2020 has pretty much been a wasteland — uncharted territory marked everywhere with signs of death and the potential for despair. When T.S. Eliot wrote “The Wasteland” (edited by his friend Ezra Pound) 100 years ago in the early 1920s, Europe was such a place — lying in waste, devastated by the horrors and destruction of World War I. And the image was also personal for the poet. Eliot himself was recovering from a nervous breakdown, while also dealing with his wife’s poor physical and mental health.
I have always found the second stanza of Part I of The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead,” to be a profoundly accurate statement of “disorientation,” the wilderness experience of aloneness, dryness of spirit, lostness, “fightings without and fears within.” With allusions to Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes, Greek myths, and quotes from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” Eliot mixes images and language to paint a picture designed to “show [us] fear in a handful of dust.”
Last week’s poem by Mary Oliver was hopeful, a reminder that every new day, with its ponds and blooming lilies, is a reminder that God answers our prayers without us even praying.
Today, we consider the desert expanse where the divine seems absent, life is barren, and not even love nor the gods can move us from feeling suspended helplessly between living and dying.
• • •
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, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning, striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
— Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.
• T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland