In his epic masterpiece The Waste-Land, T. S. Eliot wrote an epic using as its machinery a spiritual pilgrimage which presents a metaphysical inversion of the Christian journey of Chaucer’s pilgrims. This pilgrimage is a journey of the soul through an earthly purgatory which purifies and humbles the self, but which unlike the Christian Purgatory ends without theosis at a liberating but dispassionate act of resignation towards the world, a purgatorial process identical to the “enlightenment” of the Buddha. Unlike the natural ignorance of the Buddhist stoics, however, Eliot’s Upanishad recognizes the possibility of a transcendent order with the possibility of salvation, and his epic ends with a hint of unrealized hope.
This pilgrimage is compared to that which the reader is taken on by Chaucer. As in Chaucer's tale, this pilgrimage is used as an occasion to present a disjointed and fragmented collection of stories which together reveal an uncertain and disharmonious world. However, whereas the older bard is conducting his pilgrimage in via through a growth in the supernatural life of sanctifying grace to reach his heavenly home (symbolized by the relics at Canterbury), Eliot gives his readers a Purgatorial journey through the paths of illusion and sin which are painfully and sequentially ripped away until the soul is left bare and empty, finally purified and capable of receiving the fullness of divine life in a single instant. Eliot does not give any intentional meaning or symbolic significance to his poem, but nonetheless through its fragmentation the poem takes the reader on a subconscious journey which presents a taste of the Hindu path to salvation, which in this poem we cannot distinguish phenomenologically from the method or manner of purification experienced in Purgatory (regardless of differences in the state of grace or location). The reader is forced on this pilgrimage in order to fulfill the natural human desire to find meaning, since the poem itself has no transcendent telos to give meaning to this fragmented world, and unlike Chaucer Eliot makes no textual separation between his tales, forcing the reader to put them together himself into a disharmonious and disjointed whole.
The pilgrimage also arises not only from the extrinsic effect but also the intrinsic nature of the fragmentation involved. While for Chaucer the pilgrimage to Canterbury is used as an opportunity to tell a series of stories which have only an accidental, coincidental, or opportune connection with the spiritual pilgrimage, Eliot makes no clear distinction between the Chaucerian theme which opens the poem and the series of vignettes he presents as the poem’s contents. Likewise, he makes no distinction between the narrator of the entire poem taken as a whole (which, in The Canterbury Tales, was Chaucer) and the narrator of each story or vignette (Chaucer’s pilgrims); yet in a manner evoking the self-fragmentation of the modern individual, each vignette is told by a different voice: the Lithuanian German (Eliot 8-18), the lover of the Hyacinth Girl (35-42), Mrs. Equitone’s superstitious friend (43-59), Stetson’s acquaintance (60-77), the ladies in the bar (section II), the Fisher-King (173-203 and 266-311), Tiresias (215-265), and finally the unknown voice which may be impersonal or may be the author, among other possibilities. Furthermore, whoever this all-encompassing “narrator” is, he/she/it is also the subject of these vignettes, as is made clear from Eliot’s footnote regarding Tiresias, who despite his/her own sexual self-fragmentation is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest” (cf. Eliot 218). By denying this pilgrimage a destination at Canterbury, any unified meaning for the poem must come from the only remaining unified aspect between the unrelated vignettes, namely their fragmentation from each other. Yet there is no fragmentation outside the mind of the one perceiving it, and thus even a pure phenomenology of fragmentation qua fragmentation is itself a spiritual pilgrimage through the soul of the reader, and the fruitless search for value and meaning becomes the only meaning the poem intrinsically gives us – a search which reveals not truth, but the reader’s own lack of self-coherence. The vignettes must be “fragments of a subsuming consciousness” (Freeman 1, italics mine) in order for any fragmentation to occur. The reader is lead in this way through a self-introspective journey through this consciousness, penetrating through the fragmentation of the Waste-Land of maya to a final state of non-dual knowledge where all that man can say is that there is nothing meaningful to be said, and where man sees through – by means of the intensity of the bitter light which the poet has forced on our eyes – the emptiness and discord of the Waste-Land into a final annihilation in which nothing of the Wasteland of himself is left. It is an annihilation of the Sufi or Vedic sort, an empting or kenosis of the soul which purifies it from the discordant realm of illusion – and the journey has thus been a passage through Purgatory, in which at the final end, out of the depths of the profoundest despair, the pilgrim has finally lost the obstacles to the flood of divine grace. As with Blake’s epic dream of fragmentation and non-dualism, The Four Zoas, the pilgrim peels away the layers of illusion through a bitter agony of struggle, until he awakes into the pure vision of non-dualism. Eliot’s poem is an Upanishad for the modern psyche.
