The Last Ten and a Half Lines of the Wasteland


One easy way of dealing with the difficulties of The Waste Land is to condemn the whole poem as ‘elitist’ and stroll away from it looking politically self-righteous. That’s also a daft way of dealing with them, given that much good poetry is cogently difficult: the poet, by subverting clichés of language, is disrupting some of our clichés of thought and feeling. New kinds of expression permit new kinds of experience The great innovators in modern jazz - Gillespie, Parker, Monk - seemed difficult (and possibly ‘elitist’) to listeners who were attuned only to the clichés of traditional Jazz. Elites aren’t necessarily a bad thing: after all, Ian Botham belongs to an elite of highly skilled cricketers; and if we enter a doctor’s surgery we expect to be treated by a qualified practitioner and not by a layman picked at random from the street.


A more industrious way of dealing with the difficulties of the poem is to trace the allusions and show how they fit together in a logical thematic and argumentative sequence. The snag with this approach is that it makes The Waste Land seem more rational than it is. The poem is a big paradox irrationality challenges and is challenged by rationality - and by over-emphasising the rationality the commentator may halve and kill the paradox.


Some of the obscurities are certainly misjudgements on Eliot’s part: the punctuation is hit-and-miss, and sometimes the poet has needlessly omitted from the line endings various punctuation marks that the syntax obliges us to supply. But, most of the time, the difficulties seem to be a necessary part of the poem’s meaning: our sense of resistance, of our struggle to decipher recalcitrant materials, embodies one of the poem’s main implications. For this is a poem about the struggle to find meaning within the apparently chaotic and senseless, a struggle at a personal level, within an individual trying to come to terms with despair, disgust, boredom, neurosis and madness, and a struggle at a historic level, by a poet striving to record, reflect and interpret the sense that the modern period (and not simply the immediate aftermath of the First World War) is a period of apparent disintegration. The Waste Land is at once very private and very public. It says ‘What shall we do to be saved?’, yet remains fascinated by perdition - by loss and the lost, it zealously enacts the breakdown for which it seeks a cure And it remains a craftily critic-proof poem, because it anticipates and answers most of the critical objections it subsequently incurred. ‘Obscure’? So were the Sybil’s prophecies ‘Arduous’? So was the quest for the holy Grail. ‘Misanthropic’? So seems much good satire


I’m going to illustrate the paradox of the simultaneous celebration of rationality and irrationality by looking closely at the poem’s final ten-and-a-half lines. Here they are:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shill I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon - 0 swallow swallow
La Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih Shantih Shantih


I’ll do the rationalist’s job in a minute; but let’s begin with first impressions of those lines - with gut-responses, reflex responses. My first Impression, when I read or hear them is of madness. Stark raving lunacy. ‘Hieronymo’s mad againe,’ and so is the narrator. If someone came up to me in the street talking like that, I’d cross the road fast to get away from him. Another thing: listening to that passage is like being taken on a sprint through the Tower of Babel. There’s a Babelish babble of different voices and languages. I think that the biblical story (Genesis 11:1-9) of the Tower of Babel provided one of Eliot’s themes. The builders were presumptuous, so God thwarted and punished them by making them all talk different languages, and they couldn’t understand each other.


You may feel, on the other hand, that listening to that passage is less like a sprint through Babel than like listening to a radio while someone else rapidly twirls the wavelength knob so that we pick up a medley of different stations: London, Rome. Paris, Delhi; snatches of talks, of poems, of plays, of sermons, of music. The ideal rendering of The Waste Land wouldn’t be a one-person recitation. It would be a radio programme which uses a variety of readers. singers and actors; which turns some parts into sermons and others into plays; which has an immense number of sound effects: Wagnerian orchestral passages with opera singers when Wagner is being quoted, an Australian pub chorus when the Mr Porter ballad appears And, in that final sequence, the London Bridge is falling down’ line would be sung by children recorded in a park or playground. The whole thing makes an exuberant sonic mishmash.


