The Waste Land
by T.S. Eliot
What the Thunder Said Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was now living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
- Thanks to Eliot's notes, we know that "In the first part of Part V three themes pop up: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous (see Miss Weston's book), and the present decay of eastern Europe." That means that in the coming lines, we should expect allusions to the resurrection of Christ (Emmaus is the ancient town in which Jesus appeared to two of his disciples after he was resurrected), a traditional trope from Medieval romances, and eastern Europe. Keep a weather eye out, intrepid Shmoopoets.
- These lines in particular refer to the moment that has come after the death of Christ, but before his rebirth on Easter Sunday. In other words, the lines mark a moment of waiting and wondering, because we're not sure if any rebirth is going to come this time around.
- Instead we just wander in spiritual darkness, our "torchlight red on sweaty faces" (322) after we've witnessed Christ's "agony in stony places" (324). Christ is the one being spoken about in "He who was living is now dead" (328).
- We modern folks are in a similar position as Christ, but instead of being dead, we live in a sort of half-death, as "We who were living are now dying / With a little patience" (329-330).
- Our decline is not sudden or glorious, like Christ's; it's slow and undignified. There's something so ironic about that "with a little patience" line. As if Eliot's saying, don't worry, folks, this miserable mess will all be over eventually. Just wait it out.
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
- This long-ish section continues with the theme of dry land with no water, symbolizing a spiritual waste land where no hope or belief can bloom.
- Eliot puts this in stark, direct terms when he writes, "Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road" (331-332).
- In case you can't really feel the dryness of the landscape, Eliot continues like this for a while. He wishes there were water, because "If there were water we should stop and drink," but at the end of the day, "Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think" (335-336). Stopping for a drink of water is compared to stopping and thinking deeply about life, and neither can really happen in the "waste land" of the modern world.
- Eliot goes on to add that "Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit," basically meaning that there is no comfortable position you can get into in the waste land.
- It'll always be uncomfortable. If you want to go deep, on a symbolic level, standing might represent standing up for your beliefs; lying might mean becoming cynical and not caring; and sitting might refer to a Zen-like meditation. But none of these options are available in the waste land, which doesn't allow you to do anything comfortably.
- You don't even get the peacefulness of silence, since the waste land is filled with "dry sterile thunder without rain" (342). This image gives us a sense of unfulfilled hopes. We anticipate the rain because we hear the thunder, but the rain isn't coming.
- There's no solitude, either, but just ugly faces sneering at you from crummy "mudcracked houses" (345). In this line, Eliot whips out alliteration to really show you how animal-like these people are, as you can see in all the S sounds in "sullen faces sneer and snarl."
If there were water
And no rockIf there were rockAnd also water
A pool among the rockIf there were the sound of water onlyNot the cicada
And dry grass singingBut sound of water over a rockWhere the hermit thrush sings in the pine treesDrip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
- Here, set in from the rest of the text, you get yourself a little moment of fantasy, imagining yourself in a place that isn't so horrible.
- The speaker wonders to himself, "If there were water / And no rock" or even "If there were rock / And also water […]" (346-349).
- At this point, you might want to lean in and say, "Yes? Well what if?" But Eliot just gives you some more unfulfilled images of "the sound of water over a rock" or "Drip drop drip drop […]," before finally pulling the rug out from under you again by saying, "But there is no water" (359). This almost seems like the giddy hallucinations of someone who's been wandering in a spiritual desert for a long time, and can't seem to find his way out. We're betting those mirages aren't helping.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapped in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman—But who is that on the other side of you?
- Eliot says in a footnote that the scene in these lines was inspired by a story that came from one of the expeditions to Antarctica that happened in Eliot's time.
- The story is about how the explorers, caught in the freezing cold, were constantly hallucinating that there was one extra person in their group.
- These lines, though, could also refer to a story from the Bible (the book of Luke), in which Christ appeared beside his disciples during a journey, but the disciples were unable to recognize him (360).
- So when the speaker of the poem asks "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" it could suggest that Christ is still present in people's lives today, but people do not have the spiritual insight they need to recognize him.
- The speaker can only see Christ from the corner of his vision, "When [he] look[s] ahead up the white road" (362). Christ appears in this scene like one of those floating squiggly lines that pop up in the corner of your eye, but which always dances away when you try to look at it directly.
- It's also worth noting that, in his notes, Eliot draws an unspecified connection between this hooded figure and the Hanged Man tarot card from the first section.
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
- The speaker hears a sound "high in the air/ Murmur of maternal lamentation" (367-368), which could refer to Mary's weeping over the death of her son, Jesus.
