Darkness, Myth, and the Failure of Relationships in "The Waste Land"

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) is a notoriously difficult poem. Split into five chapters, with 433 lines in total, even the author himself admitted that "the poem is neither a success nor a failure - simply a struggle" (Scully, 2018, p. 166). Whilst the poem clearly describes the desolate, hopeless, and sterile state of the modern world in the aftermath of the First World War, Eliot's overlapping of myth, literary allusions, and harrowing depictions of the present has baffled many scholars in their search for the poem's overarching meaning. K.N. Chandran notes that the "cryptic allusions" (1989, p. 681) of the poem "[make] us feel the inadequacy of our annotations; 'we know and do not know'" (p. 681). As a result of its complexity, it has been heralded as "a landmark in the literature of the 20th century ... that has changed the course of English poetry [and] has aroused more commentary than any other single modern work" (Trosman, 1974, p.709).

Due to the breadth and complexity of the poem, this article will solely focus on three aspects of the text: the motif of darkness, the significance of myth, and the failure of relationships. It will explore Eliot's implementation of the mythical method, as well as physical and metaphorical depictions of darkness in his study of failed love, to express his views on the state of the modern world as a world of sterility, uncertainty, and desolation. It will also consider what space Eliot leaves for a possibility of rebirth from this terrible waste land, and what the inclusion of myth can reveal about the poem’s redemptive possibility.


The Waste Land opens with a stark warning that the world Eliot intends to bring his readers into is anything but welcoming. The subversion of "April" as the "cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land" (Eliot, 2018, 1-2), immediately evokes a poignant theme: a blurring of the boundary between life and death. The transitional moment is almost stagnant, the Lilacs bloom from dead soil, "mixing memory and desire" (3), suggesting a world stuck between its longing for its hopeful past, and for a hopeful future. But as the poem will soon reveal, the present seems to hold little hope, caught in the shadow of darkness, its inhabitants half-dead, haunted by myths and literary allusions that starkly remind us of the cost of sterility and desolation. As Owens proposes, "'The dead' are at the same time inhabitants of the modern metropolis which for Eliot has become the epitome of the desolation of the time" (1963, p.5). In the “Unreal City” (Eliot, 60), in the cover of the darkness of a "winter dawn" (61), the inhabitants of the metropolis are turned uncanny, existing in the same uncertain state between life and death as evoked at the beginning of the poem. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (62-3), is immediately followed by the evocation of a “dead sound” (67) and the questioning of whether a “corpse planted last year” has “begun to sprout?” (71-2).


Figure 1: Bunker. Aron Wiesenfeld. (2016).


The blurring of life and death casts a troubling darkness over the poem, a sterility that, for Lauren Haas, represents a “derelict, disjointed society, wanting of rebirth” (2003, p.31). It is not only physical darkness, then, that characterises The Waste Land. Whilst images of the night are abundant in the poem, with dark evocations such as “late” (37), “your shadow at evening” (29), and the “violet hour” (215), decisively placing The Waste Land in permanent darkness, it is the combination of physical and metaphorical darkness that cements the pessimism of Eliot’s poem. Life is hanging by a thread, continually threatened to fall into a deathly fate.


It would be an incomplete study of The Waste Land without the consideration of Eliot’s implementation of the mythical method. As Owens elaborates, this refers to the use "of a running parallel between the past and the present" (1963, p.3). It is significant to realise that just as the poem is caught between the horrifying realities of the post-war present and the yearning for an escape to a morally better past or future, the poet too “is sickened by the realities of his time and yearns to escape from them, and at the same time he thirsts for a renewal of life” (p.3). The inclusion of mythical narratives in The Waste Land, particularly the Fisher King Myth, is a result of Eliot finding “his own state of mind and feeling parallel to that of other men in the past”. (p.3) The revival of the Grail legend in the poem creates a connection between mythical narrative and the desolation of the poem. In the medieval version of the Grail, the waste land is “barren through long years of drought, or it has been devastated by crops that do not grow” and “both man and beast have lost their powers of propagation” (p.4). This sterility is mirrored in Eliot’s post-war waste land, the lilacs breeding out of the dead land resembling the barrenness of the harvest. In this way, trials of the present are represented by counterpoints of humanity’s past. It is this cyclicality that brings such a pessimistic tone to the poem. The modern devastation of war is simply yet another manifestation of the Fisher King Myth, the world is once again faced with sterility, feeding the hopelessness of the text. As Owens suggests, the inclusion of myth within the poem gives way to the feeling that “there is nothing new under the sun” (p.10). The darkness of the poem stretches beyond the present moment; it seeps from the 'living past' which “thrusts itself into the present” (p.9). The cries of the woman in chapter two, “A Game of Chess”, echo this horrifying cyclicality: “What shall we do tomorrow? / What shall we ever do?” (133-134). As Cyrena Pondrom suggests, this utterance is “really the cry of the whole poem” (2005, p.433), as it continuously reaches for rebirth in the present, only to be confronted by parallels to the past.


