Climate Symbolism in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land [1]

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-8


Exploring the shifting contexts of literature and a tendency of revaluation is one of the central impulses of 20th century modernism and its subsequent cultural development. As one of the most esteemed theorists in this respect, in his renowned essay, Tradition and Individual Talent (1919), T.S. Eliot writes that along with time and new cultural influences, attitudes and standard evaluation criteria for each existing and new work of art also change [Eliot, 1999:37]. Indeed, the perception of a literary work necessarily changes over time, and a relatively radical form of this principle is “transforming” the work in such a way that it responds to modernity and its relevant issues more clearly.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in the 1990s, the theory of literature welcomed a new interdisciplinary study in the form of ecocriticism. Through ecocriticism, scholars of literature and culture study the portrayal and reception of the global ecological crisis in literature and culture. This study originated from an idea called “literary ecology” [Meeker, 1972:16], and later on, it was coined as a term [Rueckert, 1996:105-123]. Ecocriticism developed as a widely used literary and cultural theory in the early 1990s, and as a result, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (1992) was formed, followed by the publication of more than one scientific journal in this direction, currently accounting for more than 20 different journals and issues. Although the term ecocriticism is often used to analyze various aspects of the humanities (e.g., media, cinematography, philosophy, history) from this lens, it still primarily serves as a literary and cultural theory.

As the year of 2022 marked the centenary of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, many international academic events have been dedicated to the poem and its publication. These conferences and lectures focused on the reading of the poem, which emphasizes the cultural perception of the complexities of anthropogenic climate problems. Even though the poem cannot advance a proposition about anthropogenic global warming or climate change, it is still possible to identify certain traces of civilization’s ecological entanglement in Eliot’s era. Precisely because it was written before the identification of anthropogenic climate problems, The Waste Land can offer a distinctive cultural perspective on the phenomena, being a witness to the processes that have led to this moment without originating in our present understanding of them. Most importantly, the modern readers are given the opportunity to analyze the symbolic poetics of the text in a novel way with the approach of ecocriticism and to highlight climate symbolism as one of the structural elements of the poem.

Eliot began the poem following 1921’s “summer of drought – no rain fell for six months” [Ackroyd 200], as Peter Ackroyd attests in his biography of Eliot. The poet may have taken a particular instance of drought, but he abstracts it into the “mythologizing mechanism” of the text. His personal experience thus enters a context where it is associated with the poem’s geographically remote landscapes, in particular the wilderness of the final section of the poem. These associations mean that allusions and symbols are never just personal and lyric, but rather resonant across larger scales of time and space.

In Eliot’s extensive collection, The Waste Land is perhaps the most diverse and “flexible” for various associative readings. It is true that it does not have a single, intelligible plot, but at the same time, the poem consists of a parodic synthesis of numerous heterogeneous associative plot-lines. Accordingly, both the reader and the critic get confused more easily when, as the time passes, the poem gets attributed with some special and new thematic labels. Since the period of publication of The Waste Land, it has been common for critics to “discover” such new traces and associations, which Eliot himself could not have even thought of and which he often had to deny later. In addition, some of such “confused” critics have more than once assessed the poem as a work exposing social vices, when, in fact, Eliot, a sophisticated aesthete and intellectual, was never assigned the role of a public activist at any stage of his literary career [Kobakhidze, 2015:165]. His primary concern was always poetry, with which he would establish new aesthetic forms and criteria, and indeed, this poem, which is full of tragicomic pathos, once and for all changed the outdated poetic criteria and contributed a new standard to the concept of the modern artistic creation. Therefore, in Eliot’s works, ecocriticism should be considered in the context of the cultural revaluation trend in modernism, not as a social or purely ecological phenomenon. In this regard, it is interesting how the specifics and symbolism of the climate are related to the barren urban and environmental theme of the poem;

“April is the cruelest 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.”

