnus the Martyr, we have the first stirrings of a religiosity which can be conflated or combined with Eliot’s profound aestheticism.

O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
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.

Following this new trend of thought, Eliot sees himself as being purged of his negative emotions by the purifying fires of a new religious ecstasy:

To Carthage then I came

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



Thematically, the drowning of Phlebas refers back to Madame Sosostris (“Fear death by water”) and also to Mr. Eugenides with his “pocketful of currants” (now transformed to “current”). This rather mysterious character might be seen as the transformed figure of the poet, now able (thanks to a growing religious belief) to die into life and, so, become human once again.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Clearly, any suggested hope is very muted here. However, it is something to be able to die as other people often do, with faith in their hearts: and without the overwheming fear of sexual union which has previously obsessed the poet. We should also not forget the purifacatory aspects of the water as it “Picked his bones in whispers”. The mood remains bleak and depressing, but there are also, perhaps, the glimmerings of a new hope.


In “What the Thunder Said”, the idea of purification through water is continued and expanded. The poet who was lost in his own isolation has now found a new means of escaping himself and his finally sterile ultra-aestheticism. His old self may be dying and a new more stable self emerging sustained and sublimated by the age-old veracities of religious life.

AFTER the torchlight 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

The reference to the “agony in stony places” is clearly intended to remind us of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and provides, once again, a clue to the new direction in which Eliot’s thoughts are turning. Now, the most important thing is that a purificatory ceremony should take place that will literally transform the poet into a new man, free of his old obsessions.

Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

The purificatory rights now take place in the context of India and the Eastern religions Eliot had been recently studying.

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
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

Eliot now, at least in his own view, has surrendered to a higher truth: that of spiritual renewal through religion. Finally, he has given himself to something, an experience, that is greater than himself and his own solipsistic mind. It is only through this inner surrender that the poet can really come to believe that his own existence has been in any way meaningful. Finally, he has given up his earlier prudence and embraced a new life-giving (for him) experience. His earlier mistake was to believe that he could find the meaning of his existence in another human being and through sexual union. Now, the pure virginity of the flower girl can be safely recalled without any accompaniment of a confused animal passion.
It is worth noting at this point that subsequent to the publishing of this poem, Eliot left Vivian, eventually divorcing her, and lived for many years in the company of a close friend. It was only in his latter years that he was able to find a new love with his secretary at Faber, whom he eventually married. However, whether this late marriage included ejaculatory sex is a matter for speculation. The probability is that Eliot’s second union was mostly based on the needs of companionship and included little (or perhaps no) sex.

The poem finishes with a host of fragmentary elements that suggest an old world falling apart, but also the possibility of a new more stable one, taking its place. The ending, written in Sanskrit , would seem to suggest new hope: “Shantih” is usually translated as “the peace that passes all understanding”.


In conclusion, I should emphasize that there is nothing I have written here that can take anything away from the fact that The Waste Land is a great—perhaps the greatest--poetic masterpiece of the 20th century. Eliot made it dense with meaning and, in its allusions, it became almost inexhaustible. I have hardly touched on the amazing images from the poem that have, by this time, engrained themselves unforgettably on the psyche of modern man. Nevertheless, I feel the poem is often portrayed—wrongly--as a great narrative conveying ONLY the degenerate nature and nihilism of Western culture at a pivotal moment between two catastrophic world wars. It is undoubtedly all of this—but it more as well. The Waste Land is, in its most basic and truest form, the record of the writer’s depressed and agonized state of mind at a particular juncture in his life. This depression, or agony, was due to many factors: but most of all it referenced a deeply unhappy marriage between two very ill-matched people.

Written by: John Wallen

Sunday, January 10, 2010