The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot is a poem full of famous lines. Its opening words, ‘April is the cruellest month’, are among the most famous opening lines in all of poetry, while later on in the poem references to being shown fear ‘in a handful of dust’ and ‘a heap of broken images’ have entered the popular consciousness. But one of the most haunting lines from The Waste Land is prompted by the sight of a crowd of people described as ‘flowing’ across London Bridge: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’. Whose death, and how has it undone ‘so many’?
The reference to ‘death’ having ‘undone so many’ comes towards the end of the first of the poem’s five sections. This section is itself titled ‘The Burial of the Dead’, and death pervades it, from the ‘dead land’ in the poem’s second line, through to speaker who was ‘neither living nor dead’, and the ‘death by water’ we are to fear in the clairvoyant’s pack of Tarot cards, culminating in the corpse which Stetson planted in his garden last year.
The line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’ comes near the beginning of the closing verse paragraph (or, if you prefer, stanza) of ‘The Burial of the Dead’. The speaker of the poem – whoever ‘he’ is at this point, in a poem originally titled ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ to reflect its polyphonic nature – observes, one winter dawn, a crowd of people moving across London Bridge. There are ‘so many’, and he ‘had not thought death had undone so many’.
The words ‘so many’ end two successive lines of the poem (‘so many … so many’), in a grim parody of the rhyming couplet. Here, there is no rhyme, no neat harmony, but only deadening and deadened repetition, wide-eyed and trance-like wonder at the devastation that has assaulted modern London. The suggested term for this device is ‘homorhyme’, from the Greek homo- meaning ‘same’, and when two lines end on a homorhyme this is an ‘unheroic couplet’: a grim subverting or thwarting of the ‘heroic couplet’ (two iambic pentameter lines that rhyme). This mental paralysis manifests itself through homorhyme and the unheroic couplet again and again in The Waste Land.
As so often with Eliot, though, he is alluding to another poet in his line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’. In his early fourteenth-century poem Inferno – the first poem in his three-part Divine Comedy – Dante describes the souls of the damned in hell:
e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.
This refers to the souls of the damned in hell, and can be translated as ‘And after there was so long a train of people, that I never would have believed that Death so many had undone.’
The point of the allusion is obvious. Dante was observing the souls of the damned: the dead who had been plunged into infernal hell for eternity for their sins on earth. Their deaths had ‘undone’ or ‘unmade’ them, exposing their souls to the hellish torment they crimes deserve. But Eliot’s crowd of people are still living, at least nominally: they are bank clerks and other office workers travelling to their places of work of a weekday morning, going about their daily lives. Which ‘death’, then, has undone them?
The answer that is usually given is the mass death of the First World War, in which almost a million British men gave their lives in combat. Death, then, has undone not the dead, but the living. What lends this interpretation credence is the fact that Eliot had already used Dante’s Inferno as the epigraph for an earlier poem, his 1915 poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. In that poem, six lines spoken by the sinner Guido da Montefeltro preface Prufrock’s own monologue, the implication being that, whilst the dead Guido is suffering the literal torment of hell, the living and breathing Prufrock is enduring a kind of hell on earth.
So, for Eliot’s speaker in The Waste Land, ‘so many’ have been ‘undone’ by the recent death and devastation of the First World War. And this chimes with a phenomenon often witnessed in the poem: so many of its characters are experiencing a kind of living death, or a deadened form of life. This is present arguably even before the poem itself actually begins, in the epigraph from the scurrilous Roman novel Satyricon by Petronius.
In the line from Petronius which Eliot cites as epigraph, the speaker sees the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage or bottle, and when he asks her what she wants, the Sibyl replies, ‘I want to die.’ She wants to die because, according to the myth, she asked the gods for eternal life or, more accurately, to be able to live for as many years as she had grains of sand in her hand. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth, with the result that the Sibyl was destined to live effectively forever, but to grow older and frailer and weaker, a decaying shadow of her former self: a form of living death.
Similarly, the speaker who accompanied the hyacinth girl describes himself as ‘neither living nor dead’, while in ‘What the Thunder Said’, the final section of The Waste Land, we are told that those who ‘were living are now dying’. The typist and her spotty boyfriend engage in lifeless, by-the-numbers sex. Many characters, including the ‘Thames-daughters’ who speak towards the end of ‘The Fire Sermon’, are ‘undone’ not by death but by men, to whom they have given up their virtue. Death, and the pervasiveness of death in London following the end of the war, seems to have ‘undone’ virtually everyone, in one way or another.