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Waste Land Regained: A Poetic Immersion

Part one of this post is the poem, Waste Land Regained. Because the poem includes quite a few obscure references, I have followed the poem with a second part where I offer brief explanatory comments about some of the references included in the poem. You may want to read the explanatory comments before reading the poem.

Prologue: The Cumaean Sibyl

Part One:

Waste Land Regained: A Reaction to T.S. Eliot's Waste Land

by Nancy Castille


I. Prologue: The Cumaean Sibyl


Withered sibyl,

What do you want?

Ti theleis, Sibyllam?

Ti theleis?

 

I only wish for death, says she.

Apothanein thelo.

Apothanein.

 

Eternal spirit caged in wrinkled shell.

Sibyl,

Your curse is life.

Darkness and Ignorance,

Persistent and unrelenting,

Surround you.

And your only wish

Is for the silence of death.

 

Only a vengeful god could have caused such a thing,

Condemned to live forever,

Body aging ceaselessly.

While inside, the spirit still glows with yearning.

So dependent on these short-lived bodies

The Holy Ghost fights its losing battle.

The flower blooms and dies.

Forgotten.

 

In the distance,

Like stevedores tied to wagons,

Grim shades haul heavy loads,

laden with the magma

Of burning souls

All slouching towards Bethlehem.

 

When I first saw the Nobodaddy,

Dark puppeteer

He smiled at me out of the darkness,

I did not die,

Nor was I alive.


La ilaha illa Allah.

Nothing but God,

The disease and the cure,

The kind and the wicked,

Sunshine and darkness.

There is nothing but God

There is nothing.

 

Learn to not want.

For in death there is nothing

To want.

Nothing to want.

As if

Nothing

Existed.

It does not.

 

If not now, when?

Drowning in the emptiness of the infinite,

A hollow now ripples and radiates,

Pushing the past to the outer edge of time.

 

Way back then

Back when at least we had love

And desire,

We held the present close.

We do not have that anymore

We only have the empty shell of a ceaseless tomorrow.


II. The Burial of the Dead


This disappointing mound of rotting tubers

Feeding a little life through the winter

And back into spring again

April is the cruelest month

Tubers of longing and desire

Erupting in the damp loam

They would be better off frozen

Desire safer in hibernation

Than exposed to this concupiscent spring.

Chatter of spring

Sprouting cotyledons push their heads up.

Tired souls awaken from wintry sleep,

Feed on a few mouldering tubers,

Trudge onward into wet spring.

 

Many deaths precede us --

Bones of a mastodon

Stuck in a peat bog,

Right before the lava started to flow.

Gneiss and schist stratify ancient layers.

Poor old mastodon,

He gave it his all.

Terrible lizard,

You lost your last vicious battle,

Your bones now preserved for eternity

In layers of rock

And infinite lifelessness.

 

This unbearable light

Brings with it

The horror the horror.

Sere dessicated landscape

Where the only place to find shelter

Is in the shadow of a rock.

 

Walking into the sun all day

The sun is not at your back

It burns bright on your reddened face

Baked like a brick in a fiery furnace

Cracked and hard.


This light that brings warmth

Also brings blindness.

Shriveled sibyl

Walking towards the sun.

Shriveled and desiccated

Sand dripping through the hourglass of infinity,

Onto a beach where the waves do not return

Hot burning sand

where only the spectres of lizards walk.

 

The sun cauterizes the wounds

Life gashes

Open wounds that do not heal

 

Skeletons pretend to drink

from empty cups.

At the end of our burning journey

No metaphor arises

to save us

From this heap of broken images

 

The grasshopper drags itself along

And desire fails

Mourners left behind

While you fade into the dark tunnel of time

And dust returns to the earth

like it used to be.

No use pretending anymore.


III. Ezekiel's Vision


The clouds spin a grey web across the sky.

Grim archetypes dot the starry dome above.

Skull and crossbones

Ixion strung out on a wheel,

Horns of a bull,

Double-headed axe

Thunderhead

Lightning bolt

 

Ezekiel dreams in the dark night.

Did you see a wheel, Ezekiel?

Way up

In the middle of the air?

Did you see El Shaddai

Rolling up in his spinning chariot?

Way in the middle of the air?

 

Spherical god

Chariot wheels spinning in every direction,

Whirling spinning sphere

Covered with wings

And eyes

Darting and glaring from the surface

Spinning so fast it is become like stillness.