Darkness as a concept haunts The Waste Land. It is a fitting kind of pathetic fallacy, an adequate mood for a poem that finds little hope in a desolate world. Analysing the significance of darkness, and the blurring of life and death boundaries, to the failed relationships of the poem is an enlightening endeavour. It reveals Eliot’s views on the sterility of human relation in the post-war moment and exposes a pessimistic cyclicality that resembles the intention of the mythical method.


Figure 2: Manuscript of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations. Faber and Faber. (1922).


The first romantic relationship of the poem begins with an innocent evocation that suggests a contrast to the sterility of its opening lines. “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago” (Eliot, 35) evokes an innocent, genuine love exchange that denies the pessimism of the “dead land” (2). Indeed, the vitality of the bodily imagery, “your arms full, and your hair wet” (38), suggests a discontinuity, a relationship full of life that has lasted a complete year around the sun. But darkness quickly pervades this image of hope. The scene occurs “late” (37), and this evocation of nightfall brings with it imagery of stagnation. The lover cannot “speak”, his “eyes failing”, he knows “nothing” (39-40). Love becomes empty, characterised by a void of communication that implies the sterility of the land has manifested in The Waste Land's relationships too. After all, as Joshua Evans understands, “hyacinths are a symbol of resurrection” (2011, p.2), immediately drawing parallels to the uncanny rebirth of the half-dead lilacs of the opening line. Just as the lilacs bloom from dead soil, the potential for rebirth this relationship initially suggests is also shattered. Within seven lines the hyacinth exchange is complete, ending only in “silence” (Eliot, 41). The lover fails to give the relationship substance, finding sterility instead of emotion and communication, and so it is buried, just as the title of the chapter “The Burial of the Dead”, prophesises.


The relationships contained within the second chapter, “A Game of Chess”, fall victim to the same dark fate. The first, again occurring in the night, features a woman whose attempted communication with her lover ultimately fails. Just as the Hyacinth lover cannot “speak” (39), this woman’s lover refuses to communicate, leaving her desperate cries to fall upon deaf ears. Begging him to “speak” (112), her state grows frantic as she asks: “why do you never speak? Speak. / What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” (112-113). In a parallel to the scene of the Hyacinth garden, the sterile exchange escalates to a tone of desperation, each leading to the assumption that the lovers ultimately know “nothing" (40). Understanding and communication dissipates, as the woman finds “the mind of this man is completely opaque to her” (Pondrom, 2005, p.432). The blurring of the boundary between life and death reappears here too. Just as the wife asks her husband, “are you alive or not?” (Eliot, 126), the Hyacinth lover is “neither living nor dead” (40). Death and darkness intertwine as the core of The Waste Land, nothing can escape it, not the lilacs, not nature, not the beings that inhabit the world. In chapter five, “What the Thunder Said”, Eliot solidifies this claim, evoking the sentiment that “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience” (328-330). Alongside this theme, the perpetual evocation of a transition into nightfall gives the poem an eery sense of undoing. Everything is ending, the poem tells us.


