The Wasteland – Section Notes: Part V ‘What the Thunder Said’



This is the final part of the ‘Wasteland’ and therefore, despite destruction and desperation, there is the emergence of images of hope and salvation through the arrival of water.

The structure remains fragmented and irregular thereby depicting the fragmentation of society.

  • Eliot emphasises the chaos and disorganisation of society through the use of juxtaposing images such as ‘shouting’ and ‘crying’ and ‘prison’ and ‘palace’.
  • Furthermore, the processes of birth, death and rebirth are alluded to through the use of the phrase ‘We who were living are now dying’. This process is seen to be an extended process and the cleansing of society is painful.
  • The desperation and restriction of society due to the lack of water is evident and despite brief images of hope it is apparent that ‘there is no water’.
  • A change in speaker is apparent as it is questioned ‘Who is the third that walks beside you?’ thus emphasising that society is not alone through this process of rebirth.
  • However, destructive and disturbing images follow, perverting and dehumanising society thus indicating the depths to which society has succumbed to temptation and the downward spiral in which it has travelled.
  • Finally, salvation prevails with the emergence of rain as ‘In a flash of lightening. Then a damp gust/Bringing rain’.
  • Through the voice of thunder God speaks to men, the Gods and Devils in order to express the traits that need to be followed in order to achieve inner peace. Hence, this is ‘What the Thunder Said’. Although God speaks using only one word ‘DA’; it is interpreted differently by men, who interpret it as ‘Datta’ (give), the devils, who interpret it as ‘Dayadhvam’ (sympathise), and the Gods who interpret is as ‘Damyata’ (restrain yourself).
  • Eliot concludes the poem with the purification of society and the destruction of ‘London Bridge’ which epitomised the traits within society which Eliot believed rendered it a ‘Wasteland’. Moreover the phrase ‘Shantih Shantih Shantih’, which means ‘The peace which passeth understanding’, indicates the purification of society and the salvation of society due to the presence of religion.



Motifs and Connotations:

Desert, Thirst – the need for Salvation

  • Eliot emphasises the barren, dry and desolate nature of the land in order to reflect that society itself is in need of hope and salvation in the same manner that the land is in need of water.
  • The repetition of the word ‘rock’ in addition to the phrase ‘no water’ emphasises the lack of water and the need for salvation within society. Moreover, the harsh ‘c’ and ‘k’ consonants within the word rock symbolises the desperation of society.
  • The short, fragmented phrases indicate the desperation and the delirious nature of society thus emphasising the barren nature of the land and the need for water as a saviour within society.
  • Images of the desert in addition to the thirst and suffering of society are heightened within this extract in order to emphasise the need for salvation.


Water – the source of salvation

  • Throughout ‘The Wasteland’ and predominantly within this extract, water is portrayed as a source of salvation as it provides the impetus for growth and thus contributes to the regeneration of nature as well as the rebirth of society.
  • The repetition of the word ‘water’ highlights the importance of this element and emphasises society’s desperation and need for salvation.
  • Due to the absence of water society is seen to be restricted as ‘amongst the rock one cannot stop or think’ and ‘here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit’. These restrictive elements are evidently due to the lack of water. Therefore not only is nature restricted; however, additionally, society is entrapped and inhibited.
  • Water is seen to be a brief symbol of hope through lines such as, ‘If there were water’ and ‘Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop’. However, this hope and salvation is undermined through the phrase ‘But there is no water’.
  • Moreover, the release of water – ‘In a flash of lightening. Then a damp gust / Bringing rain’ – could be interpreted as a two-fold source of salvation. Not only does the emergence of rain and water provide relief and salvation to the dry and arid land thus allowing for the regeneration of nature, but, furthermore, the water through thunder allows men, devils and Gods to hear and interpret the words of God and thereby realise what is needed in order to achieve inner peace. Therefore, men, devils and Gods are provided with guidance and hence salvation through the sound ‘DA’ conveyed by the thunder or water.


