Kris McAbee
English 272D
Fall 1998
Myth and Violence in T.S. Eliotís "The Waste Land"


        As evidenced by his writings, T.S. Eliot has a profound appreciation for the use of myth as a point of departure for maintaining a cultural or historical perspective. In "The Waste Land," his employment of myth is not simply an allusive and metaphorical tactic, but rather an attempt at relating his own ideas and tropes to universals in order to establish some external order for the chaos he is presenting: "The element of myth in his art is not so much a creative method, a resumption of the role of mythic poet, as it is an intellectual strategy, a device for gaining perspective on himself and on his myth-forsaken time" (Ellmann, 621). He draws from the ideas existing in the collective unconsciousness (which compose myth) and the differences in his representations present his own ideas about the human condition.

        The fact that mythic structures are repeated cross-culturally evidences them as the outcome of primitive, common thought. These structures include concepts of life and death cycles; degeneration, death, and decay; purgation, purification, and rebirth; and creation and destruction. A common thread throughout the various mythic structures is that of violence. Violence is necessary for the completion of mythic processes. A simple example of this idea is the axiom that destruction (an intrinsically violent act) is a pre-requisite for creation. Furthermore, myth entails specific, violent acts against the human form as means for purgation and purification.

        On another level, creation is a violent exploit not only through its relationship to destruction, but also through its relationship to sexuality. The sex act, the animal process of creation, is an act of violence against the female form. In addition, the birth process, an outcome of the violent sex act, is no less a violation against the female form. It is this violence, the product of the human unconscious through natural observances, which is so fundamental to the completion of mythic structures and which is altogether missing from Eliot’s "The Waste Land." His departure from myth here demonstrates his lack of faith in society to rebuild itself- to purge, purify, and be reborn- according to the means supplied by history and tradition.

        In Eliot’s notes to "The Waste Land," he alludes to several significant catalogues of myth: the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, he primarily points his readers to Weston and Frazer:


        Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on Grail Legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble. To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough ; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies (Eliot, 47).

        As Eliot remarks, both of these works had a significant impact on literature to come. In fact, Weston herself alludes to the importance of The Golden Bough in her own work.

        Eliot accredits From Ritual to Romance as the source of his title. In Weston’s writings on Grail lore, the "waste land" refers to the decay of the land and its people as a materialization of the death or impotence of a priest-king figure. This aspect of myth derives from the interdependence of the land and its inhabitants, all of which is funneled onto the shoulders of this individual. The concept of the "Fisher King" is related to this figure; as Weston points out, the king is associated with life and fertility, as marked by the alliance with fish, an early Christian and pagan symbol as a vivifying force.

    Furthermore, water is seen as vivifying; bodies of water are significant symbols in From Ritual to Romance and are responsible for essential processes in mythic structure: resurrection, purification, and baptism. In Adonis rituals, an effigy of a dead god/king would be thrown into the river prior to its burial. Finally, Weston details the tradition of "lamenting women" who sentinel over these hallowed bodies of water. Women were obliged to observe the passing of the seasons with various celebratory and lamentational rituals in which they would weep, wail, and often mutilate themselves- beat their breasts and cut off their hair. These violent acts against their own forms comes as a response to intention to ensure both the vivifying powers of the water and the consequential fertility of the land- acts of destruction to bring about re-creation.

    Frazer’s The Golden Bough contains many of the same tropes already discussed. The "Dying God" is of particular significance; his unmistakable relationship to the priest-king and Fisher King figures set him up as a human manifestation for the land itself. Again, his dying correlates with the wasting away of the land, but, here, his death is more purgative as exemplified by the fact that his followers actually kill him. The link between the natural world and this figure becomes much more substantial as his health is conflated with the well-being of the land; according to Frazer, "the only way of averting these calamities [death, disease, desolation] is to put the king to death while he is still hale and hearty, in order that the divine spirit which he has inherited from his predecessors may be transmitted in turn by him to his successor while it is still in full vigour and has not yet been impaired by the weakness of old age" (Vickery, 51). Again, myth provides an account of violence in an attempt to renew, rebuild, and protect.

    The Golden Bough accounts the principle observances which sustain the cyclical nature of life: purgation, purification, and regeneration. These rituals are associated with the natural forces of fire, water, and sexual intercourse, respectively. Purgation is achieved through "fire-festivals" which involve burning effigies in an attempt to "remov[e] all those forces which threaten animal, vegetable, and human growth" (Vickery, 63). The violent implications here are inescapable; according the relationship of myth and violence, purgation necessarily involves destruction through fire of a mock-human form so that the positive effect of a cleansing can be experienced.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Along these lines, purification goes hand in hand with purgation; the pure water puts out the destructive fire. Purification rituals center around the idea that sins can be washed away, resulting in what are now seen as baptismal rituals. In their simplicity, these rites seem to lack the violence necessary for rebirth. However, in some baptismal ceremonies intending to allow its participators a closer communion with god, "the initiate [is] baptismally drenched in the blood of a bull, after which he [is] regarded ¬Ďas one who [has] been born again to eternal life¬í" (Vickery, 64). While the slaughtering of the bull and the use of its blood as a baptismal agent is violent, it is the implied violence of actually being drenched in blood that is of importance here; blood and water are conflated and just as the blood is raped from the bull¬ís body, water is raped from the land. Meanwhile, the intimated carnage signifies the death of an individual in order to be reborn.

