T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
It was a period of moderate rule and great social reforms under George V. 1906: The Liberal Party wins the general elections.
1911: The money Bill is signed
1912: The National Insurance Scheme is approved; it assures the workers a sum against sickness and unemployment
Ireland gets the Home rule (an independent Parliament) but the Protestants in Ulster do not want to be included in the scheme. The Sinn Fein (in Celtic language: ourselves alone) is created by the Catholics.
1916: at Easter, the members of the Sinn Fein rebel in Dublin calling complete independence, but they are defeated and executed (Easter Rising). Subsequently they form an Army, the Irish Republican Army or IRA that uses terrorist methods. The English parliament decides not to move directly against them because it understands the importance of the support of small nations during the 1st World War. A police force, the Black and Tans is sent to sedate the rebels.
The First World War:
Britain and Germany ally against France. But William II of Germany wants to challenge Britain on the sea and tries to get influence on the Balkan States. This represents a danger for Russia for the control of the Mediterranean and for England as in this way Germany can control Egypt and India. So Britain starts an alliance with France (Entent Cordiale) and Russia (that supports Serbia).
1917: Russia collapses because of the Bolshevik Revolution
1918: The Peace Treaty is signed In Versailles and the League of Nations is founded in Geneva.
Between the two Wars
The war has left heavy economic consequences: the value of the money falls; the taxes rise; there are difficulties in transports because of the loss of shipping and machineries; the exportation of coal diminishes and the iron, steel an textile industries decline, whereas the U.S.A. and Japan develop economically.
1926: the workers go on strike because of the reduction of their wages.
1918: the Liberal Party disappears and is substituted by the Labour Party
1921: the women over thirty get the votes.
1922 to 2nd world war: The Conservative Party detains the power.
1928: the women over twenty-one get the vote.
1929: Economic breakdown, famous all over the world as Wall Street Crash.
1936: Edward VIII is crowned but his reign only lasts ten months because he abdicates to marry Wally Simpson, an American divorcee. George VI comes on the throne.
England does not intervene in the Spanish Civil war.
1938: England and French coalize.
England has to face troubles in the colonies. Ireland claims its independence and the Dominions ask to be legally recognised.
1921: Great Britain recognises Ireland as a free state in the British Commonwealth of Nations
1926: The countries first colonised by Great Britain become autonomous
1931: The Dominions get legal recognition in the Statute of Westminster.
1935: thanks to Gandhi, India becomes a federation of self-governing provinces (India Act)
1936: Japan and Germany withdraw from the League of Nation. Italy intervenes in Abysin. The U.S.A. declare their political isolation. Germany and Italy are on Franco’s side during the Spanish Civil War
1938: Hitler starts frightening Europe with the annexation of Austria. Russia signs the Pact of no-aggression with Germany.
1939: Hitler invades Poland.
The 2nd World War:
1939: after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, England and France declare war. W. Churchill leads the coalition government in England
1940: Italy joins Hitler at war; France is defeated and Paris is invaded by German troops; Germany prepares to invade England that is saved by her air-force
1941: Hitler attacks Russia while Japan attacks U.S.A. at Pearl Harbour. America enters war.
1942: The American General Montgomery defeats the German Colonel Rommel in North Africa and Russia starts its retreat.
1943: Italy is invaded by German troops.
1945: The Allied forces meet at Elba. In Japan war goes on and the U.S.A. throw the atomic bomb
After the war
1948: India gets its independence together with the African Colonies.
1952: Elisabeth II comes on the throne of England.
The preoccupation of the writers shifts from society to man himself. Man is dissatisfied and disilluded (Age of Anxiety) because of
– a social and economical crisis,
– the collapse of old values,
– A deeper understanding of reality due to an improvement of education and to the developments of the means of communications such as radio and films,,
– The influence of Freud’s ideas about the self-spread in literature by T. Dostoevsky and Proust.
The Edwardians: Under Edward there is a period of transition with writings about social aspects and fear for the future.
