Recontextualizing Water And Cyclical Rebirth in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

In class last Friday, we ended our discussion on the language of water metaphors in finance by looking at common symbolic associations of water in literature, including the use of water to evoke symbolism of purity, vitality and renewal. We then touched on texts that aim to recontextualize the symbolic association connecting “water” to “purity,” and I mentioned T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem “The Wasteland” as a central modernist poem that invokes water imagery to highlight the growing accumulation of decay and disintegration in Modernist Europe.

Eliot plays with water imagery throughout the poem, but his most telling use of water imagery occurs in Part III of the poem, ironically titled “The Fire Sermon.” According to the footnote for the phrase “Fire Sermon” in my copy of “The Wasteland,”  “The Buddha preached the Fire Sermon against the fires of lust and other passions that destroy people and prevent their regeneration.” Here, the Bhudda’s cautions of excessive lust and passions that prevent “regeneration” serve as a stark foreshadowing of the remainder of the section, which explores devastation in modern London. Eliot suggests, then, that the West perpetuates a state of crisis in modernity, a commentary reinforced by his evocation of Eastern ideals pitted against Western gluttony. 

The flow of water in “The Fire Sermon” begins in the first line with its first words “The river” through the mentioning of “Sweet Thames” in line four, ostensibly a reference to the River Thames that runs through Southern England. Instead of representing water as a source of purity or cleansing, Eliot’s allusion to river Thames seem to evoke something quite different, a connotation disturbed by the lines: “A rat crept softly through the vegetation/Dragging its slimy belly on the bank/While I was fishing in the dull canal.” Here, the adjectival use of the word “slimy” to describe the physical state of the rat reinforces typical connotations of rats: diseased and dirty. Through the rat’s movement on the bank of the river, the river in which “I” fishes, Eliot demonstrates a symbolic convergence of disease and nourishment. Eliot confronts the reality of how the modern Thames cannot provide for the people of England; where one would ideally think to seek nutrients, we find disease, and thus Eliot further reinforces a dissociation from past expected norms.

Apart from The Fire Sermon, one of the elements I find most striking about the poem is the way Eliot constructs cycles to demonstrate the accumulation of tension and despair over time. The poem’s famous opening lines go as follows:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Spring, a season again typically associated with renewal and rebirth, is invoked as the “cruelest” month for allowing the cycle of life to grow in a “dead land.” Much like the language in the Fire Sermon that recontexualizes water as an element of sewage and devastation, Eliot plays with the common association of spring to emphasize the sadness and destruction of renewal in Europe after WWI.  Here, we see history as a cycle not simply destined to repeat itself, but as a cycle that accumulates pressure and tension over time.

The two recurring metaphors I mention–impurity and devastation in water and cycles of accumulating agony–fold into each other and create a recurring cycle within the poem. Indeed, the evocation of water in “The Fire Sermon” reaches its close in the next section (quite plainly titled “Death by Water”), where Phlebas the Phoenicians drowns in a “current under the sea” and his body is picked apart by sea creatures. The result is (some pun intended) chilling: as Eliot’s recontexualization of water as a source of danger and destruction in the midst of growing cyclical tension suggests that the modern world will end in calamity, unable to seek renewal from the sources with which we connote restoration and health.

Eliot’s commentary on the accumulating cycles of despair and death in water seems to gloomily foreshadow many of the areas we touch on in class. Indeed, our conversation disconcertingly coincided with the announcement of Donald Trump’s plan to institute rollbacks on the Clean Water Rule, a news headline which reminded me of the importance (and scarcity, and immense privilege) of access to drinkable water. As we delve into The Turner House and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, I will be paying close attention to the way metaphors of water are invoked in a more contemporary and perhaps more fractured light.

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