A reading of the fifth section of The Waste Land – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘What the Thunder Said’ concludes The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s landmark 1922 work of modernist poetry. In many ways, this is the most difficult section of The Waste Land to analyse. Nevertheless, what follows is an attempt to sketch out one possible reading or analysis of ‘What the Thunder Said’ in terms of its meaning, language, and use of literary allusions. You can read ‘What the Thunder Said’ here.
In summary: things really begin to break down properly here. In the previous four sections of The Waste Land, Eliot had used a number of different poetic forms and metres, and although the poetry occasionally broke down into what we might call free verse, it usually regained its form after a while. But ‘What the Thunder Said’ is overwhelming written in unpunctuated, unrhymed, irregular free verse. It is as if the lack of water has led the speaker of ‘What the Thunder Said’, in his desire for water, to lapse into semi-coherent snatches of speech.
There is a good biographical reason for all this. When T. S. Eliot wrote this section, the last part of The Waste Land that he wrote, he was convalescing in Lausanne, and claims to have written ‘What the Thunder Said’ very quickly, in a sort of trance. He even claimed – though perhaps with his tongue partially in his cheek – that he wasn’t even bothering to check that what he wrote was even making any sense.
Much of this final section of the poem is about a desire for water: the waste land is a land of drought where little will grow. Water is needed to restore life to the earth, to return a sterile land to fertility. (Shades of the Fisher King myth here again.) Along the way, in ll. 359-65, we get a weird digression which sees the speaker asking about a hallucinated third person (s)he imagines walking alongside his (her) travelling companion, a detail that was inspired, Eliot tells us in his notes, by one of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions, where one of the men suffered from the delusion that there was one more man among their number, an imagined extra person.
Shades of the Gothic are introduced here, which are echoed by the bats with the baby faces in the chapel. We are also in the realms of Arthurian myth here, and the Grail quest: the Chapel Perilous was the place, in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, where Lancelot was tempted – as with ‘The Fire Sermon’, temptation re-emerges as a theme. Can one remain spiritually pure and focused, or will the lure of the body become too strong?
Then, finally, rain comes to the land, and there is a thunderclap. The sound of the thunder – DA – is analysed and interpreted in different ways by those who hear it. It is variously interpreted as datta (‘give’), dayadhvam (‘sympathise’), and damyata (‘control’), taken from the Upanishads, a series of sacred texts important to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Each of these three commands is meditated on in the lines that succeed it – so, for instance, after ‘DATTA’ we find the question ‘What have we given?’ followed by reference to ‘a moment’s surrender’ – a giving (or giving up) of oneself.
‘What the Thunder Said’ concludes with a collage of quotations from various sources: the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’ (suggesting the demise of London as the centre of a vast empire and trading power); Dante’s Purgatorio (‘Then dives him into the fire which refines him’); the Pervigilium Veneris, a Latin poem dating back nearly two thousand years, followed by a Tennyson poem (‘O swallow swallow’); a sonnet by Gerard de Nerval (‘the Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower’); Thomas Kyd’s Elizabethan play The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587); and finally, the word ‘Shantih’, which Eliot says is roughly equivalent to our phrase ‘the peace which passeth understanding’, repeated three times.
What should we make of this assemblage of literary snippets from various periods of history, and from both high and low culture (French poetry, children’s nursery rhymes)? One way of analysing ‘What the Thunder Said’, or the closing lines at any rate, is to posit that the speaker has finally gone completely mad: ‘Hieronymo’s mad againe’, Eliot says, quoting Thomas Kyd. For a more detailed analysis of the closing lines of Eliot’s poem, see here.
The fallout from WWI is important to our understanding of the poem (although its centrality to the poem can be overestimated). The War can be seen in various places, not just in the references to a demobbed soldier (l. 139), rats (ll. 115-16, 187, 195), or the archduke (l. 13; it had been the assassination of an archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that had precipitated the outbreak of WWI). Those final three repeated words, ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ (l. 433), mean, as Eliot’s notes tell us, ‘the peace which passeth understanding’, at least roughly. But what does this mean? What sort of note is this to end on? If the final lines signal that peace has been attained, what does this mean if it is a peace which cannot be understood? And has it been attained?
Saying the words is one thing, but has the speaker of this final incantatory line actually achieved the peace the word describes, or is it, as Jacques Lacan would have it, that naming something signals the lack of that thing? Do the words announce the attainment of peace, or merely register a desire for it? The Waste Land prompts such questions and has been doing so since its publication in 1922, and will continue to do so.
Below is a short video written and presented by Dr Oliver Tearle of Loughborough University, which introduces a few of the key themes of The Waste Land.
The best student edition of Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which comes with a very helpful introduction, as well as reams of highly valuable contextual information and major critical responses to The Waste Land.
About T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.
Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.
Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.
He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.