On Escape in Eliot’s The Waste Land
Destruction is the inevitable escape afforded a man after his lengthy suffering. Eliot’s Waste Land, particularly the fifth and final canto of that work, is simultaneously an explication and prophecy of destruction—most notably, the end of the world’s lengthy suffering of existence. The cryptic and highly allusive diction of what Eliot has titled “What the Thunder Said”, is a canto which dissimulates the complicated truth, seemingly, that destruction, no matter how often expressed as a desire or end to one’s miserable means, is always subject to the precursor of escape; it is never directly willed or occurring. It seems to be ever-present, but awaiting our passage from ennui to art—for which escapism is the most appropriate of facilitators.
Though only a bright ember among the immolation which is the whole of the Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said” is arguably its most scorching. It is thinly veiled as a text reminiscent of those of old—particularly those sutras of old India, whose Brahmins would no doubt have praised Eliot’s effort and—which treated metaphysical truths with medicinal precision in the form of question-and-answer guides. The closing canto of Eliot’s masterpiece is an exercise in phonetic manipulation and evocation. In closing the poem, it affords its tormented author passage from the tedium of his failing marriage to the escape of enlightenment, not in the tradition of the West, but rather, artistic enlightenment’s pursuit. It serves as the sound of a thunderous release. From the escapist notions of the poem’s shifting narrators, the destructive force of that release is realized; and with the narrator’s marriage, his agony, his confusion, his desire, his life—invariably, his highest artistic realization—the poem itself vanishes. Its demise is not sudden, but one which follows a form whose rigidity depletes with the dignity present only in a warranted evolution.
“What the Thunder Said” is both the explication and the prophecy of an impending, massive destruction because of two elements central to its form: the sudden appearance and involvement of its opening stanza, and the transfer of knowledge from a great force to a mere organism. Man—Eliot himself—a mere and incidental phenomenon in the scheme of things in the Waste Land receives subtly a brief awakening. The thunder, its literal sound, tangible only by virtue of its experience, being heard by the narrator, is at once a delivery and a parcel. “DA/ . . . what have we given?/DA/ . . . I have heard the key” booms the thunder, as the narrator comments in between each resounding revelation (Eliot, The Waste Land, V. 400-01, 410-11). In this canto, DA is the only vocalization of the thunder, and it is the perceptive reactions of the addled listener which give its voice a meaning. The narrator purports that perhaps a gift has been given—either from him to the thunder, offering the force a penance for the knowledge it will hopefully bestow on the disparate seeker; or, a gift from the thunder to the seeker, the woeful narrator. This will soon prove the double-edged nature of the symbolism of this passage, where adverse deception greets peaceful reception.
Next, the thunder roars again; sudden, but definitive, its cry resounds in the seeking narrator as not now a signal—as it had been with its first boom, to the gift it was bestowing, a gift of release and knowledge of that release—but rather a solution, a tool. “I have heard the key” says he, knowing that what he hears is harkening a dawning of some new era, or in the very least, an escape into a new locale: he can hear it “[t]urn in the door once and/ . . . [r]evive for a moment a broken” thing (Eliot, The Waste Land, V. 411-12, 416). The key is a revelation, and a revelation must stem from a higher source, something of primordial existence and seniority—such as thunder; a great adjuster of nature and its observer. This revelation takes on the form of prophecy, for prophecy must always be received, and never fabricated. This constitutes the transfer of knowledge from a great force to a mere organism. Eliot is that organism, a mere human, veiled in his own creation of the role of the poem’s transient and multi-faceted narrator. Since this transcendence of wisdom cues the prophecy unfolding in the fifth canto, more allusions to divination surround it, particularly a startling and unmatched reference to the tarot.
“Falling towers” serve as the benchmark of the brilliance of “What the Thunder Said”; they cue a bittersweet escape from those centres of civilization, “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London”, and declares that they will, ultimately, be “[u]nreal” (Eliot, The Waste Land, V. 373-76). At this point in the work, the towers seem to serve as tactic diction to evoke of the reader a sentiment of urbanity, of development, construction, architecture—perhaps even of those cities listed. Its successive verses reveal its divinatory significance:
And bats with baby faces in the violet light/Whistled, and beat their wings/And crawled downward down a blackened wall/And upside down in the air were towers/Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours/And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells (Eliot, The Waste Land, V. 379-84).
