The Wasteland Essay, Research Paper
T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land using a different type of poetry style and organization than was typical at the time. It follows the flow of its own themes, jumping from time to time and place to place as quickly as a thought comes and goes. Eliot uses opposites juxtaposed with each other without transfer to emphasize his themes. The poem is a mythic experience of kings, queens, and heroes. Eliot also uses this poem as an ironic quest of modern day people. The setting and the cast of The Waste Land exist within the mind of the poem s speaker. The poem is structured around the way the themes move in the speakers mind. The Waste Land is Eliot s commentary on the state of the society that he lived in. Eliot depicts a world that is in a state of confusion and turmoil with little or no hope for recovery. Eliot uses the myth of the Fisher King to represent his society that is decaying morally and socially.
The Fisher King is a fertility myth that is paralleled by many other myths and stories throughout The Waste Land. In this myth a great kingdom is rendered desolate when a curse is placed upon the king by a wound of some sort. A great hero must complete a challenge and prove his worth so that the Fisher King may be healed. The hero that proves he is worthy and completes the tasks becomes the Fisher King by his deeds. Usually the Fisher King is associated with Arthurian legend and the quest for the Holy Grail. However, the actual story of the Fisher King probably has its roots in the pagan fertility ceremonies or Celtic myths.
The first section of the poem is titled The Burial of the Dead. This section flows along from one passage to the next drawing connections across time and place. The speaker is centering his thoughts on the certainty that death is on the way. He hopes that soon the mythical rebirth and revival will happen. This comes together at the end of the first passage when the speaker is in the unreal city. This unreal city is the modern Paris or London. This modern society is depicted as a limbo where the citizens are in no pain but condemned to no chance at fulfillment.
As the speaker is watching the people pass, he sees Stetson, a man who was in the war with him. The context of this scene would imply that Stetson was a soldier in the First World War. However, the speaker implies that he was in the Punic war with him two thousand years before this scene takes place. Here Eliot suggests that all the wars are one war by blurring the lines of time. The speaker then asks Stetson about a corpse that he buried, bringing us back to the title of the section The Burial of the Dead. Here Eliot quotes John Webster s play The White Devil where one brother is burying the body of his brother whom he killed. Eliot also makes reference to the Dog that might interfere with the resurrection. This dog is the Dog Star Sirus who follows his slain master Orion through the sky. In Egyptian mythology Sirus is responsible for the flooding of the Nile River and the subsequent fertility of the Nile river valley. The reference to Webster s play can also be interpreted as a comment on the evil nature of man. The first biblical murder was the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. At the end of this section Eliot writes hypocrite, double, my brother letting the reader know that the character of Stetson is really the reader that the speaker is referring to.
This meditation on death is a reflection on what has been lost. The world is slowly withering away like the cursed kingdom of the Fisher King. The Fisher King has lost everything and sits contemplating his once great kingdom. Throughout his depression and loss, there is still some hope that what was lost can be regained. The Fisher King can be redeemed and healed if only some great hero will save him. There is no sign of hope here in The Waste Land, there is only the pain and decay of society and its values.
The second section is titled A Game of Chess, implying a strategic game is to be played. This section gives us a depiction of the effects of improper love or lust and passion. The two scenes in this section show the two sides of improper love in two times. The first starts with symbols of beauty and fertility that have become out of date for the society. They are no longer vital and fertile but withered stumps of time. This scene is the raping of Philomel by king Tereus in Greek legend. The king raped Philomel, his wife s sister, and then the he cut out her tongue to silence her. The gods turn her into a nightingale to save her from the king. As a nightingale she has a voice that can t be silenced by the evil of the world. This nightingale gives us a renewed hope by being reborn as the phoenix, with hair in fiery points. None of these gods appeared to be operating to redress societal wrongs in Eliot s time.
The second scene in this section is the story of an unidentified lower class woman. In this woman s tale, all of the lives around her have been consumed with improper love. The improper love in this time is more directly influenced by the apathy of the people rather than the evil of the world. The evil is still around, and no one cares that it is consuming their society. So the game of chess ends in stalemate, no one can move and no one cares enough to do so.
These two situations represent the lost vitality of our culture and parallel the loss of vitality in the Fisher King. The Fisher King has lost his fertility and here in these to situations normally associated with fertility we find none. In the first case it is a violated love that results in a transformation and escape. The second, a more modern reference, we see a deliberate disregard for fertility. The woman here has several abortions to get rid of unwanted pregnancies. The fertility of the Fisher King is gone and in its place are rapes and abortions. These two improper loves take place in a broken and withered culture where the meaning of love and its vitality are gone. Just as the Fisher King is loss of vitality, the culture has lost the meanings behind its symbols of life and they no longer apply to its people.
The third section is titled The Fire Sermon, suggesting that there is a way to redemption or a way to escape the fear and desolation of this life. From the beginning there are examples of pure love but they are counterbalanced by the improper loves. The nightingale s song in this section parallels the juxtaposition of pure and improper love with the combination of its pure song, twit twit twit, and it s perverted song, jug jug jug. Both the examples of love and the nightingale s song are So rudely forc d .
The next passage of this section introduces Tiresias who acts as an interpreter for the story. Tiresias, in Greek mythology, was both a man and a woman during his life. He was also given the gift of prophecy by one of the gods. Tiresias makes the best interpreter; he knows what will happen and he has experienced the lusts and urges of both sexes.
