T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’: a Literary Appraisal

A young T.S. Eliot before crossing the Atlantic
A young T.S. Eliot before crossing the Atlantic

Published in 1922 and since heralded as a keystone of modernist literature, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a poetic collection of obscure allusions with thousands of justifiable interpretations. The work’s syntax, alongside varied and numerous subjects, narratives and tenses, make it a fascinating read, if a perplexing one. It also makes a superb performance if read by the right person. Written eight years after Eliot moved from the United States to the United Kingdom, The Waste Land – which was demanded as titled with the definitive article and as two separate words, rather than Wasteland – encompasses critique and metaphorical analysis of many cultural and linguistic structures, making reference to a range of Indo-European philosophical ideas and South Asian language traits (Eliot having been trained at Harvard and Merton College, Oxford in philosophy and Sanskrit). The poem is therefore incredibly diverse in lexicon and sentence structure as well as subject. This article attempts to decipher a particular excerpt, taken from the third of five parts that make up The Waste Land; lines 235-248 of ‘The Fire Sermon’. It stands out, in part, as the lines chosen by Evelyn Waugh for inclusion in his ‘magnum opus’ Brideshead Revisited (1945), in which it is performed at a luncheon party by Oxford student Anthony Blanche.

[From Part III – The Fire Sermon (235-248)]

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,

And makes a welcome of indifference.

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all

Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.)

Bestows one final patronising kiss,

And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…

While the wider themes of The Waste Land are perhaps debatable and veiled behind complicated vocabulary and syntax, the narrative in this particular section of the poem is, for once, more easily discerned. The except describes a rendezvous between two lovers, given from the perspective of a third figure, self-identifying as ‘Tiresias’, whose significance as an allegory to the observant human social form is important to wider strands of meaning derived from the poem. Tiresias, a blind prophet of Greek mythology, has the ability to perceive but not conceive; i.e. he has no capacity to act on his thoughts and interpretations. His character is complicated further by his experience of being transformed into a woman for a period of his life, which has granted him the physical features of both the male and female sexes, as more than hinted by Eliot in Lines 218 and 219:

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives

Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see

Tiresias watches the woman in Eliot’s excerpt, which culminates is the reproduced section above, prepare her home for a visit from her lover, a clerk with a ‘bold stare’. They eat a meal together before the clerk makes sexual advances towards her, which Eliot describes as ‘unreproved, if undesired’, indicating her indifference towards his supposed affection – as she is towards his vanity in Line 242. The woman’s disengagement with her lover’s intentions give a dark and unnerving undertone to the scene, which Tiresias watches in his psyche, having ‘foresuffered all’. The encounter ends with a ‘patronising kiss’, the clerk leaving by an unlit staircase, contributing further to an eerie and morally suspicious atmosphere. The woman is subsequently glad that the rendezvous is over, and Tiresias can only observe the social discomfort – the sordid deeds of man as such – having no means by which to influence his vision. Whilst not hinted at, ideas of sexual abuse and prostitution have also been discussed in connection to the passage.

The smooth and flowing syntax of the excerpt, combined with its dark subject, fit the scene well, given that the narrator Tiresias already knows what has happened. Barren as a waste land, even more so than a desert – which at least fosters heat – the couple promote Tiresias’ sense of pragmatism and weariness, which immobilises and dooms him to the torture of watching mortals attempt to derive some form of meaning from their own existence. Some analysts have described Tiresias as a model for modern consciousness – sex-less, blind to action but gifted with sight of particular clarity. He, Tiresias – assigned a gender for simplicities sake – fails to empathise to any productive degree with the passive qualms of humans, despite his ability to foresee their sorrows. Extended, this attitude, this existence, could be transplanted onto the modern human, whose consumptive and vain drive through life is coupled with a disconnection from its wider meaning, and any inkling of the true nature of happiness. Tiresias’ nature and his inclusion in the excerpt also seem to critique a notion of materialism and the social complication of the physical expression of emotion, using the parallel of barren, love-less sex – a ‘Waste Land’ of love – against the joy of childbearing to conjure a dark and depressing scene, but one that speaks beyond its narrative.

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