When T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922 he was a self-proclaimed atheist. Some six years later, he described himself as an adherent to anglo-catholic Christianity and thus wrote the Four Quartets. As is possible to postulate, some scholars believe that there is an innate Christian-ness in The Waste Land and have hence tried to speculate and interpret the text in such a style. However, in order to do such would require two dramatic steps to be taken. First, one must define Christian poetry as a genre, and secondly the poem must actually be interpreted with that first principle of genre definition.
In Western literary interpretation there has always been an undertone of the Christian ethic. Since Christianity has dominated for the most part all of Anglo-Saxon culture, innately there must exist in any interpretation of Western literature an assumption of a Christian backdrop in the audience. When applying this concept to genre, specifically here Christian poetry, it is plausible to speculate that atheistic poetry is in its own sense “Christian” in that it is a response to a first principle, namely that of the Christian backdrop. An analogy for illustration: Aristotle wrote his philosophical treatises as a response to Platonism. Taking Plato’s principles as initial assumptions, Aristotle argued for a different kind of philosophical world view contrary to the Platonic theses; however, he still remained entangled in the backdrop of the ubiquity of Platonic assumption when defining his own philosophy. “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” said British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (“Alfred North Whitehead”). This same parallel can be applied when defining Christian poetry in the western literary tradition. That is, the ubiquity of Christianity in Western culture assumes that any kind of lashing out against it per se (to steal an Aristotelian term) is inherently Christian due to the nature of Christianity being a type of given in the culture. Therefore, this allowance grants critics the ability to interpret The Waste Land as a form of Christian poetry.
As The Waste Land is an immensely complex work, any singularly focused interpretation does not do justice to the work as a whole. Hence, “The Burial of the Dead,” which seems to have some of the most prominent anti-Christian sentiment, will be the sole focus of this interpretation. Eliot alludes to a virtual litany of biblical passages and other canonical works in this section of the piece. However, when viewed in light of the modernistic theme of dissatisfaction with the Western world, which Eliot advocates by not only downing religion but sexuality and materialism as well, The Waste Land does not lend itself to be viewed as a piece of pro-Christian literature (especially in the Protestant work-ethic sense of Weber). On the contrary, his allusions tend to defile the sanctity of a religion so widely advocated in the West. Through carefully and cleverly crafter authorial commentary as well as the use of an extended metaphor (that of vegetation), Eliot manages to create a work that can be read as anti-Christian literature, which would still classify it as Christian in the sense described above.
“April is the cruellest month…” so begins “The Burial of the Dead” (Eliot line 1), alluding to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’ General Prologue in which the pilgrims begin their journey in April, the time of “sweet showers…[that] generate therein and sire the flowers” (Chaucer lines 3-4). Compare this to Eliot’s view of April, “…breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land…” and “…stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain…” and it becomes painfully obvious that this April pilgrimage to Eliot is not the happiest of times (Eliot lines 2,4). This new pilgrimage that Eliot is alluding to can be viewed in satirical opposition to Chaucer’s search for religious comfort in a pilgrimage out of religious duty.
