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Water and Religious Motifs in The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot Essay

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The Waste Land: Water and Religious Motifs


In his poem "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot employs a water motif, which represents both death and rebirth. This ties in with the religious motif, as well as the individual themes of the sections and the theme of the poem as a whole, that modern man is in a wasteland, and must be reborn.

In the first section, "Burial of the Dead," water (or the lack thereof) has a primarily negative meaning. It is first mentioned in lines four and nine, in reference to April, which the narrator calls "The cruellest month." Later, the narrator describes an arid scene, in which the "Dry stone [gives] no sound of water" (24). Next, the narrator describes "The hyacinth girl" (36) (who may or not be the narrator himself): "Your arms full, and your hair wet" (38). It is implied in this scene that the girl has either just been raped, or has had at least a negative sexual experience. Each of these references to water corresponds to the waste land; the usually pure symbolism of water is twisted to become negative, and in each scene there is some perversion such as rape.

After the hyacinth scene comes "Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante" (43), who speaks of the Tarot cards and the "Drowned Phoenician sailor" (47) as well as "Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks" (49). Sosostris advises the person she is reading, presumably the narrator, to "fear death by water" (55). However, the psychic's words are deceptive. Although water implies death in both cases (Belladonna is a siren, a creature who calls men to their deaths by singing), which would seem to be negative, the theme of the section is that death must precede transformation and rebirth. Death in this case is tied to religion; in many re...


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...ie, ed. T. S. Eliot The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of theOriginal Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (1971; rpt. Faber, 1980)

---. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1 1898-1922 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)

Freed, Lewis. T. S. Eliot: The Critic as Philosopher (Purdue UP, 1979)

Frye, Northrop. T. S. Eliot (1981)

Gardner, Helen. The Art of T. S. Eliot (1949; repr. Faber, 1979)

---. The Composition of Four Quartets (Faber, 1978)

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot's Early Years (1977; repr. Oxford UP, 1988)

---. Eliot's New Life (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988)

Grant, Michael, ed. T. S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage (1982)

Headings, P.R. T.S. Eliot, rev. ed. (1982)

Kearns, Cleo McNelly. T. S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief (Cambridge UP, 1987)

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet (1979)


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