The main writers are:
H.G. Wells: interpreter of the fears of man about a future catastrophe (The War of the Worlds; The Invisible Man; The Island of Dr. Moroe.)
R. Kipling and J. Conrad: deal with problems and contrasts of the colonialism. They speak about the reality of countries and peoples different from the English one, but their reflections then become to symbolise the uncertainty of man fighting between the different forces of instinct and rationalism; truth assumes different meanings. The time sequence is no longer chronological, but follows the streams of the unconscious.
The Modernism (1910s)
The writers experience new forms that focus on the mental processes in human mind. In art this process is called Stream of Consciousness and refers to the theories of H. Bergson (the inner time eludes the clock time) and W. James (the consciousness flows like a river in an area beyond communication).
To reach this form of expression the writers used different techniques: story in the story, metaphors, various narrators and points of view.
The interior monologue becomes the instrument to translate this phenomenon into words.
V. Woolf (Mrs Dalloway; To the Lighthouse; The Waves; Orlando);
J. Joyce that after a period of transition in which he still uses naturalistic techniques (The Dubliners) he tries to get to pure objectivity with a sort of invisible narrator and an indirect interior monologue, eluding the chronological time in Ulysses, a metaphor of the modern anti-hero.
The writers choose different techniques to show their fears and doubts or to proclaim their socio-political ideas.
Main authors: S. Maugham, G. Green, A. Huxley and G. Orwell.
There is a period of transition from 1885 to the 20th during which appear new trends in particular under the influence of the Irish Pet W. B. Yeats that experiences new techniques and spread new ideas about an uncertain future. He speaks about Christ’s Second Coming in the world.
Other experiences in the world of poetry are due to
– The Georgians: that promoted a revival of Romanticism about natural and rural life.
Main exponents: A. Brooke and W. De La Mare.
– The War Poets: they speak about the disillusion n and the horror after the experience of the 1st world war.
Main exponents: Owen, Sasson.
– Symbolist movement: these writers are influenced by the French decadentists and stress the individual emotions in a free verse. This movement gives origin to different styles and trends:
– Vorticism: it follows Cubism and Futurism; its mouthpiece is Ezra Pound that writes his poems applying his studies about Oriental Languages and Celtic tradition.
– Imagism: it dictates new rules concerning the way of writing poems based on simple brief sentences that pivot around an image. Main authors: A. Lowell and E. Pound.
– Modernism: the writers belonging to this movement are more interested in the individual and symbols
T. S. Eliot in England, with the help of E. Pound, uses the Correlative Objective in his famous work The Waste Land, a picture of the incommunicability, lack of love and loneliness of man in this fragmentary, ruined world without hope. The only solution is in faith.
After a long period of silence, the theatre starts a new life with the Irish revival, already started by O. Wilde and G. B. Shaw. It follows the Irish tradition linking non-realism (B. Brecht) and music. The panorama is the one of a commercial theatre dominated by important actors and directors that cared about money market and star system.
The only exception is T. S. Eliot that writes Murder in the Cathedral on the death of Saint Thomas A’ Beckett following the old Greek tradition of the chorus.
Britain has to wait until the 1950s to discover a new theatrical vein with new trend:
– The Theatre of Cruelty, based on verbal and physical aspect to stress and think about the horrors of the war. Main authors. A. Huxley, The Devils, about the power of inquisition.
– The theatre of Anger, whose main aim is to evidence the clash between social classes that still exists and the disillusion of young people that believed in ideals that revel their hypocrisy. Main authors: J. Osborn, Look back in Anger, whose protagonist, Jimmy, becomes a sort of mouthpiece of the English Beat Generation.
– The theatre of Absurd that seem to unify the experiences of the other two movements to show the anguish of our age. There are no real characters, the structure is usually circular, nothing happen and nothing changes. Man can’t communicate because words are meaningless in this sterile world.Main author: T. Beckett, Waiting for Godot: the only thing man can do is to wait, hopelessly, until death.
