Use of Myth in T.S. Eliot’s Poem ‘The Waste Land’

In his essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca”, Eliot observes: “The great poet in writing himself writes his time”. The dictum is a fair statement of his own position in relation to the poetry of his age. But it will be biased to think that the whole career of Eliot was a tacit endorsement of the general political trend of his age. In fact, he advances with the popular poetic tide only till the end of the secular phase of his career. His poetry reflects the fragmentation of a war ridden claustrophobic world. II.The Waste Land is a poem full of myth, allusion and imagery. Because of the length of the poem, five sections in total, it would be impossible to answer fully in a short section. Having said that, it would be useful if you read Eliot’s own extensive notes on the poem and it would also be helpful

T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is the most sustained and complex use of the mythical method. Taking as its underlying pattern the great myth as interpreted by Jessie Weston, Sir James Frazer, and others, and weaving the theme of barrenness, decay and death, and the quest for life and ressurection which he found in these anthropological sources with the Christian story and with Buddhist and other oriental analogies, and incorporating into the poem both examples and symbols of the failure of modern civilization ,moral squalor and social vaccum – which are in turn mythically and symbolically related to the anthropological and religious themes, Eliot endeavoured to project a complete view of civilization , of human history and human failure and of perennial quest for salvation . That the modern poet concerned with the complexities of his civilization can no longer count on any common body of knowledge in the light of which he can confidently use myth and symbol, is forced by the condition of his time to create or re-create his own myths and to draw on his own perhaps highly unusual reading for reference and allusion is a commonplace. It is the comprehensive aim of “The Waste Land” to make necessary dependence on a synthetic myth.

That way myth brings before us the fundamental reality of man’s life. Emphasizing this point Mark Schorer says: Myth is fundamental, the dramatic representation of our deepest instinctual life, of a primary awareness of man in the universe, capable of many configurations, upon which all particular opinions and attitudes depend. (29). Alan W. Watts explains myth as “demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life”:

This poem is a fine illustration of the basic technique of the mythical method which makes us surpass both time and space by making us swing in time and space so that we can cover the immense vastness of human consciousness and realize the grim intensity of the human feeling of pain and hope and also feel, in ourselves, the universal and timeless tragic situation of man and his life. Through this method Eliot makes us think not only of the pastness of the past but also of its presence. It means that this spiritual barrenness or death is at once temporal and timeless and the scene is London or any capital in Europe or any place, anywhere, in any period of history. The keynote of the mythical technique is parallelism and contrast, the likeness and unlikeness of the past and the present. Thus, the modern sterility, like spiritual sterility in all ages, is the result of the denial of God: He who was living is now dead and we who were living are now dying with a little patience

The fact that mythic structures are repeated cross-culturally evidences them as the outcome of primitive, common thought. These structures include concepts of life and death cycles; degeneration, death, and decay; purgation, purification, and rebirth; and creation and destruction. A common thread throughout the various mythic structures is that of violence. Violence is necessary for the completion of mythic processes. A simple example of this idea is the axiom that destruction (an intrinsically violent act) is a pre-requisite for creation.

The underlying myths that Eliot uses to provide a framework for “The Waste Land” are those of the Fisher King and the Grail Quest. Both of these myths come to Christian civilization through the ancient Gaelic tradition. Neither is found in the Bible, but both were important enough to Europeans that there was a need to incorporate them into the new European mythology, and so the stories became centered on the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Other examples of these myths can be found in Eschenbach’s Parsifal, in de Troyes’ Quest of the Grail, and in the various stories of the grail quest surrounding King Arthur and his knights. It is described in works of anthropology, as well, two of which Eliot recommends to readers: Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazier’s Golden Bough.

Here, the sex act essential to the mythic structure of rebirth as expressed by Frazer, although apparent in “The Waste Land,” is void of the violence of both the act itself and the resulting childbirth. For example, the woman in the pub speaks of her abortions (l. 159-161). Although the act of abortion is a violent one, it is the violence of child birth which serves as the trope in mythic tradition. Therefore, her subsequent implied infertility, underscored by the departure from myth, indicates the infertility of modern life in general. Furthermore, Eliot exploits the figure of Philomel as the very symbol of the violation of a female body which results in a new world order. However, in the poem, Philomel “filled all the desert with inviolable voice” (l. 101). This line shows the futility of her singing; the empty desert cannot hear her chaste song. The chastity implied here is a further deviation from the mythic tradition in which she was raped. The scene in the poem which does come closest to a violent sex act, leaves the woman indifferent (l. 231-256). This action is told through the eyes of Tieresias, a classical figure whose evocation here underscores the role that myth is playing in the poem and, therefore, the lack of violence and subsequent regeneration. In this example, the woman merely returns to her automatic life as no new world order is established.

