Originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, The Waste Land is a long poem in five parts. Eliot worked on the poem over a length of time, at least partly when recovering at Margate from a nervous disorder. The poem is deeply interested in the fragmentation of the modern world, through heteroglossic representation, but also pictures of a linguistically unclear, mythologically dry, and incoherent/fragmented interface with the world. It atomizes and reworks many of the central problems of “Prufrock” and other early poems with their interest in the tension between the leftover manners of the old Victorian/Edwardian era and the detritis of the post-WWI landscape. The five sections are:
1. The Burial of the Dead – Moves from the memories of the aristocratic Marie to a prophetic invitation into the desert with reminiscences about “the hyacinth girl” to Madame Sosotris’ tarot reading to the vision of the dead in London and Stetson & the corpse. It is, like “Prufrock,” a modified dramatic monologue ending with the Baudelarian inclusion of the reader in the sins of the text.
2. A Game of Chess – Named after the seduction plots of Thomas Middleton’s plays, the section juxtaposes high and low class – the baroque barrenness of an aristocratic woman’s lonely sexual relationship versus Lil’s abortion, culminating in the Ophelia-like goodnights of the two women.
3. The Fire Sermon – The name of this (the longest) section comes from the Buddha’s injunction to turn away from material things and towards the life of the spirit. The speaker shows us the nasty fringes of the Thames and gets propositioned for a homosexual tryst by Eugenides. The speaker is Tiresias, peeping on a typist at home while a clerk forces himself on her. The river song begins, and we shift again to a cold picture of Queen Elizabeth I with the Earl of Leicester. Many of the images here are drawn from pop culture (a bizarre counterpart to the “Nausicaa” section of Ulysses, with its intertwining of sex and pop culture).
4. Death By Water – This is the briefest section of the poem, written in 4 rhyming couplets – 8 lines total. It examines the death of Phlebas the Phoenician, who has transcended his body in death (references to The Tempest abound) and reminds me of both Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (being subsumed in artifice) and the redemptive qualities of the sea in Woolf, Joyce, Thomas, and Eliot’s other work.
5. What the Thunder Said – The final section sweeps East to West, detailing the fall of cities over time and introducing the empty chapel of the Grail myth. The tone is more bombastic and religious or philosophical in scope. In the Upanishads, the thunder speaks thrice: “give,” “sympathize,” “control.” Voices of the Fisher King, eastern philosophy, children’s rhymes, and Dante mix, concluding in “Shantih shantih shantih,” which Eliot translates as the Anglican “peace which passeth all understanding.”
Eliot was, as he notes himself, heavily influenced by James Frazier’s The Golden Bough and Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. From these sources he gained many of his classical and pagan-mythological references, namely the damaged genitalia and infertility of the Fisher King, the dry stony land, the abandoned chapel of the Grail Myth, etc. C.K. Stead marks the progress of the five parts of each of the 4 sections of Eliot’s later poem, Four Quartets, in the following way:
1.The movement of time, catching brief moments of eternity – the 4 voices here?
2. Worldly experience, leading to dissatisfaction – the baroque surfaces.
3. Purgation in the world, divesting the soul of the love of created things – the fire sermon.
4. A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, Intercession – baptism by water.
5. The problems of attaining artistic wholeness – this becomes analogue for (and merges into) the problems of achieving spiritual health – the shoring up of fragments.
This epigraph from Petronius’ Satyricon (C.E. 66) reads, in Latin and Greek: “I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘What do you want?’ she answered, ‘I want to die.’ It is followed by “For Ezra Pound – il miglior fabbro,” in gratitude for Pound’s heavy editing of the work.
Some of my own thoughts on Eliot include an interest in why he invents bits of culture to insert into the extant fragments he gathers, namely in the fortune-telling portion of “Burial of the Dead.” For example, the deck of cards is missing some cards, some are real (the Wheel), some are invented (the Drowned Sailor), some refer to real works of art (Lady of the Rocks), and one is blank (“this card, which is blank, is something [the one-eyed merchant] carries on his back, which I am forbidden to see”). It is an open system of improvisations on the real. One might consider the fragments of texts in the poem as a whole as cards “taken from other packs” – from other texts, and shuffled together to form prophetic valences or potential readings. (The game seems without meaning, and is performed at a monotone, reinforced by the dully repetitive name of Mme. SOSOtris.) Eliot capitalizes on the uncertain value of the cards, as well as the unclear tone of the pieced quotes from other texts. If there is no set value, as in the traditional deck, then perhaps each has many values – this destabilizes meaning. In this sense, Sosotris is like the poet or critic or historian, shuffling and juxtaposing more than creating, though some invention or lying to expose the truth is involved. The deck also has a blank that even Sosotris (the poet?) cannot see, leaving space for the reader to cathect. The cards are also changed by juxtaposition – in this case, not of 2 cards or 2 real works, but one real work, one imaginary, one symbolic, one blank. Playing an earlier game with new cards, Eliot may play with the “phantom limb” feel of his invented fragments and lines, which almost feel like they allude to something real, even when they do not. We are always searching in this poem for the lost fragment, which sometimes is not there.
The baroque excess of detail in the beginning of “A Game of Chess” is an almost novelistic setting, but the scene is as restricted as the opening moves of a chess game (we buy into fiction, even if we know it is false). The Jug Jug sounds like the sad song of Philomela, but might also refer to the jar the Sybil of the epigraph hangs in. In “The Fire Sermon,” Tiresias, bigendered, a classical witness to incest, plays again on the idea of cultural rules (the taboo makes the rules possible). Perhaps the poem considers the remnants of that system after war? All is tangled with the detritus of pop culture and song. At the end of the poem, Eliot seems to experiment with the “fragments I have shored against my ruin,” a kind of experiment with whether we can play the game of culture even if we have ceased to have faith in its rules (reminds me of Yeats’ love for ceremony, despite a lack of belief in it).