TS Eliot : The Waste Land - The Burial Of The Dead (Summary)

I have just spent two full weeks of my seemingly very busy life on T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land". I won't say I am satisfied with what I could grasp. It is such vast expanse of construct and ideas that the poet has spun. I will still present my thoughts about the poem however unqualified I am to understand this compelling work of modernist literature. This is first of the 5 part series on the poem focusing on the part "The Burial Of The Dead". You can read the complete poem here.

First a little introduction into the times when the poem was conceptualized. The Great War (WW I) has just ended and it has literally shaken the core of Europe and the modern man's faith that continued advancement (primarily science driven) would improve the society and rid of it's all ills. But the confusion (moral & political) before the onset of war coupled with incoherence of voices (in favor of race/nation/class) lead to an individual crisis of identity amplified by the world gone wrong. It was as we can call it "The Collapse of the Certainties", that tomorrow will be better then today. This crisis, loss of faith and sterility (diseased) of the times gave rise to canvas that this poem fills. The poem has references and metaphors to the various sources (historical & contemporary) and follows a non linear method where the speaker, the context, location and time changes abruptly. Also it makes use of a myth to connect unconnected ideas into a single narrative.

The first part begins with the narrator(possibly an older woman) bemoaning that the April is the cruelest month because it's onset is making the narrator remember the things that were buried by the forgetful snow and the gloomy cold winter. It awakens all those desires and memories that were hidden. There is a mourning of life itself. As if i don't want this choice. I want to stay dead rather than enliven in Spring. The narrator recalls how in childhood they used to wander in the country drinking coffee and sledging with cousins. In the same narration, the poet juxtaposes such innocent frolic with the ugly nationalistic rhetoric that was prevalent in the pre-war Europe. The innocence is being lost and was being replaced by new consciousness about race and the nation state. The narrator remarks about her lifeless existence where is reads much of the night and has become a recluse and misses the winters.

The tone and the narrator changes in the second stanza where the canvas changes to a stony desert where there is no hope that roots can clutch to and no spirit where branches can grow. The land is barren and sterile and nothing grows. The language is prophetic and biblical. The heat causes mirages to form (heap of broken images) leading to incoherence and confusing signs. It's a stony rubbish, there is no life giver or the song of life. Instead we see fear of the unknown (shadows in the dark). It could also point to the ancient times after the Christ was crucified and the Jews had to flee to the barren desert as a punishment for killing the 'Son of Man'. From the morning to the evening, the sun would be relentless and your shadow will be your only companion (not even God) and there will be no life-giving rain on the parched land (and soul). A sense of horror accompanies those lines. The poem abruptly breaks to Wagner's Tristan & Isolde's lines where Tristan is taking Isolde her back to Ireland so that she can marry his uncle. It may mean her love that was unrequited and chances of future possibilities wasted. The spirits will still remain unloved and restless. The narrator again breaks off, with writing about his small affair with a girl (mentioned here as the hyacinth girl) that could not lead to fruition and consummation. She was in his arms, ready to be loved but that hope lead to nothing. The impotence(physical or emotional) comes across and in its failure the narrator becomes more withdrawn. He saw nothing and knew nothing when he saw into his heart. There was only a long drawn silence. The modern love has no power to redeem. The last line of the stanza goes back to Wagner's opera where we see Tristan dying and waiting for Isolde's ship on the horizon. The love has failed. The chances of making fertile this sterile wasteland have all been but lost.

The third stanza starts with the narrator seeking the help of a famous oracle Madame Sosostris to seek redemption. But here also the attempt to see enlightenment are ultimately fooled by a stagecraft of obscure prophecy. The oracle picks up a series of tarot cards (drowned phoenician sailor,a versatile belladonna, man with 3 staves, one eyed merchant, a missing hanged man) and ultimately in the end says that narrator should 'fear death by water'. She also has a vision of a mass of people “walking round in a ring.” Even though the oracle is a fraud, she help sustain a tone of fear and unease with the images.

The forth and last stanza moves to a surreal description of a modern city (London) that is decaying. The brown fog pervades over it like an evil spirit. A crowd of people move around the street in mindless synchronization not thinking anything, not going anywhere but just living. Dante's Inferno is quoted here for these people are spiritually dead and blinded by the occupied city life. They lives seemed like a mechanical clockwork each only able to see nothing beyond there feet and constantly engaged with the hustle-bustle of the modern city life. Life it seemed had moved to the background and with it the human warmth and self-invigorating vitality of love. Even the sound of the church bell becomes the sound of the dead. The narrator in this stir sees a old friend(Stetson) that was with him in the Punic Wars. He asks him what happened to the corpse that he planted in his garden and has it begin to sprout. Probably the sterile wasteland could only sprout the dead. In the end, the poet says that the reader must share his sins as well. All cities are same like London (they are dying) and all wars are same and all men are same. All the individual faces blur into Stetson. An undefined and formless humanity as the burial procession moved across a London bridge. We all will be dead into this infertile dust and will not give life.

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