Though written in the 20th century, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is a poem for our generation. It speaks to our own longings and losses, casting its bitter light on the wastelands of our lives. And, while he identifies the wasteland with brutal honesty, Eliot also sketches a path that can lead us out of it.
In T.S. Eliot’s haunting poem The Waste Land, we glimpse the world as the poet perceived it in early the 20th century: morally bankrupt, devoid of purpose, emotionally barren. The poem is a devastating critique of modernism’s empty promises and its consequences to the human soul. Eliot later dismissed the poem as a grumpy complaint about life, but it became one of the most celebrated poems of the century. His generation needed The Waste Land, finding flashes of clarity in its strange images and remote allusions.
Eliot wrote the poem partly in reaction to secularism and relativism, which he viewed as a source of great rot in Western civilization. The rot is even worse today, so this is a poem for our generation. We sense it speaks to our own longings and losses, casting its bitter light on the wastelands of our lives. And, while he identifies the wasteland with brutal honesty, Eliot also sketches a path that can lead us out of it.
Lost in the Waste Land
Eliot introduces us to a cast of characters who are lost, disillusioned, alone. These people could be our neighbors. Or us. For example, he describes a crowd of workers in an “unreal” city, lumbering like the walking dead over London Bridge.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (Lines 60-65)
Though surrounded by a mass of people, each person remains mentally isolated, in a “brown fog,” his eyes fixed only on the path in front of him. He sees nothing but his next step, sighing in pointless frustration over a nameless problem. We recognize these terrible ironies all around us in our families and communities: We can be alone, yet lonely; our calendars can be full, but our lives empty. When life becomes nothing but a task to tick off on our to-do list, or we measure our value by our usefulness, or we perceive others as obstacles to our own success, we are living in a wasteland.
We also get a glimpse into the life of “Lil” as two women gossip about her in a pub. Before her husband, Albert, went away in the army four years earlier, he gave her money to fix her teeth. He didn’t like the way she looked: “He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you” (line 146). We learn that Lil never had her teeth fixed because she used the money for an abortion. Lil trusted a chemist who recommended some pills to get rid of her baby: “The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same” (line 161). She trusted the expert, but she never got over what happened to her. How many women today feel this way? They don’t have permission to face their loss or regret. Their grief after an abortion is dismissed as “hormones” or a lack of sophistication.
The two gossips think Lil looks too “antique” for Albert, and she shouldn’t complain when he finds somebody new. Lil is 31. What can Lil expect but that her husband will be disappointed in her? In this superficial world, Lil has no voice. She exists only through stories about her terrible teeth and her aging face. Lil has a choice: look good or become invisible. Many aging women today feel this same weight: As they age, they gradually disappear. Beyond that, many people, young and old, men and women, know they will never measure up or catch up to some elusive standard or goal that seems to change constantly. When are we enough?
We also meet the nameless typist, one of the most memorable and pitiful characters in The Waste Land. At the end of her workday, the woman hurries home to ready herself for her date with a man she cares about. She “clears her breakfast, lights her stove, and lays out food in tins” (lines 222 and 223). We know she lives a simple life: She sleeps on a sofa-sleeper and dries her clothes on a landing outside her window. She is willing to welcome this man into her home, ready to share a meal with him. She has hope and anticipation; her heart is “like a taxi throbbing waiting” (line 217). The guy arrives, but the evening does not meet the typist’s expectations. He has come only for one thing. They barely finish eating before he makes his move:
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity has no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference. (Lines 235-242)
The meal is over, and the woman looks bored, so he figures she must want to sleep with him. His advances are “undesired,” but she doesn’t resist him. He interprets her passiveness as an invitation and “assaults at once.” With the act over, her date leaves, groping his way through the dark. The typist? She hardly notices he’s gone. “Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: ‘Well now that’s done: I’m glad it’s over’” (line 252). In Eliot’s view, this is what love had been reduced to in the early twentieth century: a degrading assault leaving the parties even more isolated and empty than before.
How many young people feel this same sense of emptiness in hook-up culture, which reduces sex to a transactional decision—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours? These kids are building on the legacy left by their parents and grandparents, who bought into the message of the “sexual revolution” that sex is a form of recreation. Now, for many in a new generation, sex is merely an act of self-gratification, not of self-giving love; the other person is merely a tool to use, not a being to love.
