“Falling towers…”

Another aspect of dehumanization in “The Waste Land” is that of spiritual death, or the separation of God from Man. Throughout the poem, religion is treated with an air of disregard. It appears to be there, but is treated without care or respect. For instance:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards… (43-7)

It is interesting, and perhaps humorous, to picture the “wisest woman in Europe” as a tarot card reader with a head cold. It seems to undermine the whole idea of connection to the spiritual realm. After all, if people do not understand how to connect to each other, how could they possibly know how to connect to something beyond?

The place where people go to connect to God are addressed too. Two churches are listed specifically in “The Waste Land”: St. Mary Woolnoth and Magnus Martyr. It is an experience to visit these places and fully understand what it was that Eliot saw. St. Mary Woolnoth stands in the City directly across from the Bank of England which makes Eliot’s description much more appropriate:

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. (64-8)

This is taken from the same scene with the living dead men crossing over London Bridge.

St. Mary Woolnoth church

St. Mary Woolnoth stands at the northern end of London Bridge directly up King William Street. Nine is important because it is the beginning of the work day. The dreaded nine-to-five’s. The church, the place of light, redemption, and holiness, has now become a symbol of oppression for the working-class man. One can only guess how many lowered heads and hurried footsteps run by cursing the bells at the “stroke of nine” (68). The modern world and it’s schedules and deadlines have separated the church from divinity. The City life has taken over a sacred place and is trying to evict God. The church is now simply a landmark for people to pray in.

The other church, St. Magnus Martyr, has a slightly more positive light cast around it:

“This music crept by me upon the waters”
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold. (257-65)

St. Magnus Martyr cornered by King William Street and tall buildings.

Even though St. Magnus Martyr is only a short walk away from St. Mary Woolnoth, it appears that Magnus is more pleasurable than St. Mary. It could be, perhaps, that Magnus is father away from the City and thereby farther from the evil that deadens and hypnotizes the masses. Now, however, the church is being choked out by the buildings around it. Structures from the mid-20th century have sprung up and now choke out some of the light that makes the walls shine with splendor.

The reference to Buddha’s Fire Sermon is also a key aspect in “The Waste Land.” In a summary, the Buddha addresses the bhikkhus telling them that all perception is “burning.” He focuses chiefly on sexual desire saying “Burning with what? With the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.” The way to overcome the burning is to conquer passion. By doing that, it is possible to overcome lust and desire. After the typist’s husband has his way with her and she resumes life, it appears that self-defeat, or at least acknowledgment, takes place:

“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
la la

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

burning (300-11)

The connecting of “nothing with nothing” is representative of a wrecked mind or a personal breakdown in which the speaker has admitted that everything is burning. It would appear, judging by some of the ramblings in the fifth section: “What the Thunder Said” that it is the former. Some of the fifth section seems to represent a mind that has broken down and accepted insanity:

                                               If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
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
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water (346-59)

This is accompanied by the final stanza:

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

The first example seems like senseless rambling, made all the more crazed by the sounding out of water droplets. The second stanza is the same fragmented form that is seen throughout the poem. With the cryptic question, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” followed by the famous nursery rhyme, the speaker appears to be dying. That assumption is bolstered by the sporadic “last words” in the form of references to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the tale of Philomel, a sonnet by de Nerval, and Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. The last two lines of the poem are references to the Upanishads in Hindu religion. It seems that, with this reference and the reference to The Fire Sermon, the speaker has lost western religion and is looking for it elsewhere– where he can find peace. Indeed, the last words, as translated by Valerie Eliot, read, “The Peace which passeth understanding.”

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