The Waste Land

The Waste Land Summary and Analysis of Section IV: “Death by Water” and “What the Thunder Said”

“Death by Water” is by far the shortest of the poem’s five sections, describing in eight lines “Phlebas the Phoenician” lying dead in the sea. An echo of the “drowned Phoenician” Madame Sosostris displayed in “The Burial of the Dead,” Phlebas is apparently a merchant, judging by the reference to “the profit and loss.” Now “a current under sea” picks his bones.

“What the Thunder Said,” the final section of "The Waste Land," picks up the same thread, referring in the first stanza to the passion of Christ, another famous deceased. The “torchlight red on sweaty faces” perhaps indicates the guards who come to take Christ away; the “garden” is Gethsemane; “the agony in stony places” refers to the torture and the execution itself; and “of thunder of spring over distant mountains” describes the earthquake following the crucifixion. From Christ’s death springs life; similarly, the Phoenician is killed by water, that life-giving force, that symbol of fertility and rebirth. As in “The Burial of the Dead,” life and death are inextricably linked, their borders blurred at times: “He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience.”

The second stanza describes a land without any water: only rocks, sand, “Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth.” The thunder brings no rain and is therefore “sterile.” “Red sullen faces sneer and snarl” at the poet as he makes his way through this desolate land – another wasteland. The poet laments the absence of water, thirst imbuing his verse with longing; he imagines the “drip drop” of water on rocks, but concludes by acknowledging that, alas, “there is no water.”

What follows is an allusion to Luke 24, as well as to a passage in Sir Ernest Shackleton’s South; two travelers walk upon a road, and seem to be accompanied by a third, unnamed wanderer. Does this “third” exist, or is he merely an illusion? Shackleton’s passage involves three men imagining a fourth by their side; in the Biblical scene, two travelers are joined by the resurrected Christ, but do not at first recognize that it is Him.

Eliot then moves from the individual to the collective, casting his gaze over all Europe and Asia, seeing “endless plains” and “hooded hordes.” It is a nearly apocalyptic vision; the great ancient cities of the Mediterranean (“Jerusalem Athens Alexandria”) and Europe (“Vienna London”) all seem “unreal,” as if they were already phantoms. Eliot refers to the “violet air,” echoing the “violet hour” of “The Fire Sermon,” but also suggesting the twilight not just of a day, but of all Western civilization. “Violet” is one of the liturgical colors associated with baptism; Eliot might be alluding to the Perilous Chapel in Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, through which the knight must pass in order to obtain the Grail and which represents a sort of liminal passage or baptism. Certainly the next stanza, with “voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells” and “bats with baby faces," suggests the Perilous Chapel –- a nightmarish place that tests the knight’s gall and instills dread. Eliot describes towers that are upside down, and a woman who plays music with her hair, recalling the rich woman in “A Game of Chess” whose “hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words,” and “tumbled graves.” (In some versions of the Grail legend there is likewise a perilous graveyard.)

Finally, a “damp gust” brings rain. Immediately Eliot invokes the Ganges, India’s sacred river (“Ganga” in the poem), and thunder, once sterile, now speaks: “Datta,” “dayadhvam,” and “damyata." The words the thunder offers belong to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and describe the three dictums God delivers to his disciples: “to give,” “to control,” and “to sympathize.” This profoundly spiritual moment of communication between men and God, of a dialogue between the earth and the Heavens, seems to promise a new beginning. Civilization is crumbling -– “London bridge is falling down falling down falling down” –- yet the poem ends with a benediction: “Shantih shantih shantih."


The final stanzas of "The Waste Land" once again link Western and Eastern traditions, transporting the reader to the Ganges and the Himalayas, and then returning to the Thames and London Bridge. Eliot’s tactic throughout his poem has been that of eclecticism, of mixing and matching and of diversity, and here this strain reaches a culmination. The relevant Upanishad passage, which Eliot quotes, describes God delivering three groups of followers -– men, demons, and the gods -– the sound “Da.” The challenge is to pull some meaning out of this apparently meaningless syllable. For men, “Da” becomes “Datta,” meaning to give; this order is meant to curb man’s greed. For demons, “dayadhvam” is the dictum: these cruel and sadistic beings must show compassion and empathy for others. Finally, the gods must learn control – “damyata” – for they are wild and rebellious. Together, these three orders add up to a consistent moral perspective, composure, generosity, and empathy lying at the core.

