Eliot’s “The Waste Land” borrows from both Classical antiquity and Hinduism to sate its rich imagery, interweaving the two in the poet’s reflection on death. References to European antiquity are all around, including the references to Philomel and Tiresias, and Hindu motives manifest most clearly in the last line, consisting of the Sanskrit mantra “Shantih, Shantih. Shantih” (Eliot V). The poem stands above issuing value judgments regarding Hinduism as a religion, but the author obviously sees its perspective on death as worth considering.
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One can wonder whether religion should have a place in modernist poetry, but the question is largely superficial. Much of the poetic imagery in Western cultures and the English language specifically comes from religious backgrounds. Even the “golden Cupidon,” which is now viewed as an almost sterilized symbol of romantic attachment, is religious at its core, as it was a deity in classical mythology (Eliot II). Religion has pervaded Western cultures to such a degree that discussing whether it has a place in Modernist poetry is akin to arguing whether the Great Vowel Shift in English should be permitted.
Invoking the image of Sibyl in the epigraph sets the tone for the poem as a morbid contemplation on the topic of death. Just as Sybil had to reconsider her relationship with death, the poem’s characters, in their own way, face the “fear in a handful of dust” (Eliot I). It is the fear of those who come from dust and are destined to return to it, and the reference to Sybil, figuratively speaking, sets the stage.
The poem’s approach to the topic of death also represents Modernist insistence on being done with the overly formalist and Eurocentric Victorian poetry. In the European tradition, whether Classical or Christian, life and death are usually perceived as a linear and irrevocable journey from one point to another. However, Eliot also entertains the idea of a constant cycle of rebirth, as in his character’s – albeit mockingly – inquiry whether a buried corpse will “bloom this year” (I). By searching for the approach to death beyond Victorian and even European tradition, the author demonstrates himself as a Modernist poet.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land: and Other Poems. Faber and Faber, 1999.