What Are the Roots that Clutch?—Blogging The Waste Land Part 8

What Are the Roots that Clutch?—Blogging The Waste Land Part 8

Image: Black Cross by Georgia O’Keeffe

If you’ve been eagerly awaiting the next installment of my Waste Land series, then you can thank the Philosopher Mom for helping to jump start the series again. It was wonderful getting to meet Erika in person—at last!—at the New England Catholic Homeschooling Conference on Saturday. She said so many very encouraging about this series that it really made me want to sit down and get writing again. As tired as I was after a day of conferencing with Anthony, I sat down after the kids were in bed last night and opened the document and began to write again on this entry that I began almost exactly two months ago.

I think the main thing that has been holding me back is that this chunk of text is so long. Because of all the enjambement there is no natural break that doesn’t break in the middle of a line and I’m too darn persnickety to break in the middle of a line. Also, life does tend to get in the way. With the new baby coming I can’t promise any greater regularity, though I can always hope.

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.

With these lines the poem shifts back to the more formal feel of the first seven lines. The imagery is more abstract and “poetic” rather than conversational. The poem seems to go back and forth between these two modes: the formal and the informal, the imagery-driven vs the snippets of conversation.

What to make of the initial images: the roots that clutch the branches that grow out of the stony rubbish? The verb “clutch” makes the roots seem hostile, threatening. The word “rubbish” is also very negative. And yet these lines make me think about how very persistent life is, how things can grow in the most hostile of environments. The narrator seems almost threatened by this persistent quality of life. He’d rather hide, hibernate, retreat from life. The imagery makes me think of Christ as the Root of Jesse as well as the recent Gospel passage about Christ the Vine: I am the vine, you are the branches, remain in me. We need roots, we yearn for roots. What does it mean when we’d rather forget our roots?

The direct address, “Son of man” is of course Biblical, especially recalling the Book of Ezekiel where it is a frequently used form of address. I think here it points toward Ezekiel 37 especially and the vision of the dry bones. In that case it is both an image of dessert, aridity and death, but it also foreshadows the resurrection when God will breath new life into the dry bones. The dry bone is an image that haunts Eliot’s later poetry. It also appears in Ash Wednesday and the Four Quartets.

“You know only a heap of broken images”. In a sense the heap of broken images is an image of the poem itself, of the fragmentation which requires the reader to sort through the heap and assemble meaning out of the brokenness. In the wake of WWI there was a deep pessimism about the state of Western Civilization, rather than having evolved to some kind of pinnacle of human achievement, a peaceful paradise, things fell apart completely, a generation was almost wiped out. Eliot’s project is to offer hope, to suggest that the way forward is the way back, the sifting through the rubble to find that which endures, that which has not been destroyed, to find the roots that will tell us who we are.

“Where the sun beats and the dead tree gives no shelter.”  Desert imagery. We are in the waste land for sure. Instead of a tree of life here is a tree of death. This is the moment of crucifixion when it seems that all is lost, hope has fled. What is left if God is dead?

“and the cricket no relief” Why would a cricket give relief from the beating sun? What is the significance of the cricket? I found that in some places cricket’s chirps are thought to foretell rain. Is Eliot thinking of that kind of myth.

“and the dry stone no sound of water” More water imagery. And more rocks. I think it interesting that here it is the sound of water.

All of this imagery in this section to me is very evocative of the Psalms. Water coming from rocks, rocks seen as providing shelter. God as a rock. The tone here certainly feels very much like the Old Testament Psalms and prophetic writings.

“come in under the shadow of this red rock”  I have to say the image of the shadow under the red rock is one of my favorites. I love the rhythm and sound of this line the staccato of the “d” sounds and the alliteration of “red rock”. Sometimes it’s just the sound of Eliot’s verse that charms my ear even when I can’t make head or tails of the meaning. Which really fits his theory of poetry which is that the sound comes before the meaning, that part of the meaning of poetry is the sound of it, the way it hits our ear even before we make sense of the words.

