Ceremonies in "The Waste Land"
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". What passes between these
two individuals is a sex ceremony that is devoid of love and emotion
(except for, perhaps, the emotion of lust on the part of the young
man). The typist is indifferent to the whole event and the young
man's "vanity requires no response" (l. 241). For a ceremony to be
effective, the participants have to have some degree of faith in what
they are doing. They must believe that the ceremony will result in
something worthwhile. The participants in this broken ceremony had no
faith in what they were doing; they were just going through the
motions. This is made obvious when the secretary says "'Well now
that's done: and I'm glad it's over.'" (l. 252).
Another way that broken ceremonies (broken due to lack of
components) are presented in the poem, are ceremonies of nature. It
seems as though the waste land is always waiting for the ceremony of
rain, the bringing of water, to the dry land. For most of the poem
the water never arrives because there is always something missing. In
lines 331 and 332 Eliot says, "Here is no water but only rock/ Rock
and no water". In line 342 there is, "dry sterile thunder without
rain". The lack of water in ceremonies of nature that require it,
lead to a broken ceremony.. Even at the beginning of the poem Eliot
tells us that we, "know only/ A heap of broken images, where the sun
beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/
And the dry stone no sound of water." (ll. 21-24). Clearly this is
wrong, and this lack of water is a main theme, and a main broken
ceremony in The Waste Land.
Conversely, ceremonies can also be broken when there are too
many components in the ceremony, a something extra that serves to
break them. In The Waste Land this is demonstrated by the presence of
a third person in a ceremony that should contain only two. In lines
139-166, Eliot presents a scene with "one too many". A husband
(Albert) and a wife (Lil) are about to be reunited after Albert's four
year absence. What should be a happy reunion ceremony is broken by
the intrusion of a third person- Lil's "friend". She belittles Lil
and then threatens her by saying, "And if you don't give it [a good
time] to him, there's others will, I said./ Oh is there, she said.
Something o'that, I said./ Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and
gave me a straight look." (ll. 149-151).
For a true bond occur in a relationship there must be a true
connection between two people. If one of the people in the
relationship is cheating on the other, this is another example of a
third person breaking a two person ceremony. In lines 360-366, Eliot
"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do now know whether a man or a woman
-But who is that on the other side of you?
This passage shows a relationship between two people. One of them
sees a third party. It is unknown if this is actually another person
(as in the case of unfaithfulness) or if it is a secret "wrapt in a
brown mantle, hooded" that is manifesting itself as an intruder on the
walking couple. Whatever it is, it is breaking the ceremony of the
relationship and obviously bothers the speaker who mentions "the other
walking beside you" three times in just seven lines.
Language is very important in the genre of poetry and Eliot
makes good use of it to show components of ceremonies. The way the
language is used in the poem creates broken parts everywhere in the
poem. Eliot's use of anaphora is reminiscent of the chant that often
accompanies religious ceremonies. The repeating in lines 121-122 (Do
you know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember nothing?) is
like a catechism in form. Lines 322-324 (After the...After
the...After the...) also further the ritualistic, ceremonious feeling
of the poem. The analectic style that Eliot employs gives the poem a
disjointed, broken feeling, almost as if the whole poem is a ceremony,
and all of the analects are little cracks in what is ultimately
broken. The fragmented use of allusions, combined with the foreign
languages and different speakers, help establish the "unwhole" feeling
of the poem. Eliot shows the dry, cracked waste land, but in the
ending of the poem he gives us hope with the ritualistic chant of,
"Shantih shantih shantih" (l. 434) which translates (according to the
notes) as The Peace which passeth understanding.
Ceremonies are prevalent throughout T.S. Eliot's poem The
Waste Land. The contrast between rituals that contain too little and
rituals that contain too much show just how broken the waste land is.
The actual literary tools that Eliot uses helps give the poem an
apparent broken feel.
"For complete summary and analysis of literary works, please visit