Given the nature of this work as a Modernist poem which aims at fragmentation and the removal of meaning, it cannot be stressed too much that that since the text qua itself has no overall coherent meaning, this phenomenological pilgrimage must not be thought of as a "meaning" presented directly in the text, nor is it a pilgrimage which Eliot himself undergoes, for Eliot is not the narrator (he has no “hidden agenda” or even a deliberate point to his writing which he is trying to present), and the fact of his pilgrimage arises from the nature of fragmentation and not from the meaning of the text. An analysis of the pilgrimage could be given no matter what the actual contents of the vignettes are, even though it is these vignettes which determine the pilgrimage and only through which, as a medium of unrelated stories, this pilgrimage can only be described. The pilgrimage can only be described through the contents of the isolated stories precisely because the subject of the stories is nothing other than the narrator, as shown above; a unity is presented between the world of the macrocosm and the individual microcosm, and thus by giving a dispassionate and purposeless tour of the world of the waste-land, Eliot is simultaneously conducting us through ever deeper levels of the soul’s own contemplation of itself. The poem is justified as being called a pilgrimage not because Eliot or a single narrator is undergoing one; it is rather the reader or the audience who is led on this journey, and whose own unconscious provides the only meaning that is to be found, whether in the literary Waste-Land of the text or the macrocosmic Waste-Land of twentieth-century life.
Furthermore, due to this phenomenological nature of our reading, we must not take this reading as an exclusive one. There are many other and even deeper levels of meaning in The Waste Land which complement but do not nullify my thesis; however, they are all still placed within the overall framework of a pilgrimage, as shall be shown by the opening and ending lines of the poem as well as by the overall structure of the internal content. Because each line of the epic is packed with meaning and significance, only those aspects of the poem which relate to the overarching spiritual pilgrimage will be discussed in this reading; nonetheless, it shall be shown that Eliot explored the images and aspects of his Waste-Land through and only through the context of a spiritual journey, which takes place not through space or even time but rather through ever deeper levels of the soul’s own contemplation of itself - a sati through the microcosm of the Waste Land.
Eliot begins his epic with a prologue to a pilgrimage, containing references to both Chaucer and Dante, but as he does so the reader is immediately stripped of his prior illusions of sentimental romanticism. “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” (Eliot 1-4) This is an obvious allusion and inversion of the prologue to Chaucer, in which a religious pilgrimage is used as the seemingly natural context for the exploration of the society and of the lukewarm Church of Chaucer’s day - but Eliot’s pilgrimage is curiously inverted, with images of boredom, death, and futile desire replacing the springtime of Chaucer’s England with its dormant undercurrents of piety. Likewise, while Chaucer’s Christian hope gives the possibility of an astute social criticism and a witty satire of society, Eliot’s waste-land can only prefer a middling oblivion of boredom in which it has no transcendental aspirations to raise it above mundane life: “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.” (Eliot 5-8) Finally, the Holy Trinity is inverted in a trinity of seasons as summer represents a failed and weak-seeming but still recognizable inversion of transcendence, namely snobbery (line 12). Summer/transcendence comes as an unexpected surprise, and is associated in its coming with “a shower of rain” (9). The description of sledding with his cousin the archduke illustrates the uncontrollable, frightening (15), and unpleasant state which freedom (17) has turned into. This is a description of the Waste-Land; it remains for the rest of the epic for the reader to contemplate the waste land, and to grow in his knowledge and therefore in his despair.
The despair is intensified by Eliot’s references in the dedication of the poem to Dante, whose spiritual journey – the journey of an individual soul through a beautifully ordered world from Hell up to God – is an even more complete inversion of the journey Eliot describes than the one Chaucer does, and which would have possibly been a more fitting (but less recognizable) source for the allusion at the beginning of Eliot’s poem. The allusion in question is the dedication to Ezra Pound as "il miglior fabbro", words taken from Dante's representation of Guido Guinizelli speaking of his predecessor, the poet Arnaut Daniel (Purgatorio 26.117).
