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Eliot’s Whereabouts: The Fluctuating Body-Space Relationships in “The Waste Land”


Eliot’s Whereabouts:

The Fluctuating Body-Space Relationships in “The Waste Land”

Hassan Rahmeh*

Much has been written about T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” Nearly a century has passed since its publication in 1922, a year of post-war disillusionment and post-Versailles political turmoil that left no hope of prosperity in a new, post-imperial era. There’s hardly a piece of art that has gained so much critical attention during the century. It was interpreted as an autobiographical poem, a modernist masterpiece about a dishevelled civilization in crisis, a political lament for imperialism, a vain poetical attempt to restore order into the world, and a “melting pot of imagery and languages drawn from every corner of the earth” (Harvey 34). It is also a poem about displacement and temporal dissipation, which is what this article tries to illuminate in the context of recent advances in spatiotemporal cultural studies.

          Across nearly 440 lines of his notoriously difficult poem, T. S. Eliot talks in six languages, assumes voices or silence of multiple named or unnamed personas, roams over places on many sides of the globe, and plunges into his own as well as eras thousands of years away. He is a wanderer, walker and talker, a mute listener whose stream of thought is only there for the reader to see, a he and a she and a gender-fluid prophet, a king in distress, and a Londoner in distress. He is all and neither of that, with his experience unravelling both in time and non-time, at places or outside of them. Archetypes and symbols combat reality and literality.

          However, a first-time observer of this heterogeneous world would be wrong to think that Eliot is a democratic arranger of an inclusive, egalitarian system where everybody plays an equally important, indispensable role. This poet doesn’t merely arrange; even though the poem might appear to be a collage of diverse pieces loosely put together, its collector assumes the elaborate role of a designer. The characters, along with the times and spaces they inhabit, are points and pixels in a rasterized image—marble figures in a world torn apart from within and without. The poem has “no single action or setting: although the poem is focused on London, it begins in Bavaria and ends in India” (Beach 44).

          The sheer plurality of commingled times and places shouldn’t trick us into thinking that Eliot recognizes no Time and Space, just like the palpable lack of divine influence doesn’t mean there is no god. Eliot would have us believe that there should be Time, Space, and God or spirituality as a unifying force. The poem’s main problem doesn’t lie in ontology and the question of what is. It lies in epistemology and the fact that humankind has lost the possibility to know that which is. The spatiotemporal fragmentation isn’t his topic, but a mere manifestation of his topic. It almost appears that he uses it as a hermeneutical lever with which it would have been possible to move the planet—if only there was a place to stand. Indeed, the poem is almost impossible to situate. There are times because there is no Time; the poem’s universe is crawling with discordant places because there is no Space. And as Beci Carver argues, “it is not the ‘fragments’ but the act of ‘drifting’ that disrupts the text: it constructs its spaces (the mountain, the riverbank, the flat, the ornamented room) only to deny them substance” (56). Both vertical


** Hassan Ali Rahmeh. PhD student – Fourth Year – Lebanese University – Department of English Language and Literature

and horizontal coordinates that had constructed the Axis Mundi are shattered and devalued, which is why an individual can hardly if anyhow determine his or her own position in relation to others.

          Therefore, our main concern won’t be another attempt to bring new insights from close reading of the poem’s lines, tropes, rhythms, rhymes, stanzas or lack thereof. We need an answer to the question whether and why space-time acts as a framework within which the destruction of the world happens and the project of its rebirth ultimately fails.

          For Eliot, time still hadn’t evolved into space-time; it was already emptied of most of its earlier transcendentality and order, but it still yearns for it. Grand narratives had already suffered irreparable damage at the hand of the merciless 20th Century, but it was only logical to try and shore these fragments against our ruins, since their destruction had left no alternative to build upon.

The Whereabouts of “The Waste Land”

          Let’s make an overview of the poem’s geography and see what spaces and times it enacts or brings upon the stage. Beginning with a temporal image of nature’s seasonal cycles that unravel the mixture of memory and desire, it then introduces localized references of Starnbergersee and Hofgarten, which a speaker named Marie retains in her memory. Both locales from Bavaria and Austria are quickly and ultimately abandoned for an abstract, biblical scenery with “stony rubbish,” “dead tree,” and “dry stone.”

