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‘The Waste Land’: Representation of Water as a Motif to Show the Decay of Modern Society

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TS Eliot uses water as a motif throughout the Waste Land. It is shown in different lights: at the beginning we can see that water is the cause of death and in the last book we see water an essential asset for life. Eliot links water to religion and spirituality to create a clear connection between the decay of the modern world and the drowned Phoenician sailor. I will also discussion how Eliot uses physical landscapes with water to show the decay of modern society and its changed ways.

Firstly, the physical landscapes in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ show a wasteland without water. ‘The dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.’ This line draws a connection between lack of water, dryness of the land and infertility. The sibilance of the dull ‘d’ sound in the words ‘dry’ and ‘dead’ adds to the emphasis put on the infertile and lifeless landscape that Eliot creates. The absence of water is shown through the ‘dead tree’ which ‘gives no shelter’ because all the leaves have dried up and fallen. He is trying to convey that water is essential to life and without it we are nothing. Another connotation of this quotation could be that Eliot is trying to show the death of modern society by using water as a symbol for religion.

This particular quotation links to the book of Ecclesiasticus in the Bible and we can find this link in the notes that Eliot has given us. The extract is saying that the modern man cannot reach the sort of purified state that a religious man can, such as Eliot himself, because we are in a barren wasteland that lacks religion, in the form of water. By using water as a motif, we can see just how devout Eliot is towards religion because he goes far enough to say that religion is just as important as water in his eyes and we all know that water is essential for life. Water can also have a negative impact, for example in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ we see the first appearance of the drowned Phoenician sailor who died from excess water. Here we see water in a different light – a cause of death. The drowned Phoenician sailor is from the tarot cards that Madame Sosostris (the clairvoyant) is naming. ‘Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor.’ In this quotation we see that the clairvoyant is associating the card with the narrator. Here, Eliot might be saying that the drowned sailor is representing the modern man and that modern society will drown. On the other hand, the drowned sailor could also be referring the English myth of the Fisher King who was guarding the holy grail. Once again Eliot is using religion ideology to some extent to highlight the lack of spirituality in modern society. The Fisher King was the last in a long line of ancestors in charge of keeping the holy grail. The Fisher king always had wounds on his legs or groin.

The Fisher King could relate to the drowned sailor and be saying that the world is wounded without religion and the injuries to the groin show infertility which was previously shown in the physical wasteland in the first book. Water is acting as symbol of death this time. Later in the first book Eliot finishes of the point he is making with a statement through the clairvoyant, ‘Fear death by water.’ This statement sums up the idea of water being in a different light. It also gives a foreboding sense for the modern world as this imagery could have two meanings. The warning from the fortune teller could be saying that we need to avoid dying like the sailor but also avoid dying from a lack of spirituality which is expressed through the use of water in the place of religion. Eliot uses the Thames River, surrounding London and how the water has changed in order to demonstrate the decay of modern society. He also alludes from the famous poet, Edmund Spencer, when he describes the river. In ‘The Fire Sermon’ Eliot takes the line ‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song’ from Edmund Spencer so he can contrast his poetry with Spencer’s. Spencer’s Thames is clean and an immortalized place. This contrasts with Eliot’s description which says, ‘The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends.’ Even though it says, ‘no empty bottles’ we assume that Eliot is being sarcastic as he finishes of the stanza with ‘the nymphs are departed.’ Nymphs are defined as mythological spirits of nature imagined as beautiful maidens inhabiting rivers, woods, or other locations. This means that Eliot’s Thames is not a thing of beauty therefore we adopt that it is disgusting, and that Eliot is being sarcastic.

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The polluting of a once beautiful river described by Spencer could be saying that the modern world is the cause of the filthy water that is lacking beauty. The items in the water could also show the activities the modern society are indulging in. The use of asyndeton emphasises and exaggerates the volume of waste that has inundated the river that was once attractive. For example, ‘cigarette ends’ and ‘empty bottles’ show that nowadays people move more towards drugs and intoxication in their spare time instead of reflecting on their life and being religious. This links back to my initial point where water is essential for life and is a symbol for religion. Here, Eliot is using visual imagery to show how the modern world’s source of life (water) is polluted. Furthermore, in ‘Death by Water’ we finally see the outcome of Madame Sosostris’ warning through Phlebas the drowned sailor who did not avoid death by water. This is another negative impact of water. ‘A current under the sea picked his bones in whispers.’ This description tells us that Phlebas is long dead as he has only little ‘whispers’ of flesh left on his bones and that too is being washed away by the water. Eliot is using the water as a method of cleansing. The water took away ‘his age and youth entering the whirlpool.’ The notion of a whirlpool gives connotations of a sink where water is sucked down into the drain. Phlebas has been sucked down away from the world.

Eliot is using Phlebas as an example of the modern man – ‘Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.’ Phlebas has been cleansed by the waters of spirituality as he was once young and frivolous just like the people who have moved away from the necessity of religion. The indicative phrase ‘Consider Phlebas’ is aims at modern society as Eliot makes a clear connection between Phlebas’ death and the future of this new modern society that goes against Eliot’s ideology. Finally, water is put in a positive light in the concluding book, ‘What the Thunder Said’, where it is accompanied by another wasteland and the possible revival of society. Eliot opens with a possible reference to the Crucifixion of Christ and how modern people are in the world where Jesus is not present.

The direct reference is ‘he who was living is now dead and we who were living are now dying.’ This quote shows that without Jesus we will eventually die, and that modern society are the people who ‘are dying.’ Eliot is driving his point home in the final book so that it sticks in the reader’s mind. Then Eliot uses water in a wasteland to reiterate his point but by water in the place of Christ. Lines such as ‘Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water’ show that water is absent in this metaphorical wasteland. The repetition of the idea on the following line exaggerates the thirst the people have and how desperate they really are. By saying ‘only rock’ we can see just how infertile the land is and just how hopeless these people are. The wasteland inhabitants are so thirsty that they are hallucinating: ‘If there were water we should stop and drink.’ Eliot is trying to illustrate that water would bring back health and rationalism. Eliot extends this point by mentioning that ‘one can neither stand nor lie.’ This shows that patience is running out and that the emergence of the situation is making them uncomfortable.

The lack of rain has made the river low, and the ‘limp leaves / wait for rain’ the same way that modern people wait for something to give them new spiritual life. The people are made to suffer just like Eliot wants because they are the cause of the lack of water as they have moved away from religion which has been a symbol of water throughout the ‘Waste Land.’ In conclusion, Eliot has given his thoughts on modern society and in the final book he has described the outcome of the modern world if the world carries on as it is. The modern world is decaying just like Phlebas the Phoenician did. Eliot uses water to show decay and importance of religion as he alludes from the Bible and other influential poets on his time – before modern society.

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‘The Waste Land’: Representation of Water as a Motif to Show the Decay of Modern Society. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“‘The Waste Land’: Representation of Water as a Motif to Show the Decay of Modern Society.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
‘The Waste Land’: Representation of Water as a Motif to Show the Decay of Modern Society. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2023].
‘The Waste Land’: Representation of Water as a Motif to Show the Decay of Modern Society [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Nov 29]. Available from:
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