One of the tools that TS Eliot wields most powerfully throughout ‘The Waste Land’ to cast the dereliction and darkness of his presentation of the world is his portrayal of – and play with – the seasons and the imagery associated therewith. First, it is crucial to note that his representations of the seasons, though in several distinct clusters, is not in anyway stand-alone or confined to a specific section. Rather, its elegance rests in the way that Eliot manages to keep the meanings of his allusions constantly oscillating and thus very much part of the same labyrinthine structure that the rest of the poem forms.
The basic connotations of Eliot’s seasons are introduced in the very first verse paragraph of ‘The Burial of the Dead’. The first two lines are ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land’. Immediately, Eliot’s literary references kick off: he is alluding to Chaucer’s lines ‘when that April with his showers sweet,/ The drought of March hath pierced to the root’. As soon as he begins, Eliot already subverts, contrasting his ‘cruellest month’ with the ‘sweet showers’. Eliot’s April, nevertheless, acts to bring life to the ‘dead land’. Thus, spring is still fulfilling its expected duty of renewal and rebirth. Therefore: we must ask – wherein lies the ‘cruel[ty]’? Perhaps the act of bringing back life in a place of such desolate death is itself an act of cruelty. Eliot has now set the stage, and begun painting the place where hope never comes, that comes to all. ‘Winter’ is the next season to be addressed. Unlike Spring, it is rather more clearly – at least in reason – subverted: ‘Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow’. Winter is seen as some sustainer of life – a pivot from its usual position as life’s destroyer. Its snow, notably, is ‘forgetful’. Perhaps this means that it wipes the earth clean of the memory of the past, and so also brings about a physical – as opposed to solely a biological – renewal. Then, if this is linked to Eliot’s previous notion of hopelessness, perhaps forgetfulness is the only bliss that can still be attained in this world. Finally, Summer is described, with the most detailed description thus far, full of allusion: ‘Summer surprised us,/ coming over the Starnbergsee/ With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,/ And went on in sunlight into the Hofgarten’. These are references to the works of Brookes and Marie Larisch, both of whom wrote at their experiences at the Lake Starnbergsee. It is rather ironic that – although we have just gone through the ‘forgetful snow’ of winter – we are now in the nostalgic genre of memoir. Brookes, the Englishman, and Larisch, the Austrian, are both nostalgic for the same places – and the ‘summer[s]’ that they spent their. In the final line of the verse paragraph, Eliot expresses a desire to ‘go south in the winter’. These words are very similar to those used by Larisch in her yearnings for summers at Starnbergsee, which she also describes as ‘perfectly impossible’. Therefore, with all initial evidence presented, let us try to piece together how Eliot might see the seasons in this part of the poem, allowing us to judge how their representation changes as he continues. Summer perhaps is the nostalgic, yearned-for pre-War idyll, where Austrian and Englishman can live together in an Eden-esque world. Winter is ‘forgetful’ and also that from which one cannot escape back to the places of summer (it is ‘perfectly impossible’), so perhaps it is the post-War state obscuring everything that came before. Finally, Spring, the season that follows Winter, is the false renewal that seemed to come but was indeed merely the ‘cruellest’ thing so far.
