T.S. Eliot * The Wastelands * What the Thunder Said (V)

“What the Thunder Said” is set in various places. The first three stanzas are set in a desolate and deserted place where it resembles a true waste land, emphasizing the dire need of society for salvation. “Falling towers” and “unreal cities” indicates the destruction and corruption within society. The title of this part has been derived from an Indian legend, which says that all beings, the men, devils and as well as gods, listen to what the thunder says in order to restore life to the “wasteland”.

This part starts off with a setting of a rocky place with no water. Water here symbolizes salvation and hope, thus the beginning of part V reflects on a society where civilization is corrupted, impure, given in temptations – in need of salvation. As the poem progresses, we reach another setting where civilization is engulf in fire which is both a purifying and destructive element and it therefore plays a significant role in the rebirth and regeneration of society. This resembles an apocalypse.Later on, hope is finally coming – re-emergence of water bringing with it the hope of rebirth by the thunder. Thunder plays an important role. When it speaks, Eliot describes it as God delivering three groups of followers -– men, demons, and the gods -– the sound “Da”: Datta for humans which means to give – to curb man’s greed, dayadhvam for devils which means to have compassion and empathy for others, and damyata for gods which means to control for they are wild and rebellious. Together, God gives these three orders which add up to a consistent moral perspective, composure, generosity, and empathy lying at the core, to reach inner peace.


After the torch-light red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying  325
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience  330

This final section opens with images after Jesus was taken prisoner in the garden of Gethsemane and after the crucifixion itself. The “torchlight red on sweaty faces” perhaps indicates the guards who come to take Christ away; the “garden” is Gethsemane; “the agony in stony places” refers to the torture and the execution itself; and “of thunder of spring over distant mountains” describes the earthquake following the crucifixion.

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink  335
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit  340
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mud-cracked houses
If there were water
 345
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring  350
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock  355
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

It has been suggested that the road winding up the mountain leads to the Chapel Perilous, where the Grail knight must go on his quest. The second stanza describes a land without any water: only rocks, sand, “dead

mountain mouth of carious teeth.” The thunder brings no rain and is therefore sterile. “Red sullen faces sneer and snarl” at the poet as he makes his way through this desolate land. Emphasis is on the lack of water; the thunder has begun to rumble, but the rain has not begun, and all is dry and sandy. The poet hears the cicada, or grasshopper, but not the thrush, which would sing if there was water, but there is only rock. This part of the poem reflects on human’s society; how it is impure, tainted – in need of salvation.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together  360
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 not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?  365

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963061-endurance
Shackleton’s men were stranded in the Antarctic

Road to emmaus1
Jesus appears to the disciples on their way to Emmaus

Maj12
The idea for this stanza was based on Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition where the psychological phenomenon of the Third Man Factor was first recorded. When certain people were going through the most desolate situation in their lives, they’ve said to see an extra person with them, or their group. All the members of the group admit the same experience. Now this might sounds creepy, but in truth this presence was a guiding figure for the survivors.
This figure can be alluded to a passage in the Bible (Luke 24:13-25) in which the resurrected Jesus joined two disciples on their journey to Emmaus after they’ve heard the news about the empty Sepulchre (the place where Jesus was buried), but they were unable to recognize Him.

Oddly enough, T.S. Eliot also made connection of the hooded one with The Hanged Man tarot card that appeared in part I “The Burial of the Dead” and The Hanged God of Fraser, which first seems like a totally different story but eventually reuniting the identity of the hooded one. Lines 54-55 reads “I do not find The Hanged Man”, but here he is. Does this mean that the foretold future is not true? T.S. Eliot might be implying that the future has changed.

The Hanged God of Fraser refers to the figures who were responsible for conducting rituals of sacrifice explained in Sir James George Fraser’s work “The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion”. In a combination of Greek and Norse mythology, human were sacrificed by being hanged on a tree and being stabbed to death, often with a spear. This sounds a great deal like the crucifixion of Jesus.

