What is the meaning of water in The Waste Land?
Water has two distinct, contrasting meanings in the poem. "The Waste Land" is, first and foremost, a re-imagining of the Fisher King myth. This narrative is all about sterility and barrenness: the land brings forth no fruit. In the poem, this is a metaphor for modern society. Thus, on one hand, water represents the giving of life. Water offers fertile ground the opportunity for new growth. Thus, the rain at the end of the poem represents new beginnings, a washing away of sin, and the hope for the return of spirituality to modern life. However, the rain also bring thunder and lightning, which leads to the next meaning.
Water also signifies death. The storm can bring danger, including drowning. The drowned Phoenician sailor is an example of way in which water is linked with death.
The shortest section of the poem, “Death by Water” describes a man, Phlebas the Phoenician, who has died, apparently by drowning. In death he has forgotten his worldly cares as the creatures of the sea have picked his body apart. The narrator asks his reader to consider Phlebas and recall his or her own mortality.
While this section appears on the page as a ten-line stanza, in reading, it compresses into eight: four pairs of rhyming couplets. Both visually and audibly, this is one of the most formally organized sections of the poem. It is meant to recall other highly organized forms that often have philosophical or religious import, like aphorisms and parables. The alliteration and the deliberately archaic language (“o you,” “a fortnight dead”) also contribute to the serious, didactic feel of this section.
The major point of this short section is to rebut ideas of renewal and regeneration. Phlebas just dies; that’s it. Like Stetson’s corpse in the first section, Phlebas’s body yields nothing more than products of decay. However, the section’s meaning is far from flat; indeed, its ironic layering is twofold. First, this section fulfills one of the prophecies of Madame Sosostris in the poem’s first section: “Fear death by water,” she says, after pulling the card of the Drowned Sailor. Second, this section, in its language and form, mimics other literary forms (parables, biblical stories, etc.) that are normally rich in meaning. These two features suggest that something of great significance lies here. In reality, though, the only lesson that Phlebas offers is that the physical reality of death and decay triumphs over all. Phlebas is not resurrected or transfigured. Eliot further emphasizes Phlebas’s dried-up antiquity and irrelevance by placing this section in the distant past (by making Phlebas a Phoenician).