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The first section, as the section title indicates, is about death. The section begins with the words "April is the cruellest month," which is perhaps one of the most remarked upon and most important references in the poem. Those familiar with Chaucer's poem The Canterbury Tales will recognize that Eliot is taking Chaucer's introductory line from the prologue - which is optimistic about the month of April and the regenerative, life-giving season of spring - and turning it on its head. Just as Chaucer's line sets the tone for The Canterbury Tales, Eliot's dark words inform the reader that this is going to be a dark poem. Throughout the rest of the first section, as he will do with the other four sections, Eliot shifts among several disconnected thoughts, speeches, and images.
Collectively, the episodic scenes in lines 1 through 18 discuss the natural cycle of death, which is symbolized by the passing of the seasons. The first seven lines employ images of spring, such as "breeding / Lilacs," and "Dull roots with spring rain." In line 8, Eliot tells the reader "Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee." The time has shifted from spring to summer. And while the reference to Starnbergersee - a lake south of Munich, Germany - has been linked to various aspects of Eliot's past, to Eliot's readers at the time the poem was published, it would have stuck out for other reasons, given that World War I had fairly recently ended. During the war Germany was one of the main opponents of the Allied forces, which included both the United States and England - Eliot's two homes. By including German references, which continue in the next several lines and culminate in a German phrase, Eliot is invoking an image of the war. Who are the dead that are being buried in this section? All the soldiers and other casualties who died during World War I.
The German phrase leads into a conversation from a sledding episode in the childhood of a girl named Marie. The season has changed again, to winter. Marie notes, "In the mountains, there you feel free," implying that when she is not in the mountains, on a sledding adventure, she does not feel free. In other words, Marie feels trapped, just as humanity feels trapped in its own waste land. In line 19 Eliot starts to give some visual cues about the waste land of modern society. "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?" the poet asks. In response, Eliot refers to a biblical passage, addressing the reader as "Son of man." The poet tells the reader that he or she "cannot say, or guess" what the roots of this waste land are, because the reader knows only "A heap of broken images" where "the dead tree gives no shelter." These and other images depict a barren, dead land. But the poet says in line 27, "I will show you something different." In lines 31 to 34 Eliot reproduces a song sung by a sailor in the beginning of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Eliot is inviting the reader to come on a journey, a tour of this modern waste land. The song - which asks why somebody is postponing a journey, when there is fresh wind blowing toward a home-land - indicates Eliot's desire to regenerate this barren land. In fact his use of the word "Hyacinths," which are symbolic of resurrection, underscores this idea.
In line 43 Eliot introduces the character of Madame Sosostris, a gifted mystic with a "wicked pack of cards," or tarot cards. She pulls the card of "the drowned Phoenician Sailor," another image of death and also a direct reference to a fertility god who, according to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, was drowned at the end of summer. Again these images collectively illustrate the natural cycle of death. Following the Madame Sosostris passage, Eliot, beginning in line 60, introduces the "Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many." These lines suggest a similar description of the modern city by Baudelaire. The image of brown fog is dismal, as is the next line, which notes "I had not thought death had undone so many." Eliot here is describing a waking death. These people are alive in the physical sense, but dead in all others. It is a sad city, where "each man fixed his eyes before his feet."
In line 68 Eliot notes there is "a dead sound on the final stroke of nine," which refers to the start of the typical work day. In other words these people trudge along in a sort of living death, going to work, which has become an end in itself. Within this procession, however, the poet sees someone he knows, "Stetson," who was with the poet "in the ships at Mylae!" Mylae is a reference to an ancient battle from the First Punic War, which by extension evokes an image of death on the civilization scale. The poet asks his friend if the "corpse you planted last year in your garden" has "begun to sprout?" Here again Eliot is invoking the idea of resurrection, and of the natural cycle of death and life. First, when dead people decompose, their organic matter fertilizes the ground, which loops back to the first line of the section, in which April, "the cruellest month," is breeding flowers, which presumably are feeding off this decomposed flesh. But in a more specific way, this passage refers to Frazer's book, which details a primitive ritual whereby in April these primitive civilizations would plant a male corpse, or just the man's genitals, in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. This harvest, which can be interpreted symbolically as the rebirth of civilization, is potentially threatened by "the Dog," which has been interpreted as the lack of meaning in life.