T.S. Eliot by Wyndham Lewis
Life and Works:
1888: T. S. Eliot was born in Saint Louis, Missouri (U.S.A.). It was a country where colonists and immigrates from every part of the world coexisted. His grandfather was an educated Puritan comes to Missouri to teach religion to the pioneers of the frontier towns. He founded schools and influenced young Eliot. He was a student at Harvard
1910: Eliot writes The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Then he goes to Paris where he studies for about a year.
1914: Eliot leaves again for Europe to study philosophy in Germany. When the First World War breaks out he is forced to go to Oxford to work on his thesis about the philosopher and critic F. H. Bradley. (1846-1924). At this point he was 26 years old and had already written his most important early poetry. Yet he stays in England for the rest of his life, marrying there and holding a position with Lloyd Banks.
1922: Eliot writes The Waste Land.
1924-25: He publishes The Hollow Men.
1927: He becomes an English subject and joins the Church of England.
1929: he becomes the director of the Faber and Faber.
1930: after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, his work acquires a quieter and gentler tone, exploring the mysteries of Human faith. Eliot writes Ash Wednesday.
1935: He starts writing for the theatre with Murder in the Cathedral and the poem The Four Quartets, finished in 1943.
1939: He writes the play The Family Reunion then followed by The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Stateman.
1948: Eliot is awarded the Order Merit and The Noble Prize for Literature.
1965: Eliot dies.
The Waste Land (1922)
Sources. In T. S. Eliot two realities, the English and the American culture, meet together and sign the turning point both from an historical and from a literary point of view. Their roots are the same, but they developed according to the different geographical and political aspects.
Autobiographical sources. During the period of the composition of The Waste Land, Eliot suffered from a psychological breakdown, exhausted by overwork and by a marriage to a very sensitive, but unstable woman. In fact he had married Vivien Haighwood and Eliot’s family never accepted this European marriage and did not send him money any longer. So he was urged to look for a job and, after a period of teaching, he was assumed in the Lloyd’s Bank till 1925. But his literary vein could not be submitted to the bureaucratic tasks that he had to perform in order to maintain his family and he continued writing poems and reviews of magazines. His wife was then victim of fits of depression. The poem mirrors a world seen through the eyes and the sensibility of a man that is undergoing a transformation, looking for a solution of his torments, in a world crises that witnesses the complete physical and moral decay of the times.
Literary sources. Eliot was influenced by the Puritan culture of his grandfather even if he felt detached from the practices inferred by the Calvinist thoughts because of his studies about Oriental languages and philosophies.
His passion for Dante and the English Poetry was determinant. Like any sensitive American mind in this period he perceived a call to his roots, England. Psychologists explain this attraction as the search for a father, for a history from which they descend. This is the force that led many American writers to go to Europe. In particular his studies of the English poets of the 17th century stimulate his curiosity and he wrote about them also some essays. The Metaphysical Poets left their print in Eliot’s culture for their witticism based on the Discordia concors. The author himself wrote “The poets of the 17th century…possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience”, a definition that could be applied to his own way of writing and feeling poetry.”
Besides, new changes were involving the old continent at the beginning of the 20th century due to the decay of aristocracy and of imperialism. At the same time America was becoming a country that offered work and possibilities to build a future. Its participation in the II World War saw, for the first time, the old European powers and the New World facing one another.
Before the II world war Eliot is in England where he meets new theories and ideas:
– Hume’s concept about sins and humanity;
– Darwin’s theory of organic evolution;
– Bergson’s philosophy about the passing of the time;
– Einstein’s theory of relativity.
These discoveries led the writers and the thinkers to denounce faults and hypocrisies of the society.
