Renewal in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land

In his poem “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot uses the contrapuntal action of several unidentified voices to underline the poem’s theme of death in life on the personal, social, and cultural levels. The anonymous qualities of these voices serve to highlight the genuine breakdown of sustaining traditions of renewal through the lack of interpersonal- interaction. Eliot shows how relationships between the individual and another person, or the individual with encounters “divine” in nature can collapse, and finally demonstrates the importance of grieving in the process of self-renewal.

In Stanza one, Eliot uses imagery from Ezekiel1 of the Bible’s old testament to illustrate the voices’ fragmented interactions, saying:

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
And the dry stone no sound of water2.

This passage gives the reader an initial understanding of the association between dry stone or dirt and despair. Eliot’s wasteland completely revolves around the presence of water: where there is water there are growing things, and hope.

All of the beginning associations with water and life of this first stanza seem to be memories of youth and love, which tends to make the poem confusing when Madame Sosostris3 reads her cards and warns of death.

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 water4.

The prediction of death by water runs contrary to the poem thus far, and it isn’t until the fourth and fifth stanzas that Eliot’s readers find that the death was both physical and emotional (the death of hope). From this predicted death (the death of an individual over which said individual apparently has no control), the poem moves on to a more common theme: that of death-in-life.

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 feet5.

The crowd in question looks at their feet, never seeing or associating with any of the strangers around them. In this way they are “dead” to the world around them.

In the second stanza, everything has a dream-like quality that seems to stem in part from the qualities of the second part of the preceding stanza. The tone in which the commentary is held through line 139 and even the progression of the evening suggests that a couple is having a rather boring, routine evening in which there is a communication problem.

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 door6.

Then the voices change, beginning a second, seemingly unrelated conversation in which a woman discusses a failing relationship between another woman and her husband.

He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me
A straight look7.

These conversations are demonstrative of Eliot’s exploration or declaration of The Waste Land as a hell of broken relationships.

Eliot’s definition of what The Waste Land is is continued in the third stanza where he refers to the Buddhist “Fire Sermon8” in the title. In addition to the hell of broken relationships from stanza two, The Waste Land is also a hell of natural desire (lust, violence, etc.). Lines 203-206 (Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug / So rudely forc’d. / Tereu9) are an excellent example of how desire can destroy relationships.

Another example of the strange interactions of men and women is Tiresias, the blind man who speaks in line 219. According to myth, Tiresias is turned into a woman when he sees two snakes mating and separates them with a stick. He is not returned to his natural state until some years later when he came upon the same two snakes, and moved them closer together: thus he has the dubious honor of having been both a man, and a woman.

In the fourth stanza, Phlebas the Phoenician drowns, fulfilling the prophesy of Madame Sosostris in the third stanza. His death initiates the traversing of a mythical wasteland (borrowed from the Bible) and sparks the initial movement towards hope/ recovery, by combining aspects of death with Christianity.

Eliot borrows the thunder of stanza five from the holy book Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad10, in which gods, demons, and men ask the Creator to speak to them; he replies “DA” to each group, and each interprets it differently, using the three Sanskrit words Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata (meaning “give,” “sympathize,” and “control” respectively). If Eliot stayed true to his interpretation of the “Three Great Disciplines11,” then it is obvious that it is not one voice responding to the voice of the thunder, but many (at least three). Each response also carries a tone different from the others. The first (responding to “give”) has a hint of questioning or denial, as if it is unsure of the importance of its contribution, or whether it has indeed given anything.

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
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 rooms12

The second response (to “sympathize”) is more angry and volatile, reacting as if it has in some way been deceived (perhaps by the thunder which initially suggests rain or hope in an arid plain.)

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 aethereal rumors
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus13

The third response (to “control” or “self-control”) is more accepting. It appears to understand the purpose of the thunder14.

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands15.

The third response also revolves around the presence of a body of the water that spends such a significant portion of the poem alluded to, but missing. The presence of water at the end of the poem suggests that while there is no unity to be found, “hope” is indeed present. This movement through the voices suggests that at each new initiation of conversation by the thunder, the voices experience different stages16 of grief17, and ultimately find a respite through a healing renewal. “The Waste Land” ends with the discovery that life is the “heap of broken images18” mentioned briefly in the beginning of the poem. No overlapping perspective on life exists19, but understanding that life is a collection of pieces will bring “Shantih, shantih, shantih” or the “peace which passeth understanding.”

1. “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense altars shall be broken; and I will cast down your slain before your idols.” Ezekiel 6:4
2. Lines 19-24
3. One of the few voices actually named in the poem: was probably borrowed from Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow.
4.Lines 52-55
5. Lines 60-65
6. Lines 135-139
7. Lines 148-152
8. A sermon preached by Buddha against the fires of lust and other passions.
9. A reference to the story of Philomel, a maiden who was raped by Tereus, and had her tongue cut out. She was changed into a nightingale.
11. In the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, the three great disciplines were self-control, giving, and compassion.
12. Lines 400-409
13. Lines 410-416
14. In the story, thunder is the voice of the creator... the ultimate example of "control" or purpose.
15. Lines 417-422
16. It is commonly held that there are five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
17. In this interpretation, the voices are not grieving anything physical… it is the loss of hope and the loss of personal relationships that they mourn. I find it interesting that the first real communication is then between an individual (or many individuals) and a divine being. People can do a great deal if they have only hope or something to believe in.
18. Line 22: I associate the “broken images” from the beginning of the poem with the many voices in conversation with the voice of the thunder: that is, many voices with differing views.
19. Unless it is Teiresias: Teiresias was turned into a woman because he saw two snakes copulating on Mount Kyllene. He was changed back to a man when he saw the two snakes again. In this version his blindness is caused by Hera, as punishment for his support of Zeus' statement that women get more enjoyment out of sex than men do.

"The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot
Footnotes to the "Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot
British Lit.