The second stanza introduces Eliot’s authorial voice and some intensive religious commentary and biblical allusion.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. (Eliot lines 19-30)
The first step to breaking into this complex passage is to identify the multiple allusions. Then, after the source material has been established, one can then analyze the cohesiveness of the passage and see how the allusions fit together to form an overarching meaning. The root and branch metaphor has two possible origins, both of which apply to the figure of Christ. “I am the true vine and my Father the gardner. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit” (Holy Bible, John 15:1-2). This passage offers a possible origin of the metaphor while the Parable of the Sower which tells of the seeds scattered on different types of ground, some taking root and others not, accounts for the stony rubbish imagery Eliot uses (Holy Bible, Luke 8:5-15). Thus, there is a synthesis of biblical allusions used to set up the rest of the passage’s satire. Eliot next addresses directly the “Son of Man,” a common title given to Christ in the New Testament, and accuses him of not being able to answer the question. The stream of “broken images” lends itself to be interpreted as segue into the broken images Eliot next presents. The crickets of no relief, the red rock casting shadow, and the waterless rock are again synthesized biblical allusions referring to Christ. In Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, the author speaks of a time when the grasshopper (cricket) drags himself along the ground and desire is no longer apparent in the people; the chapter taken as a whole seems to describe the modernist mindset where “…Everything is meaningless” (Holy Bible, Ecclesiastes 12: 5,8). The red rock’s shadow is taken from a passage of Isaiah Chapter 32, which tells of the coming of a Kingdom of Rightousness where men will be like “shadows of great rocks in thirsty lands” and “streams of water in the desert,” (Holy Bible, Isaiah 32:2). Finally the water from the dry stone image comes form Exodus where Moses is told to strike a rock and water will come out for the people to drink (Holy Bible, Exodus 17:6).
Eliot then asks the Son of Man to come under this shadow created by the rock and uses a non-biblical allusion, a metaphor of aging seen first in Greek mythology’s Sphinx’s riddle as morning, afternoon, and evening being the equivalent of young, middle-aged, and old (Loy). Again Eliot directly addresses the Son of Man using the second person possessive pronoun “Your” referring to Christ’s shadow in the morning and evening (i.e. the birth of Christianity and the Christianity of Eliot’s time). This set up leads to Eliot’s oft quoted line, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” where dust is a commonly used metaphor to imply uselessness and decay (Eliot line 30).
Now having the origins of the allusions and interpretations of the metaphors, one can explicate further on the structure of these in the passage and derive some kind of coherent meaning in the juxtaposition of such phrases. Eliot opens his second stanza with a rhetorical question, asking about the roots and branches, obvious biblical allusions. Then by addressing the son of man directly and accusing him of not being able to account for these strayed roots in stony rubbish, Eliot creates a denigration of the Christ figure’s authority in the modernist world. By stating that there is no water coming (as was promised by God in Exodus) from the dry rocks and that the crickets are offering no solace, Eliot further emphasizes the empty promises of religion so often felt in his post World War I social landscape. Concluding his stanza by asking the Son of Man to come under the shadow of this rock and promising to show him something different than his “shadow” (religion) at different periods of Christian history, Eliot manages to eloquently deride Christianity as utterly useless and dead by claiming it is a handful of dust, useless yet still inspiring fear in so many unthinking peoples.
After a satire on the concept of love, Eliot again moves into authorial commentary introducing Madame Sosostris as the technology for propagating his anti-Christian sentiment. The cards themselves carry some heavy connotation of Christian references. The Phoenician Sailor with pearls that were his eyes (Eliot lines 47-48), the one eyed merchant with something blank on his back (Eliot lines 52-53), the man with three staves, the lack of the Hanged Man (Eliot lines 51, 54-55), all can be interpreted as alluding to some Christian ideal.
The Phoenician Sailor, or Fisher King, echoes a biblical passage in Matthew chapter four where Jesus asks Simon and Peter, the two brothers, to come and be “fishers of men” (Holy Bible, Matthew 4:18-19). An interjection needs to be made here in order to clarify how Christ fits into the Fisher King title given to him by Eliot. By asking Simon and Peter to come help in his ministry, Christ implies that he himself is also a fisher of men, which explains the “fisher” part of the Fisher King. The King part comes from the title given to Christ at the time of his crucifixion, “King of the Jews.” Furthering the Christ implications, Eliot makes the parenthetical comment that, “Those were pearls that were his eyes…,” alluding to the parable of the Pearl of Great Price. Found in the Book of Matthew, this tale equates the value of the kingdom heaven to a pearl found by a merchant. The merchant saves all his money and purchases the pearl, which makes him wealthier than he was before (Holy Bible, Matt. 13:45-46). Here, by using the past tense verb “were”, the pearls are signified as being in a state of lost value. Hence, the kingdom of heaven spoken of in the parable is no more, at least in Eliot’s mind according to this passage of the poem.
