By Dan Meloche
One hundred years ago, T.S Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ to find meaning in troubled times. As we wrestle with trouble in our own times, an examination of Eliot’s paean to chaos can prove instructive. Horrified by the return of war in Europe, disturbed by the looming threat of environmental collapse, and fatigued by over two years of a resilient pandemic, we crave relief and inklings of hope. In Eliot’s poem, relief does not come without tarrying with the darkness. In his 433-line poem, slivers of hope are crowded by the ubiquitous memento mori, the constant reminders of death. With his own hope compromised by a series of personal crises, Eliot’s fractured self mirrored a Europe fractured by the incomprehensibility of the millions sacrificed on European battlefields. To heal the fracturing, the poem represents a therapeutic exercise not only for the poet, but also a generation. After the questionably named Great War, cultural revisions produced modernism, representing a significant departure from traditional poetic sensibilities.
Before World War I, war retained a nobility exemplified in the “six hundred” of Tennyson’s ‘Light Brigade‘ (1854). After World War I, Tennyson’s sentiment of “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” no longer reflected the misery and absurdity of millions sacrificed for a few acres of mud. As the world changes, so does its art. To restore both a fractured mind and a fractured generation, ‘The Waste Land’ assembles meaning from ruins and conflated mythologies to spring hope. Rife with allusions, sometimes obvious, often obscure, Eliot’s poem aligns with modernist principles as multiple narrative voices range freely across landscapes of time and memory.
In the poem’s opening section, hope does not sing forth as in a Dickinson (1830-1886) poem, but lays disassembled in the ruins of desolate imagery. A spark of hope is initiated by a female narrative voice recalling an idyllic childhood tobogganing episode: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” The pleasant recollection shifts dramatically into the middle of a land of “stony rubbish,” “broken images,” and a “dead tree (that) gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”. In a parenthetical note, a whispering narrator offers a hint to relief: “Only there is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” The secret told in that shadow comes in the following four lines:
"And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you: I will show your fear in a handful of dust."
What you leave behind is the past and what rises to meet you is the future. The “something different” is what lies between: the eternal present. In ‘The Waste Land’, our reckoning with death produces a despair that can only be relieved by moving meditatively out of time.
In 1922, the war has ended, yet trauma echoes within the workers who return to re-ignite the engine of economic growth. In the final stanza of the opening section, the poet gives us London’s financial district (The City) and a crowd flowing over London Bridge. Emotionally wrought automatons, the men carry a despair that manifests their drudgery: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”. Within this crowd, the narrator recognises his comrade and calls to him: “Stetson! / You were with me in the ships at Mylae!” He does not recognise him from Passchendaele or the Somme, but from the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 330 B.C. Whether in modern Europe or ancient Rome, war is inevitable, and solace is often elusive. The dead, “planted” and sustained in our collective memory, can serve to assuage our despondency: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” April is indeed “the cruellest month” as the lilacs bred “out of the dead land” are fertilised by dead soldiers. Such is the dubious shape of hope in the aftermath of industrial scale war.
To conjure further hope, Eliot assembles mythologies and merges fragments with references to the Hindu Upanishads, Shakespeare, and the myth of the Fisher King. In the poem’s final section, reference to the Upanishads serves as an incantation to “controlling hands” of a governing Thunder that gives, sympathizes, and controls. Like a “broken Coriolanus”, we are compelled to surrender on the path of cruel iniquities that lead to our “obituaries”. Without surrender, we may suffer the same fate as Coriolanus, whose excess pride cost him his life. As Thunder exhorts humility, Eliot, as narrator, assumes the place of the Fisher King, the wounded sovereign who governs his barren lands: “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. In ‘The Waste Land’, will a hero fulfill the myth of the Fisher King by arriving to restore both the wounded king and the “arid plain”? Eliot’s answer comes with the rhetorical question, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” A hero will not come, and the fracturing of both Eliot and his generation endures as aridity persists. In the worst times, the only way to elicit hope comes with adjusting our expectations. For Eliot, his “fishing” is the resumption of his creative endeavours despite the prevailing aridity. To carry on, we must make peace with the circumstances of our time. Eliot invokes this in his final line with the chant that ends each Upanishad: “Shantih shantih shantih.”
In his notes on the poem, Eliot equates this final line with Philippians 4:7 and the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Sifting through the ashes of a destroyed Europe or diagnosing the causes of psychological fracture will not yield peace. Peace comes not from understanding why the trauma happened, but from reaching outside the chaos to a higher order. Eliot’s final allusion marks a harbinger to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, wherein he found community and peace for the rest of his life.
As the war continues in the Ukraine, memories of the dead live on in the trauma of the living. To cope with that trauma, hope sustains those huddled in the Kyiv metro stations. Below the missile bursts above, Ukrainians singing traditional songs and the national anthem will not bring back the dead, but it will limit the fracturing: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”
Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays.
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