– Sygmund Freud’s exploration of the inmost recesses of human psyche was very influential in the literary field and to the Stream of Consciousness Technique in art. This style expresses the sense of danger and precariousness reflected both in form and in content
– The revival of mythology by two anthropologists, Mr. James Frazer , author of The Golden Bough and Mrs Jessie L. Weston who wrote From Ritual to Romance that relate to ancient myths about the alternation of fertility and barrenness and the myths of the Saint Grail and of the Fisher King that link together pagan culture (King Arthur and the knights of the round Table) and Christian faith. In particular Eliot owed to Jessie Weston’s book the Northern myth of the Fisher King, ruler of a waste land made dry by evil spells that render the king impotent. Only the advent of a knight of great virtue would save king and country. The fish is a Christian and Pagan symbol, Christ himself called his apostles “fishers of men”.
– The influence of the American Imagism, a movement founded by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. Their poems expressed the poetical fact avoiding descriptions, through immediate images and musical lines using the free verse and the subjective rhythm without the intrusion of poetical structures. Their sources were life and emotions, the oriental languages and musicality. E. Pound left the movement went came to Europe.
The Waste Land appeared simultaneously in The Criterion (London) and in The Dial (New York) in October 1922. Its composition dates back to 1921, when Eliot was in Lousanne spending a period of tranquillity to recuperate his health.
Before coming back to London, the poet went to Paris and showed the manuscript to E. Pound with whom he had a continuous correspondence. Pound reduced the whole manuscript and the first Mrs. Eliot, Vivien, gave her contribution. Pound did not really touch the structure of the opera, he reduced a thousand lines to 443, diminished the dependence of the work on a basic iambic pentameter and the rhythm, but his changes are basically on the details. On the whole, The Waste Land, is an obscure poem, a “heap of broken images” without a narrative order, it is a world which one must enter without trying to extract any meaning. It is a work of wide erudition, presented in fragments that echo cinema-cutting techniques and has an apparatus of notes to help the reader through the learning it contains. The many cross-references are probably also due to Eliot’s American roots with the cosmopolitan range of different cultures the New World offered. The effect is intended to be musical and suggestive, conveying the idea of the fragmentarity o a land, Europe, in a period between the two World Wars and many revolutions. Man is condemned to loneliness and solitude, to a life without real affections. Communication is not possible now and Man has lost the control of words, words that do not correspond any longer to their meaning.
The Preface, in Latin, represents the crisis of values: the Sybil cannot foresee the future and asks to die. The dedication to Ezra Pound derives from a quotation of Arnauld Daniell in Dante’s Hell and it is a deed of devotion to the man who examined his work.
The various fragments are the symbolic and graphic representations of a world that is completely ruined and waste.
It is the journey of a man who would like to get salvation through the purification of the soul, a man that is no longer able to cope with his day-to-day reality. This journey can be compared with Dante’s and in fact many quotations are taken from the Cantos.
The references make the opera obscure. The Waste Land becomes the expression of the decadence of the middle classes in Europe. This fall began with the decay of the feudal power of aristocracy and is now involving the Bourgeois. For this reason Eliot uses two parallel methods to compare present and past: the banality of nowadays situation and the universality of ancient myths.
The introduction of the myths becomes the element that can establish an order in the chaos of the modern town, the Unreal City. The Grail represents the human research for a new life in a world that shows the signs of a social crisis that started with the decay of the rural life and of the aristocratic classes and of the communication among human beings. This lack of values is seen in the family and in the violence of the commercial world. Also the words do not cope any longer with their meaning: the communication is reduced to automatic repetitive structures. The sterility of this hopeless land is conveyed by means of images taken from every-day life and that are the objective correlative of Eliot’s thoughts the dog, the fog, the rats and the bones.)
The lines vary in length and rhythm and are usually unrhymed, but the poem is not written in free verse; the passages are juxtaposed with contrasting rhythms, diction and imagery to accomplish music of ideas. The use of past history contrasts to the present time because “No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists:” (Tradition and Individual Talents). The cross-references demonstrate the peculiarities of the present and the literary quotations are a means of demonstrating the peculiarities of Eliot’s times.
