The Waste Land Questions and Answers
by T. S. Eliot

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Write a note on symbolism in 'The Waste Land'?

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Symbolism is a very powerful literary technique which makes use of symbols, which means presenting something (usually simplistic, physical, material and concrete) that represents something else (spiritual, much deeper, immaterial, even invisible sometimes). Because of the complex use of symbolism in The Waste land by Eliot, the work has been subjected to different interpretations by different people, and considered incomprehensible sometimes. Needless to say that in such a case, controversies arise and the probability of wrongly interpreting the symbols and the whole of the work itself increases. To elucidate symbolism, we need to uncover the hidden meanings.

In The Waste Land, Eliot makes use of old myths and legends to draw symbols from. I will mention only a few randomly selected ones. Spring and winter denote the birth and death cycles, or growth and decay, for...

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Throughout "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot uses symbolism to create a meaningful or emotional connection between the reader and the poem. During poetry analysis, the reader imagines these symbols in his or her mind and from those images reacts to the words on the page. Just as a river twists and forges new pathways throughout the land, T.S. Eliot takes the reader on a similar adventure as he uses the symbol of water to twist the reader’s mind one way, then another, while creating new pathways toward understanding.

In “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot introduces water for the first time when the speaker of the poem seems refreshed and invigorated by a surprise summer shower of rain. In this instance, the appearance of water is welcome because it leads the speaker into sunlight, or warmth, after a experiencing what appears to be a time of despair and a cold spring. Could rain be a sign of hope? Does Eliot use this form of water as something that is good? Later on the use of water representing something good is confirmed, for the absence of “the sound of water,” line 24, represents misery. The fact that no water is running over the stone in a climate in which the sun beats, trees provide no shade, and wildlife (crickets) find no relief imply that just hearing water—the possible presence of it—could be a joy to the reader.

Further, in lines 37-41, the speaker seems almost numb to a recollection of a person coming from a garden looking lush, with wet hair. In this situation, T.S. Eliot choses to give the person wet hair—not to imply she was caught in a bad rainstorm—but to exaggerate a positive image of a person brimming with fragrant flowers from a garden, perhaps the hair being wet with dew. In line 47 a clairvoyant draws cards to determine the speaker’s fate. First to be drawn is drowned Phoenician sailor. Despite death by drowning as being a horrific fate, there are pearls in the eyes of the sailor. Although there are many ways to interpret what the pearls represent, it is possible to think of them as jewels, a positive implication to this card. Thankfully, the clairvoyant does not find The Hanged Man in her deck (line 55), which is good, but then the speaker makes an ominous statement: “Fear death by water” (line 55). At this point in the poem we see a shift.

As is assumed by the poem’s title and the titles of each section, the reader can assume much of it will be depressing or speak of despair and hopelessness. Up until this point in the poem, however, the reader can find hope in T.S. Eliot’s use of water as a symbol. The rest of the poem, however, seems to take a dark turn. The fog in line 61 is a “brown fog of a winter dawn” and later a “brown fog of a winter noon (line 208) is a dirty, undesirable image and the frost in line 73 is a form of water that needs to be kept away.

The next two sections of the poem speak of water—thought to be much needed in the setting of a wasteland—as something that is not comforting. A dolphin swims in a “sad” light in line 96. The water and rain mentioned in Lines 135 and 136 are within a context of idle time. The tent alongside a river is “broken” (line 173) and the “wet bank” (line 174) that leaves sink into display an image of dreariness. The speaker fondly remembers a time when the Thames River was not polluted (lines 176 and 177) and at the waters of Leman (line 182) the speaker weeps. Other references to a form of water represent bleakness. These include “fishing in the dull canal” (line 189), “white bodies naked on the low damp ground” (line 193), “they wash their feet in soda water” (line 201), and a river “sweats oil and tar” (lines 266 and 267).

Section IV, Death by Water, is short, but it points back to the ominous statement made by the clairvoyant earlier in the poem. In this section, a once-handsome drowned man is under the sea’s currents where his bones are being picked away and his body is swirling down into a whirlpool that will seemingly suck him into oblivion.

In Section V, “When the Thunder Said,” T.S. Eliot surprises us as he twists the images we connote with water from the negative to the positive. In lines 331-345, the absence of water is a bad thing. Water is needed in this wasteland that is dry and sterile. In lines 346 t0 359 the speaker fantasizes about how beautiful water, a spring, or a pool—or even the sound of water—would be. “But there is no water,” says the speaker. There is nothing good in this wasteland. Yet hope comes: “In a flash of lighting. Then a damp gust bringing rain” (lines 394 and 395). Black clouds, which usually mean rain is coming, are on their way to revise “limp leaves” waiting for rain (line 396). Later, toward the end of the poem, the speaker paints a cheery picture of a sailor on a calm sea (lines 418-423) and sitting on the shore fishing with dry lands no longer in the future. The refreshing rain announced by the thunder has arrived.