Fire – destruction vs. purity

  • It is apparent that fire is both a purifying and destructive element and it therefore plays a significant role in the rebirth and regeneration of society.
  • Within ‘What the Thunder Said’ it is stated, ‘Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina’ which can be translated to ‘Then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them’. This is a reference to Dante and symbolises finality and a new beginning as Eliot believes that society has completed the journey through hell to heaven.



  • Although images of nature previously had mostly positive connotations (for example of freedom), within ‘What the Thunder Said’ nature is portrayed as infertile and barren in order to emphasise the need for water.
  • Phrases such as ‘dead mountain mouth’ and ‘dry sterile thunder’ reflect the decay and desperation of nature.
  • Furthermore, generally positive images of the cicada are inverted as Eliot states:

‘If there were the sound of water only

Not the cicada

And dry grass singing

But sound of water over a rock’

This therefore indicates that nature was viewed as a negative symbol as a result of the absence of water.

  • Additionally, Eliot states

‘Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only’

Therefore, Eliot dehumanises society by assigning them animal traits thus emphasising the lack of direction, purpose and goals of individuals within society. The ‘endless plains’ and ‘cracked earth’ refer to the desiccation of nature and further highlight society’s need for a saviour. These images of nature are contrasted with the references to cities; however both the cities and nature are seen to be in the midst of destruction.

  • Moreover, the phrase ‘In this decayed hole among the mountains’ indicates the destruction and decomposition of nature thus reflecting the demise of society due to the fact that we have given into temptation and thus become tainted and impure.
  • However, due to the onset of rain, nature is seen to exhibit more positive connotations.




Death- destruction of humanity

  • Part right after death by water, a section filled with hope, this can be juxtaposed with the imagery of death at the beginning of What the Thunder Said.
  • death is a constant presence throughout the
  • What the Thunder said and the references to god and then to our incipient mortality and the destruction of our civilisation; this juxtaposition takes the form of binary opposition, the belief in an immortal presence serves only to remind us that we are mortal and fallible which, vocalises Eliot’s warnings to the reader.



  • religion as a form of salvation is part of the greater theme of an hopeful tone
  • re-emergence of water bringing with it the hope of rebirth like in death by water
  • allusion to the Fisher king “Should I at least set my lands in order?” gives readers hope that
  • allusion to Dante’s inferno, travelling through Hell to make it to Heaven
  • Shanti Shanti Shanti” (peace) the final note of the Wasteland is one of hope, the lack of a full stop at the end indicates that this peace is everlasting.


Religion as a form of salvation

  • What the Thunder said is a reference to Hindu scripture; Part 1:Burial of the dead = ref to Christianity Part 3: Fire sermon = ref to Buddhism Part 5: What the Thunder Said =  ref to Hinduism
  • shows Eliot’s acceptance of other religions and symbolises his belief in the need for guidance.
  • Sybyl and Tiresias previously looked to for guidance, maybe now the time to turn towards religion?
  • “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” possible ref to Jesus or to Sybyl or Tiresias.
  • The existence of this guiding third party is never question, Eliot as a religious man believed in the existence of a higher power, merely the identity of that guidance is in question. Belief in a higher power or guide gives us hope of salvation
  • refs to Vampirism in lines 377-384, dark imagery coupled with the finality of a full stop at the end of line 384. Encourages readers to turn away from darkness, from a life full of sin, towards religion and therefore salvation.
  • “-empty chapel” Eliot believed that many paid lip-service to God taking part in organised religion as part of tradition and not belief.; warns against seeking salvation in something so shallow.
  • Thunder was the symbol Zeus, a god who for all intents and purposes could be seen to be all too human and therefore flawed; a reference to Zeus could be another warning by Eliot not to dive too deeply into something that appears to be religion hoping for salvation.




