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.
Motifs and Connotations:
Desert, Thirst – the need for Salvation
Water – the source of salvation
Fire – destruction vs. purity
‘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.
‘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.
Death- destruction of humanity
Religion as a form of 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.
and reforms and bursts in the violet air” “falling towers” “
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?
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