How do you read “The Waste Land?” It’s sort of a difficult question, isn’t it? But I was asked exactly that question a few days ago. I started mumbling something while trying in vain to come up with an intelligent answer… Back home I had more time to think about it. So here goes a first attempt. I hope it can be considered intelligent.
A first answer can always be: “as you read poetry”, that is, enjoying its beauty -rhythm and music-, musing on the images from the text letting them flow in your imagination in search for meaning, etc… (the “etc” can be very long). But with “The Waste Land” this answer is not very useful. The first time you read the poem it is very difficult to understand what’s going on there. All the images seem to have no connection between them and the innumerable references to other works make it very difficult to read without having to go to the notes or to an annotated edition, and if you do, then you lose the wider perspective…
Another possible answer is: “from the beginning”… I mean from the first image we encounter: the Cumaean Sibyl and her terrible apothanein thelo -I want to die-. This quote Eliot choose as epigraph is taken from the Satyricon of Petronius, but the background story of the Sibyl is found in the Metamorphosis, chapter XIV. She, being loved by Apollo was granted to live as many years as the grains of a heap of dust:
… he said ‘Maiden of Cumae choose whatever you may wish, and you shall gain all that you wish.’ I pointed to a heap of dust collected there, and foolishly replied, ‘As many birthdays must be given to me as there are particles of sand.’
For I forgot to wish them days of changeless youth. He gave long life and offered youth besides, if I would grant his wish…
But she didn’t, and though she lived for centuries, her body decayed in such a way that eventually was as small as to be kept in a jar. Only her voice was left to be heard by Trimalchio.
What I consider very significant from the story of the Sibyl in order to understand The Waste Land is her task of doorkeeper of Hades. She is the one that opens the way for Aeneas to descend to Hell as recalled in the Aeneid. Dante chooses Virgil to act as his guide in his journey to the region of the dead, while Eliot -always more subtle and cryptic- by his reference to the Sibyl seems to suggest what we will meet in his poem: a descent to Hell.
I think this way of approaching the poem makes it much more accessible. Even though the complexities remain, by appending The Waste Land to the “Aeneid-Divine Comedy” chain we are able to give some unity to the fragments of the poem. The different voices we hear get a new meaning: they -as the the souls Dante sees and talks to- reflect different aspects of the same reality: Hell.
I’m not saying of course that this is the way of approaching the poem. Many people prefer to stress other elements like the Arthurian Legend and the “fertility issues”, probably as a consequence of what Eliot says about them in his notes. Also his commentary on Tiresias, when he states that what the prophet “sees in fact is the substance of the poem”, has led -in my opinion- to an exaggerated interest to the sexual references of the work.
True, there are references to the Grail Cycle: the Fisher King, Tristan and Isolde, the Perilous Chapel; but there is no grail in the Waste Land. The Dante key seems to me much more adequate and helpful. It is wide enough to allow the poem to touch a wide range of topics -as Dante does- and not to interpret all passages in a single way that sometimes seems pretty artificial. It also it seems very plausible: it is a know fact the admiration Eliot professed towards Dante. The influence of the Comedy in the Wasteland -even if we judge just by textual references- is apparent and undeniable.
There is, nonetheless, a big difference between Dante’s Hell and Eliot’s: Hell for Dante is an scholastically structured place where everything has its meaning, a meaning that can be rationally explained by master Virgil. We might be puzzled and confused, but there is an explanation. In Eliot’s Hell there is no Virgil, there are no circles and no contrapasso: the images of suffering, fear, death and emptiness are piled up with no order or rationale. But this confusion and lack of sense is part of the message of the poem. The fact that we can connect nothing with nothing lies at the very heart of Eliot’s vision.
In case you are wondering from where that beautiful image of the Sibyl came… It’s taken from the great Ghent Altarpiece of Van Eyck.