In the second stanza an absent God addresses the narrator, as indicated by the allusion in Eliot’s footnote to Ezekiel 2:1 (“Stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee”). God is absent, because the allusion is made in a phrase (“Son of man” (20)) spoken not by God but by the narrator speaking to himself; having first removed the pleasant sentimentalities of romantic literature, Eliot now deprives the reader of proximity to God in the world. The Waste Land has lost the image of God the Word, having become a “heap of broken images” (22), with this fall having been manifested primarily in barren lifelessness (19-30). A hint of the stoic resignation that will conclude the epic, the non-transcendent enlightenment that Eliot’s Upanishad results in, is found by the sense of fear towards the world which in traditional forms of yoga and other occult practices precedes the release of “divine energies” (believed to lead to enlightenment): “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (30). Eliot, a secular Westerner with a sober mind but with an interest in Eastern religions, falls neither into the superstitious silliness that would later characterize the New Age movement nor the possibly demonic aspects of the powers involved in kundalini (“serpent-soul”) and which, in yoga, are inseparably tied to this “fear”; however, he does describe this fright at the fallenness and isolation from God found in the natural essences of a de-sacralized, fallen, and estranged world - a world which since the Fall has been more of a natural habitation to the fallen angels than to the holy ones, as a patristic theolegoumenon taught. Eliot does not teach this ancient theolegoumenon in an explicit form, but he writes as if the hospitality or hostility of the world were dependent upon the state of the human souls occupying it – a premise which holds frightening consequences in Eliot’s post-Christian, desacralized, and demythologized society living under the shadow of World War I and the twentieth century.
This fear of the world inspires the first of the series of episodic scenes or vignettes which appear throughout the poem, beginning with a memory of a girl the narrator loved, but who even in his presence is absent to him, as he waits for her true, God-created self (atman) to shine through the vapidity of the Waste-Land - “I could not/ Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,/ Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” (39-41) Affectionate and/or erotic love, the most human of comforts in a hostile world, is the first reality within the world of diversity for the speaker to be deprived of, whomever/whatever the speaker may be. Quotations from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde indicate a sense of waiting across an infinite void, yet a void which is a plenum of Being: the sea, perhaps the most natural symbol for the infinite God. In the image of the sea is the introduction of the symbol water which will remain omnipresent throughout the poem, as the parched and barren Waste-Land drowns in a deluge of divine grace it cannot receive yet cannot live without.
As the reader continues his pilgrimage through the Waste-Land, he is introduced to a series of characters and scenes, which in a normal series of events would imply the presence of a guide to his pilgrimage who performs the introducing. This is an empty world, however, not a normal series of events, and though the frequent allusions to spiritualistic charlatans and oriental religions might suggest the presence of an occult “spirit guide”, Eliot is describing a void where even the devil is stripped of his personhood; the only guide to lead the reader through the Waste-Land is the narrator’s own unconscious, from which arises a series of natural insights linked by poetic allusions brought by the creative imagination. The first character to be introduced is Madame Sosostris, who is an incarnation of the shallow and superstitious spiritism which in Victorian England (and the subsequent generation) was the fallen soul’s natural first effort to attempt to cross the divine sea. Madame Sosostris is present implicitly throughout the rest of the poem (through the references to the Phoenician sailors), and is always tied to grotesque irony, for through her identification with spiritism she incarnates the Waste-Land in herself. Sosostris (whose name itself brings to mind the word “preposterous”) is “known to be the wisest woman in Europe,” (45) yet has “a bad cold” (44). She cannot lead the soul on its pilgrimage, for she cannot receive divine grace, which in The Waste Land is symbolized by water: “I do not find/ The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.” (54-55) Madame Sosostris cannot bring the pilgrim out of the waste-land, but only confirm through the fact of her prophecies (using the Tarot deck) that the pilgrim is himself the waste land. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm, according to the basic Hermetic principle from the Emerald Tablet (“as above, so below”): “Here, said she,/ Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,/ (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)” (46-48) By making this “prophecy”, Madame Sosostris should also bring it into being - the Tarot deck was believed to be not just a way of prophecy, but rather the very vessel in which the Great Dance of the universe was contained, and which therefore controlled all cosmic powers and events (cf. Williams, The Greater Trumps). Yet the reader’s pilgrimage has been a descent, but a descent in which nothing changed - Madame Sosostris, an impotent charlatan, has no power over the cards, which merely reveal what was already the case to begin with, and the narrator (who is not sharply distinguished from the reader) merely confirmed - both to his knowledge and ontologically, in the state of his soul - his fallen status by visiting her. He has been given no hope for release by means from below, but his eyes have opened to the waste land within himself.