Criticism: The poem caused great controversy when it was published and it is often considered as the effective beginning of a distinctively 20th century way of writing verses.
The theme is the decay and fragmentation of western culture, conceived in terms of loss of natural fertility. Critics have tried to point out the artistic coherence despite the apparent absence of logical continuity.
Mainly the link is given by four methods closely related: the use of symbols derived from mythology; the juxtaposition of passages, the use of past history in contrast to present time and the use of literary quotations to bring out this contrast.
On these bases, the criticism has developed various theories to give an interpretation to the poem.
1- The Sociological criticism, that gave its best products after the great crisis of 1929, points out Eliot’s vision of a present inferior to the past time of the European countries that after the 1st World war are sterile, without beliefs. The main symbols to understand the poem are the water that refers to sexuality and fertility, the dryness representative of the middle class society and the fire that destroys and purifies. The poet describes this land through examples taken from the past so that it becomes a dead land. Here Man lives automatically, like a robot. He is spiritually dead like this land. According to this vision, the obscurity of the poem is a sort of defence from the outer world and the only solution is to become aware of the meaning of life in order to re-build a new society. Edmund Wilson suggests that probably this disillusioned vision derives from Eliot’s Puritan education.
2- other critics analyse in detail the structure and the style used by Eliot in The Waste Land. For them the lack of logic, the fragmentarity of the work, the use of quotations and of the different languages, the images and the figures find their unity in a sort of “music of ideas… arranged not that they must tell us something, but that their effects in us may combine into a coherent whole of feeling and attitude” (I. A. Richard). All the devices mentioned above represent the old age that is unconsciously decaying: Man does not want to face the reality because he is an “hypocrite”.
3- for many years Eliot has been studied for his stylistic ability and for his obscurity, for his great culture. The Waste Land has been seen as a work, which represent the incomunicability of Man, and the fragility of human feelings. The fragments, the use of the objective correlative and the cross-references have been the object of a minute study in order to go back to the literary sources that influenced Eliot while writing the poem. In particular myths and denotative meanings have risen the critics’ curiosity.
4- the new trends in criticism have focussed their attention ion the aspect of the work as a journey into the self, on the quest for the Saint Grail that pervades the whole poem, a quest that ends with the refusal of history.
5- Alessandro Serpieri, an Italian critic has put in evidence the difference between the first three sections of the poem where the author uses a mythical method and the last two that follow the allegorical method. The function of this gap in the composition is to put in contrast history and myth. The juxtaposition is expressed by contrasting words like roots-bones, rats-bones, water and sterility.
6- Another Italian critic, Prospero Trigona, focuses his attention on the myths that underline a strict relationship between Man and nature, a link that nowadays is lost because Man cannot find his balance. Neglecting rural life, Man has caused the desegregation of the family and loneliness. Eliot refuses some aspects of the middle-class society such as the violence of the machines, the imperialism, the war, the massification of the Unreal City, the degradation of Man. This degradation is seen through the description of the relationship between Man and Woman. Man does not act, he does not speak, he is hollow; the woman does not react and feels the sexuality as violence, she seeks for communication but in vain. The sexual intercourse is no longer a means to communicate or to reach a knowledge, and the whole humanity becomes a love-toy.
The confusion of Man is the crucial point of the Age of Anxiety. T. S. Eliot’s purpose is to re-order the city and to make the Western civilisations re-birth on Christian Spiritual basis. The poet does not accept the process of transformation of the modern society and does not believe in the rules of a rational behaviour to overcome the contrasts of history. Eliot searches fragments to “shore his ruins” and the fragments are the quotations taken from the ancient literary tradition of a civilisation that are shipwrecking at present.
These fragments assume a symbolic and abstract meaning out of their social and historical connotation. They represent a mean to re-create society as present and future can be saved by the knowledge of the past wisdom: the search of the Saint grail; the purification through pain in Philomel’s myth, the purification through fire as in the eastern religions. With these instruments Eliot opposes Man’s decay expressed by “London Bridge is falling down”.