Let us, therefore, continue to follow the yarn that Ariadne has left for us in this labyrinth, and see whether it might lead somewhere – or not. In almost cyclical structure, the seasons are returned to at the very end of the ‘Burial of the Dead’. Here is ‘the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ [under which] A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many’. This is a Dante-esque deathscape, as, indeed, the final two lines are an almost direct quotation from ‘Inferno’. The ‘fog’ makes it especially eerie and carries some of the force of Baudelaire’s encounter with the spectral Seven Old Men (‘where the fog magnified / The houses either side of that sad street’). Our focus, however, is on ‘a winter dawn’. ‘Dawn’ carries the connotations of renewal and rebirth that Spring had carried. However, by the stark juxtaposition with ‘winter’, this effect is immediately truncated. This is a dawn of death, and it is the dead who walk under it. And – what is worse – this is ‘a’ dawn, the indefinite article highlighting that this is now the norm for this post-War world. The poetic voice soon stops one of the people in this crowd of the dead, and demands of the person: ‘“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/ Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’. If before winter had been some strange ‘forgetful’ refuge which fed perhaps a little life, it is not that which stops anything from sprouting, reversing back to the conventional associations of the season. This ‘corpse’ is a dead thing that would somehow be brought back to life – and it is a corpse, so this would of course not be any real sort of ‘living’ – but it is left dead by the winter. Eliot leads us in circles and we end where we started. This, maybe, mimics the little hope for progress that he holds for the world. Furthermore: the allusion made here is to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, notably the conversation between Ariel and Prospero. Prospero orders Ariel ‘to run upon the sharp wind of the north,/ to do me business in the veins o’ the earth/ when it is baked with frost’. The most important way for Ariel to prove her true allegiance to Prospero is by working in the hardest of conditions: those ‘baked with frost’ (the phrase itself a stunningly beautiful oxymoron yet further exploring representations and misrepresentations of weather). The ‘veins o’ the earth’ are also remarkable as they almost bring the Earth herself to life, as well as being somewhat reminiscent of Milton’s ‘Or do him mightier service as his thralls/ By right of Warr, what e’re his business be/ Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire’, hence bringing in again the idea of Hell. Prospero also threatens to ‘rend an oak/ and peg thee in his knotty entrails till/ thou howl’d away twelve winters’. Hence: ‘winter’ is by no means still life-giving. It has become the agent of punishment. Thus, our Eliotian seasons now are: Summer – an impossibility – Spring – giving cruel life to that which would rather be dead – and Winter – the one post-War hope, now completely lost. Autumn is not even touched upon.
It is not until ‘The Fire Sermon’ that Eliot returns to the idea of the seasons again. All three references in this section are relatively minor, and work mostly to reinforce the previously given impressions. The first two references are in connection with the ‘canal’ of the River Thames. The River is devoid of any trash – ‘empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes [&c.]/ Or other testimony of summer nights’. If, as we have agreed previously, ‘summer’ is the idyll that is lost, it may at first seem strange for it to be associated with such trash. However, such is not the case, as the presence of this trash would have been a reassurance – it would have shown that life still continues as it used to be. It is not so, however, normal life is gone – and with it the hope of a summery idyll. The final two references are to a ‘winter evening’ of fishing and ‘the brown fog of a winter noon’, the latter a distinct reference to the ‘winter dawn’. These phrases act to do two things. The first is to fully conclude that we are indeed stuck in the season of ‘winter’ – the hopeless post-War reality. All the references to the other seasons have been theoretical, but all the references to ‘winter’ have been real. The second aim is to complete the day: we now have the winter ‘dawn’, ‘noon’ and ‘evening’. This winter of our discontent now has overtaken the whole (or thereabouts) 24-hour day: we are stuck in this endless cycle and will not be able to escape.
Yet besides life, weather can also imply drought. Eliot also utilizes droughts, or the dearth of life, throughout his poem to great effect. Indeed, what is a wasteland but a lack of life and the weather patterns that sustain it? Eliot plays with this duality of weather insinuating life and death throughout his seminal work, cleverly maintaining a delicate balance between the contrasting definitions.
This contrast is especially obvious, given the name of the poem’s final part, “What the Thunder Said.” One can view thunder and the possibility of rain as the antithesis of a wasteland. Eliot, simply by capitalizing the T in “Thunder” gives power to the possibility of rain and life. Cycles of rain and water are prominent throughout the poem as cycles of redemption and vitality, but are especially noticeable through the poem’s end. Thus, The Wasteland finishes full cycle, with its final images of water, evoking and possibly giving the reader an understanding of the famous opening line: “April is the cruellest month.”
Other notes on weather, as seen through various sources:
Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Dido and Aeneas; Tiresias)
No reference to weather in D/A.
Regarding Tiresias’s change of gender: ‘Seven autumns passed and still that change held fast’ → presentation of autumn as the season of change, inverted here in T’s case. Note: look thru Eliot Tiresias section and look for refs to autumn.
