Tag Archives: Golden Bough

“The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

Wasteland

April is the cruellest month, which is why I have so often found myself reading “The Waste Land” in April. I’ve lost track of how many times I have read Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, but I never tire of it. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest poems ever written.

One could certainly write a dissertation about this poem, but if I did, I doubt many people would spend the time reading it. So for this post, I will focus on the theme of death and rebirth.

In the notes to the poem, it is stated that Eliot was influenced heavily by Frazer’s The Golden Bough. While I have not read it in its entirety, I read enough to understand the concepts of rebirth that are explored in that work.

Eliot prefaces the poem with a quote from Petronius’ Satyricon, which Wikipedia translates as follows:

I saw with my own eyes the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.

So immediately, one gets the impression that the cycle of rebirth is not a blessing, but a curse. Eternal life is equated with eternal suffering. This sets the tone for the poem’s famous opening lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Spring begins the cycle of life and death again. Flowers push up through the soil and bloom, only to wither and die again. There is also the impression that death, symbolized by winter, is desirable. It is associated with warmth, rest, and the bliss that comes with forgetfulness.

Next I’d like to look at line 30: I will show you fear in a handful of dust. This is the destiny that we all face. We will all turn to dust and once again become one with the dead land. But that will not be the end. We will return and face the same sad fate over and over again.

Near the end of the poem, the theme comes up again:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying

These lines are really interesting. The “He” is someone separate from the “We.” My guess is that He represents any one of the figures associated with the rebirth mythology: Christ, Osiris, Adonis, etc. So the god is dead, and we now follow in our own deaths. But like the god, we will be resurrected and and face another cycle in a world that is becoming more and more fragmented and chaotic. So we are like the Sybil, unable to find the true solace of death.

This poem is very deep and intense, and it is challenging to read, but that should not discourage anyone from reading it. No poem better captures the fragmented nature of modern society. Even if you have read it before (and if you are reading my blog, changes are you have), I encourage you to read it again. For those who need, click here to read it online.

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“Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-tree” by William Wordsworth

WordsworthThis poem was originally published in the Lyrical Ballads, which is a collaborative collection of works by Wordsworth and Coleridge. When I was younger, I read the Lyrical Ballads several times. Then, on a trip to England, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Lake District and visit Wordsworth’s cottage. Doing so gave me a deeper appreciation of these works.

For me, I see a lot of mystical symbolism in this poem. First off, the yew tree is a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, which is why it is often found in cemeteries in England. Keep this in mind when reading the poem.

The poem opens with the writer beckoning a Traveller to rest at a yew tree. He describes the effect of the surrounding environment on a person:

Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.

I get the impression that sitting at the tree and listening to the sounds causes one to enter a state of altered consciousness.

The poem continues with reflections upon some ancient mystical Being who seems to have some connection to the yew tree:

Who he was
That piled these stones and with the mossy sod
First covered, and here taught this aged Tree
With its dark arms to form a circling bower,
I well remember.–He was one who owned
No common soul.

I feel that the person being described here is some form of fertility king, such as described in Frasier’s The Golden Bough. But as the poem continues, it appears that the fertility king had become unfruitful. Hence, a new king is needed in order to continue the cycle of rebirth and regeneration.

Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour
A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here
An emblem of his own unfruitful life:

The first part of the poem ends with the death of the fertility king, who left behind the yew as a symbol of his impending resurrection. Now a new king can emerge and take his place upon the bough.

On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears. In this deep vale
He died,–this seat his only monument.

In the second and final section of the poem, the Traveller is encouraged to take his rightful place as the new fertility king. He is warned to avoid feelings of pride and contempt and to focus on the mystery of “Nature’s works.” He is also instructed that:

… true knowledge leads to love;
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself
In lowliness of heart.

This poem is more complex than it appears. I encourage you to read this slowly and more than once in order to get the full effect.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, visit your local bookstore and buy a copy of the Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the investment.

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