Summary of T. S. Eliot’s What the Thunder Said

What the Thunder Said is the fifth and the last section of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.

Summary

The section begins with an account of the arrest of Christ at the hand of his enemies. They came in search of him with torches in their hands. Their faces were dirty with sweat and red with anger. He was arrested in a garden and there was frosty (death-like) silence after his arrest. He suffered great agony in palaces and prisons made of stones. Then the mobs shouted angrily as it was rumoured that Christ was about to be released. Prison and palaces resounded with their shouts. Then at last Christ was crucified. But at the very moment of his crucification there was thunder over the distant mountains indicating that soon there will be rain (rain is the symbol of regeneration). The poet adds that Christ did not die when he was crucified. He lived on in the hearts of the devout but now he is dead because we the modern waste landers have forgotten him and his teachings. We who were living when Christ was crucified, are now dead. We are now dead spiritually and we make no efforts for our spiritual salvation or regeneration. We are passive and inactive so far as spiritual matters are concerned.

The second passage refers to the journey of the Questers (Sir Perceival and others) in search of the holy Grail. They reach the kingdom of King Fisher and climb the mountain on the top of which, it was believed, the holy Grail was kept in a chapel called the Chapel Perilous. It was a difficult journey for there was no water and they were all thirsty. There were only rocks all around them. It was a sandy road that went up the mountains in a winding, zig-zag manner. They were rocky mountains without any water. If only there were some water, they would have stopped to drink it, they were so thirsty. But among the rocks none can stop and think. Sweat was dry on their faces, and their feet were covered with sand. The repetition of, “If there were only water among the rocks,” conveys their intense thirst and longing for water. The caves of the mountains were horrible, like wide-open mouths full of rotten teeth. In these dead mountain-mouths there was no water at all. They were absolutely dry and could not even spit. The questers could find no comfort in those mountains–they could neither stand, nor sit, nor lie down to rest. They had to go on climbing constantly. There was not even silence in the mountains. They could hear the sound of thunder, at a distance, but it was a thunder without any rain. It was sterile or barren thunder bringing with it no life-giving or regenerating rain. There was not even solitude in the mountains. They were not alone there, but were surrounded by red, angry faces that seemed to sneer and snarl at them. They could see such faces through the doors of houses whose mud-plaster was cracked. Such sights horrified them and added to their suffering. They would not have suffered so much if there were water and no rocks, or even if there were rocks, but also water. If only there were a spring of water or a pool of water among the rocks, they would have drunk from it. Even if they had heard the sound of water, it would have given them some hope. But the only sound they could hear was the singing of Cicada (an insect) or the whispering sound made by the wind as it passed through dry grass. They heard the sound of water falling over a rock, but alas! it was only the hermit-thrush-_whose song sounds very much like the falling of water- singing in the pine trees. Its song, “Drip, drop, drip” etc, sounds very much like the sound produced by the falling of the drops of water, but in reality there was no water at all.

The third passage describes the journey of two of the disciples of Christ who are going to the Biblical waste Land of Emmaus. One of them asks his companion as to who was the third person walking by his side. When he counted, there were only two, he and his companion. But when he looked ahead towards the white road, he always saw a third person walking by the side of his companion. This figure was well-wrapped in a brown cloak, and had a hood over its head, so that he could not say whether it was a man or a woman. So he asks his companion once again to tell him who it was that walked by his side.

The fourth passage describes the aimless journey of the modern waste landers, uprooted from their hearths and homes. A murmuring sound of lamenation is heard in the air, as if some women were mourning and crying. There are huge crowds of people wandering over endless plains. The earth is cracked at places and they stumble and fall. The plains on which they wander are spread out as far as the horizon. They are ringed only by the horizon. A city is seen over the mountains, which cracks, is broken, but again assumes a particular shape, and then bursts again, in the air at the time of dusk. The towers of churches or other big buildings of that city seem to be falling down. The city may be any of the unreal cities in the modern waste land. It may be Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London or any other city in the modern waste land. All are equally unreal and equally in ruins so far as religion and spiritual values are concerned.

These uprooted people of the modern waste land suffer from neurosis and hysteria. This becomes clear from the behaviour of a woman in the crowd who tightly draws out her long black hair and plays upon them as upon the strings of a fiddle, a musical instrument (She seems to have gone mad). Horrible sights are to be seen. In the dim light, at the time of dusk, one can see bats with baby faces who whistle, beat their wings, crawl, lean downward, down a blackened wall. There are towers upside down. They are towers of churches far from them still comes out the sound of bells reminding the people that it was the time for them to go to the church and say their prayers, but nobody heeds them. To the modern humanity they indicate merely the passing of time (and carry no spiritual significance). Voices are also heard singing out of empty cisterns and empty wells (symbolic of spiritual dryness). There is spiritual sterility all around.