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. (…) (Collected Poems 19-24)

A short quote from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” mentioning Ireland, and there we are: in yet another place that has no other name but the Hyacinth garden, where another memory quickly unfolds. Madame Sosostris jumps right in, but she too seems to be uprooted—the only thing we can say of her whereabouts is Europe. Off we go to London’s busiest, financial district where Eliot used to work at Lloyds Bank—but it’s not just about London Bridge, King William Street and Saint Mary Woolnoth. It’s also (and maybe primarily) about Unreal City, a Baudelairian metaphor in which Eliot merges the real and the unreal, the general and the particular, and literature and life. The speaker doesn’t get to stay here for long either. He sees a man who goes by the name of Stetson and invokes their mutual wartime experience at Mylae, catapulting us over two millennia into the past. The temporal reference here is very brief, interrupting the slow march of walking undead across various London locales:

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? (Collected Poems 69-72)

Mylae, however, isn’t here to stay or to invite any other reference to the Punic Wars or Carthage. Death reappears within moments, in a grotesque, macabre image of the planted corpse. Harold Bloom attests this non-place dilemma, arguing that “with the word ‘Mylae,’ a battle in the Punic Wars, we suspect that we have entered a different level of reality—one in which the boundaries between the past and the present have been severed. The corpse that has been planted in the garden in place of the expected seed or bulb confirms the suspicion” (146). Past and present are kept isolated and plagued by degradation and anxieties.

          “The Game of Chess” starts off at a twenty lines long unidentifiable place in an aristocratic mansion, with the metamorphosis of Philomela as the guiding mythological reference. As we know, the function of myths has always been to obfuscate time rather than to clarify it—so, this is not a mere voice from the past, but a voice of timelessness or universal Time that never ends. The game of chess itself delineates the ruined and ruinous love relationships prefigured in symbolic, spatial relations of marble figures on a table. From there, we land into a London pub, where two cockney women speak of their friend’s miserable marital and family life. There is no mention of place, but the use of language is highly localized, demonstrating an alternate way of constructing space. The fact that space here is not a palpable point but undergoes the process of cultural construction that is very telling. The place could really be any London pub, but the space is a much broader area—it’s a whole mental world that these women inhabit and create. Transformation of a place into space is a two-way street, dynamic process that relies on interactivity. Hence, the London pub wouldn’t exist as such if not for these characters (along with the bartender’s voice), who invented and populated it with language. Eliot raises questions about the knowingness of places: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones (Collected Poems 115-116). Michael O’ Neill notes that “the phrase ‘rats’ alley’ seems incongruously close to a place name, and the poem glimpses an utter lostness, even as such loss begins to breed dreams of recovery” (36). The “rat’s alley” and other symbols deepen the modernist loss of command over the whereabouts.

          In “The Fire Sermon,” after references to polluted Thames and a brief mention of the notorious Leman Street (or Leman Lake in Switzerland) where the Fisher King is to be seen fishing in a canal alongside a rat, as well as a few hotels that Mr. Eugenides mentions in his indecent proposal, Tiresias brings us into a typist’s apartment where a sexual encounter is to take place. The only spatial references are the room itself, full of clutter and noise of mundane items such as garments piled on the divan and food cans, and Thebes:

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all

Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.) (Collected Poems 243-246)

The rendezvous being over, we are still in London, as the three Thames-daughters chant of their depressing and dehumanized sexual experiences at Highbury, Richmond, Kew, Moorgate and Margate, when another brief reference to Carthage protrudes in. The shortest, fourth part “Death by Water” plunges us into the sea whirlpool where Phlebas the Phoenician lies dead, with a place and cultural context inscribed in his name.

