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?


eliotToday, on this first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, it seems only appropriate to reflect on the words of my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot. The marvelous, genius, insightful Mr. Eliot is a beautiful reminder that God can take someone broken and searching and use him for His glory. As much as I love Eliot’s pre-conversion poetry (such as The Waste-Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), his post-conversion poetry is a beautiful testament to His faith in Christ and his belief that literature can be the purest form of art. His poem “Ash-Wednesday,” published in 1930, may be the best example I know of these beliefs. It’s often difficult to understand and obtuse, but packed full of Truth. Eliot struggled with moving from utter faithlessness to salvation, and that tension and struggle is beautifully memorialized in this poem. You can read the entire poem at the link above [or find a delightful collection of his complete works and spend an afternoon with Mr. Eliot :)]. But I shall henceforth include my favorite excerpts from “Ash-Wednesday.”

From part 1:

“Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain”

From part 2:

“Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen.”

From part 5 (perhaps my favorite verse in all of literature):

“If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.”

From part 6, the concluding lines of the poem:

“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.”