The Works of T.S. Eliot 11: The Waste Land Part I

– Hello I’m Victor Strandberg, and in this session, we’re going to take up at last TS Eliot’s most celebrated achievement in poetry, The Wasteland, the central poem in English of the 20th century The title, The Wasteland, evidently came about when TS Eliot read Jessie Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance, from which, in the first note to The Wasteland, as I said in our last session, Eliot derived the title, the plan, and a good deal of the incidental symbolism in this poem Originally, the title was from a novel of Dickens, He Do the Police in Different Voices We’ll find out as we get into the poem that that concept remains The poem is a study of many voices joined together to make up The Wasteland, and a crucial part of understanding this poem is to disentangle those voices as they come up, one after the other That’s what we shall do as we go into Part I But first of all, we have the title page, The Wasteland, with the date 1922, and with a fragment of literature from ancient Roman times This excerpt is from the Satyricon of Petronius, Satyricon spelled S-A-T-Y-R-I-C-O-N, and the satyr was, of course, a figure representing the decadence of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Nero and other such emperors The excerpt is written in Latin and Greek, and a rough translation would read as follows, underneath the title of the whole poem The Wasteland: “Now I myself with my own eyes, saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” We could pause for a moment and explain that the Sybil of Cumae, a voice of wisdom in this excerpt, asked for immortality The gods granted immortality, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and so as she aged through the centuries, she got smaller as old people tend to do, and now she is so small that she can fit inside a jar So the exerpt shows some young men coming to get advice from this voice of wisdom, the Sybil of Cumae “When I myself saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar, those young men asked her,” and that’s where we go into Greek, “What do you want?” “And she answered, I want to die.” This exerpt brings up then the subject of mortality or death, something to be desired, so far as the Sybil of Cumae goes, and something I also think proves desirable as an alternative to the wasteland in Part IV of this poem, Death by Water, as we’ll see when we get to that But for now, we could say that this issue of mortality is one of the two great issues that dominates this poem, how to cope with one’s mortality, specifically without a myth of rebirth This theme, how to cope with mortality without a myth of rebirth evokes one of the two great dimensions of all major religious traditions, metaphysics and the other is ethics Now metaphysics is a word that means more than physical In short, it refers to the supernatural in the great religious traditions, and it is through the supernatural that these traditional religions offer a myth of rebirth In the Christian faith, of course,

it is through the resurrection of Jesus, that myth of rebirth that all believers can share in the resurrection of Jesus after this mortal life is over When I use the phrase a myth of rebirth, I’m not referring to the truth or falseness of this myth It may be true and correlate with reality, or it may be simply a figment of imagination That’s not the issue here The issue is one of belief, that a myth is a belief held by an individual or it may be shared by the entire society, that is so fundamental and important to one’s life that on it depends the meaning of one’s life, or indeed the meaning of the existence of that society And there is no myth more important to any society, or we might say individual, than some form of a myth of rebirth, to satisfy this metaphysical question of attaining a satisfactory relationship to eternity Naturalistically, one’s relationship to eternity is that death is the permanent extinction of the self A myth of rebirth offers a better alternative The other great dimension of all religious traditions is ethics, the conduct of life here in this world In The Wasteland, the first and fourth sections of the poem, The Burial of the Dead, section one, and section four, Death by Water, take up the metaphysical issue of how to cope with the burial of the dead in a time without a myth of rebirth And the other dimension, ethics, the conduct of life here and now, is the subject of Parts Two, Three, and Five These two dimensions, metaphysics and ethics, interweave each section of the poem, but the main thrust of sections one and four would be the issue of how to cope with the burial of the dead, and the main thrust of Parts Two, Three, and Five, the Game of Chess, the Fire Sermon, and What the Thunder Said, those sections mainly deal with trying to attain a higher level of ethical conduct and thereby alleviating the sufferings of the Wasteland Can that happen in a time without belief? Before we leave the title page, we should note that the poem was dedicated to Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro That is, the greater poet, the greater artist There is a touch of irony in that dedication Eliot had every reason to be grateful to Ezra Pound for helping him through those formative years of his career as a poet, helping him to get published, publishing Prufrock in 1915, and helping him above all editing this poem, cutting out about half the poem and making it a much, incomparably better poem through eliminating about half of it, as Ezra Pound did with his ruthless scissors Nonetheless, Ezra Pound was not il miglior fabbro Both Pound and Eliot knew that this poem would displace Ezra Pound as the major modern poet of the time, and Eliot himself would ascend that throne In fact, Pound sent a note to Eliot when The Wasteland was published saying,”Complimenti, you bitch I am wracked by the seven jealousies.” Now as we get to the poem proper, the first thing I want to do is say a few words about the title of section one, the Burial of the Dead That title comes from the Anglican prayer book If you go to a funeral in an Anglican church or an Episcopal church, there is an order for the burial of the dead