In the next passage, the poet reminds the readers of the grail-legend, and the journey of the questers. They have climbed the mountain, despite all difficulties and horrors, and are now close to Chapel Perilous where the grail is kept. About the chapel, it is a scene of desolation. The graves are open, and the wind blows through the dry grass with a song-like sound. The chapel is empty, there is nobody in it except the wind. It has no windows, and its doors swing as the wind blows. The bones of the dead can be seen in the open graves. These dry bones can harm no one, but it is an ugly, horrible sound. But a cock stood on the roof tree and crowed loudly. Its crowing signifies regeneration and spiritual re-birth of the questers (as well as of King Fisher and his kingdom for they were now close to the Chapel Perilous, and their quest was about to end successfully. Soon there is a flash of lightning and a damp gust of wind bringing rain, symbolising the dawn of spiritual regeneration.

The passage which follows refers to the condition of utter draught and famine which once prevailed in India. The water level in the holy river Ganges was low. The leaves were hanging down in a lifeless nanner, dry and withered. All waited anxiously for rain. There were black clouds over the distant Himalayas, but there was no rain. The beasts of the jungle suffered from intense thirst, and sat helplessly. All men and beasts alike sat crowded together in complete silence. They prayed to god (Prajapati) and the God replied to them in a loud thundering voice.

First, God spoke the word DA’ that is to say that if they wanted his blessings, they should give themselves over to some noble cause. But the modern waste landers are not devoted to any noble cause and hence their spiritual degeneration. Devotion or surrender to some noble cause is possible only in moments of intense emotional excitement. Only in such moments does man have the awful courage of giving himself over absolutely to some noble cause so that he cannot retrace his steps when he thinks over the matter more prudently (in a worldly sense). It is only through such devotion to some noble cause, that humanity has survived spiritually and culturally. Such people have suffered martyrdom, but the account of their suffering and martyrdom is not to be found in the obituaries (accounts of life and death that are daily published in the newspapers). It is not to be found in the accounts of their life and death carved on tomb stones, which are covered by spiders with their cobwebs. Neither is it to be found in their wills, the seals of which are broken by lean lawyers, after they are dead, and their rooms are empty.

The thunder spoke to them a second time, and repeated the word ‘DA’. It means sympathise. God commanded them to come out of the prison of self and enter imaginatively into the sorrow and suffering of others. It is only rarely, once in a life time, that one turns the key of the prison of self, and comes out of it. Otherwise, the key to the prison of self keeps it closed, and the more they close it and shut themselves in their own respective prisons the more isolated they grow. It is only at night, and that, too, rarely when the conscious self is asleep, that the voice of God speaks to the soul, and one forgets for the time being his own ego and pride. It is only in such rare moments that the Coriolanus in each of us is regenerated and we forget, for the time being, our own self-centredness, come out of the prison of self, and sympathise with others. Such sympathy is essential for spiritual re- generation.

The thunder spoke to the people a third time also, and the same word ‘DA’ was repeated. The DA spoken now means Damyata, that is to say self- control, control over one’s own passions and desires. It is only such self- control that makes the journey of life easy and comfortable. Life may be likened to a boat. Just as a boat sails easily and smoothly, almost gaily, when the pilot is well-trained and skilful, so also the journey of life becomes smooth and happy when we have acquired self-control. Then the sea becomes calm, there are no storms, our hearts respond joyfully to the calm sea, and the boat of life goes ahead gaily as it is controlled by skilled hands. Such self-control is essential for a successful and happy life.

Once the poet (or Tiresias) sat fishing on the banks of a river with a dry and desolate land behind him. He was fishing so that, at least, he may set his own land in order i.e. work out his own spiritual regeneration. In the modern waste land London Bridge is falling down and it keeps falling down constantly, i.e. spiritual values are decaying and disintegrating, particularly in large cities like London, Paris or any other. The poet is reminded of a line of Dante, “Please remember my pains.” It is only through suffering that regeneration takes place. He also refers to the story of Procene, who suffered and was transformed into a swallow. The story also implies that spiritual regeneration can take place only through suffering. The lines from a French sonnet, “the Prince of Aquitace” of the ruined tower also convey the same lesson. Such are the lessons which the poet has learned for his own salvation, to repair his own spiritual ruin. As Heironymo, the mad father in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, tells the actors that he can provide them with a good play which they should enact, so also the poet has ‘fitted’ his readers with the way in which they can work out their own spiritual salvation. If they give themselves over to some noble cause, if they learn to sympathise, if they also acquire self-control, and if they remember that suffering alone leads to spiritual salvation, they would acquire spiritual calm and tranquility. Then there would be nothing but “Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi” in their lives.

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