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

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Indeed, despite all these positive possibilities, it is most likely that the Grail is not achieved in the Waste Land, although, like Perceval, we can see it. The Datta sequence begins with a rhetorical question – ‘what have we given?’ – to which the answer is clearly ‘nothing or little.’ Coriolanus is only revived to sympathy for ‘a moment.’ As for ‘Control,’ we simply need to recognise the operative words – ‘your heart would have responded’ (italics added) – clearly, the opportunity arose but was lost, and remains only a dream. The structures that pattern The Waste Land – the ancient Sacred King myth, the Grail Quest – only serve to underline how far from renewal, from true love and life, are the inhabitants of this desolate spiritual ‘place.’

The poem does, however, conclude with something approaching hope, as we return to the symbols that have suggested throughout the possibilities of renewal. These are framed by the Quester’s final comments, however, which may confirm that he is now the Fisher King who awaits healing for himself (this was already implied in the ‘musing upon the king my brother’s wreck’ passage in The Fire Sermon ). This, in itself, is significant: the Quester has sought for an answer to the problems of his time, but has ended with a sense that he is not the healer, but the one who needs healing . Certainly, the land is still ‘arid,’ so there is no obvious renewal. He talks, though, of setting ‘my lands in order’ and of ‘fragments’ he has ‘shored against [his] ruins,’ and these are, generally, positive indications of hope, though they lie at the end of the poem rather like ‘a heap of broken images.’

It is best simply to quote each of these references in turn, and let the reader decide on whether the poem ends on an optimistic or pessimistic note:

1. ‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down/ Build it up with stocks and stones, stocks and stones/My fair lady. etc.
2. Poi s’acose… - ‘Then he hid himself in the fire which refines them’ – from Dante’s Purgatorio in which the poet Arnaut Daniel joyously accepts purification from his sexual desires (cf. The Fire Sermon ).
3. Quando fiam… - ‘The maid of Tereus sings under the poplar shade, so that you would think musical trills of love came from her mouth and not a sister’s complaint of a barbarous husband…She sings, we are silent. When will my spring come? When shall I be as the swallow that I may cease to be silent?’ from an anonymous Latin poem called the Pervigilium Veneris . Here Philomela (the ‘inviolable’ nightingale) sings of love, and the speaker wishes for spring and to sing himself of love like a swallow.

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T.S. Eliot