The final stanza of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land encapsulates much of what has gone before. It comprises four languages, multiple allusions, abrupt transitions and changes in register and tone:
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
What is this, then? A monument to erudition and scholarship, that only the elite could (or should) decode? Or a cry of despair and doubt that contemporary culture will ever cohere again? In truth, it is both: Eliot claims to diagnose the crisis of an entire civilization, and also (hesitantly perhaps) to offer some kind of solution, drawn from the long history of that culture itself. The fear, however, is that the cure is simply a repetition of the initial disease. For what difference is there really between the “ruins” that litter the “waste land” and the “fragments” that Eliot wishes to “shore against” them? What keeps a fragment from becoming a ruin? Indeed, is Eliot not complicit in the ruination he laments? As Maud Ellmann eloquently puts it: “Because the poem can only abject writing with more writing, it catches the infection that it tries to purge, and implodes like an obsessive ceremonial under the pressure of its own contradictions” (273).
So for all that the poem apparently concludes with the calm of quiet benediction–Eliot gives “The Peace which passeth understanding” as a translation for the Sanskrit incantation that makes up its final line (26)–something of the stench of decay and corruption, dismay and disillusion, lives on. Indeed, the fear is that the text has only accelerated the process that it sets out to delay if not reverse. The three “shantihs” cannot prevent London Bridge’s thrice-announced “falling down” of a few lines earlier. Or is it that something more sinister is at work? Does Eliot not so secretly welcome the ruination of London Bridge, on which he has earlier noted crowds of somnolent and short-sighted commuters, who for all intents and purposes have already given up on life: “I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (7). Isn’t it worth an apocalypse, laying waste to this banal and meaningless excuse for an existence so as perhaps to start all over again? For Eliot surely speaks also through the voice of the pub landlord whose invocation “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” becomes less of a warning and more of a threat with every iteration (10).
It may merely be a matter of what we want from the text–any text, no doubt, but perhaps this text more obviously than most. Ultimately, it’s up to us how (or even if) we read The Waste Land today. Lawrence Rainey has a quite marvelous essay about the poem’s publication history that ends up with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the most faithful approach to the poem doesn’t get caught up in the intricacies of the text itself. Noting that “generations of students have been exhorted to look closely at the poem,” he articulates by contrast what he calls “the modernist principle of reading,” that “the best reading of a work is often that which does not read it at all” (111). Close reading, he tells us, is merely one approach among many–and if anything a sign of the way in which modernism has been hi-jacked by the academy, turned into a sport for professors.
But Eliot’s poem anticipates this question of the reader’s desire. The line “Why then Ile fit you” comes from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, where it is a response to the request for some amusing entertainment for the king: “I’ll give you something that will suit your wishes,” is how our editor glosses its meaning (64). Poetry is endlessly malleable, a mere transient representation, it is implied, as though to get the poet off the hook for any offence (or ruination) he or she may cause. We get what we want out of literature: if we want to see it as a puzzle to be deciphered, then so be it; but if (à la Ellmann) we now prefer to think of it as a “sphinx without a secret,” then that is fine, too. We can take the fragments that language offers us and turn them to our advantage; we can play among the ruins. Isn’t this the shift from Eliot’s time to our own? The fragmentation that modernism saw in anguished terms has simply become our everyday reality, our happily postmodern condition. The twist, however, is that in The Spanish Tragedie a staged drama (a play within the play) becomes deadly as it turns out to be all too real: amid the “meere confusion” of its polyglot “unknowne languages” (63) it serves as cover for a revenge plot whereby the maddened Hieronymo kills the men who have murdered his son, and then kills himself, too. Is there something similarly suicidally murderous in The Waste Land? And if so, should we take the affects that literature provokes a little more seriously, and perhaps its talk of ruins more literally (if less literarily)?