 

Four faces shine from the sphere:

Cherub,

Old woman,

Lion,

Eagle.

 

And what did he say, Ezekiel,

What did you ask fiery Nobodaddy?

When he came a’ridin’?

 

“I asked him,

‘What do you want of me?’

Then a spirit entered me

And I heard a grim voice thunder.

 

“Stand up when I speak to you, Son of Man.

Stand on your feet,

See me at the gleaming altar.

I am talking to you.

Come closer

That I may address you directly.

 

Son of man,

Lurking shades surround you,

Slump-shouldered bunch

Trudge trudge in the crud swamp

Slush squish stomp.


They pay the price

For ignorant consumption

Slovenly discipline

Let themselves be stupid

And mean,

Drive cars drunk,

Take what is not theirs,

Choose anger over compassion,

Think only of themselves,

Small-minded and lazy,

Succumbing to base desires,

Lovers of violence.

Swampdung

Suffocating foul sewer stench.

 

Son of Man,

There is no way out but in.

Dig a hole

dig a hole.”

 

And he rides away into the night.

Leaving a dry white earth in his wake.

 

Skeletons All dressed in white linen

Jangle and trudge

Through a valley of bones

Dem bones dem dry bones

Wind blows everything dry

Dem bones dem bones

Dem dry bones.


IV. A Game of Chess


Empty love weighs on our souls,

We who never find love.

Who find only disappointment,

Denial, betrayal, dead dreams.

Spend our sad time in dull routines,

Hebetudinous pedestrian lives

Lived In dark despair.

 

You never talk to me

You never talk.

 

Two scarecrows haunting a dead relationship

Go bump in the night.

Frumpy hausfrau in a dirty apron.

How unlike Cleopatra she is,

Queen of nothing

Plump and pathetic.

 

Aeneas will leave you Dido.

And you will be left alone

With an asp at your throat,

Surrounded by vials of poison,

Or weeping on the beach at Naxos.

 

Sing nightingale, sad broken deathsong

Sing nightingale sing

Sing dark earth poem.

 

G’nite ladies

After this we die

After this we die

Hurry up please, it’s time.

 

Only the wind is left

The wind that leaves only a whisper.


V. The Fire Sermon


Everything that exists burns in fire,

What we see is on fire

What we hear is on fire

Ashes build around us.

Love created by wanting

By fire

Love burning hope,

Leaving only a thin residue of disappointment.

 

All of Valhalla burns

The Rhein daughters

No longer submit to empty entreaties

But still foolishly hope that someday true love will arrive.

The nymphs sing, the river overflows with gold.

Rhein daughters

Singing sweet painful strains of yearning

And the desire to be loved

And understood.

 

O Lord, thou pluckest me out

Despite my burning heart

Thou pluckest me out.

To Carthage I came

Burning, burning.

 

I am stranded on Montgomery Street

People step over me as I lie on the sidewalk.

I expect nothing from these people.

Shades streaming in the Unreal City.

In the end, it will burn.

The whole damn thing will burn.

Skyscrapers create a wind tunnel.

A spirit blows away in the wind.

Unreal city shuffling shades

Trudge onward in a spiraling circle

Trudge trudge tereu

Chug chug tereu

 

The Rhein daughters sing

La illaha illa allah

Sirens, Sibyls,

Oracle scream

Trismegistus

Dead three times

Sacred Head now wounded

Poor sad Orpheus

Poor silly little divine man.

 

Tiresias, aged seer,

Half man, half woman

Dugs drooping though they never gave milk

Old man with dry dugs

Love locked in dry breasts


It is unfair

Unfair

That a suffering man should bear children

Jug jug empty dugs chug chug tereu

Wounded warrior

Wounded bleeding man

Did you kill someone wounded man

Oh yes you did

Gaping wound still bleeding.

 

Patroclus is dead

Enkidu is dead

The dead cling to our pant legs,

Begging to return

Hope festers

Helplessly hoping.

 

Eternal recurrence

You live this sad life

over and over again,

Do you want to be born again,

Orpheus Trismegistus?

Do you really want to come back?

 

Here in Hades, where the dark sun rises,

Odysseus speaks with old Tiresias

Who tells him he has no choice.

Another journey,

Accompanied by this silent icy companion.

Go, wanderer, into the next dark journey.

Go now.

 

There is a sad man still singing

In the boat rocking in red twilight

Fishermen go broke

And sing sad dry songs

Weilala weilala laia

Walalla la weileala


VI. What the Thunder Said


Da

Damyata

Datta

Dayadhvam

Give

Control yourself

Be compassionate

That is all.

