A tribute to the most revolutionary poem penned 100 years ago by an American banker in the city of London.
October 2022 marked 100 years since TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was published. Literary enthusiasts and critics have already written hundreds of thousands of words to give expression to their impression about these four hundred and thirty-three lines that constitute this landmark poem during the last hundred years and am sure tens of thousands more are likely to be written in the centenary year alone.
Now, you may question, what is so unique about The Waste Land that stirred modern men to write so much about so few lines that roar all about unfulfilling lives, “broken images” and loss—sounding more like a parody, pastiche, allusion. The answer is simple: breaking from tradition, yet desperately attempting to rebuild with ingenious uses of language and imaginative conceptions but in an allusive style a brilliant formal sense of the universal human predicament of man desiring salvation duly supplemented by a range of literary references, Eliot made his poem sound musical to the readers and that is what made it commendable for many critics and readers. At the same time, this highly complex and erudite poem of ostensible linguistic impenetrability attempts to establish ‘rhetorical discontinuity’ that reflects the fragmented 20th century sensibility with lot many quotations, allusions, violent yoking of heterogeneous ideas such as ‘April’ and “cruellest month” that do not go together, scholarly supplements, explanatory notes, etc., distracted some of the readers so much that they, failing to perceive its true originality, simply reviled it.
The net result of all this is more critical analysis and scholarly interpretation than just about any other poem. Even after 100 years of its publication, there is no sign of flagging: two books celebrating the centenary of the poem, viz., The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis and Elite After the Waste Land by Robert Crawford, are recently released. Yet another book, The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse by Lyndall Gordon is due for release in November. Such is the love of world literati for Eliot’s masterpiece.
Hollis’ book, diving deep into Eliot’s awful marriage with the stylish vivacious Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the resulting economic stress caused by his father cutting him out of his inheritance, and the claustrophobia caused by disastrous infertile marriage, brings out how Eliot’s creative response resulted in the era-defining poem. Indeed, Eliot himself mentioned something to this effect—“The agony forced some genuine poetry out of me, certainly, which I would never have written if I had been happy: in that respect, perhaps, I may be said to have had the life I needed”—in one of his letters written to Emily Hale, the American woman whom he loved silently for long.
Along with this domestic trauma, it is the armistice on the Western Front in Europe of 1918 and the ghosts of millions of soldiers and civilians who died in the First World War and their unmoored voices, and the decimated London by Spanish flu after the war that gave Eliot an apt backdrop to chisel out his poem. Indeed, the very opening of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead”—“April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ memory and desire … / feeding / A little life with dried tubers”—testifies it.
Adopting the formula that he described in one of his essays thus: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, and a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked”, Eliot, going much against the then prevailing belief that “art is nothing but an exercise of self-expression”, gave voice to “a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life” … in a style that is aimed at “continual extinction of [his] personality”—“That corpse you planted last year in your garden / Has it begun to sprout?”—which after passing through the skilful hands of his editor-friend, Ezra Pound, became the era-defining poem.
Coming to the poem, it has five parts: “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, “The Fire Sermon”, “Death by Water”, and “What the Thunder Said”, all of them expressing the all-pervading hopelessness in the life of a decayed Urbs Aeterna that had discarded the virtues of the past and jolly well dwelling in the cheapened culture, reading of which is like crossing the Chowringhee Road in the busy morning hours, but there is a whole lot of thrill in all those manoeuvres—through those constant shifts between speaker and time; elegiac explorations of various cultures and literature; the myths and realities, ragtime jazz, gramophones, garbage, music hall, a London pub, etc.— that had finally seen us through to the other end.
