Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Literary criticism

By: Nathaniel Rupp

A Vichian Analysis of “What the Thunder Said”

 the waste land

What did the thunder say? This is the question one must ask when reading part V of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” To do this is to begin to unravel the seemingly ambiguous nature of this section of Eliot’s multifaceted poem and begin to interpret what is meant. Eliot’s interest in the limits of interpretation and the nature of meaning is expounded in part V. In order to discover meaning in this poem, one must begin by looking at the archai or governing roots (the initial cause for something rather than the reason for its continued existence) of that which is being interpreted. Understanding an arche, or governing root is essential when trying to trace the genealogy of anything; here we will be tracing meaning in language. Returning to the archai is extremely crucial when trying to understand Eliot’s poetry as well. Part V of “The Waste Land” is a metaphysical and philological examination of the archai of the human consciousness. Giambattista Vico’s method of returning to the origin will be useful in interpreting the meaning and language behind this section of “The Waste Land.”

Eliot and Vico see the first moment of consciousness as coming from an autonomous being, the thunder. Vico calls this the Jove principle. Primitive man, man before he had self-awareness, before one could even call him man, was not separate from nature, from anything. This was the state of man until he was shaken out of this unawareness. The first recognition of consciousness comes from the identification of the other, that which is not “I.”1 Jove, the thunder, is what shook man. Man before this awakening was lost in “confusions over mass terms, confusions over sign and object, perhaps even [in] a savage theology.2

The metaphor of Jove and the thunder speaking in “The Waste Land” is the same. The thunder whether it is Vico’s Jove or the creator god from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (which is the allusion Eliot is using) is essentially the same. Vico and Eliot both employ the archai of human consciousness in their respective mythos-histories. When the thunder spoke, primitive man interpreted it and became what he had the implicit potential and explicit desire to be. I say implicit potential and explicit desire because the potential is hidden but the desire is externally manifest in human nature. The “wastelanders” and the Vichian prehuman-men want the rain. They want the storm; they have the external desire for the thunder, for Jove.

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink 335
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit 340
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mud-cracked houses 345
If there were water

This section of “What the Thunder said” shows the wastelanders among the dry mountains. The mountains are dry because of the lack of rain, i.e. the lack of meaning. This lack of meaning can be looked at as a reflection of the limit of interpretation. Life is stripped from the mountains due to the lack of water. Water is the source of all life and it is missing here. Like the Vichian primitives, nothing can be known here “among the mountains/ Which are mountains of rock without water…” The thunder of the beginning section of the part V still echoes with us (the reader and the wastelanders), but “it has no meaning, carries no rain; it is mere noise, “dry sterile thunder without rain.”3

This lack of meaning stems from the limited nature of analysis and interpretation. Interpretation is limited because it is shaped by the current state or disposition of the mind interpreting. Human knowledge is based on interpretation, which is limited, so human knowledge, as a whole, is limited. This theory of knowledge from interpretation will always be limited in this fashion, because one can never know the whole or totality of a multiplicity without connecting the past and the present, or the multiple aspects of a concept. Looking at this limitation, Eliot elaborates on the points above in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this essay, he shows that the poet must return to the mythic in order to create meaning in the poem. The purpose of poetry, as Eliot shows in his essay, is then to bridge the past and present in a cyclical fashion. Poetry has the unique ability to create by bridging the past and present. According to Eliot and Vico, poetry is the prettification of meaning.

Vico has the same intuition about the nature of history as Eliot. Vico sees the only possibility for knowledge is a result of keying into what he calls “the ideal eternal history,”4 which is essentially the same concept that Eliot develops above.

With the aforementioned theory of poetics and history in mind, how can one fully interpret Jove or what the thunder said? The answer to this question is to remake the awakening experience of the primitive mind, for oneself, for the first time. We must consciously recognize that we exist in the ideal eternal history and then remake our own origin. Eliot remakes this origin and provides a mechanism, an image, for us to do so too.

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves 395
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
DA 400
Datta: what have we given?
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 405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA 410
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours 415
Revive for a moment a broken
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded 420
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

Da, the onamonapic interpretation of the thunder, in the passage can be interpreted in three ways. Each of these ways signifies different limitations of interpretation. However, Eliot displays these limitations to show us the confines of human knowledge. Each layer of interpretation can be seen through a lens of philological development.

Understanding this philological development is crucial in a Vichian analysis of this poem. Vico claims that there are three types of language, the mythic (that of Gods), the heroic (that of metaphor) and the human (that of analysis). Da can be seen as an example of the heroic stage of language (‘Da’ is a simple contingency of the philological genealogy of the actual arche).