This section ends with the ironic juxtaposition of heroic and mythical love with modern situations of indecent love. The Fire Sermon was a sermon of Buddha that taught the only way to freedom was though the escape from the senses and passion. All senses and passions, even passionate love, are associated with sorrow, grief, and the lack of true happiness.
The passion that is causes the pain here is linked with the suffering of the Fisher King. In the myth of the Fisher King he is wounded in his thigh or groin. This wound is symbolic of the loss of his vitality and ability to create. This wound consumes him and causes him constant pain and suffering. His areas of passion give him constant pain just as the Buddhist sermon links unhappiness with senses and their passions. The loss of society s vitality is associated with this unhappiness and pain. The first World War was entirety an act of anger, hatred, and the passion of man s senses. These emotions lead to the sorrow and misery caused by war.
The fourth section is titled Death By Water ; this title implies an ironic relationship with the fertile nature of water. In pagan beliefs, there was living water that is essentially a reference to the death and resurrection myth; the god was buried in the winter and resurrected in the spring. In Christian beliefs there is living water referred to by Christ as a symbol for salvation. In this section we see another reference to the Fisher King myth in the lost father of Ferdinand in Shakespeare s The Tempest.
This section is a reminder of the death that awaits the Fisher King; his reprieve from suffering is death. He must wait for the hero to come and set him free from his pain. It is also a reminder that death awaits everyone on earth. The depression that is felt in this section is echoed in the depression of society. Death is slowly approaching and society doesn t have a values or purpose to face death with.
The fifth section, What the Thunder Said, is taken from the second Brahman passage of the three cardinal virtues. These three virtues are self-restraint, giving and compassion. In this section Eliot places the reader after the death in the fertility myths, waiting for the rebirth. The first few lines are Jerusalem just after the death of Christ and before his resurrection. The emptiness before the rebirth is echoed in the other patterns of the poems symbols. The symbols are waiting for rain, the disciples walking to Emmaus, and approaching the Grail castle.
Eliot then explains his purpose in the structure of the The Waste Land when he wrote, Why then Ile fit you. This line is a fragmented quote from Kyd s Spanish Tragedy. In Kyd s play, it was spoken by Hieronymo; after his son was killed, he feigned madness to the murderer. He said this when they ask him to perform a play for them. When he performs the play, he kills the murderers and then himself. Eliot is saying that he is not mad and the poem is a product of Eliot s experience.
The Waste Land ends with the three commands of the thunder: give, sympathize, and control. The state that comes from following these commands Eliot explains as The peace that passeth understanding. Eliot writes that we have not followed any of these commands that will lead to redemption and fulfillment for our society. This is the approach we should take to find the redemption of society. This approach is just as elusive as approaching the Grail castle in the Arthurian myth. In the myth the castle is never found easily and help is needed to find it. The path to the chapel must be pointed out to those seeking it. Once it is found it first appears empty and deserted. The path given by the thunder is so elusive because we don t take the advice and follow the thunder s path. Society is searching so hard for an answer or solution that it does not follow the path that is pointed out.
The Fisher King himself is not introduced until line 51 of The Waste Land; however, in reflecting on the poem s content before and after this point, it is the Fisher King that is the dominant character in The Waste Land. The wasteland itself is the post-World War I society and identical to the Fisher King. In many myths the king is coupled with the land, here represented as society, and its fate is intertwined with his. According to Eliot s notes, the man with three staves in the tarot deck arbitrarily represents the Fisher King; the only time he is mentioned directly. In this section the Fisher King is coupled with the lost father of Prince Ferdinand in Shakespeare s The Tempest. The lost father figure corresponds to the loss of fertility and health of the Fisher King. In the third section The Fire Sermon we see the same merger of the Fisher King and The Tempest in lines 188 through 192. The two are representative of the lost morals and emptiness of society after the First World War.
In the Thames song (ll. 266-291) we see reference to Wagner s opera the Rhine-daughters. The nymphs mourn because the gold that they guarded was stolen and as a result their river has lost its beauty. The nymphs ask the help of a great hero to retrieve their gold and restore the river. In much the same way the hero must complete the tasks so that the Fisher King can be returned to glory and fertility. Eliot does not include this restoration and healing of society in the waste land.
One of the most important parallels of the Fisher King myths in The Waste Land is the story of Christ s death and resurrection. Through Christ s sacrifice the world is returned to spiritual richness. After the world witnessed the atrocities and horror of war, society needed reassurance that God was still there. This longing for spiritual healing in society was not answered as Eliot shows us in The Waste Land. Eliot uses these heroic and legendary tales to suggest a mythical journey that takes us to the kingdom of the Fisher King. All these stories connect back to the Fisher King s suffering and the resulting decay of the land.
These variations and parallels to the Fisher King myth create Eliot s overall message in The Waste Land. Eliot uses these myths and stories to paint a picture of loss of social purpose, direction, and value and the resulting impending death and decay in society. The society after the First World War was grim and desolate. The intelligentsia of Eliot s time had no hope of redemption and spiritual fulfillment in sight. The entire world felt the sorrow of war and its crimes. The Waste Land s message in universal; it exists in no one place or time. It is the depression and decay possible in every generation. There is an underlying hope that the restoration of society and individuals will arrive. In Eliot s time this hope was almost nonexistent; in our society the hope is slightly greater simply because it remains possible.