The recipe for salvation in the wake of the “fall of Man” has served as the stuff of inspiration in epics throughout literature, from Iliad to Paradise Lost. Homer relied on Greek mythology while Milton had the Bible to turn to, with the destiny of the soul always hanging in the balance between good and evil. As life in modern times has become more complex, the significance of cultural symbology convoluted by the sheer magnitude of history, a contemporary exploration of Man's spiritual predicament becomes necessarily more difficult.
The Waste Land, as its title suggests, is set in this rubble of human history and understanding. In form and theme the poem represents a sort of mental pilgrimage through the fragmented artifacts of civilization in pursuit of deliverance from the "unreality" of the modern world and a hope for redemption. In crafting the poem, T.S. Eliot has applied an allusive technique that allows him to cultivate a sense of cohesion among this chaos, a metaphysical awareness through which he recognizes the potential for redemption only to deny its consummation.
In the middle ages and earlier times of faith, spring was the traditional season of pilgrimage and heralded the prospect of spiritual rebirth along with the new growth of the natural world. Perverted into the modern context of spiritual disavowal in The Waste Land, however, this notion rises here as a sort of ‘voice of the Age.’ Spring becomes a cruel reminder that life has been reduced to a series of meaningless past-times and excursions. This state is conveyed through the subtle interplay of dead winter and rejuvenating spring in the opening lines: “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” (1-4) This pronouncement is drawn from the opening of Chaucer's Prologue, where seasonal change represents the perpetual life-cycle of creation. By a subtle juxtaposition of winter snow and spring showers and the mixing of memories and desires of childhood, Eliot shows that such reminders are pervasive, outnumbered possibly only by the means through which they are ignored. The inhabitants of The Waste Land encountered by Eliot's pilgrim fear and deny any trace of life that reminds them of this living death or disturbs their neutral and comfortable nothingness. That humankind has chosen to ignore and avoid them through the hollow rituals of drink, sex, politics, and religion suggests a self-perpetuating human tendency to favor the path of least resistance.
The second stanza comes in stark contrast to the disturbing spring showers of the poem's opening, metaphorically illustrating the effects of humanity's disinterest in self-actualization with images of a landscape ravaged and sterilized by drought, one in which “the sun beats/ And the dead tree gives no shelter,.../ And the dry stone no sound of water.” (22-24) Here the very language and imagery are interwoven by yet another voice as echoes of that which the Biblical prophets used to announce the need for faith. The "Son of Man," (20) is not cognizant of the disastrous consequences of his barren existence, for he has obfuscated the whole scene of life and his own spiritual identity with superficialities. That he "know[s] only a heap of broken images" (21) suggests that the proliferation of human knowledge has only confused his vision as the images seen in a shattered mirror are fractured and distorted. The promise of the existence of an alternative to this desolation and "fear in a handful of dust" (30) by this apparently omniscient new speaker follows, cultivating in Eliot's would-be pilgrim a sense of disillusionment with the mundane. This relation, and the one in the poem's epigraph, to the tragic Greek legend of Sibyl (who, for her lack of foresight, wishes herself into an eternity of perpetual decay) sets him upon his quest for spiritual deliverance.
For the purpose of brevity, a summary of the intervening sections of the work must suffice. The remainder of The Waste Land largely consists of the travails of this quest, bearing out the pattern of helpless predicaments followed by the eventual portrayal of potential salvation common to most such tales of self-discovery. In the body of the poem before the final section, the pilgrim gathers sufficient evidence against the legitimacy of civilization and pronounces his judgment: "Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal." (374) In this final declaration of the unreality of these icons of human accomplishment and progress, the whole citadel of false civilization appears baseless and seems to collapse in a torrent of frantic nightmare images of baby-faced bats and topsy-turvy towers. This horrific scene represents his final trial through which he must retain his resolve and sanity in the absence of an anesthetic social perspective if he is to reach the end of his quest and escape The Waste Land of a world without clear meaning. As the prophetic voice promised in the beginning of the poem, he has indeed been shown fear in the dust of a collapsed world.
