T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
Eliot imparts to us the Grail quest’s influence on “The Waste Land” in the notes:
“Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the
poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From
Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s
book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do;
and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who
think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.”
Indeed, much of the poem reflects the story of the Grail quest itself; when confronted with a prosperous land turned into waste as a result of the wounding or ill health of the Fisher King who presides over the land, a hero begins a quest which ultimately must restore the king to health in order to “free the waters” (R2R) and restore the land itself. As the hero must heal this desolate wasteland which was once a happy and lively place, so too are vestiges of happier times painfully remembered among desolation and despair throughout “The Waste Land,” seen even in the opening of the poem:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory with desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
Eliot immediately declares April--a month generally associated with sorely missed warmth, regeneration, life, and beauty--the cruelest month, stirring life in an otherwise dead land and thereby invoking painful memories of a happier and more prosperous time which one cannot help but miss and desire deeply when confronted with a trace of it. Eliot goes on to claim that “Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow,” suggesting that at least when the land was utterly dead it left its inhabitants numb to the pain of what they’d lost.
Still other happy memories haunt the land that has now turned into waste; Eliot writes of a surprising summer showering the inhabitants of the land in rain--an image itself which implies life, prosperity, and regeneration--causing people to stop in the colonnade, drink coffee, and talk for an hour. Still Eliot has the speaker recount pleasant childhood memories of “staying at the archduke’s” and going sledding, declaring, “In the mountains, there you feel free.” These warm and fond reflections on carefree youth stand in contrast to the speaker’s current, deadened life, which involves reading “much of the night” and going “south in the winter,” and mirror the land in the Grail legend’s happy, prosperous society turning into a wasteland, especially when considering the versions of the tale which involve the Fisher King suffering from extreme, wasting old age which must be restored to youth if the land is to be healed.
Other vestiges of a healthy, happy past appear still in “The Waste Land,” making its current state of death and desolation even darker in comparison. In The Fire Sermon, after observing that “the river’s tent is broken” and “the nymphs are departed,” the speaker requests that the river Thames “run softly” until his song is ended. He remarks that
“The River bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights.”
While the speaker expects to see signs of life and traces of happy, carefree, pleasurable summer nights shared by people at the riverside, the speaker sees nothing at all apart from the river itself and is aware of only the wind crossing “the brown land, unheard.” What he finds instead is an empty, dead scene, made eerier by the lively things that used to take place there, and made eerier and more desolate still by being marked with “the rattle of bones” and a rat dragging “its slimy belly on the bank.” It is clear that this place has not always been this way; rather, it was once a happy setting that has since sickened and turned to...
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