We recently celebrated the feast of Pentecost, in which the Church was and is filled with the fiery Spirit of the Almighty Christ. Some comments about T. S. Eliot seemed like the appropriate champagne bottle to smash all over this newly founded blog, and The Waste Land is all about Pentecost and the need for Pentecost.
Readers sometimes struggle to get any kind of thematic grip on The Waste Land, but as much as it is about anything it is about death and resurrection. In Part 1, “The Burial of the Dead,” the following lines appear as a reimagining of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones (“And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, ‘O Lord God, You know.’” Ez. 37:3) :
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you 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… (TWL 19-24)
Like the corpses in Ezekiel’s vision, the dead are dying and staying dead. The author of The Waste Land is a pre-conversion Eliot, and is not proposing Christ as the “answer” to a problem, but through a combination of Christian imagery and Arthurian fertility myths he emphatically shows the problem: a parched modern wilderness in need of transformative new life. Even when water finally appears in Part 4, “Death By Water,” instead of bringing life it causes the death of a Phoenician sailor, and its currents pick his bones clean (lines 315-16). More dead bones.
On either side of “Death By Water” are “The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said.” Without going into careful exposition of either section, we are nevertheless reminded of Pentecost by the titles alone. The Ezekiel passage quoted above continues, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you…and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord’” (vv. 5-6). This promise is fully realized on the day of Pentecost, as the Apostles preach their own Fire Sermon and the Church is filled with the fiery breath and thunderous voice of Christ and His Spirit. The fire of the Spirit quickens the waters of death, so that the bones submerged under the weight of Adam’s sin become the source of new life through baptism; the currents that once suffocated have been enlivened with Holy Fire and become the womb and midwife of new resurrection life. That is why a converted Eliot could later write of being “redeemed from fire by fire” and, by extension, from water by water:
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. (Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”, IV)
The “unfamiliar Name” harkens back to the questions in “The Burial of the Dead;” “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ out of this stony rubbish?” What life, what hope is there to be had in the wasteland? Love, and the unlooked-for miracle of Love’s paradoxical swallowing up of Death by being swallowed up by it. In Pentecost each of us is joined to that paradoxical reality and consumed by the Fire that never consumes. Praise God.