Critics interpret the dog this way largely because of the final lines of the section, a quote from Baudelaire, which indict the reader for his or her part in creating the waste land by sucking all meaning and, thus life, out of society.
Ii. a Game of Chess
In the second section Eliot turns his attention from death to sex. The title of this section refers to a scene from Thomas Middleton's Elizabethan play Women Beware Women, in which the moves of a chess game between two people are linked onstage to the seduction played out by another pair. In the first lines of the section, Eliot creates a lush image of a wealthy woman, who sits in a chair "like a burnished throne." The scene also includes "standards wrought with fruited vines," a "sevenbranched candelabra," and "jewels." On the woman's table are "satin cases poured in rich profusion." Inside these cases are "strange synthetic perfumes," which "drowned the sense in odours." In other words aphrodisiacs (artificial substances used to create or enhance sexual desire). Since sex is linked to procreation, and thus fertility, the fact that aphrodisiacs are needed is telling. In this room there is also a painting above the mantel that depicts "Philomel," a reference to a classical woman who was raped (indicated by the words "rudely forced") by "the barbarous king" Tereus. Eliot notes that "other withered stumps of time," or figures from history, are depicted on the walls. Then he launches into several disparate passages, the first of which is a hysterical plea by the woman in the room to her lover. "My nerves are bad to-night," she says, and "Stay with / me." She also asks the man what he is thinking, and repeats the word "think" several times in both question and statement form, ending with a one-word sentence, "Think." Eliot is trying to get his readers to think about the modern waste land, which is clearly indicated by his multiple emphases of the word "think" and the fact that he sets it off on its own.
Eliot repeats this pattern in another snatch of dialogue, in which he emphasizes the words "noise," "wind," and "nothing." He sets off "nothing" in its own one-word sentence like "think," although as a question: "Nothing?" The wind and the noise evoke an image of activity and life, but the final "nothing" again underscores the lack of meaning that Eliot is trying to convey. Following this passage, Eliot includes a passage that talks about remembering the "pearls that were his eyes," which refers back to the dead Phoenician sailor from the first section. Finally, in the last passage that refers to the wealthy woman and her lover, Eliot has them talking to each other, asking what they should do. Ultimately they decide "we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon / the door." While this game of chess refers back to the sexual game from Middleton's play, the rich couple literally play a game of chess, since their relationship is sterile.
The next passage switches relationships, from the idle rich to the dirt poor. This scene, which continues until the end of the section, concerns "Lil" and her husband "Albert," who has just been "demobbed," or released from the military. The line "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" is a reference to the last call at the pub, or bar, and indicates that they must hurry if they wish to drink. The poem talks about Albert, who has "been in the army four years" and who "wants a good time." In other words he wants to have sex with his wife. He has also given his wife money to buy "new teeth," because he cannot stand looking at her bad teeth. And, as Lil is warned, if she does not give Albert a good time, "there's others will." The line "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" is used again, reinforcing the importance of alcohol in the relationship. The woman's appearance is described as "antique," even though she is only thirty-one, and she attributes this to "them pills I took, to bring it off," a reference to abortion. As the next line notes of her previous children, "She's had five already," a testament to Albert's immense sexual appetite, which is discussed further when Eliot says Albert will not leave the woman alone. But Lil is asked, "What you get married for if you don't want children?" This line refers back to the fertility thread in the poem and the fact that modern sex is not always about procreation. The section ends with several more references to "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME," showing that drinking has taken on more importance in the relationship than anything else. So, as with the first section, Eliot is showing the loss of meaning - in this case during sex, and through images of loveless sex - by showing that this is true for both the rich and the poor. Just as the king from Weston's book is wounded sexually, so is all of human society. It has lost the vitality and procreative focus of sex, and instead sex is a meaningless - and in the case of abortion, fruit-less - act.
Iii. the Fire Sermon
The third section also addresses sex. The title refers to one of Buddha's teachings about desire and the need to deny one's lustful tendencies. The images with which Eliot chooses to open this section underscore this idea of lovelessness. For example, "the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank." The dying vegetation is a sign of the death of fertility, as is the brown land and "The nymphs" who have departed. Also the fact that the river bears no litter, such as "empty bottles," "Silk handkerchiefs," or "cigarette ends," all of which are a "testimony of summer nights" - in other words, signs of a raucous party - the image of lifelessness is enhanced. There is no youthful passion anymore. This feeling of despair is noted further through such phrases as "A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank." From here on, Eliot includes images and references to sex and death, including talking about "my father's death" and "White bodies naked on the low damp ground."
