Elucidate the significance of the use of myth in the poem “The Waste Land”.


Answer: Eliot, who believes that nothing can be done or made without any prior matter or substance, has written “The Waste Land” with the help of many mythical and literary references. Eliot is a critic-poet. He had a long range of reading different mythological interpretations. In the poem “The Waste Land”, he has used Holy Grail myth, Vegetation and Fertility myth etc. Hindu myth and Biblical interpretations have also been manifested in the poem.

To know and discuss Eliot’s poem, it is very important to go through and realize the notes of Eliot on his poem. To tell about The Waste Land”, he writes;

“Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance…..” He also acknoledges his debt to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

In the legends, Miss Jessie Weston shows that the land as has been blighted by a curse. The crops do not ‘grow and the animals cannot reproduce. The plight of the land is summed up by, and connected with, the plight of the lord of the land, the Fisher King, who has been rendered impotent by maiming or sickness. The curse can be removed only by the appearance of a knight who will ask the meanings of various symbols.

The epigraph of the poem in taken from Petronius’ Satyricon. From the epigraph, we may imagine what the writer is going to say in his poem. The acolytes said to the hanging Sibyl, “what do you wish?” she replied, “I wish to die”.

The title of the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the dead”, has .a significant mythological meaning. According to the poet’s note, it has been taken from the Anglican burial service. In line 20, `Son of man; refers to Ezekiel. Now we will see thesimilarity between “The Waste Land” and “Ezekiel” in the Bible. The poem is seemed to us as a dramatic monologue. It appears before us like a conversation to establish the class and character of the protagonist. There a question is found:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out
of this stony rubbish?
And the answer is:
Son of man
You cannot say, or guess…….

Eliot’s note to the line is notable here:

“Son of man, stand upon the feet, and I will speak of thee” (Ezekiel 11:1) saysGood to Fzekiel. In Ezekiel 37, in the valley of the dry hones, god asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, canthese bones live?” And is answered “O lord God, thou knowest”.

In line 25, red rock refers to Isaiah (32:2) in the Bible, where “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land” is noted, Eliot’s friend John Hayward suggests that the red rock is the Holy Grail.

The title of the third section of the poem ‘the Fire Sermon’ belongs to an oriental tradition. In the Fire Sermon, the Budha explains to the priests that all things,. Which are received as impressions through the physical senses or through the mind, are actually on fire? The ritual requires that the priests ask about the nature of the fire and that the explanation is that things burn with the fires of passion, hatred, infatuation; birth, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief and despair. To understand the theme of the title, we can here mention Eliot’s note.

He says:

“In the Fire Sermon, Buddha counsels his followers to conceive an aversion for the burning flames of passion and physical sensation, and thus live a holy life, attain freedom from earthly things, and finally leaves the cycle of rebirth for “Nirvana ‘.

Again, in the third section, we find the Fisher King myth from Jessie Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance. Lines 189-190 suggest this myth, but it is modernized by placing the ‘fishing king beside a “dull canal . . . behind the gashouse”. The section ends with works from the “Fire Sermon” immediately followed by another quotation from Augustine. The fire is put out by- the complete indifference to the body and the spirit. Both Buddha ‘and Christ taught that moral virtue was the means of achieving the supreme object of life, the eternal and timeless salvation of the individual soul. Christ sought salvation in a blissful eternity while Buddha sought it in a final release from suffering through annihilation. Here the remarkable lines are;

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning

Eliot says about these lines as they are Augustine’s confessions and alludes to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon.

The title of the last section of the poem appears to be derived from the parable of the thunder, an Indian myth from the Upanishads. In it, the supreme lord of the Creation speaks through thunder, answering the request of his off-spring. In his notes, Eliot states that the first passage of this section contains three themes: “the journey to Emmaus, the approach to Chapel Perilous and the present decay of Eastern Europe”. The first is derived from the Biblical Luke who recounts the resurrection. The second theme is taken from Jessie Weston’s book. The third theme is the citation from Hermann Hesse that states at least half of Eastern Europe is already on its way to chaos.

The ‘decayed hole among the mountains’ returns to the Chapel Perilous. In the Grail legends, the passage through the Chapel Perilous indicates that the Knight was ready for the final adventure to relieve the impotence of the Fisher King and the subsequent end of the drought.

Eliot, an attentive reader of Indian myth, concludes his poem revealing the maxim of Upanishad, a Hindu myth. To give emphasison his theme Eliot writes Da-Datta-Give, Da-Dyadhvam, Sympathize, Da-Damyata-Control from Upanishad. The poem closes with a repitition of the ritual words from the Upanishad and with the formal closing chant of the Upanishad- `Shantih’

From the above discussion we may tell that “The Waste Land” is a mythical poem. ‘From the Fisher King Legend to the Upanishad, Eliot has shown the significant of myth to the modern context. Modern complexities of the human being have been interpreted successfully by the use of myth in this poem.