The Waste Land - Symbolism

Symbols in T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"

When the poem was first printed in book form two months after its initial publication in the "Criterion" of October, 1922, the printer needed additional copy to fill a signature; since Eliot had no other poems ready at that time, he submitted the explanatory notes on "The Waste Land" which now fill about five pages in the "Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950". The notes have been the focus of much critical effort and comment, and Eliot has since remarked that he regrets having appended them.

One valuable function of the notes, nevertheless, has been to indicate some of the works that most importantly influenced the writing of the poem? among others (as we mentioned) Frazer's "The Golden Bough" and Weston's "From Ritual to Romance," books relevant to much of the basic symbolism used.

In the vegetative rites discussed in both, the figure of the Year-god was thrown into the waters of the Nile (or some other body of water) and later "fished out" (resurrected), symbolizing the rebirth of the life principle in the spring. This ritual also came to be associated with the religious initiation patterns to which primitive people seem to give much more open recognition than do modern civilized societies. The Grail legends, according to Miss Weston, are derived from those vegetative rites, and it is the Fisher King on whom the health and fertility of the land and people are dependent in these legends. The Fisher King is sick, having been maimed (usually a sexual wound); and, because he is sick, his lands are waste and barren, just as in "Oedipus Rex" (as Tiresias knew) the plague upon
Thebes was due to the crimes of Oedipus against the procreative cycles. Only when the Fisher King is healed through the appearing of a pure fool who asks the proper questions can the land again become fertile.

The relevance of this to the Christian-scheme is discussed by Miss Weston; it is summarized as follows by C. S. Fraser: "The Christian interpretation of this traditional myth is the highest one: the sacrificed king is Christ, as God Incarnate, and the barren land which has to be reclaimed to fertility is the human heart, full of selfishness and lust, choked with the tares of sin."

The inevitability of the "fish" and "fisher" religious symbolism is seen by reflecting on the high degree to which the early peoples were dependent on rivers and seas, the fecundity and vitality of fishes, and the mysterious "grace" which brings the fish to the fisherman. Thus Buddha, for one example, was represented as sitting on the bank of the ocean of Samsara, casting for the fish of Truth to draw it to the light of salvation;and Christ, for another, offered to make his disciples "fishers of men."

Another important set of symbols related to the Grail legends and to the vegetative rites is seen in the Tarot cards, which are used in Section I of "The Waste Land" by Madame Sosostris, the fortune-teller, to read the fortune of the speaker. These cards, of uncertain origin, have been used for centuries for fortune-telling in general, and more specifically for predicting the rise and fall of the waters which brought fertility to the land. Of the Madame Sosostris section of" The Waste Land," F. R. Leavis has said, "... it at once intimates the scope of the poem, the mode of its contemplation of life. It informs us as to the nature of the characters: we know that they are such as could not have relations with one another in any narrative scheme, and could not be brought together on any stage, no matter what liberties were taken with the Unities...."

Eliot has somewhat altered the Tarot deck to fit his own purposes, and the ways in which he has done so are indicative of the synthetic "mythic method" underlying the whole poem. His use of the Tarot pack was very likely influenced by his close friend Charles Williams, whose novel "The Greater Trumps" is built around Tarot symbols. In his introduction to that novel, William Lindsay Gresham writes of "the wise old man, and two dominant symbols ? water, signifying the unconscious itself, and the mandala-wheel of integration, divided into quadrants by the cross, the mighty sign of four." Each of these is quite relevant to