By recognizing the union of depravity between himself and the world around him, the poet has even further justification to extend his journey through the internal waste-land into a description of the macrocosmic waste-land, for there is now another correspondance between the soul and the world, between what now can even be viewed as an affinity between the microprosopon and the macroprosopon (“prosopon” being – in the understanding of the Church adopted at Chalcedon – a strict synonym for hypostasis, or person). In the spiritual journey which the reader is forced on, it is the first true hint of the non-dualist conclusion, since the first steps – the losses of romanticism and of the presence of God, love, and the devil – have been separations, while the soul is now united (though in a merely typological manner) with the world as a whole; the self-centeredness of false individuality has now been lost. It is structurally fitting, therefore, that the poet should then turn from the unreal soul to the “Unreal City” (60) of London, or from the microcosmos (human universe) to the macroprosopon (cosmic person). Now the landscape seems to be wasted by a drought; the antagonistic relationship between water and the Waste Land is a consistent theme in the microcosmic sense as well, since water is viewed as a symbol of divine grace. Over the Thames, oblivious to the muddied grace passing by, crowds of dead souls too vapid to be capable of either good or badness - as indicated by Eliot’s reference to a description of such souls in the Inferno - pass and then are seen no more. Death is an overwhelming theme in London as corpses are even used as fertilizer (an inversion of fecundity, which is a symbol of sanctifying grace and divine life as well as natural life), and just as the reader reaches the height of his shock, his own satori comes like a lightning shock: “You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!” (76)
In parts II and III the poet wanders through the city observing scenes from lower and upper class life alike, growing in realization of the world’s depravity as he unknowingly heads toward the final moksha (release) from the waste-land. A rich woman’s jaded luxuriance is juxtaposed with a scene in a bar, paralleling Middleton’s juxtaposition of chess with that which the chess game is ultimately revealed to be reduced to, a seduction attempt. Eliot further elucidates this reduction of facades by reference to the nightingale Philomela, whose very being as a bird - the nightingale, the bird most prized by the Romantics - is a façade covering the consequences of her rape by Tereus, who by creating the circumstance requiring the illusory transfiguration is identified as the source of the waste-land. Tereus is therefore linked with the narrator (microcosmic wasteland) himself, appearing (after an invocation of the nightingale’s song, “tereu”, in line 206) under the similar name “Tiresias”, and who by implication (given our correspondance) is also guilty of creating facades or psychological veils to cover the unbearable truth(s). (218)
As a consequence of exploring the waste-land, Tiresias - the narrator or reader - has lost his attachment both to himself and to the external waste-land; it is for this reason that section III is entitled “The Fire Sermon”. Yet the passions which Siddhartha Gautama so eloquently denounced have not vanished here, but simply rotted; like the water of divine grace (and thus like the recollection of our sins in Purgatory), they are everywhere present, and everywhere oppressive. Their omnipresence is so oppressive, in fact, that the different passions cannot be distinguished from each other or from divine grace by the dead souls of the wasteland, having all become identified with the oppressive water. Thus, the water of the Thames becomes identified with depraved sexuality of the exiled soul (the soul in a spiritual Babylon): “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…” (182) Likewise, after describing the dispassionate fornication in lines 228-256, the woman puts on a gramophone, and “[t]his music crept by me upon the waters” (257)
A structurally curious stanza is found from lines 207-214. It begins, as does line 60, with the line “Unreal City,” indicating that the poet is once again extending the wasteland out from the soul to the world - and then a Smyrnaean merchant named Mr. Eugenides casually invites the narrator to lunch at a prestigious hotel. The scene then immediately switches to the introduction of Tiresias without any overt explanation of the relevance of the Eugenides episode. The relevance of this vignette to the overall pilgrimage may be hinted at by a revisited consideration of Madame Sosostris, who had, in line 47, identified the narrator of the poem with the Phoenician Sailor. By introducing Mr. Eugenides, the narrator is identifying himself (through Eugenides) with the world of business and finance - a world about to be perverted in the next stanza, when Tiresias recounts a joyless physical encounter between an office clerk and a typist. Tiresias recognizes explicitly that he is describing himself by describing the wasteland - “I too awaited the expected guest.” (230) Yet Tiresias sees - as the typist does not - that the guest he is truly waiting for is not the one that arrived at the wasteland, because that affair occurs, in Tiresias’ words, “At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives/ Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.” (220-221) Once again, Tiresias is standing by the sea waiting, just as in the Tristan quotation; but now, having grown in wisdom, he recognizes a divine Sailor across the sea Who alone can irrigate the Waste Land - a Sailor Who, in Eliot’s vaguely Hindu conception, is also the true self, the divine counterpart to the Phoenician Sailor, an insight which is true in a very real though non-pantheistic sense. God can save and glorify us because we are in His image, and He is the true self Whose nature (perfect humanity as it exists in Christ) and Being (in which our being subsists and participates, according to both Catholic mysticism and scholastic theology) in which our individual selves are deified (theosis) by sanctifying grace, through illumination by the uncreated energies of God.
