Spirituality and Failure of Recognition in “The Waste Land”

The physical waste land featured in “The Burial of the Dead,” with its Biblical allusions, returns in “What the Thunder Said.” The reader has journeyed through many places, from the desert and the dead tree to Unreal City and places like the Thames, Margate Sands, Carthage, and more and lived through the crucifixion of Christ. What is apparent in this section of the poem is a sense of spirituality and a failure of recognition.

The first nine lines of this section are devoted to this particular scene in the Bible, and seem to be from the perspective of the disciples. They have lived through Christ’s agony in the garden, the torchlight of the subsequent capture, the trial, and now Christ (“He who was living”) has died and they feel as if they are dying themselves (329). At this point, there is not yet knowledge of Christ’s resurrection (or if read in a more negative light, no possible resurrection?). In the third line, the speaker notices the “thunder of spring over distant mountains” (326). Once again, as in “The Burial of the Dead,” spring threatens to shake their complacency.

In the following paragraph, the speaker is journeying through the desert. Here is the obvious waste land. The repetition of “if there were water … if there were only water” emphasizes a kind of desperation. What does this drought signify? If there were water, the speaker would drink it, but there is no water, and the speaker needs water for obvious reasons – survival. If this lack of water is compared to “Death by Water” section, where the sailor’s drowning can be compared to baptism and rebirth, then the absence of water in the waste land could mean an absence of spirituality. The physical thirst could signify a spiritual thirst. What is clear is that the speaker is searching for some kind of fulfillment on this journey, but cannot find it.

The next overt Biblical reference is to the road at Emmaus. Here there is a failure of recognition. Someone notices a presence that is unknown, but fails to recognize it as Christ. However, there’s an alternate reading that I find interesting. Eliot notes that he was thinking of an expedition to the North Pole, where the people were so exhausted that they at times counted an extra person in their company. This could simply be a failure to recognize someone important, or it could simply be the hallucinations of a tired mind.

When they reach the chapel, it is empty (388). The tumbled graves are a symbol of death. The wind could signify the Holy Spirit (as it is a popular metaphor), but the wind here seems ineffective because the chapel is empty, devoid of people and life. Maybe people have seen religion as something that can no longer satisfy them? However, Eliot interjects a note of hope. In a note, he mentions that the site of the empty chapel was (in the Holy Grail) to the travelers an “illusion” of nothingness, creating despair, and was the last quest. This might suggest that there is something further that fails to be recognized. Whether they eventually recognize it is another matter.

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