Escaping the Waste Land?

Years ago I began an over-ambitious attempt at a blog series on The Waste Land (you can see the link in the menu at the top of the page), but then I was pregnant and quickly ran out of steam. I abandoned the series when I got to a sticky place and I never have come back to it. But last week a stranger left a random comment (not a very nice one) on one of those old posts. And then this week an interesting article about the poem popped up that made me start pounding out words in response. Maybe it’s a signal that it’s time to revisit the poem? I’m not sure about resuming the line by line close reading where I left off; but maybe I’ll just get my feet wet by jotting down a few notes about this essay. . . .

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James McWilliams writes about the influence of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on Flannery O’Connor’s novels in his essay, Escaping the Waste Land: On Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot. I’m far from being an O’Connor expert. I’ve read some of her novels and stories, but it was years ago and I’m not up to discussing them in any detail. Yet I enjoyed the piece and found the tracing of the influences and parallels with Eliot to be quite interesting. But really I take up my pen to write not because of what McWilliams says about O’Connor but in response to his reading of Eliot.

 Once again I find myself having a much less bleak reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land than other critics of the poem.

“Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: ‘Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.'” says McWilliams. Except that the poem doesn’t end with “nothing” it ends with “Shanti”, that is, “peace.” Eliot glosses the word thusly: “‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is a feeble translation of the content of the word.” While Eliot draws the word from the Upanishads, in his footnote he chooses to use it to point the reader to St Paul and to Christ. Nor is this is a solitary instance. The Christian imagery is fairly thick in the latter part of the poem. While it is not lacking in ambiguity, that imagery is much more hopeful than most critics are willing to concede. I’ll come back to that point later. . . .

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McWilliams points to the presence of grace in O’Connor, which he says is in contrast with Eliot’s poem:

“Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace.”

On the contrary, I think Eliot himself has also found some grace in his ruins by the end of the poem. I argue that for him the ruins themselves are the building materials out of which he is building a new edifice and that is a very conscious move. The very structure of the poem is a mosaic, a patchwork of quotations. And those quotations, the fragments of a ruined civilization, are not meaningless. Rather, out of the cacophony, Eliot makes meaning just as out of the rubbish bin of a bombed city, new construction begins to emerge.

Look closely at what it is that the thunder says in the poem’s final section:

“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”

The first thing the narrator hears when the thunger speaks is “Datta: give”. The word prompts a sort of self-examination. What have we given? the speaker asks himself. Once again he addresses the reader directly, recalling the “mon semblable, mon frere” from the Burial of the Dead, now addressed as “my friend”. Here now the speaker does not have a heart of stone, but a heart shaken, a heart that is shaken by blood. In Eliot’s later masterpiece, the Four Quartets, “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” would be read as the moment of grace. Surrender is the human soul’s response to God’s grace attempting to break in. Here in The Waste Land, too, the imagery of surrender at least strongly suggests that what the speaker is surrendering to might be the working of grace. The thunder counsels that man should be generous and give. The narrator responds with a gift of self, a moment of surrender, giving in. The imagery of “blood shaking my heart” also suggests to me the Sacred Heart of Jesus— another possible Christ image. “By this and this only, we have existed” he says. This, not ‘nothing nothing nothing’, is revealed as the true foundation of existence in the poem. (And about that nothing, nothing, nothing…. in The Four Quartets Eliot uses it again in slightly different form, quoting St John of the Cross, Nada, Nada, Nada. For St John nada is the way of surrender, the way of self denial which allows the soul to be fully open to God’s presence.)

“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 Coriolanus”

In his footnotes Eliot translates dayadhvam as “sympathize” but I have seen it translated elsewhere as “be merciful”. Here we see the imagery of a prison, the soul locked in a prison. This does not seem hopeful. Nor does it seem immediately connected to either sympathy or mercy. And yet the imagery focuses on the key more than on the prison itself, the word key comes first and it repeats three times where prison is repeated only twice. The turning of the key is ambiguous. Is the key turning once to lock the prisoner in or is it turning to free him from his prison? I think that ambiguity is intentional, but it opens a space for a beginning of self awareness, the prisoner admitting that his thoughts are his prison. It is possible the turning key is mercy, come to free the prisoner? In any case, the key also makes me think of St Peter, of binding and loosing. Especially the key in conjunction with the boat and the cock and the agony in the garden imagery of the first stanza. The various tiles start to add up to maybe make a picture… if you squint just right?

