Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot believed poetry should be a lot like archaeology, the process itself like a carefully excavated dig. His relics are no more than scraps of ancient texts, warped and distorted by time, like the archaeologists finds.
And just like an archaeologist, Eliot can only understand his ancient treasures from his own context, utilizing his own experiences. In many of his poems, Eliot writes of emptiness and the futile, chaotic nature of humanity. To use spiritual texts, then, is a powerful means to attract attention through contrast. Spiritual texts represent a way a people fill the void caused by the anxieties of uncertainty. That is to say they provide comfort through a structure of irrefutable beliefs.
The Wasteland is Eliots depiction of a shattered society, a Europe searching desperately for a spiritual direction that will restore order after The Horror of war. Each spiritual text is employed in a specific manner to weight the observations Eliot creates. Son of man, stand upon thy feet and I will speak to thee. The story of Ezekiel involves a series of commands prescribed to him by God. These orders were Gods plans to punish the impudent and hard- hearted Israelites. Each direct order is preceded by the words son of man. Ezekiels God was one who carefully and meticulously planned and orchestrated the mass destruction of his own people.
However, he did not do this directly, but rather by sending Ezekiel as his prophet. This is a god whose intentions can be comprehended by a man. This is an old testament God, one who has not yet accepted man into the Kingdom of Heaven, and Eliot uses him as such. The political and nationalistic tone of this book must have been recognized by Eliot, reminding him of the strife and anxiety of pre- war Europe. The Israelites, fearful of the military force of the Babylonians are warned by Ezekiel to prepare. A newly- completed railroad system allowed Germany to fight a two- front war- what a prophecy!
And as the Babylonians were carving out an Empire, so were the nations of Europe. In The Wasteland, God addresses Son of man, and it is indeed the vengeful God speaking. It is indeed a God who gives no relief, one who will lead to water, yet reveal only fear in a handful of dust. This God cast Adam and Eve out of the garden, led slaves from one Hell to another, and is content to let Eliot live in a heap of broken images. Yagnavalkya, everything is the food of death. Is there any power for which death is food? Indeed, yes. Fire devours everything, and fire, again, is the food of water.
The Upanishads is teeming with reciprocal dichotomies, which reveal to the Brahmins the failure of all human language to describe Brahman. So rather than assigning him characteristics out of vanity, the Brahmins describe him as a universal soul, existing within and without, without and within simultaneously. Being one with Brahman requires freedom from evil, desire and doubt. Eliot closes The Wasteland with what the thunder said. The Upanishads end with a storm cloud that thunders, DA! DA! DA! Datta: be charitable, (give alms). Eliot asks what have we given- the awful daring of a moments surrender.
The giving of life up unto death, which no way of life can prevent, can not be described or understood after the fact. The freeing of the soul, like Brahman, is indescribable- to give up the craving for a life of enjoyment here for a life of greater enjoyment hereafter, that is the sacrifice, the freedom from vanity, the charity, Datta. Dayadhvam- Be compassionate. Eliot excavates the character of Coriolanus here, the defiant protagonist in Shakespeares play. Out of vengeance and malice for his former Romans, he leads enemy forces against them.
He can be likened to a Judas type of character, a traitor who at the last minute realizes his mistakes, only to find he is too late. Only compassion revives Coriolanus, allowing his infatuation for vengeance to be replaced by the desire for peace. Compassion was too late to extinguish the nationalistic fires of Europe, only through the mass destruction of life could man recognize the need for Dayadhvam, the key confirming our earthly existence as a prison. Damyata- Be self- controlled. Here Eliot introduces us to an expert sailor, a man wielding careful power with sail and oar.
Here it is interesting to note that in alternate translations of the Upanishads, Brahman is referred to as Wind, the string holding the world together, the inner controller. Yagnavalkyia says, He who, dwelling in waters, yet other than the waters whom the waters do not know, whose body the waters are, who controls the waters from within- He is your soul, the inner controller, the immortal. Thus in order to honor Brahman, one should use ones expert hands carefully, like when navigating a boat, not recklessly to extract obedience. Notice that Eliot writes, your heart would have responded to [his] controlling hands.
This suggests that the sailors power could have been used in many ways, but employs Damyata to honor the inner controller, Brahman. Everything, O Bhikkus, is burning. And how, O Bhikkus, is everything burning? Asceticism is a recurring theme in The Wasteland. To Carthage then I came is from St. Augestines confessions. He describes Carthage as a place where unholy loves sang around mine ears. This sounds like a place burning with (the anxieties of) birth, decay, death grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection, and despair, a place like Europe in 1921, a place described by Eliot.
Only through denial of the sensational world can an ascetic achieve release, as Augustine achieves through his confession. Only through acceptance of the passions of life can one become disenchanted with them, and only through disenchantment can one be released from these earthly fires. Throughout his Fire Sermon, Eliot describes examples of the vanity of the human condition as viewed through ascetic eyes, the eyes of those like Tiresias, who have suffered and become disenchanted with the flames of passion.
He also uses words like white, gold, sweat, oil, tar, red ironically to describe a trip down the Thames, (all is on fire). The Fire Sermon is used by Eliot then, to describe the vanity of mankind through the eyes of those who have become disenchanted with the earthly and ready to sacrifice all the physical pleasures for the chance to be set free. Becoming weary of all that, he divests himself of passion; by absence of passion, he is made free. The presence of ascetic observers in The Wasteland is significant because like the poet, they are conveyors of the observations described within.