In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the origins of a famous line from The Waste Land
Among many haunting lines in T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ stands out for its sinister suggestions of death, mortality, and the ultimate futility of all human endeavour. If the poem as a whole seems to offer a vision of civilisation as a pile of textual rubble or ruins, with all of human achievement in literature, religion, and myth reduced to those ‘fragments’ which the speaker has ‘shored’, then ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ does the same for the human species. But is this a correct analysis of the line’s meaning? What else might it mean?
It’s worth remembering that this line appears in the first part of the five-part poem. This opening section is titled ‘The Burial of the Dead’, a reference to the Burial Service text from the Book of Common Prayer. At Anglican church burials, the words ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ mark the return of the human body to that state from which, the Bible tells us, it originally came: Genesis 3:19 has God telling Adam, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’
This ‘handful of dust’ which the mysterious and elusive speaker of Eliot’s lines threatens to brandish aloft is often interpreted, then, as a reference to human mortality: we are all ultimately destined to return to nothing more than ‘a handful of dust’. Such an idea was expressed – using that very same expression, ‘a handful of dust’ – long before Eliot wrote The Waste Land. In his 1898 short story ‘Youth’, for instance, Joseph Conrad – whose work Eliot admired – wrote:
I remember the drawn faces, the dejected figures of my two men, and I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires – and expires, too soon – before life itself.
‘The heat of life in the handful of dust’: in the midst of life, as the Book of Common Prayer also has it, we are in death.
But even before Conrad, way back in the early seventeenth century, John Donne had written, in his fourth Meditation:
Call back therefore thy Meditation again, and bring it downe; whats become of mans great extent and proportion, when himselfe shrinkes himselfe, and consumes himselfe to a handfull of dust?
Once again, man is reduced to ‘a handful of dust’. We are mortal, and so we are limited.
The problem with interpreting Eliot’s ‘handful of dust’ in such a way is that the context of the line in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ makes it harder to view this ‘handful of dust’ as narrowly denoting death and mortality. The speaker addresses ‘Son of man’, but even this expression is ambiguous in Christianity, variously referring to Adam (the first man) and, by extension, all humans, but also (in the New Testament) to Jesus.
However, we can cut through this ambiguity, to an extent, by recalling that Eliot’s primary reference-point in this part of the poem is two books from the Old Testament (Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes, as his Notes attest), so ‘Son of man’ is more likely to refer to Adam and all future mortals, rather than Jesus Christ. Indeed, God addresses the prophet Ezekiel as ‘Son of man’ in Ezekiel 2:1.
Nevertheless, the lines that follow create further barriers to interpretation. The whole passage is extremely biblical in language and intonation, but we can cut through the grandeur and orotundity somewhat and provide a paraphrase. The world is a desert, and something mysterious, even sinister, is growing out of the dry land. There is no shelter to be had under the bare tree, and no sign of water from the dry stones.
The only hope of shelter is under the ‘red rock’, which provides a shadow or shade from the hot glare of the sun. The (mortal) ‘Son of man’ is beckoned under the rock by some figure (God?), who promises to show him something that is neither the past (that shadow in the morning) or future (the evening shadow, suggesting coming death). In other words, the ‘fear in a handful of dust’ is, as the speaker tells us, different from that ‘shadow at evening’, so it cannot mean simply ‘fear of mortality’, since that is what is denoted by the evening shadow that is ‘rising to meet’ man.
So what does it mean? If we are right in concluding that the speaker of these lines is God, or some godlike figure, then the ‘shadow’ under the red rock represents spiritual protection: it’s essentially the Christian message of ‘come under God’s protection and you will have eternal life, so need not fear death’.
If that is so, then it probably makes no sense to read ‘fear in a handful of dust’ as ‘fear of our own mortality’, because the godlike speaker has just promised to show us something that stretches beyond our narrow human lifespan (our shadow at morning, i.e., our birth; our shadow at evening, i.e., our coming death). The shadow provided by the red rock is eternal and dwarfs the shadows cast by our own brief lives.
So what is the ‘fear in a handful of dust’ if it’s not fear of our own death? Perhaps we should go back to the epigraph to The Waste Land, provided by Petronius’ scurrilous Roman novel, Satyricon. 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. She had managed to evade the usual short human lifespan, but at what cost? Her ‘handful of dust’ or sand had robbed her of any meaning to her life. Eternal life which is effectively a sort of living death is in stark contrast to the eternal life which Eliot’s Old Testament God figure promises.
In short, then, the ‘fear in a handful of dust’ which the godlike figure promises to show the ‘Son of man’ is, we might say, both human mortality and the pointless death-in-life that people without spiritual meaning in their lives have to endure. Neither is viable: however you view this ‘handful of dust’, it must be rejected in favour of that shadow or protection which stretches far beyond one man and his narrow lifespan. The Waste Land is a poem about modern life stripped of deeper spiritual meaning. The ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, in referring to both human mortality and the fate of the Sibyl, shows the horror of both, offering something ‘beyond ourselves’ as the solution or cure to this fear.
The phrase ‘a handful of dust’, from Eliot’s poem, was used by Evelyn Waugh for the title of his 1934 novel.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.