“- He who was living is now dead”, “We who were living is now dying”

Clear imagery of death and the enjambment gives a sense of continuation so it seems that death is imminent. Use of the pronoun ‘we’ enhances the imagery, dragging the reader into Eliot’s morose thoughts having a larger effect than if a more distant stance was used.


dry sterile thunder without rain”

Lack of water symbolizes a lack of hope focusing on the motif as a way of rebirth like in death by water. Thunder is a fusion of both fire and water both of which are motifs that symbolize hope in some shape or form, death by water and rebirth through fire (see Dante’s inferno later); sterile thunder is a denial of both motifs, it’s a denial of hope and even of the negative aspects of both motifs leading to an emptiness which is reflected in the third part of the wasteland.


cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air” “falling towers” “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria” “Vienna London

The violet air could be a reference to twilight, the ending of civilisation, the physical signs of destruction of civilisation like the cracks and reforms and especially the imagery of the falling towers. The list of destroyed cities followed directly by those of the modern world serves only to remind the reader of oncoming doom and forewarn them of the destruction of society.


“Only a cock stood on the rooftree”

A reference to the night before the crucifixion of Christ, signifies both the highest point and lowest point, Christ will die but we will be saved. Through this image we are given a sense of hope tinted with the darkness of death; it seems like an amalgamation of both what Eliot desires for us as a civilisation, to be saved, and what he fears- what we have to give up before we are saved.


Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina” (then he hid himself in the fire that purifies him)

Fire, destructionà purity

This is a reference to Dante’s inferno; his journey through Hell to Heaven, this is an allusion with an hopeful tone- just like what Eliot sees our society having to go through hell before we reach heaven.


“Rock and no water and the sandy road”

Religious imagery of red rock, stony; its an allusion to Ezekiel and forms part of a motif linked to Part 1. Ezekiel in biblical scripture is the Messiah in the first part it can be said that Eliot is prophesising the doom of society yet he consciously denies the role of the Messiah for the conclusion of The Wasteland.


“And bats with baby faces-”, “And crawled head downward down a blackened wall”

Vampiric imagery of darkness and the corrupting influence of darkness on innocence of babies. Vampires symbolise are antithesis of God, humans who gave their souls over to the devil, Eliot uses their darkness to illustrate the destruction of humanity or to forewarn of the oncoming darkness.


“There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home”

Eliot does not believe in organised religion but rather in spirituality; believes that they cannot provide salvation, hence the imagery of an empty chapel. Empty chapel demonstrates again the materialism of our society, on the outside we see a chapel and immediately associate it with religion and think of it as a form of salvation never actually looking within it to find its meaning.




Although it is apparent that there are few characters present within ‘The Wasteland’, it is evident that Eliot is expressing his views through the narrator, a character who is ubiquitous throughout the poem. The narrator is seen to explain the different interpretations – ‘Datta’, ‘Dayadhvam’ and ‘Damyata’ – of ‘What the Thunder Said’. Despite indicating relatively hopeless images and alluding to the fact that we have a limited existence and we are imprisoning ourselves; the narrator concludes on a relatively positive image of hope as it is apparent that we have found guidance as a result of the ‘controlling hands’. However, alternatively this could be interpreted as restrictive and entrapping thus prohibiting freedoms.


Moreover, the narrator is present within the final ten and a half lines of the poem:


         I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall 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--O swallow swallow

Le Prince d'Aquitaine à 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         


Therefore within these final lines, the narrator offers society a degree of hope as it ends on a final peaceful note of ‘Shantih shantih shantih’. The allusion to the legend of the Fisher King indicates that the narrator, in addition to society, has succumbed to temptation and thus the lands over which they preside have become a ‘Wasteland’. Furthermore, this legend provides society with a degree of hope, due to the fact that through purification and by not giving into temptation, society can be restored to its former glory. Moreover, the phrase ‘Why then Ile fit you’ indicates that the narrator will do what is whished by society.


A change in speaker is evident in the stanza:


Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

--But who is that on the other side of you?


It is clear that the speaker is not the same narrator present throughout the remainder of the poem. It has been argued that the speaker is Eliot’s former wife and therefore it is an allusion to Eliot’s relationship with his friend who died in Gallipoli during World War I. Through this interpretation, it is apparent that Eliot’s wife discovered this relationship and thus always felt that there was ‘always another one walking beside’ Eliot, and, although she may not have been able to ascertain the identity of this person, as it is stated ‘When I count there are only you and I together’ and ‘--But who is that on the other side of you’, she could feel his/her presence.


