The final section of The Waste Land is dramatic in both its imagery and its events. The first half of the section builds to an apocalyptic climax, as suffering people become “hooded hordes swarming” and the “unreal” cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. A decaying chapel is described, which suggests the chapel in the legend of the Holy Grail. Atop the chapel, a cock crows, and the rains come, relieving the drought and bringing life back to the land. Curiously, no heroic figure has appeared to claim the Grail; the renewal has come seemingly at random, gratuitously.
The scene then shifts to the Ganges, half a world away from Europe, where thunder rumbles. Eliot draws on the traditional interpretation of “what the thunder says,” as taken from the Upanishads (Hindu fables). According to these fables, the thunder “gives,” “sympathizes,” and “controls” through its “speech”; Eliot launches into a meditation on each of these aspects of the thunder’s power. The meditations seem to bring about some sort of reconciliation, as a Fisher King-type figure is shown sitting on the shore preparing to put his lands in order, a sign of his imminent death or at least abdication. The poem ends with a series of disparate fragments from a children’s song, from Dante, and from Elizabethan drama, leading up to a final chant of “Shantih shantih shantih”—the traditional ending to an Upanishad. Eliot, in his notes to the poem, translates this chant as “the peace which passeth understanding,” the expression of ultimate resignation.
Just as the third section of the poem explores popular forms, such as music, the final section of The Waste Land moves away from more typical poetic forms to experiment with structures normally associated with religion and philosophy. The proposition and meditation structure of the last part of this section looks forward to the more philosophically oriented Four Quartets, Eliot’s last major work. The reasoned, structured nature of the final stanzas comes as a relief after the obsessively repetitive language and alliteration (“If there were water / And no rock / If there were rock / And also water...”) of the apocalyptic opening. The reader’s relief at the shift in style mirrors the physical relief brought by the rain midway through the section. Both formally and thematically, then, this final chapter follows a pattern of obsession and resignation. Its patterning reflects the speaker’s offer at the end to “fit you,” to transform experience into poetry (“fit” is an archaic term for sections of a poem or play; here, “fit” is used as a verb, meaning “to render into a fit,” to make into poetry).
The initial imagery associated with the apocalypse at this section’s opening is taken from the crucifixion of Christ. Significantly, though, Christ is not resurrected here: we are told, “He who was living is now dead.” The rest of the first part, while making reference to contemporary events in Eastern Europe and other more traditional apocalypse narratives, continues to draw on Biblical imagery and symbolism associated with the quest for the Holy Grail. The repetitive language and harsh imagery of this section suggest that the end is perhaps near, that not only will there be no renewal but that there will be no survival either. Cities are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed, mirroring the cyclical downfall of cultures: Jerusalem, Greece, Egypt, and Austria—among the major empires of the past two millennia—all see their capitals fall. There is something nevertheless insubstantial about this looming disaster: it seems “unreal,” as the ghost-filled London did earlier in the poem. It is as if such a profound end would be inappropriate for such a pathetic civilization. Rather, we expect the end to be accompanied by a sense of boredom and surrender.
Release comes not from any heroic act but from the random call of a farmyard bird. The symbolism surrounding the Grail myth is still extant but it is empty, devoid of people. No one comes to the ruined chapel, yet it exists regardless of who visits it. This is a horribly sad situation: The symbols that have previously held profound meaning still exist, yet they are unused and unusable. A flash of light—a quick glimpse of truth and vitality, perhaps—releases the rain and lets the poem end.
The meditations upon the Upanishads give Eliot a chance to test the potential of the modern world. Asking, “what have we given?” he finds that the only time people give is in the sexual act and that this gift is ultimately evanescent and destructive: He associates it with spider webs and solicitors reading wills. Just as the poem’s speaker fails to find signs of giving, so too does he search in vain for acts of sympathy—the second characteristic of “what the thunder says”: He recalls individuals so caught up in his or her own fate—each thinking only of the key to his or her own prison—as to be oblivious to anything but “ethereal rumors” of others. The third idea expressed in the thunder’s speech—that of control—holds the most potential, although it implies a series of domineering relationships and surrenders of the self that, ultimately, are never realized.