in the Anglican prayer book that the priest will follow And the very first words that are uttered in the funeral service in an Episcopal or Anglican church read as follows, the priest speaking, “I am the resurrection and the life, sayth the Lord “He that believeth on me though he were dead “yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” There’s your myth of rebirth, the way in which Christians confront the issue of the burial of the dead Now in The Wasteland, of course, that belief is not credible, and so we have to proceed in this poem with TS Eliot’s way of handling that issue, that problem The opening lines of The Wasteland are among the most famous in English poetry They appear to be a reply to Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, who famously began that magnificent work with a welcome to the springtime “Upon that April with her shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” Which is to say when April, with its sweet showers, has pierced the drought of March, when the flowers spring up in the springtime, when the birds are making melody, then people long to go on pilgrimages, enjoying a beautiful ride through the countryside in the springtime TS Eliot famously rebuts that mood Instead, he says, “April is the cruelest month.” Now, we might ask why April is cruel I think we’d have to note that in his personal life April was thought to be the month when TS Eliot’s soulmate, Jean Verdenal, was thought to have drowned in the Dardanelles campaign It turned out later that it could have happened perhaps on the first or second of May, but it also could have happened in April and was thought to have happened in April The larger reason why April is the cruelest month would obviously be because it is a time of the upsurge of desire, of sexuality, in all living things, including humankind So, “April is the cruelest month,” then, “breeding lilacs in the dead land, mixing memory and desire.” Those are two forms of cruelty, because in Eliot’s experience, memory is generally a memory of a better life in the past It is a memory of loss, such as the loss of Jean Verdenal or the loss of childhood and its innocence I’ll pit it against the naturalistic bleakness of adult life “Memory and desire,” desire, of course, that cannot be requited A great hunger, I think, dominates this poem as far as that theme is concerned There is one other reason why April is the cruelest month For centuries in the past when people died in northern climates, they could not be buried during the wintertime The ground froze so hard that if you tried to dig a hole and, say, a swing a pick, the pick would bounce back at you as though you were trying to chop into cast iron So the dead would have to be stacked up during the winter and then they might be buried when the ground thaws in the springtime, perhaps in this month of April Certainly that would be a reason why April is the cruelest month and it would tie in with the theme, the burial of the dead Now as we proceed in this opening passage of The Wasteland, we’ve touched on April stirring memory and desire, forms of hunger that cannot be appeased, and therefore as, “memory and desire stirred dull roots with spring rain,”

we look back with some nostalgia on the winter which kept us warm, “covering earth in forgetful snow,” leaving memory and particularly desire alone “Feeding a little life with dried tubers,” that is what winter did for us to our advantage Now those cruel unanswerable yearnings are awakened once again with the turn of the year, the month of April Now at this point, the opening voice in The Wasteland ceases We remember that the original title, He Do the Police in Different Voices suggests that this poem initially was an exercise in style in multiple voices jumbled together, and in order to understand the poem, we have to disentangle the voices It takes perhaps a trained ear or an educated eye to do this with confidence, but I think it can be done plausibly, and here I think is where the next voice cuts into the poem We could call that first initial voice the voice of a philosophical meditating individual, an observer of the wasteland, and that voice, of course, will come in and out of the poem throughout the rest of the way But at this point, the voice that intrudes is that of a woman, and scholars have identified her as a Princess Marie of Austria, and she is here experiencing memory and desire, the memory of the time before the war when being a princess meant something, and she’s looking back then at a happier time in the past During World War One, of course, the great dynasties of Europe collapsed For that matter, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, producing chaos that is still going in our own time as a remnants of the Ottoman Empire fall into civil war in places like Egypt and Syria, or go to war with each other The voice of Princess Marie then, remembering with desire a happier time in the past “Summer surprised us,” she says, “coming over the Starnbergersee.” The Starnbergersee is a beautiful lake near Munich in Germany You could see swans swimming near the shore and across the far end of the lake, you could see the Alps mountains, a gorgeous spectacle “Summer surprised us coming over the Starnbergersee, “with a shower of rain “We stopped in the colonnade, and went on into the sunlight, “into the Hofgarten, and drank coffee, and talked for an hour.” Now this is a moment of human communion, and in the isolation that affects Eliot’s poetry, isolation that we saw in Prufrock or Portrait of a Lady and other poems we could point to, this is a moment that transcends that feeling of loneliness and therefore, it is a happier memory in the past At this point, a voice breaks in in a different language, someone speaking German “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” I am not Russian, I am from Lithuania, I’m a genuine German This jumble of voices from different languages in the poem may be a reflection on the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis, in the Bible, wherein originally all people spoke the same language Then when they built the Tower of Babel, God was displeased and arranged for a break-up of that common language, so that people could no longer have that common effort of building the tower The theme of loneliness, of course, is accentuated by this use of foreign languages breaking in,

