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

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On a symbolic level, therefore, the poem does contain a number of strong hints that death leads to resurrection, and that the quest to restore the Waste Land can be achieved, though only through a supreme and last ditch effort. Is this mirrored in the cultural and psychological meaning of the poem? It is at this point in the poem that Eliot turns to Hinduism (perhaps the current world religion closest in spirit to Frazer’s archetypal paganism). This is not to say that The Waste Land (which also invokes Christianity and Buddhism) becomes a Hindu poem, since the Hindu religious text that he uses itself implies that different peoples understand the Voice of God in different ways. Here is a summary of the relevant text (the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad ):

The Hindu fable [perhaps the oldest Hindu scripture] referred to is that of gods, men, and demons each in turn asking of their father Prajapati. “Speak to us, O Lord.” To each he replied with the one syllable “DA,” and each group interpreted it in a different way: “ Datta ,” to give alms; “ Dayadhvam ,” to have compassion; “ Damyata ,” to practice self-control. The fable concludes, “This is what the divine voice, the Thunder, repeats when he says: DA, DA, DA : ‘Control yourselves; give alms; be compassionate.’ Therefore one should practice these three things: self-control, alms-giving, and compassion.”

Culturally, such a conclusion to The Waste Land would be deeply unsatisfying. Yes, if we all embraced charity, compassion and self-control (or ‘peace, love and understanding’ or the ten commandments) the world would be a better place, but such a truism is hardly satisfactory. In fact, Eliot is really interested (as throughout so much of this poem) with relationships and it is this psychological grail that lies at the heart of The Waste Land ’s conclusion. To give, for example, is seen as the ‘awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ when one either tells another ‘I love you’ (and gives oneself totally) or, possibly, thinking more of The Fire Sermon , gives oneself fully to the act of physical love-making itself. Only at such moments, says Eliot, are we truly alive – ‘By this, and this only, we have existed’ – and our legacy of wills and obituaries meaningless. It is such a moment that the Quester originally failed to realise in the garden with the ‘hyancinth girl’ and the place of mankind’s first and original failure in the bible is also a garden.

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T.S. Eliot