On Intertextuality: Eliot and Isaiah

T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is a brilliant, daunting piece of literature. I don’t think anyone on this planet will ever fully understand the meaning that Eliot packed into every word of that poem. Every time I read it, I discover some nuance that I never noticed before. And this morning, in the book of Isaiah, I found a potential allusion that I’d never before considered.

Consider this excerpt from the first section of The Waste Land:

“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 trees give no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” (lines 19-30, emphasis mine)

I’ve always found this passage to be enigmatic. How is fear so powerful as to be revealed in a mere handful of dust? What does the rock symbolize? And Eliot’s language, painting an image of shadows and darkness and fear, is masterful. But now…consider this verse from Isaiah:

“Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust,

From the terror of the Lord

And the glory of His majesty.” (Isaiah 2:10, NKJV)

According to first verse of this chapter, this is part of Isaiah’s prophecy on Judah and Jerusalem. But look at the similarities: Eliot’s rock is red while Isaiah’s is a generic rock, but the mention of dust and fear? I can’t recall seeing that image anywhere else.

Both passages beckon to the reader. Eliot invites, “Come in under the shadow of this red rock,” and Isaiah commands, “Enter into the rock.” Isaiah specifically states, “Hide in the dust” while Eliot mentions shadows, a perfect place to hide. One distinct difference: Eliot does not reference the glory of God’s majesty.

One thing to note is that The Waste Land is one of Eliot’s pre-conversion poems. But…judging from the sheer amount of biblical allusions, Eliot knew the Bible. He was searching, and he converted to the Anglican church a few years later. Is it possible that Eliot was alluding to Isaiah’s prophecy in this passage? That Eliot realized that a mere handful of dust could symbolize the fear of the Lord?

Isn’t language beautiful?


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