All the shadow play here. Come under the shadow… I will show you something different from either your shadow… or your shadow. Shadows represent cool and refuge on a hot day, the possibility of relief in a desert. But they also can represent fear. Is there a hint here of being afraid of one’s own shadow? Jumping at shadows? I notice the position of the shadows. In the morning the shadow is striding behind. It isn’t threatening but our of sight, obedient. But at evening the shadow rises to meet you. Dark falls, night falls and with it fear?

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. Evelyn Waugh used this line for the title of one of his novels. It evokes Ash Wednesday: remember, man, that you are dust. This is the fear of death, the reminder of our mortality.

Why does the narrator specify that is the fear in the handful of dust is “different” than the shadow at morning or the shadow at evening? What is the difference he wants us to contemplate? Is it the difference between jumping at shadows vs contemplation of death? He wants to show us, he wants to lead us to the point where we can’t look away from death. Over and over again the narrator leads us to look death in the face, even while other voices are doing their best to avoid it.

In this passage Eliot takes on an Old Testament prophet sort of voice: reminding us of the end things, of death. When he seems to be promising relief, the shelter of the shadow under the red rock, we find that there is no comfort there after all. Only fear. But the only reason to fear death is because it represents annihilation. If death is not in fact the end but a new beginning then there is no reason to fear. This is the crux of the poem. Are we going to let fear keep us from changing, from growing, from facing the possibility of death to self?

One final thought: that enjambment that was driving me crazy, that refusal to end his sentences at the line breaks, it isn’t an accident, is it? It makes this passage relentless. There is no resting place. You are being herded, driven, rushed toward that final image, that handful of dust.

And you, dear faithful readers? What images here speak to you? What catches your eye or your ear? What do you see that I’ve missed or overlooked? (And there’s plenty I’ve missed here, don’t be afraid of pointing that out.)


Previous post: And When We Were Children—Blogging The Waste Land Part 7

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  • What is her authorial voice like in this volume?  I read her Divine Offic for Dodos a while back, and her style was so cutesy/peppy (I found it wildly inappropriate to the subject matter!) that it’s rather turned me against reading anything else she’s written.

  • GeekLady, Not at all cutesy and peppy. It really reads like a novel and the narrator is a very transparent sort of voice, there doesn’t feel like there is an authorial voice at all. Each chapter is told in a third person limited voice, so you only “see” the thoughts of the person from whose viewpoint the chapter is told, all of the events are experienced through their perception/filter so there is never a chance for the author to get into Anthony’s head or to play omniscient God who sees everything. I found the characters convincing, an interesting cast of personalities.

  • I just have to share a quick St. Anthony story. We collecte painted saint dolls. Gaba (my mom) had bought the girls St. Anthony for Christmas this year. Well, our resident kleptomaniac promptly misplaced several of the wooden saint dolls. We found all of them except the patron saint of lost things (the irony did not escape me). We combed the house to no avail.

    More recently, my oldest daughter said we should just get another St. Anthony so we could find all the things that we’ve lost recently.

    I finally decided to get another one just because I missed having this heavenly friend in our collection.

    I wrapped it up for the klepto – sweet Mary Elizabeth – because I feel sorry for her that we’re always blaming her for every misplaced item when sometimes she is not the guilty party. Well, when she opened it, I joked that maybe this means we will find all of the things that have gone missing.

    Not an hour later, my oldest was playing when she found a birthstone ring that we had lost several months ago. St. Anthony works!

    Indeed. I told my daughters we really should start praying to him for the most important things that have gone astray – lost souls!

    St. Anthony, pray for us!

  • hi! in my opinion the “shadow at morning” and the “shadow at evening” represent the past and the future, two big reasons of fear for human beings, who cannot see anything but “a heap of broken images”… i just discovered this poem, and appreciated it very much! thank you for your explanation,


  • Hi Melanie,

    I know that I am commenting pretty late (more than five years after the post was written), but I am loving these posts on The Wasteland! Eliot has by far been my favorite poet since I first read the poem my Freshman year of college, and your writing has really illuminated parts of it for me, aside from adding more kindling to my love for Eliot’s poetry and my desire to study and relish it further. I am commenting in order to take a stab at the line about the crickets. There are two thoughts I had about them.