This overwhelming sense of loss and displacement appears confluent with several dominant works of the budding Modernist movement. That the moments preceding an apprehension of complete self-knowledge are consistently depicted as horrific in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Joyce’s Ulysses, among other works, suggests a consonant theme and a pervasive desire to rediscover personal identity at any cost in cultural currency. Lost in the cacophony of cultural dogma, the questors in these modern odysseys, Kurtz and Dedalus respectively, come to this state in much the same way as they likewise struggle toward self-actualization. Kurtz’s final words before his death, which were stricken as the original epigraph for "The Waste Land" upon Ezra Pound’s suggestion that Conrad was too contemporary, “the horror,” testify to the mind-wrenching pain of having the foundation of one’s social identity stripped away as superfluous and unreal. A similar, though more extensively explored, mental anguish nearly overcomes Joyce’s questor, Dedalus, as he grapples for his sanity under the harsh light of complete vision.
The result of this terrifying engagement in all three cases, though few points in literature have been so heatedly debated, is a sense of purgation. Lending historical credence to this claim are the allusions in both works to Dante's Purgatorio and the concept of a refining fire that purifies the soul en route to either salvation or damnation. Eliot makes the most direct use of this idea as he quotes the great text directly, yoking it to a popularly misunderstood image of cultural collapse: "London Bridge is falling down.../ Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina." (427-428) The context of this section of Purgatorio is of instrumental significance, for it marks Dante's ascent out of Purgatory, suggesting that "The Waste Land" can likewise be escaped, metaphorically, by Eliot's pilgrim.
The survival of this final trial precipitates the appearance of the "empty chapel," (389) alluding to the legend of the Holy Grail in which the quest's end comes with admission to the Chapel Perilous and the granting of wisdom and healing by the Grail's keeper. Heralded by the crowing of the cock outside the chapel, healing rain comes from above in the form of a storm and wisdom is presented by a voice in the thunder. The significance of “What the Thunder Said” in the thrice repeated "Da," (401) lies not in a pronouncement of any Truth, however, but in its evocation of three questions that the questor must answer for himself. Taken from the ancient Hindu manuscripts, Upanishads, this dialogue is also paralleled in the Grail legend as an exchange with the Grail’s keeper that begets wisdom and draws the scope of The Waste Land together as a personal pursuit for metaphysical identity.
The first "Da" elicits the question, "what have we given?" (402) This draws out the pilgrim's conclusion that, in surrendering to the objects and falsehoods of civilization, one is left with naught, our souls as "empty rooms" (410) The pilgrim's response to the second "Da:" "We think of the key, each in our prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison," (415-416) suggests that in forsaking the prison of the material world, one only becomes equally tethered to a singular concept of the self. The final "Da" pushes the pilgrim to accept the need for faith in some higher power, something greater than the world or Man, a doctrine by which to live. Further, the inclusion of the incensed artist, Hieronymo, suggests that the pilgrim may be identified with Eliot himself as an artist.
The final lines of The Waste Land signify an attempt to cultivate a personal doctrine from the wreckage of cultural bankruptcy that may rekindle in him a sense of faith. Eliot's selection of a few powerful images that, bound together by their context and apparent personal significance, form this doctrine and ironically also represent his failed attempt to quell his doubts:
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih (431-434)
That Eliot can only refer to this new synthesis as a sort of distilled amalgamation of “fragments,” however, draws him back into the folds of superficial faith and suggests that what lies beyond them is the fear of spiritual ruin. In the end, Eliot's succumbs again, as “mad Heironymo” to the feeling of safety in these cultural trappings, demonstrating his reluctance to traverse the crossroads that would cast the destiny of his soul in stone, a point that is defined in Hindu ideology as Brahma, an undoing of the self through immersion in the whole. The closest correlative to this sort of spiritual ascension in Western mythology comes only after death. That Eliot's pilgrim ultimately shies away from the consummation of this endeavor in favor of the solace of human artifice, however carefully selected, suggests that salvation comes at a higher cost than he is willing to pay.