At first glance, THE WASTE LAND appears fragmentary, even incoherent. The themes of the cruelty of physical existence and the unreality of modern life which dominate the poem’s difficult first part, “The Burial of the Dead,” give way to the simpler but no less horrifying portrayal of upper and lower-class life in “A Game of Chess": the materialism and fearful ennui of the one, the abortions and physical decay of the other. Parts 3 and 4 are more deeply and overtly ironic. In “The Fire Sermon,” the reader finds neither the spiritual love that Buddha and Augustine advised nor the sexual passion that they warned against but only perfunctory sexual encounters that leave the partners as separate and unfulfilled as they were before. In “Death by Water,” Eliot turns the symbol of physical and spiritual life into yet another form of death in an age given over to dying.
“What the Thunder Said” is at once the most hopeful and the most pessimistic of the poem’s five sections. The fact that it ends with the Hindu word Shantih (“the peace that passeth understanding”) repeated three times may be construed (like the thunder heralding the needed, life-bringing rain) as a sign of recovery or as yet another of the many fragments that Eliot and his narrator have shored against their--not the reader’s--ruin, a ruin which grows more pervasive, more total throughout the poem.
The ambiguity of the final section of Eliot’s dense and difficult poem is appropriate in that Eliot wishes to leave the reader not with a moralistic solution but with a difficult and necessary choice: either the spiritual life that the reader finds so conspicuous by its absence or the spiritual death that Eliot chronicles so exhaustively. Composed as a literary collage and narrated as a stream of consciousness by the blind and androgynous seer, Tiresias, of Greek myth, THE WASTE LAND depicts a secularized world in need of spiritual redemption.
Eliot not only wishes to describe the waste land; he wants the reader to experience it, to feel the alienation and the absence as well as the presence of some deeper level of meaning. Eliot’s allusions to composers, writers, holy books, and so forth underscore the abiding presence of this deeper level. More importantly, so, too, does the poem’s underlying plot, drawn from the legends of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. The presence of this mythic subtext implies both the fallen, confused state of the modern age and Eliot’s...
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