To sum it up, all of these allusions suggest the identity of the hooded figure as some sort of guardian, sacrificing themselves to walk with us through the chaotic world we’ve created for ourselves. Lines 54-55 gives the expectation of the guardian in the form of The Hanged Man, but the guardian cannot be seen, or read by fortune tellers. Yet, when we’re walking through the barren and hopeless earth, the guardian will walk with us.

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only  370
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London  375
Unreal
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings  380
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

The idea for this stanza was based on Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition where the psychological phenomenon of the Third Man Factor was first recorded. When certain people were going through the most desolate situation in their lives, they’ve said to see an extra person with them, or their group. All the members of the group admit the same experience. Now this might sounds creepy, but in truth this presence was a guiding figure for the survivors.
This figure can be alluded to a passage in the Bible (Luke 24:13-25) in which the resurrected Jesus joined two disciples on their journey to Emmaus after they’ve heard the news about the empty Sepulchre (the place where Jesus was buried), but they were unable to recognize Him.

Oddly enough, T.S. Eliot also made connection of the hooded one with The Hanged Man tarot card that appeared in part I “The Burial of the Dead” and The Hanged God of Fraser, which first seems like a totally different story but eventually reuniting the identity of the hooded one. Lines 54-55 reads “I do not find The Hanged Man”, but here he is. Does this mean that the foretold future is not true? T.S. Eliot might be implying that the future has changed.

The Hanged God of Fraser refers to the figures who were responsible for conducting rituals of sacrifice explained in Sir James George Fraser’s work “The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion”. In a combination of Greek and Norse mythology, human were sacrificed by being hanged on a tree and being stabbed to death, often with a spear. This sounds a great deal like the crucifixion of Jesus.

To sum it up, all of these allusions suggest the identity of the hooded figure as some sort of guardian, sacrificing themselves to walk with us through the chaotic world we’ve created for ourselves. Lines 54-55 gives the expectation of the guardian in the form of The Hanged Man, but the guardian cannot be seen, or read by fortune tellers. Yet, when we’re walking through the barren and hopeless earth, the guardian will walk with us.

In this decayed hole among the mountains  385
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.  390
Only a cock stood on the roof-tree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves  395
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA  400
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed  405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA  410
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours  415
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
DA
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded  420
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

This stanza explicitly alludes to Chapel Perilous of the Arthurian legend. Chapel Perilous is the final confrontation, and bore the curse of death; that is why it has become a cemetery for all those who sought the Grail. Thus, after our long journey through the chaotic world, we have arrived at this empty place in which the final episode of our fate is going to happen. A soothing word from T.S. Eliot: “Dry bones can harm no one.” Strangely, he doesn’t seem to view this setting as frightening or perilous, as if our only task left is to walk through it, without any struggle. In the case that “the cock” refers to one in Luke 22:56-62, then is is a mark that the foretold future is becoming true. Jesus told Peter that before the cock crows, Peter will deny him three times. Peter never thought that he would commit such a treacherous act. However, due to their situation, Peter had to deny him, but did not realize it until the cock crew. Then finally, God gave the gift of water, proving that He has not abandoned us to suffer our destruction.

                      I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?  425
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins  430
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
      Shantih    shantih    shantih

In this part, Gods interpreted “DA” as “Damyata”, which means “control”. Control here implies practicing to control your desire and submit to God’s wills. “The sea was calm, your heart would have responded” is the allusion of Coriolanus who was mentioned as above. He won many wars for Rome but later got banished. This is what he told his friends and family afterward “That common chances common men could bear; that when the sea was calm all boats alike show’d mastership in floating”. In conclusion, the message is when everything is calm and in control, you should learn to solve problems and control the situation by yourself. Don’t be dependent and trust other people because they will betray you one day. Even though you are capable of controlling the situations but there is one God who is always above you and control you as well as the situation. Submission to God’s wills is the way that guides you to reach a controllable situation.

Read more: A short analysis

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