A (very short) guide to ‘The Waste Land’ – Part V

So….I start term properly tomorrow, it’s definitely not summer anymore….and it’s time (at last) for the final part of ‘The Waste Land’! Entitled “What the Thunder Said”, this is the section which moves the poem from water into the dry emptiness of the desert. We go from too much water to not enough water. “Here is no water but only rock” says Eliot. Right, so no risk of drowning in this one. (Usual drill, if you haven’t read the earlier blog posts and want to, start here, and here is a copy of the poem if you’d like to cross-reference)

The beginning of this final section is slightly less steeped in allusion than the rest of the poem. Has Eliot finally broken free of his forbears? It might seem so. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t picking up on his own themes from earlier in the poem. After he’s talked about the sandy road and how sad it is that there isn’t any water there, he mentions a bird, the “hermit-thrush” whose song sounds like water droplets. No mythological nightingales here; rather, a bird that Eliot actually heard singing in Quebec. His notes even give the Latin name, to take things even further out of the realm of Greek mythology and into a modern, scientific future.

However, a couple of lines later and Mysterious Eliot is back in full force. The “third who always walks beside you” was, according to his notes, inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in which the explorers were constantly under the illusion that there was an extra person with them. (um, Eliot, I hate to say this but I don’t think the Antarctic is really lacking in water, so perhaps not the most appropriate for this section?). However, the “third person” also appears in the story of Christ’s resurrection when two of his disciples meet a stranger on the road whom they do not recognise as Christ. As usual, Eliot’s notes only seem to give half the picture.

The poem soon descends into a Hermann Hesse inspired chaos, which nevertheless links a lot of things we have come across so far, like the hooded figures, the faceless crowd, Madame Sosostris’s tarot deck, and Tiresias. Basically all Eliot’s prophets are mingled together in one massive crowd, and it becomes impossible to distinguish the good from the bad. Modernity, eh?

Moving through another favourite passage of mine (“bats with baby faces in the violet light” is so spooky yet weirdly cute at the same time?), we reach a chapel. The Chapel Perilous, one of the stops en route to the Holy Grail. Note: we haven’t actually reached the Holy Grail. Is that even possible in Eliot’s burnt-out vision of modernity? Instead, we reach the Hindu holy scriptures. This is the titular “what the thunder said” – datta, dayadhvam, damyata, loosely translating as give, sympathise, control. Eliot gives each of these words its own section, bringing together Eastern and Western tradition when he returns to Webster’s “The White Devil” from section one. The spider relates to the impermanence of women’s love, yet Eliot’s women are not scheming courtesans but rather the ones that bear the consequences of the inevitably unenthusiastic sex that occurs in the poem.

Dante and Shakespeare make one last appearance here too, in the images of the locked tower and Coriolanus. So, too, does “The Fisher King”, a legend that Eliot refers to a number of times. I don’t have time to go into it here, but if you’re interested, you can read more about it here. More foreign languages – Italian, Latin and French in such quick succession that a casual reader might mistake them for the same quote (they aren’t, they’re Dante, Roman poet Tiberianus and de Nerval, respectively). Eliot’s allusions are building to a rapid crescendo, ending in Kyd’ “Spanish Tragedy” (often cited as an inspiration for Hamlet). Finally, silence

Shantih    Shantih   Shantih

Loosely translated as “The peace which passeth understanding”, Eliot’s chaos finally comes to rest. His allusions have allowed him some peace at last

And that, which seemed to build to a rather frenzied crescendo a little like Eliot’s poem does, is the end of my analysis of Eliot’s “The Waste Land”! Thanks for following along, do check out the other posts on ‘The Waste Land’ if you haven’t had a chance yet! Any final thoughts, let me know in the comments below, and also do tell me if you enjoyed having some more detailed literary analysis on the blog for a change!

Cadence x


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