Matrix of Self
The Recurring Image of Water in The Waste Land
In addition to being a famous poet, T.S Eliot was also a social critic. Eliot used one of his most famous poems, “The Waste Land,” as a medium to critique western culture. Throughout his poem, Eliot illustrates the decline of western culture, which spurred as a direct result of the devastation caused by World War I. Eliot paints the picture of a postwar society in which there is an overwhelming abundance of a lack of connection and understanding by the people of society to the world around them. Eliot contrasts the “dead” postwar society to the flourishing, lively society that existed before the war. Throughout the poem, water, or a lack of water, is seen as a recurring image. Eliot uses the ambiguity in the properties of water to highlight his criticism of the western culture and their misunderstanding of the capabilities that water bestows.
The lack of water in “The Waste Land” helps portray the desolation and infertility that has befallen the wasteland. The presence of water represents life, while a lack of water represents a lack of life. The imagery of water is first seen in the poem in the fourth line. The “dull roots with spring rain” (5) teaches that while spring rain comes to bring new life, nothing new will grow out of the land because of the dull roots. Later, in the twenty-fourth line, the concept of the desolation of the land is furthered through the mentioning of “the dry stone no sound of water” (5). In this line, Eliot uses the imagery of water to show the lack of a spiritual connection and life in the western society. The lack of water represents the idea that life is slipping away. Eliot explains that those who are suffering from a lack of life and spiritual connection, an intangible achievement, can only receive partial solace through the shadow of the red rock, a tangible, yet much lesser achievement. Those seeking solace from the desolation can only find a degree of it through the dark shade that hides the despairs of society. The desolation and infertility caused by a lack of water is best seen between line three hundred and thirty one and line three hundred and forty one:
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain month of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains (16).
These lines hammer home the concept that modern society lacks the ability to create anything new due to a lack of water. Eliot stresses that those who are looking to better western culture see water as the cure to their problems. However, later on in the poem, Eliot also warns that water, when its capabilities are misunderstood, may not be the ultimate saving factor that western culture believes it to be.
Although “The Waste Land” is set in the desert, where water is often lacking, the presence of water plays a prominent role in the poem. The use of water in a desert setting teaches that, while a lack of water can be deadly, too much water can also be deadly. Through Madame Sosostris’s tarot cards, Eliot presents some of the dangers that are created through the presence of water. In line forty-seven, we learn of the “drowned Phoenician Sailor” (6). In this line, Eliot shows us that too much water can lead to drowning and thus death. The following line, “those are pearls that were his eyes” (6), adds onto the idea of drowning from too much water. Eyes can be described as “windows into the soul” and, therefore, because the sailor’s eyes have turned into pearls, the soul has also become desolate. Therefore, Eliot teaches us that both that a lack of water and too much water can cut off a persons soul and spirituality. In line fifty-five, again through the tarot cards, Eliot warns to “fear death by water” (7). Here, Eliot is reminding us that not only can a lack of water cause death, but also too much water can cause death, as seen by the prediction of the Phoenician Sailor. Madame Sosostris’s warning to fear death by water is not heeded to, and in line three hundred and twelve Phlebas the sailor drowns.
Eliot uses water to symbolize both life and death. Eliot uses imagery of water to teach of both the life giving capabilities and life taking capabilities. Throughout his poem Eliot highlights the ambiguity in the properties of water. Just like water itself isn’t always clear, the capabilities that water possesses are also not always apparent. Eliot stresses the fact that western culture’s problem is that they doesn’t understand this concept. While water can represent life, relief, cleanliness, and solace, too much water is just like a lack of water, and therefore can lead to death. Water’s uncertainty proves a need for preparedness and caution, without which it bestows inherent danger. Therefore, while it may seem that the problem to western culture is the lack of water, Eliot teaches us that the cure is not so simple, as having water can be just as dangerous as not having it. Eliot shows how the lack of water represents the infertility and the desolation of society. However, Eliot also shows that the water that is so coveted to restore western culture has the same life taking capabilities as a lack of water. Through the death of Phlebas by the water, and the failure to heed to the warning of death by water, Eliot highlights western society’s lack of understanding of the properties of water. While Eliot stresses that water is the key to fixing the wasteland, he also stresses the need for caution with water and the need for the right amount of water in order to avoid infertility and desolation.