Alternatively, this could be interpreted as the narrator addressing the reader in order to express the presence of a degree of hope. The image of the ‘third who walks always beside you’ could be interpreted as a benign image, Jesus, or furthermore an allusion to Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. Nevertheless it is apparent that these images of accompaniment promote endurance and give guidance and hope.


In addition, a new character emerges in the form of God expressing his views through the word ‘DA’; hence the reader is able to hear ‘What the Thunder Said’. It is apparent that the voice of thunder and the character of God provides hope to the men, devils and Gods and allows them to ascertain what is needed in order to achieve inner piece. Therefore, the character of God provides society with guidance and hope.




Within ‘What the Thunder Said’ a movement between settings is evident. The first three stanzas refer to a desolate and desert setting in which there is an absence of water and a need for salvation. This setting thereby epitomises Eliot’s ideas regarding a physical wasteland and thus emphasises the dire need of society for salvation. Furthermore the reference to ‘falling towers’ and ‘unreal cities’ indicates the destruction of the symbols of materialism and corruption evident within society. Moreover, there is a transition to an absence of a real setting when Eliot simply refers to people and society without naming a particular setting. This depicts that Eliot’s views transcend any physical setting and are instead universal and ubiquitous within society. These views apply to each individual and therefore each individual has a responsibility to act in a manner by which to counter the wasteland that society has become. In addition, it is evident that Eliot is able to view and comprehend society in a way that is currently beyond our reach. The setting once again shifts with the line ‘I sat upon the shore’. From this point forward there is once again the absence of a physical setting; however it is apparent that the narrator and the setting have moved to be within the legend of the Fisher King. The transition to the setting of the Fisher King allows the parallels between the legend and the ‘Wasteland’ to become clear and thus offer the readers the hope of salvation. This legend provides background to ‘The Wasteland’ and our failure as a result of succumbing to temptation has resulted in the reduction of our land to a state of desolation and can be paralleled to the Fisher King who lost the Holy Grail as a result of yielding to desires, and, after being wounded, he was unable to tend to his land thus causing it to become a ‘Wasteland’. However, despite the moral lesson given by the legend of the Fisher King, an element of hope emerges as it is apparent that through purification and not giving into temptation society can be restored.



Relation of Part to Whole:

‘What the Thunder Said’ is the final part of ‘The Wasteland’ and it therefore effectively completes the conveyance of Eliot’s message regarding the wasteland that society has become and the manner through which we should attempt to conduct the transformation and restoration of society. Throughout the previous parts of the poem, Eliot essentially held a mirror up to society portraying a physical, moral and emotional wasteland, where promiscuity, materialism and corruption were rife and there was a lack of communication and interaction between individuals. Through this revelation, Eliot thereby prohibited society from ignoring and disregarding the depths to which society had sunk and the ‘Wasteland’ that prevailed.


Despite the purification process that Phlebas the Phoenician underwent during ‘Death by Water’, Eliot continues to include references to destruction and the thirst, restriction and desperation of the land. This thereby reminds the reader that despite embarking upon the process of death and rebirth, this process is not yet complete and a need for salvation remains dire. Within ‘What the Thunder Said’, Eliot allows the emergence of rain, hence providing society with a degree of salvation, and emphasises the purifying properties of the elements fire and water, therefore indicating that society is no longer tainted. However, references to the legend of the Fisher King remind us that we have to continue this process of salvation and purification, as through succumbing to temptation, society will revert to the ‘Wasteland’ that formerly prevailed.


Eliot indicates that society has completed its journey from hell to heaven and the falling of London Bridge, a symbol of materialism and corruption, indicates the demise of the Wasteland. Eliot concludes the poem on the peaceful note of ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ and through this phrase we see that there is hope through religion. However, Eliot does not believe that orthodox religion provides society with the salvation it needs and thus creates his own saviour, which emerges through the synthesis of other religions.