Inside the Wasteland: T.S. Eliot’s Use of Fear

ELIOT’S deep and mystical opus, The Waste Land, was first published in 1922 and is dedicated to fellow American poet Ezra Pound (1885-1971), someone he describes as “il migliot fabbro”[1], or the better craftsman. The dedication is accompanied by a quotation from the Roman writer, Petronius: “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τίθέλεις respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.”[2] The words relate to the story of the Cumaen Sybyl who tried to strike a bargain with Apollo by offering him her virginity in exchange for an extended life. This was dependant upon the number of grains that she could hold in her hand, but Apollo eventually denied her request and she withered away.

Eliot uses this reference to death in order to arouse a feeling of dread in his readers. The Waste Land is an intricate, five-sectioned masterpiece full of doubt and fragmentation, dealing with the spiritual malaise of civilisation during the post-war stagnancy of the 1920’s. In this article, I plan to examine how Eliot utilised fear as a powerful tool with which to present his own theologically littered thoughts on man’s increasing soullessness and spiritual under-nourishment.

It is tempting to view The Waste Land as a representation of one long journey through fear and trepidation, but there are several types of fear at work in the poem which provide us with the main themes. In The Burial of the Dead, Eliot’s own fears concerning disorder and spiritual absence soon become apparent, with the “dead land” of Egypt being used to convey the intellectual sterility of the post-war age. The disorder and imperfection which Eliot himself fears so much are expressed through certain metaphorical references, in this case those of a decidedly Biblical nature, such as the “heap of broken images”, the dead tree that “gives no shelter” from the beating sun, and finally the lack of water; each signifying an unquenched and unsatisfied civilisation which, as a result of the prophecies of Isaiah remaining unfulfilled, hint at the nonexistence of a worthy saviour who can lead mankind out of the prevailing chaos and into the light.

Infertility is another fear which is expressed in this first section, something particularly expressed through the legend of Hycinthus. Here, Eliot is obviously aware of the need for spiritual regeneration, but he is also rather uncertain about its ability to save the world from an advanced state of oblivion. After expressing his despair at the way man directs his faith towards a kind of New Age clairvoyance, the sea –in a line borrowed from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – is used as a metaphor to compare Western culture with a drowning Phoenician sailor, a fear which also emerges later on in the poem. Whilst Eliot is fearful that – just like the Phoenicians – man cannot avoid his fate, he is also hopeful that a rebirth, similar in many respects to the Phoenician fertility tradition, will follow in its stead. References to the commuter-like conformity of the London masses are illustrative of Eliot’s fear of spiritual decay and one particularly insightful quote from Dante portrays the sheer hopelessness of early Twentieth-Century society: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”[3]

In A Game of Chess, Eliot’s use of falsity and decadence highlight his strong fear of materialism, thereby reflecting the very antithesis of spirituality. There are the ‘synthetic perfumes’ and the ‘carved dolphin’, each used to show the level of cheap mediocrity to which man has now stooped. As the poem progresses from the middle to the working classes, and through to Lil and Albert in the pub, the fear that time is constantly running out is represented by the barman and his constant, repetitive reminders: “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME”[4]. This device works very well indeed and here Eliot is illustrating the overriding sense of apathy and trivia that flies in the face of a quite obvious need for action. This paradox is nicely achieved by using the tragic lunacy afflicting Opelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to convey the farcical nature of life in general:

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night,

good night.[5]

In The Fire Sermon Eliot’s fear of decay resurfaces and, by making reference to a rat beside the Thames ‘Dragging its slimy body on the bank’, the poet attempts to point out that whilst life does indeed exist in such places it is fairly unpleasant and obnoxious. This is a place frequented by prostitutes (compared here to ‘nymphs’) and ‘the loitering heirs of City directors’. The grubby, low-life world of business and international finance is also used to depict the degeneration of society, but it is debatable whether Eliot actually fears the likes of ‘Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant’, or whether he merely loathes them. The cheap and dirty nature of the City is expressed in the ‘Unshaven’ appearance of Eugenides himself, the vulgarity of ‘demotic French’ and the homosexual ‘weekend at the Metropole’ in Brighton.