The Burial of the Dead.
The title of Part one refers to the central concern of the poem, the meaning of life and death. Most of the religions give a possibility of resurrection. In Christian terms Jesus has sacrificed his life for the salvation of Man; in other primitive forms of religion the idea of sacrifice is widespread.
Section one can be divided into four paragraphs: It opens with an unusual division of nature. April, the month of spring and of rebirth does not give any hope in this desert land. Nay, it reminds people of past and future and the lilacs, erotic symbol of fertility, strengthen the concept of aridity and sterility. The imagery of vegetable life is connected with the use of present participle emphasising the lack of motion. At line 8 the subject changes all of a sudden and shifts to d3escribe, by means of memories and German words, the situation in central Europe in the period of the 1st World war. Aristocratic patterns, national boundaries, old empires are breaking up. The reference is autobiographical, the meeting of T. S. Eliot with the countess Marie Larish, aunt of Rudolph from Baviera, witness of the decay of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the Communist Russian Revolution in 1917.
The second part (l. 19-42) introduces the readers into another theme of the poem, the contrast between dryness and water. The symbol of rebirth here becomes the objective correlative of the lack of values: there is neither the sound of water nor the shadow of a tree, but only rocks. The red rock referred once to the Church now represents blood and death. People are spiritually dead and the journey through this desert seems to be endless. The only certainty is death, the handful of dust that represents the regret of the Cumaean Sybil who had asked for an unending life.
The quest continues with two questions from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde that becomes a frame for the episode of the hyacinth girl. The two questions are about the greatest love story of the world, a love that is disappointed: when Isolde arrives, Tristan dies. Love is futile in this sterile land. The I quester feels confused in front of the girl: the hyacinths are the flowers of fertility, but Man is still between life and death and falls into the sea of nothingness, The heart of light; where there is only silence.
Part three (l. 46-55) shows the search of Man for certainty in cards, the Tarot cards that MM. Sosostris use to foretell the future.
The name Tarots is an anagram with an extra T of the Latin word “rota” that means wheel the wheel of fortune, of destiny. They were used in ancient time to foresee the rising of the waters of the river Nile and the consequent fertility of the land. MM. Sosostris cards represent the drowned Phoenician sailor, the one-eyed merchants, the Belladonna, the Fisher king, all figures that will be further analysed in the following sections of the poem. At last there is a warning: fear death by water, title of the fourth section. Mme., Sosostris, the wisest woman in Europe, with bad cold is an ironic version of the prophetic figure of the Sybil: she only tries to read the cards, but she cannot see what it is hidden on the back. She is the representation of the vulgarity of these times deprived of any spiritual enlightenment.
In the last lines, London, the unreal city populated by ghosts, represents the hopeless vision of the world. Eliot uses the descriptions of Baudelaire’s Paris, Dante’s Hell and William Blake’s London to create a picture of people forced to act in a life-destroying routine. Among these souls in agony, the author isolates the figure of Stetson who becomes symbol of the soldier, the victim of every war in every time. Stetson, like any other human beings, is committing an endemic mistake: he is trying to hide
His mistakes, his torments underground. But all men are hypocrite and do not want to face their responsibilities. Man’s friend, the dog, could help him to come out of this situation of apathy, but it is kept far away.
Everybody shares this condition of forgetful hypocrisy, by Eliot and by the reader himself that becomes the poet’s brother.
A Game of Chess.
The title of this section comes from Middleton’s drama Women Beware Women, a story of lust where each move in the game of chess is a move in the seduction of a woman. In this part T. S. Eliot deals with another subject of the poem, the lack of values leads o incomunicability and to the consequent inability to love. This section can be divided into two parts.
L.1-138: The first episode starts from the description of a room with a reference to two famous couples of lovers, Anthony and Cleopatra and Dido and Aeneas. The room is minutely described and reveals wealth in a mysterious atmosphere. The artificial decorations and the long sentences used lead to a sort of confusion that ends in the rape of Philomel. According to the legend, the young girl after the violence undergone is turned into a nightingale. The voice of the bird proclaims the cruelty of the world to everybody in every period.