- The speaker then asks about the "hooded hordes swarming/ Over endless plains" (369-370), which might refer to the hordes of rude, uneducated, and filthy people who pollute the modern world, if we're looking at the big picture.
- It could also refer to the troops of World War I sweeping across Europe and destroying everything. These images are followed by scenes of "Falling towers" and the fall of great cities, both ancient and modern: "Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London" (275-276). And what's Eliot's favorite word for summing up what's happened to all of these places in modern times? You got it: "Unreal" (377). (He also brings back that violet hour from line 215, only this time it's the "violet air.")
- However you choose to interpret these lines, we know for sure that Eliot's making yet another allusion. This time, it's to an essay by German writer Herman Hesse called The Brothers Karamazov or The Downfall of Europe, which appeared in his book Blick ins Chaos.
- In the essay, Hesse decries the fact that "at least half of Eastern Europe is already on the road to chaos," a sentiment with which we're betting Eliot agrees.
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were toward
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
- This waste land sure is a creepy place, don't you think?
- In a strange move, the poem shifts to talking about a woman with "long black hair" (378), which she pulls tight and then uses to play fiddle music.
- We don't know who she is or why she's doing this, but in a really Halloweeny moment, Eliot says that "bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled, and beat their wings / And crawled head downward down a blackened wall" (380-382).
- These baby-faced bats might actually represent us, the readers, as modern folks. We've become monstrous in our desire for simple, superficial pleasures, and we just keep crawling down a wall head-first without even realizing that we're heading down instead of up.
- This poor sense of direction seems to infect the rest of the world, too, as towers are described as being "upside-down in air" (383).
- All the while, we still hear that horrifying music of damnation, which comes from "voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells" (385). As you can probably tell by now, this singing is not a good thing, but a symbol of our society's decline.
- And once again, we're reminded that this world is waterless (those cisterns and wells are plumb empty), and the sun's setting (it's the violet hour). We're headed nowhere good in this waste land.
In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Coco rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
- Now we find ourselves inside a "decayed hole among the mountains" which is filled with "tumbled graves" (386, 388). Here we find a chapel, and thanks to Eliot's notes, we know that this is the Chapel Perilous.
- The what? The Chapel Perilous appears in Arthurian legend and other Medieval romances, sometimes figured as the place where the Holy Grail is kept, and sometimes figured as just a weird, creepy church at which a knight has to hang out while on a quest.
- Unfortunately, this chapel is totally empty, as "only the wind's home" (389). There are no windows, "and the door swings" (390), which suggests that the chapel of hope, kind of like Eliot's hope for humanity, is both literally and symbolically abandoned. It's also extra creepy, since it's surrounded by graves (which is true of the traditional Chapel Perilous, too).
- There might be a little bit of hope here, though, because in the original version of the Grail legend, the sight of the empty chapel is actually the final test that the questing knight has to pass before finally drinking from the grail.
- This is the final test because after slaying every beast and resisting every temptation (mostly involving good-looking women), the knight has to confront the greatest test of all—the possibility that there is no God. It is only after finding the empty chapel, and continuing forward anyway, that the knight can know true immortality in Christ.
- As the passage continues, it talks some more about dry bones and images of death. The final images you're left with are those of a rooster crowing and "a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust / Bringing rain" (394-395).
- There's something promising in both these images, since the rooster is supposed to chase the evil night away with his crowing, and the coming of rain might suggest the rebirth of the waste land.
- We mean, we've been waiting for rain for ages, and it's finally here.
- But don't get your hopes up just yet. After all, it's when the cock crows in the Gospels, that Saint Peter denies Jesus Christ (as predicted). That's not exactly a shining moment—could Eliot be alluding to it? After all, it seems like Peter would have failed the Chapel Perilous test, so such an allusion would be in keeping with the theme of these lines.
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
- These lines begin the final moments of the poem, which center on images from India and the religion of Hinduism.
- Line 396 mentions that "Ganga," or the Ganges River in India, "was sunken," meaning that the river was low and dried up, as "the limp leaves / Waited for rain" (396-397).
- There are black clouds gathering in the distance, over the "Himavant," which is both another term for the Himalayas, and also the name of the Hindu god of snow (fitting).
- But even though black clouds usually promise rain, there's something ominous about dark clouds, which usually symbolize danger approaching.
- The uncertainty of what the dark clouds mean is shown in the Indian jungle, which "crouche[s]" in a defensive position and waits "in silence" (399) for what's about to happen.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
- Finally, the thunder gets to put in his two cents. We've been waiting with bated breath.