Climate-oriented symbolism is evident from the opening section and the very first lines of The Waste Land, where seasonal change and order are presented in a mixed manner. Symbolic portrayal of spring serves as the winter. For reasons unknown to the reader, Eliot’s narrator prefers winter to spring, dead earth to lilacs, dull roots to spring rain, and forgetting to desire. On the one hand, the source of such a pessimistic and chaotic imagination is clear, given the historical context of the poem – residing in the middle of Europe in 1921 meant being surrounded by the terrible consequences of the newly finished World War I, the evidence of which was everywhere - in the psychological and physical trauma of military personnel and civilians, the bleak environment of Western Europe, and all those huge new cemeteries that redefined the environment and purpose of these areas. Not surprisingly, Eliot’s poem is full of barren landscapes, natural disasters, and corpses that cannot be buried. Accordingly, the narrator begins the poem with an attempt to banish memory and prefers the “forgetful snow” of winter, while disregarding the rejuvenating rains. In this passage, the reader encounters Eliot’s characteristic irony and revaluation of traditional poetic symbolism (spring - positive connotation, new life, passion, and winter - negative connotation, death).

Apart from ironic revaluation of past poetic tradition and its symbols, the line ‘April is the cruelest month’ contradicts with standard perception of this month which we usually associate with renewal and prosperity. The same can be said about “warm winter”, which contrasts with the natural association of 'cold winter' that people have in mind. In rejecting these reasonable conventions, Eliot emphasizes that the dominant attitude of his poem will be irony and cynicism, prevalent 20th century perspectives.  He does this by presenting us with seasons which are shifting, procrastinating, and deteriorating.  In the symbolic order of the poem, winter is preferable to spring and the poem hopes to renounce summer altogether so symbolically speaking, at least, the poetic climate is completely disordered.  Indeed, environmental, meteorological, and climatic disasters seem to loom at every turn and every stanza.

In the first five sections of the poem, the reader is confronted by droughts, storms, and allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest; the second section explores the symbol of fire, and an image of Cleopatra’s dried-up Nile and transformed into a barren urban landscape; the third section is set alongside a swollen Thames flowing through a polluted London landscape;  the fourth with its ominous subtitle - Death by Water, presents the reader an image of a merchant drowned in the tide of profit and a loss; and the poem’s fifth section, which also carries a climate-related subtitle -What the Thunder Said, centers on the images of “sterile thunder without rain”, “cracked earth” and “dead mountains.”

Therefore, Eliot’s poem constitutes an array of climate-change effects and symbolism - across its landscapes, there are dozens of examples of weather patterns, which are out of order: it rains when and where it shouldn’t; it’s too hot for plants and animal life, characters are caught suddenly unaware by floods and fires, and, even more to the point, all of these landscapes bear the unmistakable signs of human intervention.  The poetic reasons for this are clear enough - in the light of the First World War, Eliot deployed a series of environmental disasters in the service of a larger cultural abnormalities and revaluation of human ideals.  Surveying the cultural landscape of 1922, Eliot does not like what he sees - people prefer popular songs to Wagner and Shakespeare; they prefer gossips to the classics, and trivial affairs to longstanding commitments.  The poem’s application of climatic change is thus entirely symbolic - a sign of a barren culture, whose prospects are apocalyptic.  The Waste Land’s changed climates are simply part of Modernism’s larger interest in isolating the cultural landscape around it.

If referring to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which establish symbolic predictability by relying on stable weather patterns, we see that March thaws lead to April showers, which in turn lead to May flowers and regeneration. Then, it’s fair to say that by Eliot’s time, something had perhaps begun to change and it’s not simply that the climates of The Waste Land are out of order - it is also crucial to note the causes of those changed climate patters.