The rationalist’s way of dealing with the passage is to emphasise its internal logic and its logical connections with what has gone before. The first three parts of The Waste Land dramatised a series of interlinked problems, personal, social, cultural and historical, which could all be summed up in that one question: What can I - and we - do to be saved? Saved from boredom, neurosis, breakdown; from a sense of sterility and confusion and meaninglessness? The fourth part, on Phlebas the Phoenician, provided a reminder of mortality and the suggestion of a purifying transition or sea-change. At the fifth part, ‘What the Thunder said’, the poem seems to be struggling erratically towards some revelation or answer to the dominant question. There’s imagery of oppressive drought and sterility; but we’re reminded that after the crucifixion of Jesus, two of his despondent disciples, journeying to Emmaus, were actually accompanied for a time by the risen Christ but failed to recognise him; the suggestion is that salvation may be close at hand when it seems to be farthest away. (The disciples ware slow to decode experience.) Then, in the desert, a mirage or hallucination: a surrealistic doomsday vision of hooded hordes, of the collapse of a city or cities; more apocalyptic visions mixing biblical allusions: the imprisonment of John the Baptist; the drought described by Jeremiah with images of madness and hellishness and next, amid mountains, an empty decaying chapel. Perhaps this suggests simply the want of religious faith in modern times, but it’s also a particular reference (Eliot’s Notes say) to the Chapel Perilous where the knight who was questing for the Grail had to undergo various ordeals before completing his quest. Then we’re conveyed to the Himalayas where the thunder speaks, and it says ‘DA’. That syllable looks pretty inadequate on paper, even in capitals. In a radio production you could have the actual sound of thunder blended with a booming God-like voice saying ‘DA’. Eliot’s very useful footnote tells us that he’s referring to one of the Sanskrit holy texts, the Upanishads. If you look up the particular Upanishad he cites, you find that the Babel theme is being maintained: one day, gods, men and demons all called on the Lord Almighty to speak to them, and when he replied ‘Da’, each group naturally interpreted this cryptic remark in a different way. One group took It to be Datta, meaning ‘Give’ (be charitable); another took it to be Dayadhvam, meaning ‘Sympathise’ (have compassion), and another took it to be Damyatta, meaning ‘Control yourselves’. The interpretations differed, yet each conveyed part of the message. All right; these teachings sound reasonable and familiar. So why has Eliot gone to the trouble of dragging in Sanskrit? Why couldn’t he use plain English? If it has to be the voice of the Lord, why couldn’t he have Jesus saying you need faith, hope and charity?


One reason is that this poem makes us enact the struggle to extract meaning from what appears meaningless. The Waste Land is a poem in code; its coded message is that life’s senselessness contains a meaning to be decoded. The poem enacts what it claims the world is: a problem implying a solution. The Hindu message, when we decipher it, resembles a Christian message, and the resemblance hints that if different religious systems at different times and places have made similar recommendations, perhaps that shows they have common wisdom; perhaps even a common divine source. Notice that Eliot is cunningly turning upside down the argument of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Fraser had attacked Christianity by saying that it wasn’t unique; it resembled many pagan beliefs about a dying and rising god, and all had their origin in fertility rituals, in the human need for a lull belly. Eliot reverses Fraser by saying that if there are common features in different religious systems, there’s no smoke without fire: perhaps they all, in diverse ways, testify to the existence of the divine.


Nevertheless, alter the doctrinal clarification offered by the ‘Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata’ section, the poem pauses, and then:


I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?


The effect is almost one of bathos, of anticlimax. There’s a sudden scaling down or refocusing. The focus narrows to a solitary figure in the foreground, fishing, with arid plains behind him. So the long-promised rain hasn’t fallen. If he’s fishing for final truth, he hasn’t yet caught anything after all. The effect is like an awakening after a dream-vision; and the narrator fleetingly resembles the maimed impotent Fisher King of the Grail legends who lives in a waste land waiting for a time when some redemption may come, ‘Shall I at least set my lands in order?’ perhaps means ‘I can’t set the world to rights, but I may be able to make the best of my own little corner of it’. There’s another biblical allusion here, to King Hezekiah, the ailing monarch who was told by lsaiah to set his lands in order; who did so and was blessed by God. So there’s a faint note of hope. The next line is ‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’. If you go tone-deaf and pedantic at this point, you can say that, this line echoes the theme of the decay and destruction of civilisations. Yet London Bridge was rebuilt, and in any case that’s much too solemn a gloss. Eliot is quoting a song sung down the generations by children happily at play. A phase of decay has become commemorated in a lyric of youthful innocence; disaster can become an occasion of joy through song. The Waste Land is about metamorphoses: healing transformation, as well as grim breakdowns


Next line: Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina. The speaker is Dante, in Purgatorio, canto 26. The line means ‘Then he hid in the fire that refines them’. The ‘he’ is Arnaut Daniel, the medieval Provençal poet. He has just told Dante that he repents the sins of his past and looks forward to the heaven that he will eventually reach alter suffering the purgatorial flames. Perhaps our Waste Land poet will be able, encouraged by the example of Daniel, to bear his own private purgatory. Quando fiam uti chelidon means ‘When shall I be like the swallow’ It’s a line from the anonymous Latin poem ‘Pervigilium Veneris’, a hymn to Venus and a celebration of the spring and love. The Latin writer says that the ravished Philomela has become a bird and her complaints sound as joyous as song. One function of this allusion is that it completes the sequence of references to Philomela the victim of sexual lust, who was also an instance of healing metamorphosis being transformed into a songbird.