- At this point, the poem shows you why this final section is called "What the Thunder Said." This final section is inspired by a story from the Hindu faith, which talks about how the gods, men, and demons of India asked their father how to live well. The father answered each of them with the sound of thunder, which was heard as the onomatopoeic "DA."
- Each of the three groups interpreted this sound in a different way. The gods thought it was the word Datta, which means to give; the men thought it was Dayadhvam, which means to have compassion; and the demons heard it as Damyata, which means to have self-control. If you're looking for the original version of this fable, check out the Upanishads.
- After we get the first "DA," in line 401, the speaker of the poem tackles the first possible meaning of what the thunder said, and asks us to reflect on what we've given to others in our lives—"what have we given?"
- It goes on to say that "By this, and this only, we have existed" (406), meaning that it is only through charity and giving that humanity has managed to reach the cultural accomplishments it's doing its best to squander. Eliot's clearly worried about what he saw as the growing selfishness that was taking over the money-obsessed modern world.
- Also, whatever giving we might do in our lives "is not to be found in our obituaries / Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider" (407-408). Here Eliot's once again calling on his buddy John Webster's The White Devil to help him make some meaning. He's referring to lines in the play which say, "…they'll remarry / Ere the worm pierce your winding-sheet, ere the spider / Make a thin curtain for your epitaphs." Once again, we have some imagery of death and decay.
- But the real gist here is that we shouldn't give in order to be recognized as awesome people. We should give for the sake of giving.
- And we shouldn't wait until we're dead to give things away in our wills, "under seals broken by the leans solicitor / In our empty rooms" (409). If we wait until we're dead to give things away, the only person to take them will be our lawyers, since everyone else will have already abandoned us.
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumors
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
- At this point, you hear the thunder for a second time, and this time you hear it as the word Dayadhvam, which means "to have compassion."
- Eliot's notes tell us that he's alluding, once again, to a line from Dante's Inferno, in which the speaker tells us that he heard a horrible tower being locked up…while he was in it.
- In the waste land, though, our speaker hears the sound of a key turning. In fact, we all hear this symbolic key, "each in his prison" (414).
- Eliot's notes also allude to the essay "Appearance and Reality" by FH Bradley. The essay suggest that thoughts, feelings, and external sensations are a private matter, because each person experiences the world differently—from a different perspective, one that's inaccessible to anyone else.
- Based on the previous lines, we're thinking the prison he's talking about here is our own egotistical selfishness, our own, singular way of looking at the world.
- Modern people like us only tend to think about ourselves, and even when we do think of others, we do it just to think more highly of ourselves as "good" people.
- Alert: another allusion's afoot. The mention of Shakespeare's Coriolanus further develops this idea of selfishness, since Big Willy's Coriolanus was, in the play, a great solider who acted out of pride instead of duty.
- In the modern world, it's tough to say if we actually know what real compassion is, because we can never get past our own concerns (we're all too busy thinking about our own prisons and keys). It's possible that we couldn't be compassionate even if we wanted to, since we lack the spiritual knowledge to do so. No wonder Eliot would refer to the ego as a prison.
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
- The thunder rumbles for the third time, and this time you hear it as Damyata, which means to have self-control.
- If you're asking Eliot (and we are), one of the biggest problems with the modern world, apart from our selfishness, is the fact that we don't really resist temptation anymore. If we want something, we just go out and buy it, then move on to the next thing.
- The lines that follow seem pretty happy, though, describing the speaker at sail on a calm sea and a heart responding "Gaily" to an invitation.
- It seems to Shmoop that the most important word in these lines is "obedient," because Eliot is telling you to be obedient to something greater than yourself, some higher ideal or higher power. Whatever it is, just don't go around assuming that your happiness is the most important thing in the world, because then you'll have ignored what the thunder said.
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
- The speaker returns from sailing to "upon the shore / Fishing" (424-425), which refers back to lines 189-192 when the speaker was fishing on the dirty canal.
- The "arid plain behind [him]" still suggests that there hasn't been any sort of rebirth in the land, even after we've heard the thunder's message.
- But hey, the speaker thinks it's about time he set things right ("set my lands in order"). Still, it's one thing to know what's right; it's another thing to go out and do it.
- There's another, less optimistic way to read these lines. When you set your affairs in order, after all, you're getting everything ready for your death. So in these lines, Eliot might be trying to make you think about dying, because this might be the only way to get you to stop thinking so selfishly. It's easier to do the right thing when you realize that you're just like everyone else, and that there's no point in trying to have more possessions or more fame than others, because everyone dies anyway.