As we leave the typist’s room in the poem, we see her smoothing her hair with an “automatic hand.” Like a robot, she puts on a gramophone to avoid herself. How many of us use our electronic devices to avoid self-examination and the deserts of our lives? What are we trying to forget? Our own humiliations? Our heartbreaks? Our failure to stand resolute in the face of moral assaults? Our inability to love well?
Escaping the Waste Land
Our generation is even more lost and searching than the generation Eliot was trying to save. Our questions and problems are the same, but our answers are more ridiculous. No doubt, Eliot didn’t have much hope for mankind, at least not mankind left to himself. He rejected a rosy, unrealistic view of human nature. In his view, we’re selfish, self-destructive, and shallow unless something breaks in and interrupts our downfall. Toward the end of The Waste Land, Eliot offers us hope through three words that he draws from the fable of thunder in a Hindu source. To escape the wasteland, Eliot says, we must “datta” (give), “dayadhvam” (sympathize), and “damyata” (surrender control).
Give. Eliot laments that many people spend their time doing things they are truly ashamed of, things they would never want in their obituaries or “in memories draped by the beneficent spider” (line 408). What secrets would we never want woven into a web for all to see? Eliot urges us to stop consuming—stuff and each other—and, instead, give ourselves to others with authenticity. Our giving is always inauthentic when it destroys our dignity or that of another. Too often, we give with an expectation attached, whether that be admiration, status, or pleasure. We must give from our hearts and from a place of true freedom that comes not from satisfying our urges but through the security of moral and natural law.
Sympathize. Eliot recognizes the lie of radical individualism, which assures us that we are the ultimate judge of our choices and the master of our personal existence. Whatever. You do you; I’ll do me. We try to make ourselves the center of the universe, but instead, we build a self-made prison. In his search for truth and meaning, Eliot discovered that we are created for connection. He saw people around him hunting, digging, sniffing like animals for the key to their personal prison doors. Nothing satisfies. Here we are, a century later, still sniffing the fumes of individualism and believing the same lies. What will make me feel better? This person? That job? This vacation? That car? Like the workers lumbering like zombies over London Bridge, we sit like corpses in our isolated little prisons—our perfectly filtered, designer prisons. What is the key that will release us from this prison? It is our ability to sympathize—to feel for and with others.
Surrender Control. Finally, Eliot recognizes that we can only come to rest when we surrender control of our lives to another, to some “hand expert with sail and oar,” who can calm the sea of our lives. Eliot is alluding to Jesus, who calms the sea for the frightened disciples in the Gospel of Mark. When we surrender control of our lives to something greater than ourselves, our hearts will beat “gaily” and restfully.
Eliot wrote The Waste Land about five years prior to his conversion to Christianity, so he was still wrestling with his convictions. He was approaching faith in a savior but had not yet arrived. His vision of and confidence in these three imperatives (give, sympathize, surrender control) is fragile; we sense his lingering fear that there is no answer to our emptiness. Years later, his conviction becomes clearer in his writing that man is lost without a savior. For example, in his play The Rock, written in the 1930s, he explains, “[M]an is a vain thing, and man without GOD is a seed upon the wind: driven this way and that, and finding no place of lodgment and germination” (seventh chorus).
Christ, Our Perfect Guide
T.S. Eliot was right. He was right long before he knew it with confidence. He knew that without self-transcendence, we will never be happy; without giving ourselves to something greater than ourselves, we will remain hungry and thirsty. He found later in his life that in Christ we find the perfect model of self-giving love, sympathy, and compassion; in Christ we find the perfect guide to help us navigate through the storms of our lives. Christ can break in and lead us out of our wastelands.
Some might say we can never escape the wasteland entirely because we will never escape heartache and suffering in this life. It’s true. Inevitably, there will be times when we feel alone, disillusioned, disappointed, and spiritually parched. But, eventually, we can follow Christ to the water and drink again. In this is our hope: the answer to our emptiness lies not in us but in another greater than ourselves. With these imperfect and broken hearts of ours, Christ gives us the courage to try, fail, and try again to give, sympathize, and surrender control. In doing so, we show others the way out of their own wastelands.
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The featured image is “Elijah in the Desert” (1818) by Washington Allston (1779–1843) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.