The towers instantly become reference to The Tower, which is the sixteenth of the Major Arcana cards of the standard tarot deck. Likewise, this heralds the double-aged nature of the passage. The towers are both the glory of world-class cities, and the arcane symbol of their impending destruction. The literal, physical towers of the cities enumerated by the poem’s narrator are likely soon to be demolished by the force which gives the narrator such knowledge in the first place. The Tower, when reversed—as signaled by the upside down towers in the air of the foregoing selection—traditionally alludes to a terrible, though beneficial, necessary loss. A repenting of evolutionary direction is implied, a necessary destruction of the present, infected, corrupt state of things—in Gnostic circles, the death of the ego—is represented by The Tower being reversed. Indeed, the card by tradition most always depicts a lone tower crumbling at the force of, not surprisingly, a thunder and lightning storm, the force destroying it and its inhabitants tumbling to the ground; it also represents the realization of a long-awaited truth. This is the fate that the same force will perpetuate to befall the already-decaying metaphorical towers of humanity. Deeply, this is a superb expression of Eliot’s actual emotional turmoil at the time of the poem’s execution, and it is the prophecy he, as the narrator receives and sends forth. The opening passage of the fifth canto, mirroring the doom of the deformed bats and depressing auras of the aforementioned passage, serves as the explication of destruction.
Listing the effects of the process of destruction, “What the Thunder Said”’s opening passage is the flipside of the prophecy. It is the acceptance of that prophecy, and its preparation. “After the torchlight red on sweaty faces/ . . . [a]fter the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/ . . . and reverberation/[o]f thunder” are the effects of destruction, brought about the narrator’s will to escape, and the effects which plague his escape to a realm where there “is no water but only rock/[r]ock and no water and the sandy road” (Eliot, The Waste Land, V. 322, 324-27, 331-32). The explication of the force of destruction and the effects of its power on humanity forms the transition to the message of escapism—a theme pervading the entirety of the Waste Land.
The water, of which there is none in the realm of escape, represents the transience of life, and the dryness of the sand the harsh reality and brutality of its abandonment. It is a deviation from the mundane path of preordained life, and as such, the narrator, seeking release, finds solace in escaping such simplicity, but is forced to cross a dried lake or ancient riverbed of sorts. Essentially, he is walking on the now exposed ocean floor, and if that ocean was the tossing and turning of continual ennui afforded by a life not under one’s control, then that its bottom perfectly parallels it but with rocks asunder and insurmountable crags, a perversity of the same is realized. Only escape brings destruction; it is the ugly precursor to it. The sandy road to the end was and is at once the mirrored path of the life which once covered it—the life which Eliot had and wishes to overturn. The narrator, identified by now as Eliot, does not seek destruction, but a metaphorical excursion. That the route of this excursion is dry and course, and “[a]mongst the rock” where “one cannot stop or think” and “[s]weat is dry and feet are in the sand”, it leads the narrator to woefully postulate “[i]f there were only water amongst the rock” (Eliot, The Waste Land, V. 336-38). At the realization of the harshness of his desired journey, the narrator wishes to transform his life again, from the growing ennui of escaping life’s ennui to the practicing of a decadent art.
It is art in both senses—plastic, practical and expressive—that the narrator aspires to realize. The thunder makes an appearance amid his desolation and, in the formula of ancient Hindu wisdom, uses its natural power to reveal its—the world’s—secrets. These secrets—the key of the earlier passages—serve as the colours on his palette, and the tools with which he can construct the perfect demise. Now, no demise is calculated, but its invitation is. As the wisdom and definition of the voice of the thunder reaches a cacophony, as though rumbling the earth, it destroys the narrator’s troubles, self, and work. The poem ends, but not so dissonantly. There is no overall resolution, but a Hindu blessing hints at hope.
Eliot, T. S.. “The Waste Land” The waste land and other poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.