French, German, Italian, even ancient Sanskrit before the poem is over People literally cannot understand each other There’s one other element in this use of foreign languages TS Eliot wrote much of The Wasteland when he was a patient at a sanitarium in Switzerland, trying to overcome his nervous breakdown This was in the city of Lausanne on Lake Geneva and there, TS Eliot would have heard other patients from different parts of Europe speaking different languages It is likely that some fragments from what he overheard turn up in this poem Now if we ignore that interruption in the German language, we can carry on with Princess Marie coming up with another memory of a beautiful time in her childhood in this case And here we have to use one of those terms that we might call jargon, professional jargon, but I think this one we do have to contend with, the use of the word epiphany James Joyce made it a secular term in his writing, but it goes back actually to sacred writs When the three wise men came across the desert led by the steadfast star in the sky to the Christ child, and when they reached the Christ child, they had an epiphany, which is literally the experience of visitation with a god, the god in this case would be the Christ child, and so we have the Feast of the Epiphany in the Christian calendar, marking that occasion of the three wise men coming to the Christ child James Joyce, as I say, secularized it, so that an epiphany is any transcendent experience, elevating one above ordinary life and its dreariness into a moment of ecstasy Now that too is part of the memory and desire, located in the past, a memory of a beautiful time when Princess Marie was a princess, before the fall of these great dynasties, the Romanovs in Russia, the Hohenzollerns in Prussia, the Hapsburgs in Austria, et cetera And so we proceed then with that epiphany of Princess Marie “When we were children staying at the archduke’s, “my cousin’s, he took me out on a sled “and I was frightened “He said, Marie, Marie, hold on tight, and down we went,” ecstatically Now, after the war, after the collapse of the empires, there is no princess or archduke any longer Now instead we have this meaningless routine You might say it’s one of those motifs of the wheel turning in the individual life, a meaningless circuit of experience “In the mountains there you feel free,” she says “I read much of the night.” She’s an insomniac like other Eliot characters, “and go south in the winter.” We end that intrusion into the original voice, that philosophical meditative, melancholy voice that started the poem, and we go back to that voice at this point with a question that has a religious reference “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?” Now in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament as Christians would call it, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, the prophet Isaiah, predicted the coming of the Messiah as a root out of dry ground Christians, of course, think Jesus is the messiah Is that root out of dry ground? The point of that image in Isaiah and in the life of Jesus is that a root does not grow out of dry ground It requires supernatural intervention And spiritually, the ground has never been dryer in TS Eliot’s estimation than here in the modern wasteland

So the question then can be put without any hope of a satisfactory answer Where is this root out of dry ground? What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish? Jesus is also called a branch in the New Testament, so probably that’s an additional reference, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish The next phrase, son of man, is a decidedly biblical formulation It’s used in both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible It’s often used to refer to Jesus, who was both described as the son of man and the son of God There is, of course, no God in the wasteland, so there cannot be a son of God, but we can still use the phrase son of man Son of man, in reply to that question, what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish “Son of man, you cannot know 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, the dry stone no sound of water.” There’s only the wasteland in short, this naturalistic environment “There is shadow under this red rock,” the poet goes on to say, or that original and dominant voice actually in the wasteland goes on to say, “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,” well, that’s not so bad It’s more sinister, however “Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” This after all is a section on the burial of the dead “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Well, we are told in Genesis that God scooped up a handful of dust, puffed on it, and made mankind, with, according to Genesis, some spiritual dimension in his existence That spiritual dimension is very much in question, leaving fear in that handful of dust in its place The original philosophical voice that we’ve heard twice now stops at this point and a new voice breaks in in the German language In fact, this is music One of the greatest composers of all time, Richard Wagner is cited here, and Eliot is citing his great opera of erotic love, Tristan and Isolda We know from Eliot’s biography, from his letters, that he and his friend Jean Verdenal attended this particular opera, Tristan and Isolda, and for TS Eliot, it was virtually a mystic experience, transported him to some transcendent realm above ordinary experience So it shows up here in the poem, but what’s important about that opera is that the two lovers experience memory and particularly desire, which is never satisfied So the two lovers here are portrayed as yearning to each other, but not being able to arrange an encounter The medieval story of Tristan and Isolda is that Tristan was a young man living in Britain Isolda was living in Ireland Their two tribes were at war, but sort of like Romeo and Juliet, these two fell in love with each other, and we see them yearning across the Irish Sea to be with each other So as we look at these lines then from Wagner, let me cite what Wagner wrote, “Frisch weht der Wind “Der Heimat zu “Mein Irisch Kind, Wo weilest du?” Fresh blows the wind toward home My Irish sweetheart, where are you? This fragment from Eliot’s love opera