        Rebirth is best represented by the revival rite known as the "Sacred Marriage" (Vickery, 65). This ritual involves the "divine union" of the god/king figure and his queen, who consequentially gives birth to the infinite recognized as the divine successor. The violence in this rite is more subtle than burning or bathing in blood, but is nonetheless inherent; both of the main figures are possessed by another entity- the king is taken over by the god, and the queen is taken over by the god/king. Also, specific violent connections to the sex act and the birth process exist here.

        Ultimately, Frazer asserts the connection between these primitive vegetative cults and the Christian religion; the dying and reviving god as seen in Jesus Christ, along with other ceremonies and beliefs, are derivations from the original traditions held by these cults. As such, Frazer underscores the timelessness and ubiquity of these myths. In chronicling their movement form Asia Minor to the European West, he signifies the degree to which they are a fundamental aspect of human nature, not restricted to specific cultural ties. Frazer’s view of history entails cycles of unfulfilled hopes and consequential disasters.

        And it is precisely this dual perspective of intelligence and hopelessness, of rational dreams and tragic awareness mirrored in a style of ironic nobility that made The Golden Bough the enchanted glass of twentieth-century writers. In it they might see both their own dilemmas reflected and the future of their world presaged with all the tantalizing ambivalence of life itself (Vickery, 67).

        And, indeed, Eliot saw the relationship between the unconscious world of myth and the conscious world of what he conceived to be a hopeless, decaying reality. He turned to myth as a tool for placing himself and his present situation in the context of a timeless human problem.

        In addition (and in conjunction) to being a poet, Eliot was a critic. After all, as he said in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "criticism is as inevitable as breathing." His criticisms naturally reveal clues as to the style of his own poetry. For example, in "Sensibility and Thought in Metaphysical Poetry," Eliot lauds metaphysical poets’ use of simple language in complex structures which retain a purity and allegiance to emotion. Eliot uses these tools in his poetry, as well.

        Likewise, his appreciation of myth can be seen in his various criticisms. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," written two years before "The Waste Land," Eliot asserts, "the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order." For this exact reason, Eliot turns to myth as a means of imposing order on the chaotic environment he is illustrating in "The Waste Land."

        In the same essay, Eliot declares this value of the living myth in these terms: "...he [the poet] is not likely to know what is to be done unless he believes in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living." Eliot is not concerned with the strictly historical past; he wants to bring into to consciousness the unconsciousness of timeless human existence, a "simultaneous order," united with "what is already living."

        Eliot expounds upon this ideology in "’Ulysses,’ Order, and Myth," a self-proclaimed attack on Aldington’s criticism of James Joyce’s "Ulysses." Eliot sees Joyce’s use of the structured myth of the Odyssey not as a libelous corruption but rather, as "simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." More than just a mold for Joyce’s narrative, myth is a point of reference and departure which puts his work in an ordered context; there exists no better means of expressing chaos in an understandable manner, than drawing from the collective unconscious as expressed in myth. Eliot elaborates, "Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art." The chaos and disorder of the modern world can not be sequestered by the limited, temporal form of the novel, but needs ties to the mythic structures of humankind.

        As he indicates in his criticisms, myth is an essential point of departure for conveying the chaos, fragmentation, and futility of modern life. Eliot utilizes fundamental elements of myth, highlighted by his understanding of From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough, to portray the decaying world in "The Waste Land." While his adherence to myth is necessary to establish order in the chaos, it is also vital in that these similarities make the departures from mythic structures significant and gives them meaning in the wider context of the collective unconscious.

        The lack of violence in "The Waste Land" is one such significant departure from mythic structures. This poem details the fragmented futility of modern life. The land is in need of regeneration, rebirth, and purification. Yet, the search for these is as futile as the life itself. The Hanged Man, the Jesus figure, represents the dying god of myth; however, he can not be found (l. 54). In the speaker’s future there is the man with three staves, with whom Eliot associates the Fisher King, but in a waterless land, purification is impossible: "Here is no water but only rock" (l. 331). The Buddhist "burning burning burning" of "The Fire Sermon" is the closest the poem comes to completion of a mythic cycle, but it occurs in conjunction with an image of western asceticism ("O Lord thou pluckest me out," l. 309). One can not experience the mythologically cathartic effects of fire if one is plucked from the flames.

        Finally, the sex act essential to the mythic structure of rebirth as expressed by Frazer, although apparent in "The Waste Land," is void of the violence of both the act itself and the resulting childbirth. For example, the woman in the pub speaks of her abortions (l. 159-161). Although the act of abortion is a violent one, it is the violence of child birth which serves as the trope in mythic tradition. Therefore, her subsequent implied infertility, underscored by the departure from myth, indicates the infertility of modern life in general. Furthermore, Eliot exploits the figure of Philomel as the very symbol of the violation of a female body which results in a new world order. However, in the poem, Philomel "filled all the desert with inviolable voice" (l. 101). This line shows the futility of her singing; the empty desert can not hear her chaste song. The chastity implied here is a further deviation from the mythic tradition in which she was raped. The scene in the poem which does come closest to a violent sex act, leaves the woman indifferent (l. 231-256). This action is told through the eyes of Tieresias, a classical figure whose evocation here underscores the role that myth is playing in the poem and, therefore, the lack of violence and subsequent regeneration. In this example, the woman merely returns to her automatic life as no new world order is established.

        All of these examples, while relating specific ties to mythic structures, lack the completion- the violence- necessary for fruition. Eliot employs the mythic tradition to add structure to his poem; at the points of departure he expresses the idea that this time, the "waste land" will not regenerate, and his very use of structured myth conveys through contrast Eliot’s concern with the utter chaos of modern life.