 The lack of violence in “The Waste Land” is one such significant departure from mythic structures. This poem details the fragmented futility of modern life. The land is in need of regeneration, rebirth, and purification. Yet, the search for these is as futile as the life itself. The Hanged Man, the Jesus figure, represents the dying god of myth; however, he cannot be found (l.54). In the speaker’s future there is the man with three staves, with whom Eliot associates the Fisher King, but in a waterless land, purification is impossible: “Here is no water but only rock” (l. 331). The Buddhist “burning burning burning” of “The Fire Sermon” is the closest the poem comes to completion of a mythic cycle, but it occurs in conjunction with an image of western asceticism

Perhaps the most important way that Eliot uses these underlying myths in “The Waste Land” to comment on the modern world is to describe modern cultural emptiness within the context of ancient myths of a heroic quest that gives meaning and relevance to life. By doing so, Eliot points out the simple fact of this cultural emptiness and its accompanying spiritual dryness and gives hints throughout the poem of where an individual can search for remedies to it. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” writes Eliot in line 431. The entire poem can be seen as a collection of “fragments” which provide hints in various ways, especially through the many and diverse literary references that Eliot uses to suggest works that the reader can examine to see how others have attempted their own heroic quests for meaningful existence. Eliot uses the fragmentary descriptions of cultural emptiness and many juxtapositions with descriptions of past cultural richness to point to what he calls the “disassociation of sensibilities” — the unhinging of the connection of heart and mind in, for instance,modern  science.

In a review of James Joyce’s Ulysses in ‘The Dial ‘1923 , Eliot wrote -” I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found . …In using myth , in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity , Mr . Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him … it is simply a way of controlling , of ordering , of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history … instead of narrative method , we may now use the mythical method ”. The mythical method of Eliot, however, is different that of Joyce in Ulysses. Joyce follows the technic of elaboration and expansion, but Eliot has adapted the technic of compression and telescoping, with a poetic shorthand. He has frankly acknowledged his debt to Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance” and Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, specially the portion dealing with the fertility rituals.Frazer’s work was significant for Eliot because it demonstrates the continuity between the primitive and the civilized and revealed the substratum of savagery and violence beneath the surface of civilization.

Printemps, in which the ballet was based upon vegetation rites, he missed ‘the sense of present’ in everything except in the music. In his music there was a continuity between the the primitive past and the civilized present which was later on reflection in “The Waste Land”too(That corpse you planted last year in your garden) and the barbaric cries of modern life are heard in the ‘sound of horns and motors which shall bring /Sweeny to Mrs. Porterin the spring. Eliot has used both Pagan and Christian myths. From Egypt, he borrowed of the fertility ritual myth.

Thus Eliot has intertwined many mythical strands in order to form a complex traditional background to explain the nature and measure the depth of the spiritual waste land which is ‘contemporary history’..


  1. Brand Blanshand —” Eliot in Memory ” ( Yale Review . June 1965 )
  2. B.Rajan—” T.S.Eliot:A Study of his Writings, by several hands” (London:Dennis Dobson.1947)
  3. David Trotter—“Modernism and Empire: Reading The Waste Land”(Critical Quarterly,Sprit Summer,1986
  4. Dr . S.Sen- ”T.S.Eliot : The Waste Land Other Poems (Unique Publishers ,2010 )
  5. James Olney – ”Essays From the Southern Review ” (Oxford , Clarendon , 1988 )
  6. Lyndall Gordon – ”T .S.Eliot : An Imperfect Life ” (Newyork :W.W.Norton and Company ,2000)
  7. Manju Jain – ” T.S.Eliot : Selected Poems ” (Oxford University Press , 1992 ) [8] T.S.Eliot -” The Frontiers of Criticism ” in ” On Poetry and Poets ”(Newyork : Noonday Press , 1961 )
  8. T.S. Eliot – ” The Frontiers of Criticism ” in ” On Poetry and Poets ” (London : Faber and Faber Ltd , 1986 )
  9. T.S.Eliot – ”The Waste Land : A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts including the Annotations of Ezra Pound ” edited with an introduction by Valerie Eliot . (Harcourt and Company ,1971)
  10. Vikramaditya Rai – ”A Study of the Poetry of T.S.Eliot ” (Doaba House ,1991)

Prof. Urmish Mehta, Gujarat Arts and Science College, Ahmedabad

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