 

Have you even understood the question yet?

Da da da

Give

Give

Give

Ask “Where are you hurting?

What can I do?”

 

I only ask for peace,

Replies the wounded queen.

Dayadhvam

Damyata

Mercy

Love

Compassionate love.

 

You watched your father

Disappear into death’s dungeon.

He still peers at you out of stony darkness;

Glassy nacreous eyes,

Vigilantly watching from the dark stillness.

Desire still burning from beyond the grave

Desire burning in his sad dark face.

Just this once

Give him what he wants.

 

Shantih

Shantih

Shantih

Peace I give

Dayadhvam

Datta Damyata

Datta Dayadhvam


Part Two: Explanatory Comments

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  • T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland was published in 1922, not long after the end of WWI and is one of the most famous but hard to understand poems in the English language.

  • The name is a reference to the Legend of the Holy Grail, the wounded Fisher King and the Wasteland resulting from his wounds  - after a long-fought struggle, there is finally redemption of the kingdom

  • Also a reference to Milton’s Paradise Regained, in which a lonely and long-suffering Christ, after much strife, conflict, and isolation finally overcomes evil

  • I wrote my work as a way to absorb, integrate, and be one with the very important poem, Eliot’s Wasteland, to bring it forward into our own age and into my own life

  • Is there a way to make this important poem accessible in our day?

  • Myths matter.  Symbols matter.  Powerful images matter.

  • Question:  Is there a way to fully recognize suffering but also rise above it?

  • Poetic Immersion – responding to the stimulus of the symbols - How can one use a poem as a stimulus for one’s own creativity? – touch it feel it understand it let it live in you



  • In the dark and stormy winter of 2022 and 2023, after 3 years of the strife and conflict in the world, Covid isolation, environmental disasters, wildfires, rainstorms, floods, disease, aging, political discord, war -- I just felt like I wanted to just let myself drop into the depths and explore the darkness I was feeling.  I thought re-reading Eliot’s poem, the Wasteland would be a worthy endeavor, given my mood, and I would try to integrate the lessons therein into a work of my own.

  • The term “Wasteland” seemed an appropriate reference for the mood I was in and what I wanted to accomplish in reaction to all the troubles and strife in the world and in my life.

  • The Wasteland is a poem about despair.  But there is a whisper of hope in the end.  But this hope is not treacly, not formulaic or overdone.  Like Eliot, my poem offers no anodyne or panacea, no easy answer, no healing balm.  It is an immersion, a letting go, a surrender to the darkness.  So in a sense, this is a way of holding the darkness closely, recognizing and accepting it. 

  • P.S.  I am not a depressed person.  Just so you know.  I’m just not afraid of the dark.


  • Eliot’s masterful and important poem is hard to understand.  Dense in complex references.  The challenge is how to share this with others.

  • This is not a reinterpretation or explanation of Eliot’s Wasteland (although I do think it would help others to understand it better).  It is a structured reaction.

  • My poem, too, like Eliot’s, is perhaps a bit hard to understand.  So I want to say a few words before I start to help people better understand it.  Offer an entry, a way in, into the world of symbols, archetypes and images that I used.

  • Researched every allusion or reference so that I could read it through and fully understand its meaning

  • Chose only some images and references to include in my poem. Some images struck me harder than others.  I soaked in each image, rolled around in it, let it loose in my consciousness, recorded my reactions and impressions in my poetry notebook

  • After deep dive into every image and line of the poem, I turned it into a poem and then edited and structured the piece.


  • One of the most important poets of the 20th century

  • Want to avoid psychologizing his poem.  Tom specifically didn’t want his biography to be done.  He had an intentionally impersonal style.  It is a work of art, which should stand in its own right, apart from psychoanalysis.  However, here’s a few important things about his life.

  • The arc of his life bends from despair towards healing and reconciliation.  This was published in 1922, shortly after the end of WWI, a major and violent human cataclysm, so the Wasteland is from a time of his life when he was experiencing deep despair.  He was also often ill and had a tortured and unhappy relationship with a woman he married impetuously. 

  • From a wealthy St. Louis family, Harvard and Oxford educated, Francophile, studied philosophy, banker in international trade, poetry magazine editor, essayist and literary critic, won the Nobel prize in literature in 1948

  • He was fastidious, formal, guarded and mannerly but did have a playful and boyish side.

