T. S.

The Waste Land

Lines 366-376

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Eliot's Note

366-376. Cf. Hermann Hesse, Blick ins chaos:
“Schon ist halb Europa, schon ist zumindest der halbe Osten Europas auf dem Wege zum Chaos, fährt betrunken im heiligem Wahn am Abgrund entlang und singt dazu, singt betrunken und hymnisch wie Dmitri Karamasoff sang. Ueber diese Lieder lacht der Bürger beleidigt, der Heilige und Seher hört sie mit Tränen.”


From Hermann Hesse's essay A Glimpse into Chaos:

“Already half of Europe, already at least the eastern half of Europe is on the way to chaos, driving drunk on holy delusion along the edge of an abyss and singing to it, drunk songs and hymnals like Dmitri Karamazov sang. Over these songs the commoner laughs scornfully, the saint and seer listens with tears on her cheeks.”

Here Eliot unites two images that first appeared in Part I: the hooded figure and the faceless crowd. Both are found in the passage about the Tarot deck. In the stanza immediately preceding this one, the hooded figure is linked to Christ, and through Christ is linked to the prophets Sibyl, Madame Sosostris, and Tiresias that appear elsewhere in the poem. Here the hooded figures become a crowd, a sea of (evidently false) prophets running headlong toward their own destruction. If Christ is among them he cannot be distinguished.

Prophets in The Waste Land are a mixed bag. Sibyl's arrogance permits her miserable fate, Madame Sosostris is a fraud. Yet Eliot calls all-seeing Tiresias the most important character in the play and makes Christ (along with his resurrection, itself a prophecy) a prominent figure at the end of the poem. Eliot's note to this passage, with its crying seer, suggests not that the wisdom represented by these figures does not exist, but rather that we reliably fail to discern it from hucksterism.