- It might not be what you want to hear, but when has Eliot ever said something someone wanted to hear?
- Ah, but Shmoop can't stop there. What is perhaps most important about these lines is the introduction of one of the central figures of the poem: the Fisher King. Who's that you ask? Well, allow Shmoop:
- The Fisher King was a common figure in grail legends and Arthurian romances. Legends have it that when the knight Perceval (or Parsifal, if you're gonna get French on us, like Verlaine, to whom Eliot alluded in line 202) was on his Grail quest, he stopped by a castle with a wounded King—the Fisher King. The Fisher King is almost always wounded somewhere in the general area of the groin (infertility, much?). When he suffers, well, so does his kingdom, with matching infertility (hence, the waste land, or "arid plain").
- It's a great honor to be the knight who finally heals this guy, and that honor went to Perceval, who also happened to be the knight who was innocent, pure, and plainly good enough to find the Holy Grail.
- What does all this have to do with "The Waste Land"? Think of it as an allegory of sorts. The Fisher King's lands, which really, really need to be set in order, what with their being barren and all, are representative of modern society, which could also use some serious help. If only the modern world had some sort of Perceval, who was able to heal the King's wounds, and to, by extension, heal the land.
- It's pretty interesting to note that in this case, it's the Fisher King who appears to be the one who's able to set his lands in order and get things growing again.
- But will he?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'acose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
- At this point, the poem sends out its final cry and throws out a nutty series of references to things from all kinds of different times and cultures.
- It all starts with "London Bridge is falling down" (427), which is part of a familiar nursery rhyme, but just plain creepy when inserted into "The Waste Land."
- In this case, it's a useful symbol with which Eliot can depict the collapse of Western culture.
- Line 428 comes again from Dante's Inferno, and it talks about a poet who's burning in Hell. It translates to "he hid himself in the fire which refines them."
- Although the line brings up the image of hellfire, it might actually be hopeful, because fire in this instance can be a purifying or "refining" thing as much as a destructive thing. Maybe Western culture is going through the burning it needs in order to rise again to greatness?
- Line 429 brings you back to the myth of Philomela, and translates to "When shall I be as the swallow?" This might refer to Eliot's own desire to transform into a bird like Philomela so he can fly away from the brutal modern world and go off to sing his songs somewhere else.
Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
- Line 430 is in French, and translates as "The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower."
- This image continues Eliot's use of crumbling towers as symbols of crumbling civilization (remember that allusion to Inferno in line 412?). The line comes from a sonnet called "El Desdichado" by a French poet named Gérard de Nerval.
- Line 431 might actually be the most important line in the entire poem, because it basically sums up everything Eliot is trying to do by writing "The Waste Land."
- What do we mean by that? Well, he has taken broken fragments from a culture that was once whole, and is just piecing them together in order to "shore up" his ruins.
- In other words, he sees himself standing in the middle of a waste land that's littered with pieces from a glorious, high-cultured past, and in writing this poem, he has collected these broken pieces and piled them together in a sort of testimony, which he feels is the most he can do now that Western culture is broken.
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
- This line is taken from a play called The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. The subtitle to this play is "Hieronymo's Mad Againe," and the line "Ile fit you," comes from the main character, who's asked to write a play for the royal court and replies something along the lines of "Oh I'll give you a play all right!"
- He ends up writing a play that leads to the deaths of the people who've murdered his son. In this case, Eliot might be sending out a message of rage to Western culture, saying, "You want a poem? Here's a poem!"
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih Shanith Shantih
- The poem closes with the repetition of the three words the thunder said, which again mean: "Give, show compassion, and control yourself." These are Eliot's final words of advice to his audience, and it's advice he wants us to follow if we're going to have any hope of moving forward.
- What's fascinating about this is that Eliot has spent all this time talking about the collapse of Western culture, and now he seeks the rebirth of our civilization by turning to the Eastern culture of Hinduism (or even Buddhism in "The Fire Sermon").
- With that said, Eliot concludes the poem by repeating the word "Shantih" three times. Shantih is a sacred word from the Hindu faith (it ends each Upanishad, and it translates into English as "The peace which passeth all understanding."
- The final repetition of this word might be Eliot's way of saying he's gone as far as his words can take him. In the end, there might actually be a mystical peace that's out there, but it's probably something that exists beyond all human understanding.
- For such a depressing poem, "The Waste Land" actually ends on a slight note of hope, pointing us toward non-Western religions as a way to restore our faith and to start acting like decent, unselfish human beings again. Well, at least that's something. Maybe we're not so doomed after all.