The motif of thwarted lovers is employed by Eliot throughout the Wasteland to echo the absence of spiritual and emotional love that he sees in the modern world, as a result the love that Eliot usually presents us with in the poem is barren and impotent or in some way crude or base. The first indication of this can be seen in the Hyacinth girl in the Burial of the Dead and the faltering and fractured conversations between the male and female figures in A Game of Chess. However, the clearest example that love has been replaced by lust can be found in the meaningless sexual relationship between the secretary and the carbuncular young man in ‘The Fire Sermon’, the allusion to the Rape of Philomel and the references to prostitution in the song about Mrs. Porter.
Some commentators have argued that Eliot’s disillusionment with love is a result of the death of Jean Verdenal, a friend of Eliot’s who perished in the trenches at Gallipoli in World War One. Verdenal and Eliot met at the Sorbonne and the two are sometimes thought to have shared a homosexual relationship. Whether or not this biographical reading is accurate, there are at least three other clear references to thwarted love that surface at different parts of the poem.
Tristan and Isolde:
In the Wasteland Eliot alludes to
Wagner’s operatic version of the story of Tristan and Isolde.
The plot is briefly as follows: Tristan, having lost his parents in infancy,
has been reared at the court of his uncle, Marke,
King of Cornwall. Marke wants to marry Isolde, the daughter of the Irish King, and he sends
Wagner’s opera opens on board the boat
which is bringing Tristan and Isolde back to
Dido and Aeneas:
On his way to
Anthony and Cleopatra:
Mark Antony, one of the three rulers
of the Roman Empire, spends his time in
Eventually, Anthony’s first wife
dies and he returns to
The Rape of Philomel:
In the ‘Metamorphosis’, Ovid tells the story of the two sisters Philomel and Procne. Procne was married to King Tereus but he also desired her sister. Unable to control his passion and lust, Tereus raped Philomel and in order to prevent her from telling anyone about his terrible crime, Tereus cut out her tongue. Ultimately Philomel weaves the story into a tapestry to tell her sister the awful truth and in order to revenge her sister, Procne kills Tereus; son and feeds him to Tereus who does not know what he is eating. When Tereus finds out what has happened, the two girls flee and Tereus pursues them and the Gods help Philomel to escape by transforming her into a Nightingale. The legend goes that today the nightingale, the bird Philomela was transformed into, cries “Tereu, tereu,” to let the world know the name of her assailant.
The allusion to rape may be meant to act as condemnation of lust and how it has taken place of the love that he should have had for his wife. Perhaps Eliot wants to show the lack of restraint and lack of sense of responsibility that Tereus had by betraying his wife, which would parallel the lack of restraint and responsibility that he sees around him in post-war Europe.