is followed by another episode of memory and desire This could be something close to Eliot’s own life I rather suspect it is It is the hyacinth girl episode, and we begin with the girl speaking about a better time in the past “You gave me hyacinths a year ago They called me the hyacinth girl.” And the man she is addressing replies, “Yes, when we came back late from the Hyacinth garden, “your arms full and your hair wet, “I could not speak “My eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, looking into the heart of light, the silence.” This was almost a mystic experience again, looking into the heart of light, speechless, taken by the girl’s beauty, when the hyacinth girl was with him a year ago We infer that that relationship is gone now We come back at this point to Richard Wagner We had the lover looking across the sea, Tristan looking toward Ireland for his sweetheart Isolda He’s hoping a ship will show up on the horizon bringing his sweetheart to England But instead, as the opera goes on, the German reads,”Oed und leer das Meer,” wide and empty the sea There is no ship bringing my lover Memory and desire, forms of cruelty in this month of April We proceed at this point with the fortune-teller episode “Madame Sosostris is a fortune-teller, a famous clairvoyant “She had a bad cold, nevertheless,” perhaps she doesn’t have supernatural powers Nonetheless, “she is known to be the wisest woman in Europe “with a wicked pack of cards “Here, she said, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor.” Well, this is the section on the burial of the dead, and in Section 4, Death by Water, we will encounter that drowned Phoenician Soldier He’s called Phlebas the Phoenician Your card, your future In truth, if you go to have your future predicted, almost anyone could make the prediction you’re going to die You will be subject to the burial of the dead or at least to drowning, as Phlebas the Phoenicians was and Jean Verdenal, it was thought We proceed at this point after the reference to the drowned Phoenician Sailor With a new myth of rebirth, something from Shakespeare, it is not a Christian myth of rebirth, but it is something that shows up in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest And in it, the youth who was washed ashore after the ship is wrecked in the storm thinks his father is dead The fairy Ariel sings to him a song of consolation “Yes, full fathom five thy father lies He is drowned at the bottom of the sea.” Turns out that’s not so, but at this point in the play we have that song and in the song, the myth of rebirth shows up in this line, “Those are pearls that were his eyes,” that is, your father has been turned into something rich and strange “Those are pearls that were his eyes Of his bones is coral made.” He’s been transformed into something beautiful under the sea, a myth of rebirth as it were Better certainly than the naturalistic prospects in the wasteland can offer We go on with the fortune-telling “Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.” Well, that formulation, the Lady, usually is a Christian reference Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of some city perhaps, Our Lady of Lourdes When we have this formulation, the Lady of the Rocks, capital L and capital R,

