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MonkeyNotes-The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot
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Lines 19-30 Summary

In this segment one can hear again the voice of Tiresias, who depicts a sort of spiritual waste land. The tone here is reminiscent of old biblical prophets littering their somber prophecies. It portrays an agonized world filled with "stony rubbish," where "the sun beats" mercilessly down so that "the dead trees give no shelter" and the shrill cry of the cricket brings "no relief." In this desolate scenario "the dry stone" gives "no sound of water." (Unlike in biblical times, when Moses could procure water from rocks using his "divining" rod and thus bring relief to the thirsty Israelites wandering the desert).


Notes

Line 19, "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow": These are apparently rhetorical questions with self-evident answers. There are no roots that can take hold in the rocky soil, nor can any branches grow on dead trees in this waste land.

Line 20, "Son of Man": Eliotís Notes to The Waste Land tells us that the phrase is drawn from The Old Testament, Book of Ezekiel (2:1) perhaps "Son of man" refers to fallen man, son of the weak willed Adam in contrast to "Son of God" i.e., Jesus Christ.

Line 22, "Broken images": Another phrase drawn from Ezekiel (6:6) (according to Eliot"s Notes) This biblical passage describes how "cities shall be laid waste and high places shall be thrown down and destroyed." Here, God warns the idol-worshipping Israelites of severe punishment. Eliot suggests that the modern day "son of man" only knows a heap of broken images" and has lost his connection to God, his creator.

Lines 25-29, "There is shadow under this red rock ... handful of dust": These lines are a close parallel to the opening of Eliot"s own early poem The Death of St. Narcissus (1911 - 12), which runs thus:

"Come under the shadow of this gray rock,

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow sprawling over the sand at day break, or

Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock."

Eliot feels free to draw on lines, from his earlier poem, for The Waste Land. It is rare for a poet to quote his own poem.

Line 30, "A handful of dust" is a phrase perhaps drawn from one of John Donneís famous Meditations: "What becomes of man ... when himself shrinks, consumes himself to a handful of dust." The line also brings to mind the Christian injunction to man of his bodily mortality: "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shall return."

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