The most foundational language is the actual sound of the thunder. This is the Jove experience. It is the primitive man shaking when he realizes that the thunder is other that himself. This is a pure intuition. The first language is a mute language. It is mute because it is a language of signification that is designed to express the relation of natural objects to ideas. “This is suited to the use of religion, for which observance is more important than discussion.”5 The truths these fables or myths carried were not allegorical through analysis, but by the simple act of participating in the experience without trying to interpret it (ars topica6 rather than ars critica7). This mythoi-symbolic language is the root and ground for the mental lexicon that is the foundation for all language. This lexicon is the dictionary that has allowed us to “interpret properly all the various articulated languages.”8

As previously noted, “da” is an example of Vico’s second stage of language, the heroic. This da is strictly metaphoric. The meaning of metaphor must be understood in a specific sense. The sense I am using is one in which two opposing things can coexist at the same time without any contradiction. This unity of opposites is an essential characteristic of the heroic language. “DA/ Datta… DA/ Dayadhvam/ DA/ Damyata” All of these interpretations are right. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where this myth comes from, the thunder responds to each of the interpretations saying ‘yes.’ By doing this, each interpretation is being validated without invalidating any other interpretation, exemplifying the unity of opposites.

Vico’s third language is the quantitative language of the post-Jovian man. Each word, in this language, our language, encapsulates a single idea. Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata all say exact things. This language does not allow for the simultaneity the previous languages did, but it does allow for more specified meaning, which is important when trying to make something clear and distinct.

Through these interpretations, we move from the dry mountain, where there was no meaning to the mythic meaning of the thunder to the heroic meaning of da to our analytic understanding. This discovery of the hidden layers of meaning and interpretation are essential to comprehending. Like Vico, Eliot returns to the archai of the subject then remakes the meaning and the story by philologically layering the genealogy of the denotations. Only by return to the beginning does one have any understanding of the surface or present.

This principle of parataxis is ever present in both Eliot and Vico. Both authors wrote in what at first glance seems to be fragments. For Eliot it is images, “heaps of broken images,” and for Vico it is the axiom. However, their apparently disconnected fragments are surprisingly similar. Eliot’s splintered images only seem disjointed from a temporally linear understanding, but read through and then back to the beginning, their true connected nature becomes apparent. The beginning echoes with the anticipation and the loaded sum of the totality the poem.

In his “from Preface to Anabasis,” Eliot dispels the critique that fragmented poetry, like “The Waste Land,” is disjointed and meaningless. He says,

Such selection of a sequence of images and ideas has nothing chaotic about it. There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts. People who do not appreciate poetry always find it difficult to distinguish between order and chaos in the argument of images; and even those who are capable of appreciating poetry cannot depend upon first impressions.9

This inability to see the order in the chaos is not the fault of the poet, but the reader. The reader must look for the deeper meanings, a “logic of imagination as well as a logic of concepts.” The logic of imagination is one that cannot be understood simply by reading a poem, digesting the images one at a time, taking them as they appear, then letting them go as the next image takes its place.

Vico’s axioms can be grasped in a similar fashion. On first impression each axiom stands on its own. They seem independent. However each one is the ground for the next and only with the previous can the latter be understood. This type of meaning layering is displayed in the philological approach to the thunder discussed above. This collaborative system does not take away from the individual axioms or images. One must understand the unified whole to grasp how the individual parts interact. The parts can then be seen as a interconnected whole and as unique particular entities.

With this Vichian approach to reading part V of “The Waste Land” the reader is able to delve deeper into the different stratifications of meaning and language. If the reader travels deep enough into the text, Eliot provides the means for one to break through into a new understanding of human consciousness and a doorway into seeing the ideal eternal history. With each layer penetrated, the reader discovers new meanings in the poem and in the nature of human awareness and knowledge.

Works Cited

Brooker, Jewel and Bentley, Joseph. Reading the Waste Land. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

Eliot, T.S. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: A Harvest Book and Harcourt, INC, 1975.

Goetsch, James Robert, Jr. Vico’s Axioms: The Geometry of the Human World. New Haven and London: Yale Press. 1995.

Hartle, Ann. Death and the Disinterested Spectator. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Vico, Gimbattista. New Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 3rd Unabridged edition, 1984.

Vico, Giambattista. On the Study Methods of Our Time. Trans. by Donald Phillip. Verene, and Elio Gianturco. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1990.

Vico, Giambattista. On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians, trans. L.M. Palmer. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.


1 The law of identity states pp. This type of awareness only sees one thing – itself. All things are ‘p’. However, the law can be logical altered to say pv~p. This distinction shows awareness of that which is other. This is the distinction I am making about the primitive man not being able to make.

2 Ann Hartle, Death and the Disinterested Spectator (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 182.

3 Ibid. 176

4 Giambattista Vico, New Science, (Cornell University Press; 3rd Unabridged edition, 1984), 30

5 Ibid, 21

6 Knowing by participating without adding additional extemporaneous factors to the topic in question.

7 Knowing by critical analysis of a topic without taking participating in it.

8 Ibid, 22

9 T.S. Eliot, “from Preface to Anabasis”, in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, (New York: A Harvest Book and Harcourt, INC, 1975), 77-78.


Nathaniel Rupp is an English teacher in South Korea and is the editor and founder of Contraposition Literary Magazine. He studied philosophy at Eckerd College. He has a forthcoming essay publication in The Journal of Inking Studies.



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