Eliot’s use of myth and legend in The Waste Land

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The Waste Land is a notable literary work by T. S. Eliot. A complete discussion of this literary work is given, which will help you enhance your literary skills and prepare for the exam. Read the main text, key info, Summary, Themes, Characters, Literary Devices, Quotations, Notes, to various questions of The Waste Land.


How does Eliot make a link between the past and the present in The Waste Land? 


Comment on T. S. Eliot’s use of myth in The Waste Land.


How does T. S. Eliot make a link between the past and present in The Waste Land?


How has the poet fused the past and the present in The Waste Land?


Comment on the use of myths in The Waste Land.


Discuss parallelism in The Waste Land.

T.S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) poem ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) is notable in modernist literature, conveying rich mythical references. Eliot accurately connects the past and present through these myths and legends from various cultures and allows them to connect with modern themes. We will examine various textual examples in this article to examine how Eliot created this union.

The Protagonist Tiresias: Tiresias exists in both the past and the present. He links King Oedipus’ desolation and modern civilization’s wasteland. He lived in Thebes during the reign of King Oedipus. He once witnessed two serpents mating. They cursed him and converted him into a lady. He saw another pair of snakes in copulation after seven years. He was imprecated and converted into a man as a result. As a result, he had a life of both a man and a woman. Later, Zeus and his wife Hera questioned whether a male is more passionate than a woman. He asserted that women are more passionate than men. Hera, the goddess of the underworld, plagued him with blindness.

Oedipus, King of Thebes, accidentally murdered his father and married his mother. God punished him and his land with a deadly disease and famine for his sex crime. Tiresias asked him to perform penance to purify his soul and remove the curse from the land. He is physically blind, yet he has a prophetic vision. He is a skilled observer of the modern wasteland. An excerpt about Tiresias is:

“And I Tiresias have foresuffered all Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.”

Vegetation and Fertility Myth: Nature’s seasonal pattern brings about the myth of ancient vegetation. Winter represents death, but spring represents rebirth. The life-giving spring rain refreshes the trees and plants. The image of the vegetation god, known by several names such as Osiris, Adonis, and Attis, was filled with grains of corn and buried under the earth in ancient Egypt. This suggested that the vegetation god was no longer alive. After a while, grains emerged from the soil, marking the God’s rebirth. 

This myth is mentioned in the first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead.’ The pattern of death and birth is repeated in the Christian story – the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Sin causes spiritual death, and penance and suffering bring about spiritual regeneration. This reference can link the past with the present because if Christ regenerates the then wasteland, he can also restore the present wasteland.

The Fisher King and the Quest for the Holy Grail: Eliot relates the Holy Grail myth with the story of the Fisher King. He was a sensual and wicked King; therefore, he grew ill, and his country suffered from drought and hunger. According to another version, the King’s soldiers raped the nuns belonging to the Chapel of the Holy Grail. His kingdom suffered from starvation because of his sin. 

King Fisher hoped that a knight would journey to Chapel Perilous, where he would recover and his land would become fertile. Sir Parsifal, the pious knight, visited the chapel; thus, the curse on King Fisher and his land was removed. “The Waste Land” of the Fisher King represents the modern wasteland. The modern ill world can be restored through repentance and the quest for virtue. Eliot writes:

“To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest burning”

The repetition of “burning” and the fragmented lines produce suffering and decay in the contemporary world. Eliot draws parallels between the mythical figure and the disillusioned individuals in the modern urban landscape by indicating the wounded Fisher King, who suffers from a wasteland due to a spiritual ailment.

Biblical Waste Land: It contains an allusion to the biblical country of Emmaus. Because of the inhabitants’ idolatry, the land became barren. The prophet Ezekiel instructed them to worship God and abandon vanity for the Waste Land to become productive. The terms “rock,” “dead tree,” and “dry grass” are all references to the Biblical Waste Land in section 1 of The Waste Land. This biblical wasteland refers to the modern wasteland that has lost its productivity.

T.S. Eliot excellently combines myths and legends from numerous cultures in ‘The Waste Land,’ to create a union of the past and present. The poem demonstrates Eliot’s ability to blend myth with modernity, appealing to readers through the decades and establishing it as a notable work in modernist poetry.