well, the rocks in Eliot’s work are a generic reference to the wasteland It is a pile of rock and that’s the best we can do for Our Lady in this naturalistic setting “Here is the man with three staves,” that’s one of the cards I held up in our last session from the tarot deck, The Merchant The man with three staves, he’s looking out at sea, looking at his ship, a tiny little figure out there of a ship, presumably carrying his merchandise to make a profit And here is the Wheel, another card I consider that the single most important symbol in all of Eliot’s poetry, because it is the fundamental design of nature, whether it is the way the atom functions with the electron, or the planets going around the Sun, or the great galaxies whirling like a giant wheel in the cosmos, or even on our individual level, the circulation of the blood, all of which is subject to another wheel, the Wheel of Time, meaningless repetition of natural cycles Here the Wheel, here the one-eyed merchant, which will turn into the Jack in our modern playing cards, and this card which is blank Well, if that card comes up when you want your fortune told, you are in a very bad way “I do not find The Hanged Man.” That’s an extremely important missing card from the deck, the Hanged Man, as I mentioned in our last session, literally would refer to one of these bodies, such as were found in the peat bogs of Denmark, preserved by the peat, a leathery sort of a cadaver with a rope around its neck A number of those have been discovered from thousands of years ago, and the inference is that these were sacrificial scapegoats, killed to provide a benefit for the society Perhaps to extend life for the society, to appease the gods, whatever was necessary In the Western heritage, of course, Jesus is the Hanged Man, a man put to death so as to provide life for his believers and followers “I do not find The Hanged Man,” there is no messiah, no savior in the wasteland That card is missing “Fear death by water.” Again, anticipating Part IV of this poem We then have a quotation from Dante’s Inferno “I see crowds of people walking in a ring.” TS Eliot said that Dante and Shakespeare divide the world There is no third I can’t say I would agree with that, but for Eliot, this was how much he revered these two writers whom he cites frequently This quotation from Dante, “I see crowds of people walking in a ring,” is when Dante first peeped over the edge of Hell, which is portrayed in the Divine Comedy as a gigantic pit funneling down through the earth, and with terraces or circles cut into the edge of the pits, and people are being punished on these various ledges for the sins they committed in their mortal lifetime So we have the wheel image then applied, people going around in that circular motion for ever and ever in Hell We now proceed toward the end of the fortune-teller episode “Thank you If you see dear Miss Equitone,” presumably the fortune-teller Madame Sosostris is speaking to her client, “tell her I’ll bring the horoscope myself,” to predict the future in that fashion We turn now as we end Part I of this poem, the Burial of the Dead, we turn back to that original philosophical melancholy voice, addressing the city of London in much the same way that Baudelaire addressed the city of Paris, back around the 1850s

“Unreal City,” he says, something I think he got from Baudelaire, “under the brown fog of a winter dawn.” We remember the fog as a motif of isolation, back in Prufrock, when he stared at the fog out the window instead of attending to the people at the party “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many I had not thought death had undone so many.” That’s another line from Dante’s Inferno He was astonished at how many people were crowded into these ledges, these circles of hell And for TS Eliot, not believing in the supernatural, the city of London will do very nicely as a Hell for our time “Sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled Each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” This, of course, is a motif of loneliness People crowded together in the great metropolises of the 20th century, but never have people been more isolated from each other spiritually We proceed at the end of Part I, the Burial of the Dead, with three kinds of naturalistic resurrection And these three modes of resurrection are presented in the style of Dante’s Divine Comedy In the Divine Comedy, Dante repeatedly meets people in the next world that he knew in this world and when he meets them, he generally expresses surprise, “What are you doing here?” The sinner then will tell his story why he has been punished in Hell Dante will record it as part of his poem Now something like that happens as we end the Burial of the Dead “There I saw one I knew and stopped him, crying, Stetson! You who were with me in the ships at Mylae.” Mylae was an ancient sea battle It does suggests in the Wasteland World War One and the greatest sea battle of that war, the Battle of Jutland, when the German Navy and the British Navy collided They were both very powerful fleets, and after all the destruction, the slaughter, the ships going down, it ended basically in a draw Both fleets retired to their home base to lick their wounds So, “you who were with me in the ships at Mylae “That corpse you planted last year in your garden “Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” Well, that’s one way to raise the dead If that corpse underground suffices to feed some flowers, when they bloom, we could say that is the return of the dead in some fashion It’s not very satisfactory really, but it will have to do There is no real resurrection of the dead We proceed to the second kind of resurrecting the dead “Has a certain frost disturbed its bed?” That is, the bed of that corpse you planted last year Now, in northern countries once again, the ground can freeze so hard, so solid, that it can crack That does happen sometimes, and when the ground cracks, well, something that’s buried under the surface might get pushed to the surface Perhaps that corpse might reappear That would be resurrection of the dead, naturalistically We proceed to the last of these three kinds of naturalistic resolutions to the problem, the burial of the dead “Keep the dog far hence, that’s friend to men, “or with his nails, he’ll dig it up again.” Well, if the dog were to dig up its master’s body, I suppose we could say that’s a kind of resurrection It will have to do It’s all we have We have no myth of rebirth in The Wasteland Part I ends with a line from Baudelaire, the flowers of evil, Fleurs du Mal “You, hypocrite lecteur! Mon semblable, mon frere!” You, hypocrite reader, my double, my brother Baudelaire addressed his reader that way

at the outset of his great set of poems, The Flowers of Evil So we’ll end our look at Part I, the Burial of the Dead, with that line of Baudelaire, and in our next session, we’ll take up Part II, A Game of Chess