After a brief, four-line stanza in which he once again invokes the rape of Philomel, Eliot returns to the "Unreal City," the modern city, where he is propositioned by a "Mr. Eugenides" to have "luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole." These two locations, famous for clandestine meetings, indicate that Mr. Eugenides wants to have a homosexual affair with the poet.
Following this interlude, Eliot introduces the character of Tiresias, a mythological, prophetic figure who was turned into a hermaphrodite - indicated by the phrases "throbbing between two / lives" and "Old man with wrinkled female breasts." The fact that Tiresias is a prophet is important, since Tiresias can see the true nature of things. In Eliot's notes he calls this character the most important one in the poem. Tiresias witnesses a sex scene between a "typist home at teatime" and "A small house agent's clerk." The woman prepares food until the man arrives, and they eat. After the meal, "she is bored and tired," but he nevertheless starts to "engage her in caresses." Although these advances are "undesired," the woman makes no attempt to stop the man, so "he assaults at once," oblivious to the woman's "indifference." After the man leaves, "She turns and looks a moment in the glass / Hardly aware of her departed lover," her only thought being, "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
At this point Eliot includes a long montage of scenes from London interspersed with many literary references to failed relationships through the ages. The indented passage that begins with the line "The river sweats" invokes a Wagner poem that describes the downfall of ancient gods. The section concludes with a quotation from St. Augustine's Confessions: "O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest." St. Augustine was a noted lecher in the days before he embraced religion. This passage is placed directly before the last line of the section, "burning." This one-word line refers to the Buddhist sermon that gives the section its title, and which encourages men to douse the fires of lust.
Iv. Death by Water
The brief fourth section, the shortest of the five, starts off with a reference to "Phlebas the Phoenician," the dead sailor who was first mentioned in the second section. Eliot is again focusing on death, and in this section he gives a thorough description of the sailor's body being torn apart by the sea: "A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers." The section ends with an address and warning to the reader to "Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall / as you."
V. What the Thunder Said
The poem's final section builds on the images of death and sterility, but attempts to offer hope that these can be overcome, as they are overcome in the waste land of Weston's book. The title of the section is derived from an Indian fertility legend in which all beings - men, gods, and devils - find the power to restore life to the waste land by listening to what the thunder says. The section begins with a long discussion of Jesus Christ, "He who was living is now dead," which leads into scenes from Christ's journey to Emmaus following his resurrection, where he joins two disciples that do not recognize him: "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" one disciple asks the other.
Following the images of Christ, Eliot alludes to scenes of battle, "hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth." The dry earth refers back to the waste land. Eliot includes more images of war and destruction, noting the "Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air / Falling towers." The image is one of a castle being destroyed, and Eliot follows this image with a list of historical cities that were destroyed or that fell into ruin and decay: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London." By including London at the end of this list, Eliot implies that the modern city is also falling into decay, a moral decay. From this description Eliot moves on to discuss "the empty chapel," a reference to the Chapel Perilous, which Weston's book describes as the final stage on the hero's quest to restore life to the waste land. At this point, "a damp gust" brings rain to the dry and cracked land, and then the thunder speaks, "DA." According to the Indian legend, men, gods, and devils ask the thunder the same question, and each is given a different answer - give, sympathize, and control, respectively. After each response, Eliot includes several lines that respond to the thunder on these topics. Critics disagree on whether these responses are meant to be pessimistic or optimistic, but many feel they are Eliot's solution to restore life to the modern waste land.
In the last stanza of the poem, the Fisher King from Weston's book speaks: "I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?" The king wonders what the solution is, how he can bring life back to the waste land again. Eliot follows this passage with a line from an English nursery rhyme: "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling / down." These words take the work from the mythological world back to Europe, which also in Eliot's view is a waste land that is falling down. The poem ends with several phrases from different languages, which give a mixed message. Some discuss rebirth, while others discuss violence and death. The final line consists of the same words repeated three times, "Shantih shantih shantih," which Eliot and others have noted can loosely be translated as the peace which passes understanding, and which seems to be Eliot's final pronouncement - only through peace will humanity ultimately be able to restore its vitality.