          Finally, “What the Thunder Said” begins with hazy allusions to Emmaus, Chapel Perilous and Eastern Europe. Appropriately for the most intellectualized chapter of this story, it then introduces fallen cities of the antiquity and modern age—“Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London / Unreal” (Collected Poems 375-376) along with the loci of Ganga and Himavant, wrapping up this elaborate visual conundrum with the falling London Bridge that covers all.

          Symptomatically, Tiresias is the only speaker allowed to see through the unfixed, abstruse space-time of “The Waste Land.” To use the language of physics, he almost creates a space-time warp due to his gravitas. To be able to make sense of one’s place within the wide, chaotic and indefinite space, one needs to get rid of arbitrary gaze of physical eyes and singularity of sex. Tiresias’s view is therefore multifocal. He is the only speaker who could simultaneously sit by Thebes and in a typist’s small apartment in 20th Century London. For him alone, there are no temporal and spatial constraints. Therefore, he might be the embodiment of the perfect view point coming from Space-Time, that isn’t dependent on concrete location and re-location. Most importantly, he is the one in real power to foretell and “foresuffer,” precisely because he does not dwell in singularity. The poem’s false prophets, such as Madame Sosostris, live and breathe in the present day, and interact with other characters. The one real seer, Tiresias, is the only speaker who is physically displaced from the spatiotemporal points from which his voice is echoing. He acts as an all-present eye, giving us no reason to doubt Eliot’s evaluation of him as “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest” (Collected Poems 72).

Space and Time Cannot Be Tamed

So, the poem unravels a constant flux between unreal, imagined, mythical, and all-too-real loci. Some of them are deliberately abstract and unsituated, others exist in memory, yet others (such as mountains, rivers, deserts) draw their spatiality from vague contexts of biblical or Buddhist sacred texts. Apart from disruption and fragmentation that are today being viewed as commonplace modernist features, we can infer that Eliot, in spite of being a very centralistic thinker, nevertheless introduces much of the margin into his lament for the moribund Western civilization. His working class characters are characters no less than their wealthy, aristocratic or middle-class counterparts.

          Another insight—more pertinent to our spatiotemporal concern—is that the poem swarms with movement—up and down, across the continents, to the top of the hills and down to the sea’s bottom. Eliot’s personas are participants, speakers, listeners, and observers. Many of the unnamed are also walkers in the sense that Robert Tally uses in his book “Spatiality,” about pedestrians who write the urban text but aren’t able to read it (128-132). Even though they aren’t very willing to collaborate with the reader, the speakers recount their stories in an overtly spatiotemporal way. Let’s take just one example of it. Marie, the first identifiable speaker from “The Burial of the Dead,” rehearses her past experience by putting pins on a map of her memory, as it were. Those intersections of time (past) and places seem to be the only way she can pinpoint moments of happiness, or at least serenity. Here is how she recounts this experience, unwillingly supporting the previous, nonidentified speaker’s dismissal of memory:

           Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

           With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

           And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

           And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.


           And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,

           My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

           And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

           Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. (Collected Poems 8-11, 13-16)

The speakers speak of their being somewhere and sometimes, but the undead walkers have no word for us. They just continue to do the only thing they can—to jostle in crowds and “[flow] over London Bridge” (Collected Poems 62). Their walking and groping seems to be the only mode of existence they are compelled to have. Contrary to Marie, these lowest of the low don’t even think of times past. They are either immersed in non-substantial small talk like Lil’s friend, or reduced to the typist’s sigh of relief when her lover departs. To the typist, the space-time continuum seems to make no sense. She just tries to endure the passage from one moment to the next with numbed senses and as little resistance as possible:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’ (Collected Poems 249-252)

She acts or rather puts up with her lover’s actions, but she doesn’t rationalize or feel anything. Tiresias is the one who sees, knows and suffers on her behalf, and he is the one who spatializes his age’s long observance. He sees “divan or bed” from the depths of Thebes, thus emphasizing a transhistorical connection between “the lowest of the dead” and the similarly disengaged woman.