Brooke’s Letters from America
‘A cloud over the sun woke him to consciousness of his own thoughts’ → pathetic fallacy, but also a twist of irony in that the cloud uncovers his true thoughts rather than the opposite, as one would expect.
Memoirs of Countess Marie Larisch
The Countess and the Empress meet the Sibyl-like old woman due to an inclement change of weather, which – as tho sent by Fate – forces them into this situation: ‘we were overtaken by a storm, and in a few moments we were soaked to the skin by a down pour of tropical rain’. Weather almost as an agent in its own right, able to ‘make’ the future. As the old lady makes her prediction-like statements (“he has been lying in the lake for seven years”), it ‘seemed horrible to hear as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around the cottage’. The atmosphere of the place is one of violent destruction (again pathetic fallacy etc etc etc etc) – mimicking atmosphere to an almost bathetic level.
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
‘When April with its sweet-smelling showers/ Has pierced the drought of March to the root’ → Spring/April as symbol of rebirth and nutrition – flipped in TWL. ‘The West Wind also with its sweet breath,/ In every wood and field has breathed life into/ The tender new leaves’ → the weather can be the very starting point of so much in nature, as it is what allows rebirth to occur. The Waste Land = all about the lack of rebirth – how is that highlighted by the references to the weather?
Faith in God should be unaltered and unalterable whatever the weather: ‘Remember now thy Creator […] while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain’.
Dante’s Third Canto of the Inferno
‘Lamentation/ Resounded through the starless air’ → starless = unnatural, different to the real world of the living – natural surroundings define reality.
‘Just as in autumn the leaves fall away,/ One, and then another, until the bough sees all its spoil upon the ground,/ so the wicked seed of Adam fling themselves/ one by one from shore, at his signal’ → autumn as a season of death and decay. [this is about the souls of the dead leaving the shore to get onto the ship]
Shakespeare’s The Tempest
The Tempest – already itself a symbol of weather – confusion, force, aggression etc
‘Jove’s lightnings, the precursors/ o’ the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary/ and sight-outrunning were not’ → again: symbolism of lightning. This is when Ariel is describing their appearances before the shipwrecked crew. Comparison to pagan gods etc.
‘To run upon the sharp wind of the north,/ to do me business in the veins o’ the earth/ when it is baked with frost’ → connects to TWL ‘sudden frost’, the body buried in the ground (analogous to Ariel cloven into the tree – which again brings up winter: ‘i will rend an oak/ and peg thee in his knotty entrails till/ thou howl’d away twelve winters’), general duality of imagery of winter in TWL (cf ‘winter kept us warm), ‘veins o the earth’ → earth a living being, maybe even a ref to PL I.149-151.
de Nerval’s Dream/Life
‘I initially imagined that the people gathered in this garden all exercised some influence over the stars’ → not weather per se, but natural phenomenon: stars as symbols for Fates, cf star-crossed lovers etc etc
Baudelaire’s The Seven Old Men
The poetic voice runs into strange reincarnations of the same old man – some sort of deathly spectre. Dante-esque deathscape. Setting: ‘where the fog magnified / The houses either side of that sad street’ – very reminiscent of ‘under the brown fog of a winter dawn’ , 61 TWL; ‘a mist,/ unclean and yellow, inundated space’ – adds to previous sense of dereliction and perversion – something dirty and spoilt. Deathly? ‘yellow’=sickly? The man: ‘through snow and mud/ he walked with troubled and uncertain gait’ – mud= back to the brown fog, but reflected on ground; snow (contrasting to brown mud as snow is white) comes back to the haunting idea of the dualities of winter throughout TWL (also note that the cold of winter is what kills and creates wastelands, maybe?). Final two lines: ‘and my soul tossed, and tossed, an outworn wreck, mastless, upon a monstrous, shoreless sea’ → Tempestous weather, note the sibilance, repetition, short cola, etc all to create this effect of confusion and dissonance.