The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

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Eliot preserves the uncertainty in his retelling – ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ – but adds the exhaustion and extremity of the situation: the passage comes after a long and brutal description of the Quester’s passage through a waterless desert. The mysterious ‘third’ person could, therefore, simply be a hallucination. Indeed obvious hallucinations do follow just before the quest reaches its destination:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings…
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells

The impression Eliot creates is that only at the final point of extremity, when the Quester is physically and mentally almost broken, can the Grail be achieved.

As he comes near to the Chapel Perilous, the world of the Waste Land seems to collapse around him. Barbarian hordes overturn modern civilisation as they once destroyed Rome:

Who are these hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains…
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria…

‘Falling towers’ reminds us, perhaps, of Babel, or even the tarot card which depicts ‘The Tower’ struck by lightning and set on fire. Its destruction may be more positive than appears at first, however, since it could represent the man-made edifice of the ‘Waste Land’ which must be thrown down if there is to be any true progress (as the Tower of Babel story in Genesis).

Is the quest achieved? Here, there is surely some certainty about Eliot’s intentions. True, the chapel is ‘empty…only the wind’s home’ (though it may be recalled that the words for wind and spirit are identical in both Hebrew and Greek). Surrounding the chapel are ‘tumbled graves,’ and the Quester notes that ‘Dry bones can harm no one,’ confirming that his fear of death has been overcome, but, more pointedly, an allusion to Ezekiel 37, which describes God resurrecting the ‘dry bones’ of Israel (Eliot is probably also remembering the old spiritual Dem Bones ). Above the chapel, too, the cock ‘on the rooftree’ crows in a manner that suggests dawn is coming, and, crucially, there is a ‘damp gust bringing rain’ which finally satisfies the Quester’s desperate longing for water earlier in this section. Water is unquestionably a crucial symbolic aspect of the poem’s ‘Holy Grail’.

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T.S. Eliot