“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 hands”

Eliot glosses damyata as ‘control,’ but elsewhere it is translated as ‘be subdued’. Who is doing the controlling here? What is being controlled? I think the boat is an image of the heart, the soul… ‘the boat responded . . . your heart would have responded’. It is true that the verb is conditional “Would have”, which removes it from the direct action of the poem, and yet all the imagery points to surrender. The boat reminds me of the image of the Church as a boat, the barque of St Peter. Here, the heart is a boat. The gay boat which responds gaily and obediently to the controlling hand has always sounded to me like a soul moving hopefully towards surrender to God’s guidance. The calm sea reminds me of Christ silencing the storm. The imagery here is of the fishing boat having weathered the storm. It is an image of grace and hope.

So the thunder finally comes, after the cock’s crow, bringing rain:

“Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain”

The thunder speaks words of hope, of divine counsel. If we can only hear them and decipher them.

And the final image of the fisherman “with the arid plain behind me”. He has turned his back on the dry places, on the desert and the dust, and is fishing. Is he the Fisher King of the Grail myth waiting for healing? It certainly seems a much more hopeful image.

As is that hopeful “shall I set my lands in order?” The decision to seek order, to put things right… that echoes the Fisher King again, whose lands are disordered because of the illness of the king, which is rooted in his inability to find the life-giving grail.

And then there is the line from Dante’s Purgatorio which is translated as, “Then he hid himself in the refining fire.” Eliot supplies a longer context for the quotation in his footnote:



“Now I petition you, by that kind Power
Escorting you to the summit of the staircase,
At the appropriate time, recall my pain.”

The soul speaking is not damned, it is a soul suffering torment, but it is the torment of the one who is saved, who is being refined y fire, and is awaiting union with God after the purgation of his sins. It is not the cry of the inferno. The tormented soul is begging to be remembered by the poet as he mounts up to heaven. Remember me. Pray for me, that my torment may be shorter. Eliot knew his Dante, it’s hard to imagine the shift to the purgatorio is accidental, that he hasn’t in some sense turned the corner and found his way out of the infernal realm.

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“Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity.”

But this reading baffles me. In the second half of the final section of the poem there *is* water. Although it begins with dryness, there is a turn after the cock crow: “Then a damp gust / Bringing rain”. There is the water the fisherman fishes in, the water the boat sails on, and the promise of water in the thunder which provides life-giving counsels: give, be merciful, be subdued. 

The fifth section of the poem begins with images that seem to carry echoes from Jesus’s arrest on the night he was betrayed, torchlight, garden, agony, prison, palace, living and dying… it’s fragmented, but the picture they juxtaposed images suggests is unmistakable:

“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
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was now living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience”

Then, after a series of images of a dry land, echoing the first section, a lament for the lack of water as the narrator stumbles through the mountains looking for water, we come to the two men who are sure there is a third, the men of the Antarctic expedition who hallucinated another person with imagery that echoes the journey to Emmaus from the Gospel, where the apostles fail to recognize Christ. Now Christ himself is walking through the poem in disguise, as a ghost. But the Christ who appears to the apostles *is* the resurrected Christ. The lack of recognition doesn’t undercut the identification, instead, paradoxically, it strengthens is. Christ is hidden, but still present until he reveals himself. The lack of recognition on the part of those who walk with him does not negate the reality of his presence. So, far from “drying out any prospect of the resurrection” Eliot does indeed manage to insert an image of the resurrected Christ into the poem, albeit in obscure form.

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While most critics have read The Waste Land as a poem of doubt and despair and loss of faith, I’ve always seen it as a hinge, the turning point in Eliot’s work, bridging the space between the bleakness of Prufrock and Sweeney and the spiritual garden of The Four Quartets. Images of aridity and sterility give place, tentatively, to the possibility of something more. The soul who has been long asleep is beginning to wake from its slumber, and though it fights to hold on to sleep, though it still denies the dawn, yet the cock has crowed and the sun will arise regardless of his protests.

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2 Responses to Escaping the Waste Land?

  1. MrsDarwin August 23, 2018 at 10:52 am #

    I’m no Eliot scholar, or even all that casual a reader, but I’ve always enjoyed this series and hope you write more.

    • Melanie Bettinelli
      Melanie Bettinelli August 23, 2018 at 11:12 pm #

      Thank you. I do miss it. I think I got bogged down in the need to write my way through the poem chronologically instead of going where my whim took me. And specifically with the tarot card portion of the poem, about which I had simultaneously too much and not enough to say. But maybe I’ll see what happens…

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