It is at this point, by being named Tiresias, that the narrator has reached the fullness of his natural illumination, and can only proceed to an ascesis of Being itself – Being which is universally viewed, whether by Scholastics enlightened by divine Revelation or by the Indian sages relying on their own natural wisdom, to be God Himself. Tiresias still exists as a natural being separated from the fount of Being, and as such contains contradictions only reconcilable by kenosis before the face of God: he is at once hermaphroditic (the Hermetic symbol of universal and undivided humanity), old (indicating the decrepit state of decline from reality [atman] into the Waste Land [maya]), and a universally scorned prophet (indicating the futility of salvation by natural means). Following Tiresias’ recognition of his name and his witnessing of the office clerk’s jaded recreation, a brutally ugly description of the Thames follows, with industrial images interposed with references to fornication and the Rhinemaidens’ song - the Rhinemaidens, no longer innocently frolicking beneath the waves, but in whose persons are united the double disorders of lust and worship of gold. All attachment to sin has been lost, and sin roars through in the full force of its ugliness; the curt and heavy trisyllabic lines indicate a massive weight of being which is the last obstacle between the pilgrim and his God.
The final moksha occurs at the beginning of section IV, and is described continuously - though it itself is an instantaneous experience - until the end of section V where it is finally announced by a voice of thunder (400). Section IV is entitled “Death by Water”; yet the poem itself (being only a fragmented collection of images and words with no didactic meaning) does not say whether the narrator will finally accept divine grace as his own life (as Eliot would in fact do - or try to do - by formally embracing Anglicanism), or whether he will simply stop resisting grace. (That would be an act which could be interpreted either in its literal, simple sense, in which he is in fact doing all that he can on his own - according to Thomist and even most Molinist theologians - to be saved, or it could be interpreted as radical indifference to grace to the point where he is so unaffected by either grace or the waste-land that he is as close as possible to not-existing; given the Hindu overtones to the poem, this latter interpretation seems more likely.) Phlebas the Phoenician, whom Madame Sosotris identified with the narrator, has been overwhelmed by grace, and drowned.
The fifth section is the Upanishad proper. Entitled “What the Thunder Said,” it identifies itself from the outset as the voice of the narrator’s final enlightenment, and his journey through the wasteland itself is over. With allusions being made to Christ’s Passion, the poem indicates that until the Resurrection of holy baptism occurs, nothing is left but absolute emptiness, and even the oppressive hints of divine presence - the water - are gone: “Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water and the sandy road” (331-332) and so on until line 359. The poet sees a “third who walks always beside you;” (360) but instead of Christ, this “third” is a halllucination incurred by the poet’s madness, as Eliot indicates in a footnote. The world ceases to exist in the eyes of the poet; the word “Unreal” appears for the third and final time (377) and the world seems to visibly explode in front of the poet’s eyes - “What is the city over the mountains/ Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/ Falling towers/ Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London/ Unreal” (372-377). Two further paragraphs describe an inverted world reminiscent of an opium dream, and then a momentary eerie silence precedes the final declaration of enlightenment - “The jungle crouched, humped in silence./ Then spoke the thunder/ DA” (399-401). The world is destroyed in a cackle of unintelligent, infantile satanic laughter - “London bridge is falling down falling down falling down” (427) - and the poet simply sits “upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me” (424-425). He has successfully severed all connections with sanity, with the world, and with the wasteland, and at last experiences the peace of oblivion - “Shantih shantih shantih” (434). Having sunk so low, and renounced the world and existence so totally, there is nothing left for the soul to cling to, and in its absolute void it lies bare before the robes of divine grace. At this moment of darkest peace, we are on the final brink of salvation.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. H. W. Longfellow. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 2008.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vm 2 8th ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall. NY: W.W. Norton, 2006. 2006-2018
Freeman, Kathryn S. Blake’s Nostos: Fragmentation and Nondualism in The Four Zoas. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vm 2 8th ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall. NY: W.W. Norton, 2006. 2006-2018
Freeman, Kathryn S. Blake’s Nostos: Fragmentation and Nondualism in The Four Zoas. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Williams, Charles. The Greater Trumps. London: Regent College Publishing, 2003.