As Hugh Kenner (1965) details, issues of faith and belief, in The Waste Land, are inextricably linked with that other depiction of European decay Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1994):
“It had for an epitaph a phrase from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“The horror! The horror!”); embedded in the text were a glimpse, borrowed from Conrad’s opening page, of the red sails of barges drifting in the Thames Estuary, and a contrasting reference to the “the heart of light”.
Like Conrad’s novel, Eliot’s poem depicts the gradual decay of Judeo-Christian European society from the inside; the opening imagery of The Waste Land contributes to the over all sense of a fetid, past glory that is no longer relevant and that is no longer able to sustain life:
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of the stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter”
Of course we are reminded here of both Christ’s temptation (Luke, 4:2) and of the passages in Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1994, p.60) that deal with the kinds of severe drought that inspires the rain-dance mythologies in many indigenous cultures. Throughout the first section of the poem, Eliot presents the reader with image upon ‘broken’ image of dryness, shallowness and unreality. We see the “dry stone no sound of water”, the “handful of dust” and the “Unreal City/ under the brown fog of a winter dawn” (Eliot, 1989, pp.61-62) all of which point to an arid landscape devoid of a spiritual centre.
However, it is made clear through Eliot’s use of heterogeneous cultural references that, unlike, Conrad, what concerns him is not so much the specific failure of Judeo-Christian faith but faith in general. Throughout the poem, Eliot visits and revisits all manner of belief systems – Buddhism in ‘The Fire Sermon’, Christianity in ‘What the Thunder Said’ (through references to ‘the Rock’, an image he was to take up, of course, later on in his life after his conversion), Greek pantheism, pagan ritual and so on – and finds none of them able to give life or meaning to post-War Europe. If Heart of Darkness represented the horror of the decline of the Western Enlightenment, The Waste Land represents the horror of the emptiness that ensues when faith no longer provides the basis for ontological existence.
As Maxwell (1960, p.90) details, The Waste Land, both in its imagery and its structure, depicts a society not so much devoid of faiths, as religions systems of belief, but of faith as a teleological process, providing both a sense of history and progression. In ‘The Burial of the Dead’, for instance, this loss is suggested in the metaphor of the rootless tree, or in the buried corpse:
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”
Later on in the poem, Eliot revisits this theme of a dead, empty Nature and concretises its use as a metaphor for spirituality in early Twentieth Century Europe:
“The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard”
It is in this section (‘The...