The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem, is full of rich symbolism. But its symbolism is also highly ambiguous, making it difficult to explain the poem by appealing to a particular symbol or image alone. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important symbols in The Waste Land, and what we should make of them.
Drought and dryness.
Dry symbols, whether it’s dust, red rock, cracked mouths, or dry bones, can be found throughout The Waste Land. The majority of dry symbols in the poem, however, can be found in the ‘heap of broken images’ section early on in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, and in the poem’s final part, ‘What the Thunder Said’, with its ‘empty cisterns’ (i.e., reservoirs) and ‘exhausted wells’.
This symbolism of drought and decay is linked to the Fisher King myth (see below), but it is also symptomatic of a wider cultural and spiritual emptiness: modern life, Eliot’s poem seems to suggest, has lost its way.
Despite the title of Eliot’s poem suggesting drought and desert landscapes, The Waste Land is full of water-symbolism. There is the drowned Phoenician sailor, Phlebas, in the section ‘Death by Water’; there is the coming of the rain in the final section, ‘What the Thunder Said’, and there is the recurring figure of the River Thames, especially in the poem’s third section, ‘The Fire Sermon’.
Water is clearly needed in the waste land dominated by dry bones and dust. But too much of it will swamp and consume us, like poor Phlebas. The Waste Land is a poem dominated by extreme states in terms of the weather and elements.
Fire is especially important in the third part of The Waste Land, ‘The Fire Sermon’. In the Buddhist Fire Sermon, the Buddha states that everything is on fire: our lives are dominated by the ‘burning’ of passions, desires, and human suffering. We need to transcend this sensation and liberate ourselves from the base sensations associated with fire.
So ‘fire’ in this third section of the poem relates to the human passions and the suffering they cause: see the undoing of the Thames-daughters (women who are taken advantage of while sailing down the river), or the casual encounter between the typist and her boyfriend, the spotty young house agent’s clerk. The modern world is governed by these base passions and sensations, lacking any spiritual significance.
But Eliot is even cleverer, because his reference to, for instance, the church of Magnus Martyr brings in Christopher Wren (as his notes make clear), the architect who rebuilt so many of London’s churches when they were destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666. So even in this apparently unrelated nod to the interior of a London church, fire symbolism comes into the poem.
Right from the poem’s opening section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, death-symbolism runs through The Waste Land. We might corpses buried in people’s gardens (see the ‘Stetson’ passage), drowned sailors, the lost bones of dead men in ‘rats’ alley’ (a likely allusion to the trenches of the Western Front), and even a land that is dead (see the second line of the poem).
But cutting across the bones, sterile land, and ‘white bodies’ – drowned or otherwise – are symbols which suggest the living, and the resurgence of life: lilacs are being bred out of that ‘dead land’ in the poem’s opening lines, and, as the beginning of ‘What the Thunder Said’ announces, those who were living are now dying. Elsewhere, in the ‘hyacinth girl’ section, the speaker reports that he is neither living nor dead, but occupying some sort of limbo.
Death, then, is not straightforward in The Waste Land, and many of the living characters in the poem seem to be suffering from some sort of death-in-life.
The Fisher King.
The Fisher King is – if you’ll forgive the pun – a bit of a red herring in The Waste Land. Although Eliot’s notes state that much of the symbolism of the poem was derived from his reading of Jessie L. Weston’s 1920 book From Ritual to Romance, which introduced Eliot to the Fisher King legend, this was something of a late addition to the poem – an attempt to bring its disparate elements together.
In Arthurian legend, the Fisher King was a figure who ruled over a land where crops wouldn’t grow. It was, if you like, a ‘waste land’. The Fisher King himself is impotent: sexually sterile to reflect the barrenness of his land. This sterility is supposedly a punishment for a crime which took place at the king’s court. Eliot’s use of symbolism derived from this legend implies that the modern world is similarly barren and empty, and everything has lots its deeper spiritual meaning.
Although the Fisher King symbolism can be glimpsed in The Waste Land – from the poem’s title to the various figures we find fishing behind the gashouse or in front of the arid plain – the poem is far more wide-ranging and multifarious in its influences and symbolism, and we should not allow the presence of Fisher King motifs to eclipse the other elements and symbols mentioned above.