The one-eyed merchant carries something on his back, evoking images of the rood or cross which a servant carries for Christ to his crucifixion. Eliot calls this something blank, something the speaker is forbidden to see, ergo it is something not there which furthers the credibility of the interpretation in favor of the cards being significant ideals of Christianity in his time period, namely the lack of religion. This is complementary to the man with three staves. Staves, which are associated with the shepherd (yet another term for Christ), being spoken of in threes also lend themselves to being reminiscent of the holy trinity of Christianity. Again this is a synthesis of sorts on Eliot’s part, where he combines Christ’s being called the shepherd and imposes this shepherd-ness on the other two parts of the trinity.
With the third image of Christ in collage, Eliot chooses the Hanged Man and represents him as not being present. Again, the portrait is one of absence in which religion is simply not present; that is, God’s grace cannot be seen when “One must be so careful these days” (Eliot line 59). Also to be noted is that the Hanged Man is given capital letters in his name. Obviously not a proper name, other occurrences in which a title is capitalized in the western tradition is when they refer to the Judeo-Christian God. This capitalization then also helps a reader identify that Eliot is talking about Christ when he speaks of the Hanged Man. So by degrading the pearls as now valueless and the Fisher King as drowned (thus dead), having the one-eyed merchant carry something blank and unseen on his back, and not representing the Hanged Man, Eliot creates a trinity defiling the Trinity.
The following stanza includes some of Eliot’s satire against current social situations, then again launches into a critique on Christianity, this time referring to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Again using a person as the technology to segue into the next critique, Eliot here chooses St. Mary Woolnoth. St. Mary, who could be an alluded referent to Mary Magdalene, the woman tenant to Christ at the time of his crucifixion, “…kept the hours/ With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (Eliot lines 67-68). According to the Gospel of Luke, Christ died on the ninth hour (Holy Bible, Luke 23:44). Eliot follows this passage of the death of Christ, with one creatively critiquing the resurrection. “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/ Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed” (Eliot lines 71-73)? This passage recounts the resurrection of a corpse, presumably that of Christ, and there is some parallelism to the earlier references of the cruelty of April and warmness of winter that Eliot produces by speaking of the frost. Implying winter’s apathy and lifelessness, Eliot crafts a unique metaphor that reads in prose terms: This reawakening of the spirit that spring brings with it, the reawakening of the religious attitudes is not something we (the current society) desire. Christ’s corpse is dead, his testament is dead, and this apathetic winter has set in indefinitely.
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men/ Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again” (Eliot lines 74-75). Speaking of the corpse in the garden, Eliot warns to keep the “Dog” away, the dog with nails. Here a paradox is created. If one takes the capitalization rule established earlier and applies it to Dog, then this also becomes a referent to God (hence Christ). After all Dog is simply God spelled backward. The use of the words nails, assuming that this Dog is a referent to the Christ, alludes to three wounds that Christ received while on the cross. Therefore, the paradox here is: Christ will resurrect Christ. It is through society’s winter that the corpse has not bloomed into the vine, the “roots that clutch.” For this section is called the “Burial of the Dead,” and as far as Eliot is concerned God is dead. One needs not let the Dog back into the garden and resurrect itself for the consequences are far too great: in a Waste Land, there exists no room for God.
“Alfred North Whitehead.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 30 Apr 2006, 08:40. 2 May 2006, 23:36 <http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alfred_North_Whitehead>
Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canterbury Tales. 2 May 2006 <http://www.librarius.com/canttran/gptrfs.htm>
Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land. 1922. 2 May 2006 <http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html>
Holy Bible. NIV. 2 May 2006 <http://www.biblegateway.com/>
Loy, Jim. “Riddle of the Sphinx.” 2002. 2 May 2006 <http://www.jimloy.com/puzz/sphinx0.htm>