Then the description suddenly stops and the episode goes on with a direct speech in inverted comas. The woman is anxious, her questions are repetitive and reveal her loneliness: the words seem to have lost their meaning. The person she addresses to is undefined and the words written without inverted comas suggest that the poet is introducing the reader into his thoughts, not into his real speech. The resignation to the incapacity of communication with one another stands for the inability to love of these two figures that carry on a relationship based on lust and boredom. The negative forms underline the emptiness of these men in a destroyed world: once more the woman tries to find a way to communicate, Man remains silent and alone. Both of them do not know what they will do.
The second part (L. 139-172). Takes place in a pub in London. The figures involved are two women who speak using the intonation and the style of Cockney English. The story is about Lil and Albert. The woman has a decaying aspect because of the too many pregnancies and aborts. The man they are referring to, is an irresponsible man coming back from the front. No moral value appears to give dignity to them. The reference to time is given by the voice of the barman who announces the closing. The passage finishes with Ophelia’s farewell before committing suicide, a woman become symbol of disilluded love.
This second episode, unlike the first one, is set in a low social class, but the characteristics of the figures presented are the same: they are alone in a world without love. The difference between the woman in part one and the woman in part two is that the first still tries to appear in her beauty, the second represents also a physical decay. Eliot involves all women in every period as victims of lust and deceit.
The Fire Sermon.
T. S. Eliot in this title evokes both Buddha and Saint Augustin, figures that have experienced the pleasures of the senses before following the spiritual path.
The fire is symbol of purification.
In this sections there are many references and fragments that pivot around the same theme: the lack of love in a sterile land
L.173-186: the passage opens with the image of a river, symbol of life and faith, values that found their representative in The Fisher King. But in the Waste Land the water does not mean resurrection. The creatures that gave life to the water have gone away. The Thames is polluted and everybody has deserted it. The words “calm, swiftly” are used to convey the idea of abandon and solitude.
L. 187-202: these verses immediately contrast with the previous ones: a blow of cold wind digs out bones and dead bodies. The Fisher King has little hope of catching a fish in a polluted canal. Also the sordid relationships between Sweeney and Mrs. Porter (an old, coarse Australian song) contrasts with the spiritual quest for the Saint Grail.
L. 207-214: the vision of corruption and decay of man continues in these lines where Mr. Eugenides, the Smirna Merchant, with one eye, reminds the legend of the Phoenician traders that had transmitted the fertility cult in pagan times. But this merchant is linked with images of lust, vulgar language and a suspected invitation that indicates the decay of modern trade.
L. 215-256: the relationship presented here supplies another example of sexual relation without respect and affection.
The scene is set in a middle class apartment. The protagonists are a typist and a carbuncular clerk whose behaviour is mechanical. Work reduces man to a human engine. The two lovers do not feel pleasure in their actions and the clerk’s departure underlines the sterility of a physical intercourse that does not imply a sentimental involvement.
Eliot now introduces the only character of the poem, Tiresia, the mythological figure who has suffered everything as a man and as a woman. He becomes the witness of the evil of the world in every period and assures that he has seen all this before.
L. 257-265: the references in this part refer all to human insensibility and the music of the mandolin suggests both pleasure and pain. The pleasing sensation is only physical and must not be trusted.
L. 266-306: The image of the river reappears connected with the sterile love between Elisabeth and Leicester. Its function is to announce the lamentation of the three Rhine maidens that lost their virginity in stories of violence and confusion. They are without hope and appear to be three voices of one person that has descended into a state of madness and has lost command of words.
L. 307-311: These final verses go back to the title of the section with the references to Buddha and to saint Augustin. An invocation of God is the only word of hope in the poem, even if the fire suggests that sins cannot be purified forever because there is no solution to the problem of a humanity that repeats its faults.