          As Bertrand Westphal noticed, where there is movement, there is also transgressivity if not transgression itself (44-45). Space is permanently fluid precisely due to its openness, because it unfolds the potential for movement and motion through it. However, that fact has a flip side as well. In a way, space carries within itself the seed of its own undoing. It demonstrates and makes itself visible by reducing to a place—for example, a shabby apartment in a big city; afterward, it deletes or evacuates the place and restores its spatial dignity. For what importance can a typist’s apartment have compared to the Thebes, overburdened with historicity? The precise answer in the context of fluctuating space would be: it holds all and none of the importance. A place confines its inhabitant. A space shows him or her freedom to move and transform, but only insofar as he or she is capable of perceiving it through the cage bars. The aesthetics of fragmentation in the poem marks what Gabrielle McIntire describes as “a part of the culture from which it sprang—a historical object contemporaneous with its own historicity” (104). It becomes dramatically apparent that these unique mix of historical, mythical, biblical, and literary allusions emerge under the impact of Eliot’s existing spatial suspicions and uncertainties.  

          Time goes through similar processes. Trapped in its ambiguities, we yearn to discern a teleological, linear progression in it, one that would make us part of history as something greater than ourselves. But the 20th Century wouldn’t leave time alone. It rendered time relative, just like space. It seems that “The Waste Land” is concerned with time in a far less individualistic (hence more universal) way than the early “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was. Young Prufrock seems to be thoroughly obsessed with time in what appears to be a self-consolating chant that excuses all of his inactivity and inabilities. The speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” tries to get hold of time while groping through the darkness, unlike his carbuncular peer from “The Waste Land,” who is only struggling not to break his neck for all we know. Time is lost on both of them in advance, but the grander poem doesn’t make such individualistic, hectic attempts of search for a lost time. Instead, it presents us with characters who don’t know what to make of their literal tomorrows. If I can’t conceive of my tomorrow, I won’t be able to conceive of either of the times at my disposal. Here is how Eliot’s middle-class female speaker—trapped in an autistic, fruitless marriage—responds to this predicament:

                  “What shall I do now? What shall I do?

                  I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street

                  With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?

                  What shall we ever do?”(Collected Poems 181-184)

          Indeed, both time and space are mainly treated as particularities. In her article “’The Room Enclosed’: Eliot’s Settings,” Yasmine Shamma notes that Eliot’s use of spatial settings accounts for the poem’s Bakhtinian “answerability” to life. That is, the poem doesn’t try to preposterously rise above or deflect from life, and that is precisely due to its situatedness in space. Shamma refers to the rooms in Eliot’s poetry in particular: “Whether in the room of a ‘one night cheap hotel’ or the one described in ‘A Game of Chess,’ what is being described in Eliot’s poetry extends beyond the room and answers to life at large, or ‘the world’” (167). And nowhere is this answerability to life more apparent than in the poem’s depiction of the City of London. It’s a place both unreal and all-too-real, imaginary realm inherited from literary tradition, adopted and readopted—a true epitome of open space constituted of uncountable places. Carol Yang aptly notes:

The Waste Land is possessed by the image of the Unreal City as a spectacle of all the places of the world, and this city is characteristic of floating identity and infinite hyperreality. The poem is a geographical poem as well as an historical poem. It has an intense relationship to the particularity of place and the experience of the time. (192)

Space is much more difficult to tame than time. With time, the crucial concern is transience, and it can be neatly resolved with the notion of eternity as well as carriers of this notion such as the God(s). Space, on the other hand, can’t have an integrator or axis—or at least, it can’t maintain it for long. Eliot is trying to establish such an axis by drawing a borderline along the cultural limits of Western civilization or its predecessor, the vast and diverse Indo-European cultural realm. There appear to be two obvious dimensions of space in “The Waste Land”: vertical (the worlds of Dante, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, the Byble and other pillars of literary value), and horizontal (a London pub, London Bridge and streets criss-crossed by anonymous walkers). They are intersected in his literary vision, but they ultimately resist any attempt of unification.