Eliot is obviously deeply repulsed by the images he creates, and goes on to describe the legend of Tiresias as befitting the ‘typist’ and the ‘house agent’s clerk’ of the lower middle classes. Eliot is also fearful that love-making has become devoid of love itself and the indifference and sterility of his female character as ‘she smooths her hair with automatic hand / And puts a record on the gramophone'[6] displays the impersonal, robotic nature of society in general.

The way Eliot contrasts the City with the ‘Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold'[7] suggests that he is hinting at that which man is capable of achieving in his moments of inspired greatness, although he also harbours a deep-seated fear that such cultural achievements cannot be recaptured or repeated ever again. The hurried, grime-encrusted atmosphere which then accompanies the sexual act taking place in the boat as it sails down the Thames through the very heart of London decadence, is once again indicative of the fear Eliot has of non-fulfilment and of not being satiated. The fact that the woman lies ‘Supine on the floor'[8] reveals that she is passive, unemotional and submissive, rather than clinging passionately to her lover amid the throes of desire.

The fear of grubbiness and imperfection is again used in ‘The broken fingernails of dirty hands'[9]. As this section draws to a close, the sexual temptations of St. Augustine at Carthage illustrate – this time from a Christian perspective – how man can fall prey to the degenerative influences of the age. The syncretic combination of Christianity and Buddhism display the many-faceted aspects of comparative religion that inhabited Eliot’s own mind at the time, with the fiercely ‘burning’ Fire Sermon symbolising the flames of passion, hated and infatuation which permeates society. Eliot concludes his section with an appeal for salvation:

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest[10]

Death By Water, the shortest section of Eliot’s quintet, reminds us of the fear of drowning that was first expressed in The Burial of the Dead. A ‘whirlpool’ becomes a metaphor for Eliot’s description of the decline of Western Civilisation, leaving the reader in no doubt that none can escape its inevitable downward spiral. Whether ‘Gentile or Jew’, all races are included in his cataclysmic vision of egalitarian destruction. We are all equal – according to Eliot – in the eyes of God and if it can happen to ‘Plebas, who was once handsome and tall as you'[11], it can happen to anyone.

In the final section, What the Thunder Said, the agony of Christ in the gardens of Gethsemane reveals the frustration that Eliot felt towards the wrongdoing of mankind. His fear that the world will remain unconsummated and that man has no saviour to release him from the spiritual void, is driven to the fore by his revival of the old fertility legends. The need for rebirth and redemption are made apparent by the use of an overwhelming desire for water. Water, being essential to life itself, is portrayed here as a potential saviour. The way Eliot clings to a vestige of hope – in this case through an optimistic yearning for rain – is designed to infer that man has an allegedly misguided belief in his own regenerative powers, and that the ‘cracks and reforms’ have devastated the pillars of human civilisation like ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London'[12] – a theme which may be compared to Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Unreal city’.

A fear of failure is highlighted in regard to the Grail legends, where a knight’s unworthiness denies him the penultimate glory he desires. This fear is contradicted by a revived optimism, although Eliot suggests through his use of Eastern philosophy that man must make some form of sacrifice if he is to be redeemed. But at least Eliot is suggesting that man has the power to determine his own destiny and is, therefore, not hopelessly doomed. Using the image of the prison tower from Dante’s Inferno, Eliot implies that in Hell one must die again, something clearly related to the Catholic notion of Purgatory, a middle plane where life is suspended prior to divine judgement. The ability man has of determining his own destiny is borne to fruition in the lines concerning ‘Damyata’, but if one lets one’s heart rule one’s head – despite an offer to return to one’s senses – it can result in spiritual death and destruction.

In the closing paragraph of The Waste Land, Eliot’s own personal fears are expressed in the way that he describes his own method of coping with the struggle to grasp the meaning of life:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins[13]

Finally, Eliot offers us ‘Shantih’, a peace which passeth all understanding, although one gets the distinct impression that his poem reflects such a litany of diverse fears that such an untidy conclusion will not suffice. However, even if Eliot is not yet aware of the solutions for the ills of mass society, he does – at least – warn his readers about the potential dangers which are driving us towards the proverbial abyss.


1. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land in T.S. Eliot: Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1961), p.49.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p.53.

4. Ibid., pp.56-7.

5. Ibid., p.56.

6. Ibid., p.60.

7. Ibid., p.61.

8. Ibid., p.62.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p.63.

12. Ibid., p.65.

13. Ibid., p.67.

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