T.S. Eliot and the Fisher King – Informal American Literature Essay
It is indeed fortunate that Eliot decide to include his Notes on The Waste Land. When one understands that the poem was written in post-World War I Europe, it is much simpler to comprehend much of what Eliot was trying to express. It is also just as (if not extremely more) beneficial to read Eliot’s passage in his Notes that
details the influence of Jesse Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Fraser’s The Golden Bough. The poem The Waste Land is primarily the description of a wasteland, replete with sorrowing subjects and all. However, it carries the promise that through death, life may be born again and the wasteland can be rejuvenated, a theme found in the works of both Weston and Fraser.
One of the best examples of the theme of the necessity of death before rebirth is found in lines 71–72. This passage reads: That corpse you planted last year in your garden,Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
The theme of renewal following loss of life is certainly nothing new. Fraser’s anthropological work, The Golden Bough, describes the creation of primitive religions and mythology. Fraser maintains that these agrarian societies were originally completely dependent on the land and its storms, floods, and seasonal cycles for their lives. Thus, the personification of these phenomena resulted in the gods and spirits of their mythologies. Because of the obvious influence of the productivity of crop and soil, these religions generally were fertility religions.
Eliot mentions that he especially drew on the Fraser’s volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Of these, the latter is particularly notable. Osiris was the king of Egpyt who was killed by his jealous brother, Set. Osiris’ wife Isis found his body and blew life back into him with her wings. Osiris then became the god of Nile flood plain fertility and of its harvest. The Egyptians literally thought that each year, Osiris died and his flesh became the harvest. Thus, through a death, life and birth could be sustained. In Eliot’s poem, “that corpse” was “planted” in a “garden” (71). The character in the poem is asking, “has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” The corpse is, of course, a death. But, apparently, through this death, fruit may be produced, just as Osiris produces the harvest for the Egyptians.
It is also certainly necessary to mention Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance. This book details the Grail legend and describes it as a fertility myth about this very subject of rebirth through death. The fisher king in the Grail legend lives in a wasteland—a devastated terrain (presumably by famine, but can represent any type of dead and dying land) and he goes on a quest to find the grail to restore vitality to his kingdom. One version of the legend explains how, when the dying fisher king finally discovers the grail and drinks from it, he must die. Through his death, a new, strong, and virile king can arise to restore the wasteland to its former fertility.
In the devastation of World War I, it is easy to see why Eliot described Europe as a “Waste Land.” He was living in an era of extensive devastation and the general outlook on basic humanity was bleak. However, he calls our attention to the nature of Earth’s fertility to assuage our souls. Because of the tilt of the planet, we are able to have extended seasons of warmth proper for growing a bountiful harvest. However, this tilt brings the other extreme—winter. It is a simple necessity for this winter “death” to occur before the Earth once again renews itself in the summer months. The death and devastation of World War I or any great tragedy can only bring temporary sorrow before life restores itself and we reap a harvest once again.