  • Propensity for classical mythology – becoming increasingly popular and studied at that time

  • Cubism – Henri Bergson – studies of comparative religion - Durkheim

  • He paved the way for Modernism – freed up the rhythm and conventions of poetic language – symbolist poetry – Baudelaire/Laforgue



  • Many voices – cacophony of voices – was going to call it “He Do the Police in Different Voices” (?!!)

  • The Original poem has Five Books plus Epigraph

    • Epigraph

    • The Burial of the Dead

    • A Game of Chess

    • The Fire Sermon

    • Death by Water

    • What the Thunder Said

  • My poem has six separate parts as well, roughly corresponding to the sections of Eliot’s poem


  • The Sibyl is a mythical prophetess known throughout the ancient world

    • She had been condemned to live a long life while her body withered away – powerful image of youth and age colliding– young spirits in old bodies – eternal spirits in mortal bodies

    • Sibyl, what do you wish?  Ti theleis sibyllam? I wish to die, apothanein thelo.

  • In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Sibyl lived a thousand years.

    • Apollo granted her a wish if she would sleep with him; she took handful of sand - asked to live as many years as grains of sand she held

    • Later, after she refused the god’s advances, he let her body wither away – because she failed to ask for eternal youth along with a long life

    • Body grew smaller with age - eventually kept in a jar until only her voice was left. 

  • Sibyl Psychopomp – nekyia

    • Guide to the underworld, liminal, decrepit figure reduced from glory to impotence

    • The most famous story is in Virgil’s Aeneid wherein the Cumaean Sibyl accompanies Aeneas into the underworld to consult with his dead father


  • Nobodaddy 

    • In which I take a cynical stand about God in the face of all this negativity

    • Reference to an unhelpful god – theodicy – how could a good God allow evil to exist

    • Reference to William Blake’s figure “Nobodaddy” – mythical god figure in Blake’s poetic mythology who relishes war and slaughter, a god that hides himself in darkness and obscurity

  • La illaha illa allah

    • Famous phrase from Islamic faith

    • No, there is nothing but god – a play on words

    • is god nothing or is god everything?


  • Eliot’s poem starts with the famous line “April is the cruellest month”

    • Gosh, don’t April showers bring May flowers?

    • Irony in referring to springtime with agitation and regret

    • Prefers the hibernation and stillness of winter - avoid the trials that accompany the burgeoning life

  • What I admire is the grim intractable cynicism and negativity of Eliot’s work and the references he chooses. References to Ecclesiastes, Job, Isaiah

    • Gives us access to the images found in important books of the Hebrew Bible

    • Beautiful passages describing desperate scenarios

    • Introduces despairing images, images of dryness and dessication

    • For example, “Where the only place you can find shelter is in the shadow of a rock.”

  • Ecclesiastes 12:5 - “when men are old and declining into darkness, fears shall be in the way, and desire shall fail, because man goes to his long home and the mourners go about in the streets”

  • Isaiah 32:2 – “And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”


  • Eliot’s poem is rich with symbols and archetypes

    • Eliot was concerned about the loss of meaning in modern life – the loss of contact with powerful and effective symbols

    • Eliot says: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only a heap of broken images….”

  • One story that sucked me in was The story of Ezekiel, referenced in Burial of the Dead

  • I got lost in it and gave it its own section –This describes a dreamlike and visionary experience – the power of imagination and archetypes – symbols that arrive but are unclear in their meaning – oneiric knowledge – dreaming is one of the important functions of the brain

  • Ezekiel the prophet was also brought to deliver god’s condemnation and judgment


  • Vision of a visit from God –  A stormy wind came out of the north and a great cloud with brightness around it, fire flashing forth.  And in the midst of it came four weird living creatures, each with wings and four faces

  • And beside these creatures, Ezekiel saw wheels around each one – a wheel within a wheel.  And when they went they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went.  And their rims were tall and awesome and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. 

  • And above their heads appeared the likeness of a throne bathed in fire. There was the appearance of brightness all around

  • What does this god say to Ezekiel? Son of man, stand on your feet and I will speak to you.

  • I send you to nations of rebels who have rebelled against me.  They are impudent and stubborn.  You must go to them and tell them and warn them of their misdeeds.


  • Dig a Hole by Woody Guthrie

    • Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow, Dig a hole in the cold cold ground; Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow, We’re gonna lay you fascists down.

