Let’s continue with my serialized performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” moving onto the next portion of its concluding section “What the Thunder Said.”
The poem is called “The Waste Land,” but except for that title’s general metaphoric weight and a few passing foreshadowing lines, it’s only here, more than 300 lines into the poem, that we finally enter the landscape promised in the title. It some kind of rocky desert, almost Martian, and the poem’s speaker is also like unto an astral traveler descended from a spaceship onto it. Later in the section we learn that there is at least one other traveling with the speaker, but this is yet unrevealed, and even then, there is nothing definite about this traveling companion.
“Damn Martian cicada infestation, and this dry grass sure could use some rain.” Alt-timeline Eliot in another genre.
Who are the two people? No name is given to the speaker of this section, and it’s easy to think it’s the poet himself, though some have figured the speaker to be Tiresias, the male/female time-lost wanderer featured elsewhere in the poem — though if Tiresias is something of a Virgil in this Divine Comedy, perhaps they could just as well be the companion to the poet here. Another theory has the second to be either Jean Verdenal, the friend and putative lover of Eliot who had been killed at Gallipoli in WWI, or Eliot’s wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. It’s also possible to read the unnamed companion as us, the reader, accompanying the now unmasked Eliot to the poem’s conclusion.
These are all theories of scholars, whose greater knowledge and reading I respect. I personally have always read the “two” as the divided self, and I perform the poem from this understanding.
There are glimpses of others in this landscape, “red sullen faces sneer and snarl from doors of mudcracked houses” but are they visions, hallucinations, or inhuman if living? I read them as these — perhaps out of preference — as Eliot seems to have shared a substantial portion of the crude racial/ethnic stereotypes of his culture.
Today’s section was, at least at one time, Eliot’s personal favorite part of the poem. In 1923 he wrote to Ford Madox Ford saying there were “about thirty good lines in The Waste Land” and he wondered if Ford could decern them. Ford didn’t try, so Eliot revealed that he was talking about “The 29 lines of the water-dripping song in the last part.”
If I was put in FmF’s place, I wouldn’t have picked these lines out from the over 400 of the poem. There is a musical logic to this section — that’s there throughout much of “The Waste Land” — but here, instead of the vivid yet mysterious characters we have met in the run up to this section, we have — for a moment — what seems like a short interval of self-pity.
Today’s musical performance of this part of “The Waste Land” tries to track Eliot’s landscape and outlook. A player gadget will appear at the bottom of this post for many of you to play it, but if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will open a window or new tab to play it too.
What will we find as we press further into The Waste Land during the final installments of our serialized musical performance of the entirety of Eliot’s landmark poem for National Poetry Month? Check back here or follow the Parlando Project to find out.