Transgressivity of “The Waste Land”

It isn’t that Eliot’s characters are trapped in a situation that they themselves consciously invoke. And as Westphal remarks, “transgression is not necessarily the result of a volitional act; it sometimes emerges from a poorly negotiated transition, an involuntary movement that causes turbulence” (44). This turbulence is the main framework within which conditions for transgression emerge and thrive. To quote Westphal’s influential study again, “transgression is coextensive with mobility” and “space is essentially transgressive” (45). It means that motion and movement do not necessarily cause transgression, but they contain inherent transgressivity. Once we are out in the open, there is no telling what boundaries we may cross willingly or unawarenessly. Simply put, moving means exposing oneself to risk. We might even conclude that Eliot was well aware of that when he disavowed his Americanness and forged a new homeland for himself in an ancient European kingdom, which was coincidentally among the last strongholds of the dying imperialism. Maybe that is why he had to embrace Anglicanism too, lest he remain unhinged in his homelessness.

          We have seen how “The Waste Land” characters are confined to places, which disable them from grasping the fissures and crevices that might offer a way out. Roaming the streets, bars, rivers, climbing the mountains and plunging the rivers and seas expose them to the aura of transgressivity. But do they really transgress, with or without the poet’s intention or awareness? The answer is more complicated than it might seem. The inhabitants of The Waste Land seem paralyzed and trapped within some kind of a spatiotemporal deadlock, since they construct and inhabit their space-time without being capable of understanding or explaining it. To turn the Fisher King concept (the poem’s mythical backbone) upside down—it’s not the King’s wound that renders the land barren. It’s his subjects’ incapacitation that does it. We could even come to a blasphemous conclusion: the land and its occupants would stand a chance only if the King finally dies.


As a thinker, Eliot was faithfully committed to organic wholeness and order. In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” written in 1917, he links tradition to a sense of historicity:

[Tradition] involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with the feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. (Selected Essays 14)

These controversial lines, when read in relation to the jeopardized historicity of “The Waste Land,” confirm that Eliot yearns for the “Damyata” from the poem’s holy trinity, for controlling the self and sacrificing it to grand notions. The only unifying force that holds the poem together is the consistent dismantling of every value that had previously held the world together, and the fact that this dismantling seems to be the only constant that holds history together (as Tiresias would know). The incoherency seems to be very coherent.

          Eliot is a figure who both shows and laments the loss of grand, unifying narratives, the only ones capable of integrating the world and preserving its space-time. According to him, history lost its meaning not by virtue of its genuine instability, but through humanity’s own flaws1. Now it’s up to humanity to redeem and retrieve this meaning, of which he is not an optimist. But even if he doesn’t believe it possible, he will still choose to seal off this predicament with the triple “Shantih.” As if peace that surpasses all understanding would have meant any difference in a world that has ultimately lost any tendency for it.


1 It would be unfair to debate this view from today’s perspective. We know all too well that history itself is a collection of grand narratives that time and space aren’t and can never be singular, but that is our postmodern perspective – and Eliot is a man of modernism. For him, time isn’t devoid but deprived of meaning.


Works Cited

Primary Source:

Eliot, Thomas S. Collected Poems 1909-1962. New York, Harcourt Brace & World, 1963.

Secondary Sources:

Beach, Christopher, editor. The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Bloom, Harold. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations. Infobase Publishing, 2007.

Carver, Beci. “London as a Waste of Space in Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Critical Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 4, 11 Dec. 2007, pp. 56–71.

Eliot, Thomas S. Selected Essays. London, Faber, 1980.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell, 1991.

McIntire, Gabrielle. Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

O’ Neill, Michael. “Eliot: Form and Allusion.” The New Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by Jason Harding, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 26-40.

Shamma, Yasmine. “‘The Room Enclosed’: Eliot’s Settings.” The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective, edited by Joe Moffett, Rodopi, 2001, pp. 165–186.

Tally, Robert J. Spatiality. Routledge, 2013.

Westphal, Bertrand. Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Yang, Carol. “The Waste Land and the Virtual City.” The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective, edited by Joe Moffett, Rodopi, 2001, pp. 187-216.





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