Shadows in “The Burial of the Dead”

Perhaps it is due to the background discussed in class, but in “The Burial of the Dead,” I couldn’t help but notice the repeated allusions to a state in between life and death, a state of perpetual shock and mourning, caused as we know by WWI.  Without the background given, however, I must admit that I probably would not have necessarily associated this part of The Waste Land with the war, but rather with some great vague End Times, especially in regard to the cyclical theory of history discussed in class.

Eliot is undeniably apocalyptic.  He writes, “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” (5-6).  Here, the term “shadow” emphasizes the liminal state in which the world is existing, neither here nor there, almost waiting for something even more horrendous to occur.  Eliot becomes even clearer later on, going as far to say, “I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (6). Though this first section of the poem is most clearly about dying, it is mostly about the process, the burial, the mourning, the movement of the soul.  In the last stanza of the section, though discussing the dead, Eliot does not describe them in their final resting places, but rather in phases of movement, or perhaps even stuck in Limbo.  It recreates the earlier phrase from stanza three, “neither living nor dead” (6), and seems to defend quote taken from Wagner’s Tristain und Isolde (translated from German), “desolate and empty is the sea” (6).  Eliot’s world here is one of emptiness, a stage of ignorant waiting, rather than of violent action or peaceful diplomacy.

A final note: the footnotes to the text display the myriad of writers that Eliot draws from, making more clear why Eliot’s writing seems to flow across times, rather than fit neatly into a post-WWI discussion.


One thought on “Shadows in “The Burial of the Dead”

  1. I really like how you point out the liminal language and imagery used by Eliot, as it’s not something I noticed right away.


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