The first section deals with death starting with an aristocratic woman’s meditation on the cyclicality of seasons and the current state of barrenness—“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man / … / And the dead tree gives no shelter … / And the dry stone no sound of water … ”—and that apocalyptic journey promises even to “show you fear in a handful of dust”. Finally, the poem ends surreally: walking over the London bridge, the speaker, encountering a figure with whom he once fought in a battle [World War I (?)] enquires: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
The second section transiting from death to sex uses figures from Greek Mythology to talk about rape, procreation, and sexual desire. In the first part, we come across a wealthy woman, who is waiting for her lover, overtaken by frantic neurotic thoughts cries: “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / Speak to me, Why do you never speak? Speak …” The second part of this section happens in a London barroom between two lower-class women who converse about another woman’s husband returning from war awaiting “a good time” and if the lady “don’t give it him, there’s other's will … ” and finally the women at the bar attender’s repeated calls of “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” leave the bar, perhaps ruminating on the question, “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” to a chorus of goodnights that reminds us of Ophelia’s farewell.
In the third section, ‘The Fire Sermon’ the speaker is an “Old man with wrinkled female breasts”—a mythical figure called, Tiresias. He observes a young typist returning home ‘lights her stove’, and ‘lays out food in tins’. He, the young man carbuncular, arrives. Once the meal is over, he endeavours to ‘engage her’—the bored and tired—‘in caresses’, he assaults at once; doesn’t matter even ‘if [it is] undesired’; his ‘exploring hands encounter no defence’—indeed, ‘his vanity requires no response’—‘bestows on final patronizing kiss’, and gropes his way out by ‘the stairs unlit’ ... After the assault, the ‘lovely woman’ … thinking, “Well now that’s done: I’m glad it’s over”, passively (?) paces about her room … alone, portraying a scene of contemporary decadence, where sex has lost its deeper meaning … indeed became very mechanical. Finally, it ends abruptly with Buddha’s Fire Sermon, “O Lord Thou pluckest me out”.
The fifth and final poem is its thematic climax, which is presented in unpunctuated, unrhymed, irregular free verse. There are “ … voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells /… the grass is singing / Over the tumbled graves”. There is a decaying chapel suggesting the chapel in the legend of the Holy Grail. Atop the chapel, a cock crows, and suddenly “a damp gust” brings rain, all gratuitously. Then the scene shifts to India: “Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves / waited for rain, while black clouds / Gathered far distant, over Himavant / The Jungle crouched, humped in silence / Then spoke the thunder / DA … / DA … / DA”. As such these onomatopoetic phrases, “DAs”, have no meaning but they need to be interpreted, for Eliot took them from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Hindu text. A narration in it reads thus: Prajapathi, the celebrated teacher of Devatas (Gods), Rakshasas (ogres), and Manavas (human beings), was approached, while he was in a penance by Devathas who prayed: “Father! Preach us something”. Heeding their prayer, Prajapathi said ‘DA’ and that is my advice to you all. He then enquired if they understood it. Devathas said: “DA means—Damyatha and, since we are known to be after sensual gratification, you advise us to control our Indriyas— exercise self-restraint. Don’t you?” Prajapathi said, “yes”. Then Prajapathi was approached by Manavas who prayed for his advice. Here again, Prajapathi said ‘DA’ stating it as his advice to them. Here, too, he asked if the Manavas understood its meaning. The Manavas replied: ‘DA’ means ‘Datta’ (give) and, since we, as men, are known to be greedy and miserly, you want us to cultivate the habit of ‘giving’, “Don’t you?” Prajapathi confirmed it. Lastly, the Rakshasas too approached him and prayed for his advice. Prajapathi again said ‘DA’ as his advice to them and enquired if they understood it. The Asuras replied: “DA means Dayadhvam and father, as we are known to be cruel, you want us to cultivate compassion. Don’t you?” Prajapathi said “yes”. Finally, Eliot ends his poem—characterized by jarring jumps in perspective, imagery, setting, etc., and yet unified in its theme of despair— with “Shantih shantih shantih”, alluding to peace.
Intriguingly, though Eliot expressed his aversion for “mixing / Memory with desire” and for “stirring / Dull roots with spring rain” at the very beginning of the poem, it must be said that to a great extent, the success of the poem rests in Eliot’s ability to mix “modes and tones” and to seamlessly blend his experimentalism with the literary tradition quite skilfully. That aside, by penning the poem—“…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”—which was considered by his contemporaries as a representation of a general crisis in the post-World War II western culture, Eliot might have acquired Shanti peace unto himself.