Death by Water
The shortest section of the poem refers back to one of the Tarots cards read by Mme Sosostris (Fear death by water; the drowned Phoenician sailor) and it is the story of the death of a sailor at sea.
Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor, is doomed to death like every human being, like the reader himself. This shows the futility of every day concerns, of profit and loss.
On a deeper level, water refers to the rites of fertility both in pagan and Christian religions. Mrs. Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance tells that in Alexandria people used to throw every year the image of a god into the water as a symbol of the death of nature. The current carried this image to the Phoenician coast where it was taken out of the water to mean rebirth and resurrection.
The liturgy of Baptism is linked to the concept of resurrection after spiritual death: the baby is put into the water of sin and symbolically taken out and saved.
The qualification of the sailor as a Phoenician suggests a reference to a mythical decoding of the poem: these people were famous for their ability at sailing and trading. But water has the power to transform every body, gentile or Jew.
The sailor has been seen as a modern Ulysses according to Dante’s and Tennyson’s views: a man whose curiosity and seek for physical and material pleasures has brought to look forever for a solution. This figure contrasts with Buddha and Saint Augustin mentioned in the third section as they found their spiritual balance.
The water here assumes the meaning of death and contrasts with the previous section The Fire Sermon. The other images taken from nature are the wind, the sea, the whirlpool that indicate life, death, decay, he passing of the time. The wheel that drives the ship is a reference to destiny.
What the Thunder Said
The search reaches a crucial point in this section and this climax is formally conveyed by the total absence of punctuation, and by repetitions.
The figures here are hooded and sexless mysteriously guided by hidden companion. The great calm that permeates the atmosphere conceals a note of terror suggested by the repeated questions.
The seekers are now approaching the chapel where the Saint grail is housed.
The land is still sterile, the landscape is desert, the rain does not come. The inhabitants of this place have no hope of resurrection: their God is dead after long painful hours. Now the seekers are leaving for a journey in the waste land where water is totally absent and Man must face his own impotence.
The journey is to Emmaus, through the eastern Empires, places of decay. Men are blinded by their inability to find a solution and do not perceive that God is resurrected and is near them. The images here refer to the delusion of the Communist Revolution that has oppressed men with false prophecies.
The pilgrims are hallucinated: the knight is looking for the Grail but his power of perception is mocked. The ruined chapel seems only a cruel joke after this desolate journey. The voice of the clock seems to make hope live again and anticipates a new dawn. The noise of the thunder in the distance preannounces the possible arrival of the rain. The rain is symbolised by the advice the thunder gives to revitalise spiritual life.
T. S. Eliot, at the end of this section, tries to join Western and Eastern knowledge: he suggests that the decaying Christian church needs a fresh inspiration in the East culture. The three virtues the thunder mentions are present in every religion. They are exemplified by three confessions that illustrate the emptiness of the inhabitants of the waste land.
The surrender of the woman that follows the first commandment echoes the situations in the third section, but this time the emotion that pervades the words of the speaker suggests a moment of giving. But the gesture remains unconscious and the moment remains unique.
The other commandment, to sympathise, is used to stress the loneliness of every self-centred man. Both Count Ugolino and Coriolanus are punished by their lack of compassion.
The third word the thunder says in control: without self-control man cannot give. There must be co-operation: if a mariner accepts the power of nature, the boat responds and co-operates with him, with the water and the wind.
In our society life is artificial, trapped in solitude and polluting nature.
The last lines of the poem are mainly built on quotations and the Fisher King asks himself if he can “set his lands in order”.
The confusion shows the poet’s doubts: every quotation is ambivalent. For example the swallow announces spring, but also reminds Philomel’s agony. Eliot addresses again to the reader, the “Hypocrite lecteur” of section one: he is the inhabitant of this unreal city and he must find his Grail. Hieronymo, mad for the confusion and the violence around him, tells that the reader himself is the Fisher King, the Man with a problem to solve.