A few years before joining the Church of England, T.S Eliot published The Waste Land. During this time, he contemplated on the idea of joining the church as a way of salvation. His ideas of rebirth and salvation, at this time, resonate through the poem’s lines. The Waste Land, as a whole, is not considered a religious poem; however there are aspects of it that have revealed some religious views. Eliot makes reference to the various images of Christian beliefs, Jessie L. Weston’s Ritual to Romance, the Ganges River, and Dante’s Inferno to shape his message of death and rebirth. In this way, Eliot is able to show the link between death and rebirth, by equaling spirituality with being reborn.
The idea of death and rebirth is present throughout Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first line of the poem brings up this idea as the narrator mentions that, “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land” (Eliot line 1-2). April is considered a time of rebirth because it is both a spring month and the month that Easter is celebrated. April is “the most fundamental sign of life and hope–the rebirth of vegetation in spring” (Gish 45). Spring is a time for renewal and life, yet the narrator points out that April is cruel. Although he does point out that lilacs are “breeding,” they are rising from “dead land”. The image of a delicate flower rising up from something cruel shows the constant cycle of death and rebirth; however, the description given of spring is also “strange and puzzling, a resistance to life and denial of hope and rebirth” (Gish 45). In the last section of the poem, “What the Thunder Said, “the narrator brings up the image of a resurrected Christ, when he asks the person he is with, “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” (Eliot 359). The paring of the resurrection of Christ, who died for the sins of the world, and spring, shows the idea of rebirth as a form of salvation. Although Eliot intended this person to be Christ, the figure takes on the image of Death, “Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded” (Eliot 363). This again shows the paradox of death and rebirth, as Christ is being referred to as both resurrection and Death.
Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth from something dead. This idea is emphasized when the narrator asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year” (Eliot 71-72). With death comes the cycle of being recreated, renewed, and reborn. Asking if the corpse will be sprout, stating if new life will come from something dead. Cleanth Brooks points out that, “the symbol of life stands also for a kind of death” (Brooks 86). Here life is the bloom of something new, in this case salvation of a man who is already spiritually dead. Death refers to the already spiritually dead man, as well as the passing of that dead person.
The water that is present in “Death by Water” depicts rebirth and death through water. The narrator also makes mention of the Drowned Phoenician Sailor “a fortnight dead” (Eliot 312). Although Eliot “portrays only physical death, it carries associations from previous references to transformation and possible rebirth” (Gish 88). In Christian belief, being baptized in holy water signifies a spiritual rebirth; however, here water does not give life or represent a form of rebirth but death. Water is the symbol for all life, since all life depends on water, but if something is given too much of it, it will drown “and the life-giving water thirsted for (and the water of which all life comes) cannot save” (Leavis 36).
While “Death by Water” depicts death, by alluding to Ritual to Romance, Eliot is able to address renewal. According to Brooks, “the drowned Phoenician Sailor recalls the drowned god of the fertility cults. Miss Weston tells that each year at Alexandria an effigy of the head of the god was thrown into the water as a symbol of the death of the powers of nature, and that this head was carried by the current to Byblos where it was taken out of the water and exhibited as a symbol of the reborn god” (Brook 76). The drowned Phoenician Sailor can be seen as a type of fertility god depicting the idea of rebirth. In the ancient ceremony of the “death” of god, in this case the Phoenician Sailor, there is a chance of rebirth. There is a constant cycle of death and rebirth; however it is only attainable through death itself.
A passage of death by water contrasts the fifth and final passage of the poem “What the Thunder Said.” The place the narrator is in is dry and sterile, which is a completely different image of the environment that was given in “Death by Water.” The narrator mentions that there “is not water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road” (Eliot 331-332) while he hears “dry sterile thunder without rain” (Eliot 342). The lack of water shows the lack of life in the narrator as well as the environment. Without water, there is no chance for a rebirth spiritually or physically. There is no resurrection, rebirth, or renewal, but there is “an imagined sound of water coming in [through the sound of the thunder] as torment” (Leavis 29). The narrator focuses on the inability to become spiritually reborn, which is emphasized with the mention of the Ganges. The narrator notices that the “Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves/Waited for rain, while the black clouds/Gathered far distant, over Himavant” (Eliot 395-397). Each year, millions of Hindus make pilgrimages to the River Ganges in order to cleanse themselves from sin, making them spiritually new and reborn; however in The Waste Land, it is noted that the river is “sunken,” unable to be used for spiritual rebirth. Similar to the dry area mentioned earlier in the section, there is a taunting of rain over Ganges. The narrator points out the “black clouds” that might bring rain; however as “The jungle crouched, humed in silence./The spoke the thunder” (Eliot 398-399). Even with thunder present, there is no water to bring to the Ganges or to the people, seeking to release themselves from their sins, to life.
There is an ever-present struggle for rebirth of those in The Waste Land, which is emphasized by the depiction of the people of London. The narrator notices that “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many” (Eliot 61-63). Through this quote, Eliot makes reference to Dante’s Inferno, where the people on London Bridge are those who are stuck in Limbo. In the Inferno, Limbo is “inhabited by the souls who were virtuous on earth but unbaptized” (Gish 55-6). These people in Limbo are unsaved and trapped; they are not reborn and saved therefore they cannot escape. They are spiritually dead, since they never experienced spiritual rebirth, and cannot live. They cannot live life properly; they are stuck in a place where they cannot grow spiritually and be reborn.
The narrator himself undergoes a process of losing faith in the ability to become spiritually reborn. He begins the poem without faith, “neither/living nor dead . . . Oed’ und leer das Meer.” WHich comes from the lack of spiritual rebirth (Eliot 39-42). He spends “considerable time leading us from one [location] to the next, gradually losing faith” (Carver 59). Each time he is in a different place, he seems to be losing faith in salvation, the ability of becoming spiritually reborn. Nevertheless, “The Waste Land ends with ‘the truth of the human situation as the religious mind conceives it’” (Hinchliffe 57). After having longed for salvation and a chance to be reborn, he ends the poem by chanting “Shantih Shantih Shantih” (Eliot 433). Shanti is translated to peace, calmness and tranquility, and when chanted it symbolizes salvation. The chant gives the narrator some relief from all worry and trouble, through a type of rebirth that brings across a new and different person.
Through the references that Eliot makes throughout The Waste Land, of christ ritual to romance, the Ganges and the Inferno, he is able to show the link between death, rebirth, and spirituality. By relating spring to death, depicting thunder without rain, the ganges without water and the death of the drowned Phoenician Sailor in life giving water, he creates a paradox with the ideas of salvation and rebirth. These ideas ultimately drive the narrator to salvation. By doing this, Eliot is able to show that while people lack salvation, rebirth, and renewal, they will eventually find peace.