In the same chapter, two women’s conversation about “Lil’s husband” (139) is continually interrupted by the call “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” (141), resembling a barman’s rushing plea for people to move on into the night. This relationship is near dead, expressed by one woman’s nonchalant remark, “if you don’t give it to him, there’s others will” (149). The framing of the erasure of love within a temporality that is continually pushing towards the darkness exposes just how derelict and ruined Eliot’s post-war society has become. According to Owens, Eliot uses the failure of relationships to embody the sterility of human connection in general in the post-war world, arguing “the sterility in men’s relations one to another is perceived not least in the life of love which is one of the dominating themes of the poem” (1963, p.5).


Figure 3: Typewriter Girl. Nadezhda Udaltsova. (1912).


The rape of the typist in chapter three, “The Fire Sermon”, exemplifies the “sterility in men’s relations one to another” (Owens, 1963, p.5). Occurring once again in the darkness, “at the violet hour” (Eliot, 215), she is met with a “Bradford millionaire” (234) who “endeavours to engage her in caresses” (237) which are “unreproved, if undesired”. He “assaults at once” (239) and encounters “no defence” (240). The representation of this relationship is even more striking than any we have seen before within the poem. This is not love lost, or a mutual love that cannot find the communication necessary to give emotion substance. This is a violent attack met with “indifference” (242). The typist’s response to the exchange mirrors the past relationships we have seen, her “brain allows” her only “one half-formed thought” (251), but emotional response is denied. Where the previous lovers find their void of communicative ability frustrating and frightening, the typist is ”hardly aware of her departed lover” (250), her reaction “automatic” (255). The extreme sterility of this exchange dramatises the tragic end-result of this sterility. A complete loss of love, no flowers exchanged, no attempt of communication, the typist exemplifies loss of connection in its most extreme form. These loveless relationships offer insight into Eliot’s anxiety for the state of the world. As H.U. Gumbrecht contends, for Eliot, “the future no longer presents as an open horizon of possibilities”, but as a “dimension increasingly closed to all prognoses” (2014, p. xiii). This closure of possibility is embodied in the lovers’ inability to speak, to comprehend, or to react. Human relations, for Eliot, are too sterile, void of understanding and communication, detached from love. The poem is a warning against the loss of human understanding of one another. If this is lost, all else is lost too.


The significant question one must ask in their reading of The Waste Land is whether Eliot leaves space for hope, and the possibility for rebirth and resurrection from this desolate state. Scholars have varying opinions on the level of optimism Eliot endows to The Waste Land. John Xiros Cooper stresses the significance that the narrative is built on the “hope (but not the fact) of spiritual rebirth” (2004, p. 213), whilst Nicoletta Ascuito insists on the purgatorial quality of the poem, suggesting redemption is possible. The scholarly view this article will examine is the significance of myth to the optimism of the poem. Lauren Haas argues that “Eliot exemplifies the idea that amidst a chaotic contemporary society, a poet’s prose attempts order” (2003, p.31), and stresses the significance of Joyce Leavell’s claim that “by recovering the lost myth within our culture, poets can restore mythic unity to literature” (p.31). In this way, scholars understand the significance of implementing myth to understand and work through the trials of the present. As Owens insists, “the greatness” of The Waste Land lies “in the fact that it gives ... a forceful and a subtle expression of something that is centrally human” (1963, p.6). He finds that in Eliot’s poetry, “the idea of evolution seems oftener than not to be conceived as running a cyclical course in which productive and sterile periods of respectively similar characters succeed one another” (p.9). Owens’s argument finds hope in the seemingly unbearing cyclicality of the past and present within the poem.


Figure 4: Automat. Edward Hopper. (1927).


