There is a sense of impotence that pervades The Waste Land, specifically in its first section. As the war dead in the very beginning of the poem find the arrival of spring, a season frequently associated with rebirth, sexuality, and rejuvenation, to be a cruel reminder of what has been taken from them, so too do the other speakers appear, in their own respective ways, stuck in a sort of limbo: powerless, confused, not quite alive but not quite dead. The third speaker, for example, recalls a former failed romance: “I could not // Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither // Living nor dead, and I knew nothing…” (38-40). Taking place in a lush garden (albeit one that’s closely connected with death), this scene is one of unconsummated opportunities and unfulfilled potential (much like the unfulfilled potential of the many young men who died as a result of trench warfare). The speaker has missed his chance. The gardens of the past are now gone, replaced by the “stony rubbish” of a post-World War I world (20).
This particular scene is significant as it brings to light the tricky dynamic between sex and death in The Waste Land. The last line from this speaker (“Oed’ und leer das Meer”) comes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and calls to mind the image of a poisoned Tristan, stuck between life and death, waiting for Isolde. The connections between love and death continue on into the second part of the poem where there are allusions to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Ovid’s Philomela. I’m wondering if there is any connection between the sex/death dynamic here and the Freudian concept of Eros and Thanatos.