Recalling his earlier allusion to Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Eliot links “Datta” with a description of lust, of the dangers of “a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract.” This, it would seem, is the primary sin of man. Crucially, however, Eliot notes that “By this, and this only, we have existed” -– reminding the reader of his work on Baudelaire, and his argument that an evil action, because it signifies existence, is better than inaction, which signifies nothing. Man’s lustful deeds are “not to be found in our obituaries”; they remain intangible to some degree, not to be committed to paper or memory. But they linger on nonetheless, haunting the doers but also imbuing them with a sense of self; for once, Eliot almost seems to suggest the value of “a moment’s surrender,” of giving up control for one fleeting instant, no matter the consequences. Indeed, such an act is perhaps preferable to that which the “beneficent spider” -– a reference to Webster’s The White Devil, according to Eliot’s notes –- allows; “empty rooms” and a “lean solicitor” cannot hope to understand the impulses that lead to an act of “folly.” Is “an age of prudence” even worth the trouble?

Next comes sympathy –- “dayadvham” -– as if Eliot were reminding the reader to show compassion for lustful men and women. We cannot help but remember the grief-stricken maiden of “The Fire Sermon” or the lonely typist with her gramophone; at the root of such tragedy is, after all, a sincere love for humanity. Eliot cares for these characters he has created, these refractions of his own modern world. The sermonizing of previous stanzas here gives way to a gentler view, albeit in the form of spiritual commandments. “I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only” refers to Dante’s Inferno, in which Count Ugolino starves to death after being locked in a tower for treason. The subsequent allusion to “Coriolanus” completes the cycle: a Roman who turned his back on Rome, Coriolanus is another example of an outcast. These distinctly male visions of loneliness and removal echo the female counterpart of the typist, alone in her room at night. Eliot asks us to sympathize with these figures, and to acknowledge their pain.

The following stanza lifts the spirits; after the wreckage of lust and the torment of isolation, “Damyata” invites a happier perspective. The boat responds “Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar,” like the boat upon which Isolde hears the sailor’s song in “The Burial of the Dead.” We have returned then to the beginnings of love, the promise of a joyful future. “Your heart” is perhaps even an address to Eliot’s wife, begging the question of whether their romance might be rekindled. It is worth noting the tense Eliot employs: “would have responded” implies a negative. It is possible that what we are seeing is merely a token of what might have been, and not what is.

More direct is the past tense the narrator uses in the next stanza, in which he sits upon the shore, fishing. He is once again the Fisher King, impotent and dying, and he is flanked by an “arid plain.” We are unable to fully escape the wasteland. Eliot tempers the hope of the previous lines with this evocation of despair. “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” the narrator asks. The end is drawing near. The world is collapsing: London Bridge falls, Dante is quoted yet again, and an excerpt from Nerval involving “Le Prince d’Aquitaine” points to a crumbling or destroyed tower –- “la tour abolie.” The hellish imagery of earlier parts of the poem returns here, complete with another view of modern-day London, with its towers and bridges. The word “ruins” is of particular importance: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The narrator is still attempting to stave off destruction...or perhaps he has at last surrendered, accepting his fate and that of the world.

“Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe” is a reference to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, a late sixteenth-century text in which Hieronymo lapses into insanity after his son is murdered. The brutality and violence of man come to mind. What became of control, sympathy, and generosity? As if to answer the question, Eliot repeats the Eastern dictum: “Datta. Dayadvham. Damyata.” Against the ills of the modern (and pre-modern) world, those three words still hold out the promise of salvation. “Shantih shantih shantih” is an acknowledgment of that salvation; it may be interpreted as a blessing of sorts, putting to rest the sins, faults, trials and tribulations that have preceded it. Redemption remains a possibility. Interpretations of "The Waste Land" as unrelentingly pessimistic do little justice to the hopefulness, however faltering, of these last lines. Rain has come, and with it a call from the heavens. The poem ends on a note of grace, allying Eastern and Western religious traditions to posit a more universal worldview. Eliot calls what he has assembled “fragments,” and indeed they are; but together they add up to a vision that is not only European but global, a vision of the world as wasteland, awaiting the arrival of the Grail that will cure it of its ills. The end of the poem seems to suggest that that Grail is still within reach.