In Eliot’s poetry, water symbolizes both life and death. Eliot’s characters wait for water to quench their thirst, watch rivers overflow their banks, cry for rain to quench the dry earth, and pass by fetid pools of standing water. Although water has the regenerative possibility of restoring life and fertility, it can also lead to drowning and death, as in the case of Phlebas the sailor from The Waste Land. Traditionally, water can imply baptism, Christianity, and the figure of Jesus Christ, and Eliot draws upon these traditional meanings: water cleanses, water provides solace, and water brings relief elsewhere in The Waste Land and in “Little Gidding,” the fourth part of Four Quartets. Prufrock hears the seductive calls of mermaids as he walks along the shore in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but, like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 800b.c.e.), he realizes that a malicious intent lies behind the sweet voices: the poem concludes “we drown” (131). Eliot thus cautions us to beware of simple solutions or cures, for what looks innocuous might turn out to be very dangerous.
The Fisher King is the central character in The Waste Land. While writing his long poem, Eliot drew on From Ritual to Romance, a 1920 book about the legend of the Holy Grail by Miss Jessie L. Weston, for many of his symbols and images. Weston’s book examined the connections between ancient fertility rites and Christianity, including following the evolution of the Fisher King into early representations of Jesus Christ as a fish. Traditionally, the impotence or death of the Fisher King brought unhappiness and famine. Eliot saw the Fisher King as symbolic of humanity, robbed of its sexual potency in the modern world and connected to the meaninglessness of urban existence. But the Fisher King also stands in for Christ and other religious figures associated with divine resurrection and rebirth. The speaker of “What the Thunder Said” fishes from the banks of the Thames toward the end of the poem as the thunder sounds Hindu chants into the air. Eliot’s scene echoes the scene in the Bible in which Christ performs one of his miracles: Christ manages to feed his multitude of followers by the Sea of Galilee with just a small amount of fish.
Like most modernist writers, Eliot was interested in the divide between high and low culture, which he symbolized using music. He believed that high culture, including art, opera, and drama, was in decline while popular culture was on the rise. In The Waste Land, Eliot blended high culture with low culture by juxtaposing lyrics from an opera by Richard Wagner with songs from pubs, American ragtime, and Australian troops. Eliot splices nursery rhymes with phrases from the Lord’s Prayer in “The Hollow Men,” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, as the title, implies a song, with various lines repeated as refrains. That poem ends with the song of mermaids luring humans to their deaths by drowning—a scene that echoes Odysseus’s interactions with the Sirens in the Odyssey. Music thus becomes another way in which Eliot collages and references books from past literary traditions. Elsewhere Eliot uses lyrics as a kind of chorus, seconding and echoing the action of the poem, much as the chorus functions in Greek tragedies.