The following phrase, ‘O swallow swallow’, refers to Tennyson’s lyric in The Princes: that swallow is flying south, to warm lands, away from the earthbound poet: another reminder of the bird’s power to soar and sing spontaneously.


Next line: ‘Le Prince d’Aquitane a Ia tour abolie’. It means The Prince of Aquitaine at the ruined tower’, a line from Nerval’s ‘El Desdichado’ (The Unfortunate or Disinherited Man’) - a French poem with a Spanish title. The gist of the poem is: ‘I’ve been through hell, but I’ve survived to tell the tale, I’ve known loss and grief, but I’ve had my dreams and can make songs of my experiences.’ The reference to the ruined tower leads naturally to Eliot’s next line, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’. The narrator is telling us that these fragments of poetry called The Waste Land constitute a holding operation: they shore him up; they help him to ward off collapse. Next: ‘Why then lie fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.’ The last phrase is the subtitle of Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy. Perhaps Eliot is mocking himself a little here: now that he’s offering yet another flurry of telescoped quotations, perhaps people will think he’s crazy, as they thought Hieronymo was In the play But the other part of the line. ‘Why then Ile fit you’, offers a warning. The words mean ‘Why, certainly I’ll fix it for you’. What Hieronymo provides for the corrupt court is a revenge-drama in many tongues, during the performance of which real blood is shed, real revenge is taken on the villains. There was method in his madness. Eliot then repeats ‘Datta Dayadhvam Damyata’: the religious teaching is re-echoed. And finally, ‘Shantih shantih shantih’. Eliot translates it for us as ‘The peace which passeth understanding’, to help those who fear that his poem may be the piece which passeth understanding.


So The Waste Land is not only a poem which argues that a search for religious values can redeem the world from that loss of meaning and vitality which (allegedly) is the price of the secular outlook; it also obliges us to enact the quest to redeem the seemingly meaningless as we read the poem itself Eliot implies that in life, as in the poem, the apparent meaninglessness may have been set before us as a challenge. If we look back on the numerous allusions crammed into the last ten-and-a-half lines of The Waste Land, we find that with a bit of nudging and elbowing they can be fitted together into a kind of testament; it declares. ‘I’ve experienced my vision; perhaps there’s light at the end of the tunnel; art offers consolations for woe; other artists have made a song of suffering and used art to change the world; and if I can’t sing at the moment I hope to in the future and my attempts at art are at least palliatives. Apparent madness can make a kind of sense; religious consolation offers a remote, obscure hope, but it will bear meditation and perhaps promises peace’.


But that’s only half the paradox. The ‘testament’ does battle with its manner of utterance, its sound, feel and impact. After the relative lucidity and assurance of the Damyata lines about the boat and the controlling hands, it sounds as though there’s a sudden veering away from assurance and lucidity into the cryptic, the confused and twittering; a regression from more public utterance to the more private and delphic. The narrator is partly recapitulating previous themesand preoccupations, partly sinking back into the medley and confusion of its echoing quotations and jumbled fragments. So that ending is highly ambiguous and equivocal. It offers garbled hints of consolation, of hope, of peace, while the manner of the garbling suggests disorder, confusion and near-madness.


To conclude, if a critic complains, as Louis Untermeyer complained, that The Waste Land is merely a heap of ‘flotsam arid jetsam’, perhaps he resembles the inadequate Grail-quester who failed to enquire the meaning of the symbols. If, on the other hand, the critic makes the poem sound like a fully ordered and intellectually stable work, he has underestimated the erratic mishmash of cacophonous sound effects and surrealistic imagery. If he complains, as LG Salingar has complained, that Eliot presents too negative and pessimistic a picture of life, just ask such a critic how he proposes to deal with the satires of Juvenal, Ben Jonson, Pope and Swift, or with the modernist pessimism of Sartre and Beckett, or with the love of irrationality expressed by various recent literary theorists In the words of Thomas Hardy: if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst (In Tenebris II)


Cedric Watts, Professor of English at Sussex University