Waste Land Essay: Ceremonies and Rituals

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The Waste Land: Ceremonies and Rituals

Ceremonies are prevalent throughout T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot relies on literary contrasts to illustrate the specific values of meaningful, effectual rituals of primitive society in contrast to the meaningless, broken, sham rituals of the modern day. These contrasts serve to show how ceremonies can become broken when they are missing vital components, or they are overloaded with too many. Even the way language is used in the poem furthers the point of ceremonies, both broken and not. In section V of The Waste Land, Eliot writes,

"After the torchlight red on sweaty faces

After the frosty silence in the gardens

After the agony in stony places

The shouting and the crying

Prison and palace and reverberation

Of thunder of spring over distant mountains

He who was living is now dead" (ll. 322-328).

The imagery of a primal ceremony is evident in this passage. The last line of "He who was living is now dead" shows the passing of the primal ceremony; the connection to it that was once viable is now dead. The language used to describe the event is very rich and vivid: red, sweaty, stony. These words evoke an event that is without the cares of modern life- it is primal and hot. A couple of lines later Eliot talks of "red sullen faces sneer and snarl/ From doors of mudcracked houses" (ll. 344-345). These lines too seem to contain language that has a primal quality to it.

From the primal roots of ceremony Eliot shows us the contrast of broken ceremonies. Some of these ceremonies are broken because they are lacking vital components. A major ceremony in The Waste Land is that of sex. The ceremony of sex is broken, however, because it is missing components of love and consent. An example of this appears in section II, lines 99-100, "The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king/ So rudely forced"; this is referring to the rape of Philomel by King Tereus of Thrace. The forcing of sex on an unwilling partner breaks the entire ceremony of sex.

Rape is not the only way a broken sex ceremony can take place. The broken ceremony can also occur when there is a lack of love, as shown in lines 222-256. This passage describes a scene between "the typist" and "the young man carbuncular".

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