The land animals are mostly associated with the theme of decay, as they feed upon the physical and metaphorical dead bodies of men. Animals such as rats, dogs, snakes, and nymphs (mythological creatures associated with both land and water) first suffer from destructions brought by men in their natural habitats, and then in turn profit off of men’s deaths. As mentioned in Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance”, the quest for the Holy Grail aims to restore the land, for the “condition of the King is sympathetically reflected on the land, the loss of virility in the one brings about a suspension of the reproductive processes of Nature on the other” (Weston 4). The physical health of the man is inextricably linked to that of the land. Animals, on the other hand, habituated themselves to the conditions of the land on which they dwell on. During Eliot’s period, men corrupted the land with waste and chemicals in the age of industrialization, which is reflected in the behaviors and descriptions of the animals in The Waste Land.
Rats and dogs are most evidently associated with death, both due to common conception of these animals and also references made in the poem. Rats thrive in dumping sites and the sewage system, which are characterized by their horrific stench and decomposition of materials.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
The imagery of the “white bodies naked on the low damp ground” suggest decomposition of the flesh that nourish the wetland, which in return provide the rats habitable conditions and food either in the forms of decayed meat or bugs and worms. The ecosystem that arises in the low life of the bank by the canal is spurred by the dumping of dead bodies “by the rat’s foot only, year to year”. The vivid description of the rat “dragging its slimy belly on the bank” suggests a sense of vitality and prosperity within the community of the rats, where they thrive among the waste, trash, and deaths of the human community. There is another interpretation of the white bodies proposed by Lauren Sonneborn in her annotation, which states that the bodies are nymphs departing with their beauty and leaving their dead bodies on the shore due to industrialization and destruction of their water habitat. Even though this analysis strays away from the original intention to categorize land animals with the theme of decay, it provides insight into the possible connection between creatures or humans of femininity and their masculine perpetrators who strip them away of freedom and physicality. There will be another section on animals related to femininity, and the importance of animals that symbolize trapped women will be discussed.
Dogs, on the other hand, dig up bones of corpses buried underneath the ground, as described in The Waste Land. The first mentioning of dogs is in this following section
“There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
‘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?
‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’
Eliot wrote in the footnotes that the line “Oh keep the Dog far hence” comes from The White Devil by John Webster, where he swapped the word “wolf” out of the original line in the Funeral Dirge for Marcello with “dog”, which is an animal more friendly in nature and docile to men. The dog that digs up the corpse “planted last year in the garden” interrupts the process of the body “sprout[ing] and bloom[ing]”, which reinforces the cyclical nature of death and life. The decomposed bodies provide necessary nutrients and restores the fertility of the land after the industrialized pollution. Supposedly friendly to men, the dog prevents the death of man to be useful to nature in any way, as it reverses the burial process for its own pleasure (it wants to be with its owner) or to merely consume (feed upon the bones). Again, the death of men benefits the land animals. Other mentionings of dogs in The White Devil also includes this following line:
Women are like cursed dogs: civility keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight; then they do most good, or most mischief. My lord, my lord!
The duality of femininity and animalistic nature illustrated in this quote demonstrates the disdain towards women and the land animal—both allegedly submissive towards men. Though the women and the dogs appear to be tamed during day time, they let loose of their wild nature and turn their backs on men. Here, the link between femininity and animals becomes clear, as they are both antagonistic and hostile towards men.
The third mentioning of land animals is indirect, brought about by the story of Tiresias who stuck two snakes mating in the forest with his staff and suddenly found himself physically swapped to the other sex, changing from a man to a woman. However, there is no physical death that Tiresias has ever experienced, which deviates from the previous discussions about land animals and decay. The death, here, is then metaphorical, namely the death of masculinity. By killing the two snakes, Tiresias ends his own masculinity and transforms into the female who is often negatively characterized as mentioned in the analogy of dogs.
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
As a result, Tiresias oscillates between “two lives”, physically as an “old man with wrinkled female breasts”, which combines femininity with masculinity. Eliot also swapped the sex of another mythological character in the first section of his poem, specifically the “hyacinth girl” mentioned in lines 35-36.
‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
The hyacinth “girl” is originally a boy named Hyacinthus, the lover of Apollo, who died when playing quoits with the god and was turned into the flower bearing his name by grieving Apollo. By changing his sex and calling him the “hyacinth girl” in The Waste Land, Eliot made clear that it was not about being a woman that brings immense pain and suffering, but about embodying femininity, which ties to other references in the poem related to feminine characters being treated as lesser by the men.
It’s true she’s fair, but he is also spurred
by venery, an inborn tribal urge.
The vie inflaming him is both his own
and the dark fire which burns in Thracian souls.
His impulse was to buy his way to her…
Or else to ravish her, and then defend
his rape by waging unrelenting war. (The Metamorphosis of Ovid
“All is now askew. I am concubine and you’ve become a bigamist” (Metamorphosis of Ovid)
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue…A lion now he stalks with fierie glare (Paradise Lost)
In The Metamorphosis of Ovid, Philomela reacts to her rape and mutilation with shame and anger. She swears to tell everyone about Tereus’ actions but he cuts her tongue off. He has the privilege of walking away from this crime. As a successful one, he says that even if she talked about what happened, he could deny it and remain just as successful. This unequal power dynamic expresses itself once they are all turned into nightingales. Even in nature, the male has the ability to sing, reflecting the platform given to rapists who speak over the voices of the victims. Even in mythology, female nightingales who sing are considered sorrowful. This puts Philomela and other women in a cycle of victimhood where there is no option for them to move on from the trauma they experienced. Eliot condemns this cycle of horrible acts. He does not reduce Philomela’s nightingale story to her victimhood, rather he denounces Tereus as barbarous and highlights that she was “rudely forced”. Philomela claims that Tereus has made her a concubine and when her sister finds her, she is full of shame. Eliot rewrites this shame to be her “inviolable voice” that contradicts the image of a weakened victim. There is no self blame or hatred in Eliot’s retelling, giving back dignity to Philomela’s story.
In both Philomela’s story and Paradise Lost, men have used their unequal power dynamics to take advantage of the women in their stories. When Tereus and Satan saw Philomela and Eve, they both were swayed by their beauty and determined to take what they wanted from the women. Tereus and Satan were predators of this story and initially experienced no consequence for their actions. Eliot has redecorated the women through his inclusion of Cleopatra. With the vivid and powerful imagery, Eliot takes away the narrative of power for these men.