inteIn composing and highlighting the decay of western society and in seeking the symbolism, which would allow him to chronicle the onset of a modern-day cultural wasteland, Eliot primarily relied on The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance. In Weston’s retelling of the old Grail legend, the Fisher King is charged with protecting the Holy Grail.  In every version of the story, the Fisher King is wounded, usually in the groin and is therefore impotent.  He is unable both to fulfill his mission or to give life to a new generation who can undertake his task.  In every version of the legend, his kingdom is a barren wasteland where nothing will grow. In the first extended note on the poem, Eliot wrote, “Not only the title but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book ... Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do, and I recommend it….to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble” [Eliot, 1922:17].  Through Weston’s publication and through the story of the Fisher King itself, Eliot makes an important connection. He suggests that behind all the climatic cataclysms of the poem’s landscapes, there is something more than simply natural forces at work.  In most versions of the story, the Fisher King’s wound, which causes impotence and environmental devastation is a curse that is brought upon him because of committing some kind of violence.  In Eliot’s adaptation of the story for modern use, the analogies are clear.  The horrors of World War I have left a curse upon the Western world, most visible in the desecrated landscape of war-torn Europe and in the scarred and mutilated bodies of the dead.  Less visible wounds include the psychological trauma shared by soldiers like in Virginia Woolf’s Septimus, and the impotence-causing injury to Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. So, the poem’s climate-focused symbolism places it in good modernist company, befitting its role as a poetic standard-bearer for modernism.  In To the Lighthouse, an impending superstorm of sorts prevents the characters from getting where they want to be and thwarts the novel’s plot; Joyce’s best-known story, The Dead concludes with an unusually large snowstorm whose symbolic function is similar to that of the forgetful snow in The Waste Land.  Elsewhere, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath foregrounds droughts caused both by changing climatic patterns and human intervention.

In case of Eliot and the 20th century poetic tendencies, if the modern fisher-king and his kingdom are barren and devoid of life, the reason for this curse is clear - the recently concluded First World War, which was the result not only of economic, territorial and colonial greed, but also of shattered values, which was manifested in the form of a multifaceted crisis in Western culture. This idea is clearly echoed by N. Berdyaev, when he notes that “we are witnessing the end of a new history, the renaissance period of history is unfolding before our eyes. The culture of ancient Europe has declined” [Hutchinson, 2016:251]. Finally, “the fall of man” is felt most visibly in the political and cultural life of the 20th century. Classical philosophy was concerned with cognition, mind and reality, and the mind was the basis of social progress. However, in the 20th century, the mind revealed new and “unexpected” signs, namely that humanity has the capacity to destroy itself, and in the process, it destroys its own environment. Therefore, it is impossible not to have ruthless April: the physical, carnal and biological revival that follows this month is no longer a suitable environment for the reality of the given period. The land of Eliot's poem is dry, barren, and sterile, since the harbinger of fruitfulness is only the return of lost spirituality, the reception of the Grail, and the resurrection of God. However, Eliot does not consider his modern spiritual tragedy in terms of personal attitude; he rather generalizes it in terms of the eternal mythic situation of the search for moral values, thus having the image depicted in the poem gain a universal and global character.

To this extend, Eliot’s poem serves as a kind of warning of modern developments, which could lead to ecologically barren present and future. That this barrenness is best symbolized by climate disorders with its reversed seasons, burning forests, and flooded coastlines seems to once again contribute to the relevance of The Waste Land with the prevailing tragic environment.

By employing a mythic scheme, the poem ensures the universalization of artistic impressions and their transformation into impersonal events. In this respect, Northrop Frye’s theoretical statement that “mythos is the structural, organizing principle of literary form” [Frye, 1998:341] seems especially reasonable. Accordingly, the climate symbolism is one of the modern elements of construing myth of the poem, and the ecocritical reading of the The Waste Land adds a much more terrible and fascinating connotation to the already pessimistic images and symbols of the poem in view of the current climate crisis.

[1]The presented study is a part of the doctoral grant project (PHDF-22-869) funded and supported by Shota Rustaveli National Science Foundation of Georgia.



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ტომას ელიოტი და მაღალი მოდერნიზმის ლიტერატურული ესთეტიკა, უნივერსალი, თბილისი.
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