    1) Crickets are often associated with evening and nighttime. In this case, Eliot would be showing that the coming of the night brings no relief from the burning heat of the day.

    2) The second thought is this: In Plato’s dialogue “Phaedrus”, Socrates tells the following story about the origins of crickets (cicadas): “The Cicadas chirp and watch to see whether their music lulls humans to laziness or whether the humans can resist their sweet song. Cicadas were originally humans who, in ancient times, allowed the first Muses to enchant them into singing and dancing so long that they stopped eating and sleeping and actually died without noticing it. The Muses rewarded them with the gift of never needing food or sleep, but to sing from birth to death. The task of the Cicadas is to watch humans to report who honors the Muses and who does not.”
    I find this suspiciously apropos for “The Wasteland”, for several reasons. First of all, one major theme of the “Phaedrus” is the use of language, particularly written language, and its effect on the human memory. Secondly, another major theme of the dialogue is love, its counterfeits, and its degradations. Thirdly, yet another major theme (there are many major themes of the “Phaedrus”) is a journey, in procession with the gods, to “the place beyond heaven”, which could be compared to the journey from the Wasteland to the Grail. Finally, there is the cicada myth itself, in which the insects are mediators between humanity and the Muses, those goddesses who are so violated and forgotten in the world of Eliot’s poem.

    Also, I had a thought about the shadows. I have often wondered which directions one would have to be facing in order for one’s shadow to be in the positions that Eliot describes. So I finally took the opportunity, while reading your blog post, to apply the minuscule amount of brain-power to conduct this simple experiment that I have been putting off for months. Anyway, the results of the experiment are interesting: at morning, one would be facing East, in order for one’s shadow to be behind. At evening, in order for one’s shadow to be in front, rising to meet you, one would still have to be facing East! We have here, then, a character who is making the journey East, which is a major theme in “The Wasteland”, predominantly in the Eastern vegetation ceremonies which, according to Jessie Weston, are responsible for bringing the Grail mysteries to Europe, and are represented by such elements as Phlebas the Phoenician, Mr. Eugenides, and the references to the Upanishads at the end of the poem. Last, but not least, the delightful Advent carol “People Look East” bids us to do just that, in the expectation of Christ’s coming.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It strikes me also that the cicada cricket myth that you recount ties into the story of the Sibyl that Eliot references in his epigraph who has wasted away because she has long life bu not youth.

      I love the reference to the East in the shadows. I seem to recall having seen someone point to that before. It’s interesting how the poem conflates the turn to the east and eastern mysticism with the openness to Christ. It certainly does seem that in modernity those who have been accustomed to thinking of only material things, when they begin thinking of the spiritual often turn to eastern mysticism and yet that is often merely a stage on the journey towards Christ, a threshold of openness to that which is transcendent.

  • Hi Melanie,
    I too have found this rather late but am really enjoying reading it! This has been one of my favourite poems since a wonderful English Literature teacher introduced me to it in 6th form (A level). I share the same favourite line too – “come in under the shadow of this red rock” – and for the same reasons, the sheer poetry.

    I have something to add about the shadows. My teacher suggested that the “shadow at morning striding behind you” represented the young self, fit and fearless striding out into life; and the “shadow at evening rising to meet you” represented old age and approaching death, the evening of life where the shadow of death eventually arrives. We all come from dust and we return to dust. I have always loved this analogy of the shadows at different times of the day. Just something to add into the mix!

    Thanks again,

  • Thank you for these – a little while ago now, I realise.

    I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Eliot, but enjoyed writing my own verse derived from Prufrock, and am now working my way through The Waste Land with a good deal of pleasure. I find it suits these plague times, well and am enjoying reading other peoples take on the work as I write my way through it.

    Thanks again.