Rivers in “The Waste Land” and “From Ritual to Romance”

As others have pointed out, water plays an integral part in both The Waste Land and From Ritual to Romance. My take on the theme of water will focus on the story of Rishyacringa and its connection to Eliot and his poem. In the story, Rishyacringa- a young Brahmin- gives up his chastity to bring prosperity to what some might call a wasteland (sound familiar?). “…the lad (Rashyacringa) is carried to the capital of the rainless land, the King gives him his daughter as wife, and so soon as the marriage is consummated the spell is broken, and rain falls in abundance” (Weston 28). Rashyacringa’s sacrifice to bring rain back to the land plays into a larger theme found in Indian storytelling, that of “The Freeing of the Waters” which focuses on restoring the flow of water to the rivers of India (Weston 24). As a brief sidebar, I believe the king in the story bears a striking similarity to the Fisher King that Xandra blogged about below.

Now to connect this to The Waste Land, we’ll turn to Part V, page 18, where we see images of Indian rivers and fertility.  Eliot writes, “Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves // Waited for rain, while the black clouds // Gathered far distant, over Himavant” (lines 395-397). A dried up river in India, what a coincidence! Or completely intentional, as we even see Eliot connect the Ganges to the Thames with the imagery of limp leaves waiting for rain. The reader may recall similar lines about the English river at the beginning of Part III, “…the last fingers of leaf // Clutch and sink into the wet bank” (lines 173-175). Eliot connects Anglo and Indo cultures just like Weston does in her landmark study. Skipping ahead a few lines in Part V, we’ll connect the marriage of Rishyacringa to some of Eliot’s lines which seem to regard sex:

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed (lines 401-405)

“Blood shaking my heart” evokes vitality and life to me, and “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” seems to refer to a sexual act done in the heat of the moment that one may come to regret later. This is the exact circumstance under which Rashyacringa loses his virginity to the temptress. Further, “an age of prudence can never retract” the sexual action. Rashyacringa could go back to being chaste, but the newly freed river wouldn’t suddenly stop flowing. “By this, and this only, we have existed,” pretty obviously means we must give into our animal desires as a species in able to continue existing. Personally, I connect Rashyacringa’s plight to that of Eliot, who Dr. Drouin says struggles with deciding to live a normal life (represented by water) or a life with a higher calling (associated with fire). This section, of course, deals with water and the restoration of life and the normal life cycle, but also with the rejection of the ascetic.

As a brief, more out-there postscript, a possible alternate reading for the same section is through the lens of warfare and death instead of birth and life. “Blood shaking my heart” could be about fear before a battle, “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” could be one surrendering to the conflict wholly, becoming animalistic, and the inability of the “age of prudence” to “retract” the conflict could demonstrate that there is no undoing the war. “By this, and this only, we have existed,” as in, warfare is inherent in man’s nature. Death and birth have equally important roles to Eliot, and the fact that this can almost as  feasibly be read through the lens of war shows how connected the two are in Eliot’s verse.

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