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?
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
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.
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
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 ‘
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
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