T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: Contradictions and Inconsistencies as Metaphors for Life


According to Harriet Davidson’s criticism, the original introduction to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was an epigram from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during the supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – The horror! The horror!” (121). The Conrad quotation was later replaced with a passage from the Satyricon, on the advice of Ezra Pound who argued that the original quotation did not carry enough weight. As a result, according to Davidson, this change of epigraph marks the beginning of the tension between the proper and poem (122). While the proper and the improper appear to create a lack of thematic clarity within the poem, they also help establish the idea that life, unlike death is full of contradictions and inconsistencies.

In his essay, Davidson argues that the proper is under constant attack from the improper as a result of Eliot’s manner of both respecting and disrespecting tradition. The Waste Land mixes references to traditional texts with examples of “mutation, degradation, and fragmentation” in order to oscillate between these extremes and blur “the proper boundaries between things” (Davidson 122). Davidson makes note of this right in the beginning by pointing out that Eliot’s decision to change the epigraph to a more traditional reference is the first sign of tension between the proper and the improper. The Satyricon quotation references the story of Sibyl who tries to escape her life of immortality by actually dying. Unlike the Heart of Darkness, this story is much more obscure for modern and contemporary readers and, as Davidson points out, perhaps used as a “scholarly apparatus” in order to establish a “respect for tradition” (122). In order to take it a step further, I would argue that once Eliot establishes the proper by using this classical quotation in the beginning of the poem, he immediately obliterates it in the first stanza.

The opening lines of poem begin with an examination of nature from the third person and morph into a first-person experience of a particular season, summer. The only separation between the idea of summer and the narrator is a semi-colon. “With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade” (Eliot 456). This transition from a highly proper and traditional reference to an improper, almost colloquial style is swift and uncompromising and continues throughout the rest of poem.

Tension and contradictions are also introduced in the form of content. For example, Sibyl’s yearning for death in the Satyricon quotation is in stark contrast to the representation of death in the opening lines of the first stanza. The narrator in the opening lines sees death everywhere, thus appears to recoil against the thought of it. This is particularly evident in the way that Eliot chooses to introduce the concept of spring. Instead of presenting spring as a rebirth, a time of ecstasy, bliss and happiness, Eliot presents a description of a land full of apathetic death. The poem starts with a categorical statement that “April is the cruelest month” (Eliot 456). Eliot then elaborates as to why by contrasting it with the other two seasons, winter and summer. But instead of portraying winter as a cold, dark, and barren season, Eliot emphasizes that winter “kept us warm” by “covering Earth in forgetful snow” (456).  Summer is likewise presented in a positive light with its occasional showers and pervasive sunlight. Trapped within these two seasons is spring, a season that represents death but not the kind that Sibyl desires.

Within the first stanza, Eliot takes the reader from setting to action without bothering with a line break and then blurs the boundaries between the proper and the improper even more.  Sometimes he’s not even bound by one language. For example, line 12 is entirely in German, with a translation in the footnote. The use of footnotes and narration, “he said, Marie,/Marie, hold on tight” (Eliot 456), within the poem further indicate that any sense properness and respect for tradition have been all but forgotten.

As Davidson points out, the oscillation between the proper and the improper helps Eliot establish a number of contradictory themes within the poem. I agree with this interpretation and like to take the time to develop it in more detail. For example, the second part of the second stanza is perhaps best explained by the line that shows up in the first part of this stanza. In the second part of the stanza Eliot writes, “And the dead tree gives no shelter… And the dry stone no sound of water. Only/There is shadow under this red rock/(come in under the shadow 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” (456). These lines contain a plethora of images centered on shadows and red rock. The narrator asks the reader to join him under the shadow of a red rock so that he could show him something he had never seen before. Thus the interpretation that “shadow” should be representative of death is confirmed by the image of “fear in a handful of dust” (456). However, this interpretation is not that simple.

Since Eliot continues to play with concepts of proper and improper, this oscillation between the proper and the improper forces the reader to never feel settled or calm about a particular interpretation. Therefore just as the reader starts to feel comfortable about the idea that “shadow” and “a handful of dust” are representative of death, Eliot throws in a curveball from Tristan and Isolde, “Fresh blows the wind toward home, my Irish child (i.e., sweetheart) where do you wait?” (456). This traditional reference to a classical text, an example of the proper, appears completely at odds with the previous interpretation and understanding. Thus the answer, or perhaps one of the answers, lies in the first part of the second stanza where Eliot writes, “Son of man,/You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/A heap of broken images” (456). It appears that this line holds the key to understanding the poem and its many contradictions. In particular, it is as if Eliot is saying that individuals, and life in general, are like The Waste Land, the sum of their parts, and that none can be understood as a whole by laying aside their many contradictions and inconsistencies.

Just as Davidson points out, it is the poem’s contradictions, its “lack of thematic clarity and its careful refusal of connections between images” that “makes The Waste Land particularly open to different interpretations” (122). Davidson further argues that the poem treats “myth, history, arts, and religion as subjects to the same fragmentation, appropriation, and degradation as modern life” and thus its power “comes from its refusal to supply anything to appease wanting for propriety” (123). I agree with this interpretation and see Eliot’s oscillations between myth and everyday life, shadows and light, water and desert as a way to emphasize the fragmentation of life. The contradictions of the world around us contribute to the uncertainty of everyday life and Eliot’s portrayal of these contradictions within the poem is an illustration of the uneasiness of life. As a result, life limited by certainty, one lacking confusion, risk, and loss, becomes immortal or dead and something of a barren wasteland that Sibyl experiences.


Work Cited

Davidson, Harriet. “Improper Desire: reading The Waste Land.” The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 121-131. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” The Viking Portable Library American Literature Survey: The 20th Century. Ed. Milton R. Stern & Seymour L. Gross. New York: Viking, 1973. 455-472. Print.

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