Taking this view, the seemingly pessimistic cyclicality that haunts the poem is in fact Eliot’s very perception of, or hope for, progress. Whilst he excludes the following productive period from his poem, it is Eliot’s intention to encourage readers to find optimism in the fact that there is “nothing new under the sun” (p.10). Linda Pratt argues that the Holy Grail and the Fisher King Myth “is for Eliot a mystic vessel through which he may find ‘the still point of the turning world” (1973, p.320). After all, in the original myth, a “noble hero” must recover “the grail” and “prove his heroism, so the Fisher King can be healed, and the land rejuvenated” (Haas, 2003, p.31). As such, the inclusion of myths of sterility “exemplif[ies] the human condition” (p.32), and brings hope for the redemption of the productive cycle, resulting in the once fearful cyclicality bringing reassurance. Indeed, hope can be found in the transitory nature of the temporal state of the poem. After all, the living are not “dead” (Eliot, 328), but “dying” (329), the hour is “late” (37), or “violet” (215), but never completely black, or over. The Hyacinth lover might have failed to complete the love he aimed to begin, but love did exist. The lilacs might have come from dead land, but they still bred. In this way, as Owens explores, “the twilight motif … can very well point to the possibility of an approaching regeneration” (1963, p. 9), as opposed to the notion of an ending or closure. But of course, The Waste Land is intentionally difficult. As C. Watts explores, the poem “makes us enact the struggle to extract meaning from what appears meaningless … the poem enacts what it claims the world is: a problem implying a solution” (1998, pp. 131-132). Eliot intends for the poem to be a struggle, forcing readers to find meaning behind the lines, to make sense of the world he presents and find a way out of it.


Ultimately, then, Eliot portrays a world of darkness, a world that mirrors the sterility myths of the past, that lacks vitality, fertility, and human relation. The waste land is always covered in a veil of darkness, it is a world that teeters on the edge of living and dying. But the world also has a regenerative possibility, to reach the productive stage in the cycle as exemplified by mythical narratives. The significance of the poem occurring continuously in the twilight hour, and of the blurring of boundaries of life and death, is that it signifies Eliot’s text is not a wholly pessimistic one. The nature of the poem as a text consistently in transition gives it a purgatorial quality, as Ascuito alerts to. The desolation and sterility of the world is not necessarily its final fate: there is a possibility for redemption, for a rebirth, of a waste land that has lost its way.


Bibliography

Ascuito, Nicoletta. (2016). “The Sun Also Sets: The Violet Hour in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Literary Imagination, pp. 150-165.


Chandran, K. N. (1989). “Shantih” in The Waste Land.” American Literature, pp. 681–683.


Cooper, John Xiros. (2004). Modernism and the Culture of Market Society. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Eliot, T.S. (2019) The Waste Land and Other Poems. Sirius Publishing. Originally published 1922.

Evans, J. (2011). “The Blank Card: Meaning and Transcendence in TS Eliot's The Wasteland.” Agora, pp. 1-8.


Gumbrecht, H. U. (2014). Our broad present: Time and contemporary culture. Insurrections: Critical studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture. New York, Columbia University Press.


Haas, Lauren. (2003). “The Revival of Myth: Allusions and Symbols in The Wasteland,” Ephemeris, vol. 3, no. 8, pp. 31-33.


Owens, R.J. (1963). “T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Caribbean Quarterly, pp. 3-10.


Pondrom, Cyrena. (2005). “T.S. Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land.” Modernism/modernity, John Hopkins University Press, pp. 425-441.


Scully, Matthew. (2018). "Plasticity at the Violet Hour: Tiresias, The Waste Land, and Poetic Form." Journal of Modern Literature, Indiana University Press, pp. 166-182.


Trosman H. (1974). “T. S. Eliot and The Waste Land.” Archives of General Psychiatry, pp. 709–717.

Watts C. (1988). “The last 10 1/2 lines of The Waste Land.” Longman literature guides: Critical essays on The Waste Land. pp. 128–136.


Visual Sources

Fig. 1: Aron Wiesenfeld. (2016). Bunker [Painting]. Jonathon LeVine Gallery. Retrieved from: https://www.collectionzz.com/database/53600


Fig. 2: Faber and Faber. (1922). The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts, including the annotations of Ezra Pound / T. S. Eliot ; edited by Valerie Eliot. Retrieved from:

The British Library: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/manuscript-of-t-s-eliots-the-waste-land-with-ezra-pounds-annotations


Fig. 3 : Nadezha Udaltsova. (1912). Typewriter Girl [Painting]. Retrieved from:

https://bal-bullier.tumblr.com/post/190258196655/nadezhda-udaltsova-typewriter-girl-1910s


Fig. 4 : Edward Hopper. (1927). Automat [Painting]. Retrieved from:

http://www.laurencefuller.art/blog/2017/1/2/edward-hopper-the-loneliness-thing




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