  • A man clothed in linen appears and rises up into the creatures and wheels – god commands him to take fire from between the whirling wheels

  • The lyrics are inspired by Ezekiel 37:1–14, in which the prophet Ezekiel visits the Valley of Dry Bones – Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones

  • Streets of Laredo - I spied a young cowboy dressed in white linen, Dressed in white linen and cold as the clay. – There was something strange about that cowboy.


  • In response to this complicated chapter of Eliot’s work, I chose to focus on the aspect of empty love and loneliness that is presented

  • Living a shallow life is like living in a wasteland

  • Being bitter and disappointed in relationships is another sort of wasteland

  • Reference to a line repeated in this section “Hurry up please it’s time.”


  • About the importance of discipline and sacrifice to Eliot

  • In Eliot’s poems, important images are those of Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Tiresias, St. Augustine and the Rhein daughters

  • These stories warn against physical urges that prevent one from achieving freedom and a higher life.  These stories advocate discipline.  Not a romantic word, but a very powerful word.

  • Burning burning burning burning is an allusion to the Buddhist “ Fire Sermon,”

    • Buddha preaches about abandoning the fire of lust and other passions that destroy people

    • Buddha coaxes resisting the things of the body and cultivating detachment from the world

    • All things are on fire – the fire of passion, the fire of hatred, the fire of infatuation, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery grief and despair


  • Reference to Augustine’s Confessions Book X  in which he renounces his past

    • To Carthage I came

    • “To Carthage I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares. For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God.”

  • “O lord thou pluckest me out.”

    •  Though I am tempted by the material things, I am chosen by god to a higher calling

    • “And I, though I speak and see this, entangle my steps with these outward beauties; but Thou pluckest me out, O Lord, Thou pluckest me out; because Thy loving-kindness is before my eyes. For I am taken miserably, and Thou pluckest me out mercifully.”


  • The Rhein daughters and the image of Valhalla burning

    • Wagner’s Götterdämerung – nymphs guard a lump of gold in the river – when someone tries to steal it, they warn that only someone who has overcome the lusts of the flesh can hope to possess the gold – the gold is stolen but the Rhein daughters sing with joy of the day it will be returned.  Eventually, Siegfried refuses to return the gold and he is murdered.  The funeral pyre set by his wife causes a conflagration that destroys all of Valhalla.  The Rhein overflows its banks and the Rhein daughters take back their gold.

    • Weilala weilala laia is the song of the Rhein daughters

  • Dead clinging to our pant legs is a reference to Dante’s inferno

  • Patroclus – killed in the Trojan War causing the hero Achilles infinite heartbreak

  • Enkidu – the wild companion of Gilgamesh who caused great but life-transforming sadness to Gilgamesh when he died


  • From Thebes – mythological figure assoc. w/ underworld - paradigm blind prophet / psychopomp

  • Lived an extraordinarily long life – often depicted with staff

  • Understanding all sides of human condition / androgyny, experience being man and woman

    • Before blinded, transformed into a woman for many years then was converted back

    • Tiresias came across two snakes intertwined and copulating, and struck the female snake in anger. On so doing, Tiresias was turned into a woman by the goddess Hera as punishment.

    • Tiresias spent seven years as a woman and a priestess to Hera, during which time she married, had children, and worked as a prostitute.

    • At the end of these seven years, Tiresias once again came across the snakes copulating. This time, she struck the male snake and Hera turned her back into a man.

  • Blinded by Athena because he saw her bathing

    • Tiresias’ mother, one of Athena’s attendants, begged the goddess to restore the boy’s sight. Athena said she could not do so; however, she did give Tiresias the valuable gift of prophecy and a large staff as compensation for his lost eyesight.

  • Accompanies Odysseus into the underworld in Virgil’s Aeneid and also serves as his adviser in The Odyssey


  • What do we do in the face of all this despair and emptiness?

  • There are no easy answers but there is a whisper of hope

  • Give them peace

  • Give them peace, those who suffer

  • Make a gift of peace.  Be generous and compassionate.  Exercise self control.

  • The Sanskrit words are taken from chapter five of the Brihadaranyak Upanishad.

  • Da - Gift

  • Damyata – to be compassionate

  • Datta – to give in charity

  • Dayadhvam – self-control

  • Eliot was a scholar of Sanskrit and this was a time when there was increased interest in “orientalism”, studying Eastern religions. And expanding the discipline of religious studies – James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Hilda Doolittle, etc.


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