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Frankenstein's Monster: The Gothic Voice in The Waste Land

Randy Malamud

English Language Notes 26.1 (1988), 41-45

{41} An allusion in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus embodies a crucial point of reference for the poem's voice of despair and exhaustion. Eliot writes, in line 182,
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . . 1
It was by the waters of Lake Leman (Lake Geneva), at Lausanne, that Eliot composed and organized most of his poem. He spent two months in Switzerland recovering from nervous collapse, under the care of the nerve specialist Dr. Roger Vittoz. Eliot's treatment under Vittoz was the catalyst, as he might have said himself, for the organization and ordering necessary to create The Waste Land. He returned to London with a draft of the poem.

Line 182 describes Eliot's state of mind: it invokes the emotional collapse that drove him to escape in Autumn, 1921, from London, from his job at Lloyds, and from his wife, Vivien. The line obviously alludes to Psalm 137, which tells of the lamentation of the Jews in exile: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." Eliot means to appropriate the psalm's poignant and helpless lament, and to equate that lament with his own frustration at being unable to hold together the chaotic fragments of his cultural or his personal past (as the Jews in Babylon feared that they would forget their culture from Jerusalem). "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" the psalm asks. The Waste Land is indeed a strange land, and Eliot's quest is to find a meaningful song that can be sung -- not Tereu, the song of the battered victim, nor the Shakespeherian Rag, nor a bawdy ditty about Mrs. Porter, but the simple and fecund water-dripping song, Eliot's favorite passage of the poem, that is finally sung toward the end of the journey.

But Eliot's more direct debt for the image in line 182 is to the central monologue of Mary Shelley's nameless monster. The scene is the first meeting of considerable duration between Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. (They have seen each other twice before: in Frankenstein's cell on the night of animation, and when Frankenstein returns home from Ingolstadt after his brother's death.) {42} Frankenstein comes face to face with his creation: "For the first time . . . I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were."2 And also for the first time, Shelley gives the monster the chance to speak eloquently for himself; Frankenstein must listen. The monster tells of his earliest memories of existence, his journey through the forests of Switzerland:

The light became more and more oppressive to me; and, the heat wearying me as I walked, I sought a place where I could receive shade. This was the forest near Ingoldstadt [sic]; and here I lay by the side of a brook resting from my fatigue, until I felt tormented by hunger and thirst. This roused me from my nearly dormant state, and I ate some berries which I found hanging on the tree, or lying on the ground. I slaked my thirst at the brook; and then lying down, was overcome by sleep.

It was dark when I awoke; I felt cold also, and half-frightened as it were instinctively, finding myself so desolate. Before I had quitted your apartment, on a sensation of cold, I had covered myself with some clothes; but these were insufficient to secure me from the dews of night. I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but, feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept. (98)

The proof that Eliot integrated the last five words of this passage into The Waste Land is circumstantial, but compelling. Frankenstein's home is in Geneva, on the lake, and Shelley conceived and began the novel in Geneva. The source of the monster's despair -- where both Shelley and Victor Frankenstein derived their creative impulses -- is thus "by the waters of Leman" (even though the monster, when he wept, was actually at Ingolstadt, north of Munich), like Eliot's own emotional nadir in Lausanne. I do not mean to overlook the resonance of Psalm 137 in this line; but the appropriation verbatim from Shelley, including Eliot's significantly self-referential use of her first-person "I" instead of the biblical "we," makes Frankenstein Eliot's more potent reference. Shelley's monster reinforces the biblical allusion, but intensifies the force of this lament to suit the emotion to the spirit of the modern age, the age of science and technology that frightened many post-war modernists. The monster, like the speakers in the psalm, is trying to orient himself to the oppressive landscape of a very strange land. Eliot, in the throes of mental collapse, draws upon the monster's bewildered resignation to express his own modern sense of the abyss.

{43} Additional verbal and imagistic parallels between Frankenstein and The Waste Land strengthen the force of Eliot's allusion to Shelley's novel. The most significant of these is the similarity between the monster's "I knew, and could distinguish, nothing," and Eliot's "On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing" (64). Both these nihilistic passages describe the time just before Eliot and the monster "sat down and wept." In Eliot's case, the Margate beach was his first stop on the way from London to Lausanne. He had hoped to find respite there, but did not; from Margate he inquired about specialized psychological treatment, and was directed to Dr. Vittoz.3 And in Frankenstein, this simple but powerful awareness leads the monster to his realization of complete despair.

Three more relevant images in Frankenstein surface in The Waste Land -- with less striking import, but still reinforcing Eliot's imagistic connection to the Gothic horror story: 1) Shelley describes Frankenstein's assembly of the monster: "I collected bones from charnel houses" (50). Eliot locates one of his poem's settings as "rats' alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones" (57). 2) The monster, describing the time soon after he wept, states, "I was still cold" (98). As Eliot recovers from despair by the waters, he writes, "But at my back in a cold blast I hear/ The rattle of the bones" (60). 3) The monster, overcoming his depths of disillusionment by the water, "gradually saw plainly the clear stream that supplied me with drink" (98). Eliot, similarly, bolsters himself against the traumatic waters of Leman with a clear stream that seems more soothing than the waters of Leman, and -- considering its context in Spenser's Prothalamion -- more promising of succor: "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song" (60).

[* * * * *]

The condition of the monster, who narrates his genesis at them center of Frankenstein, is one of hideous beauty. His hideousness is evident from the start; but his beauty is the beauty of creation, of life. It is carefully cultivated over time, as, for example, he studiously reviews the tradition of Western literature. Shelley describes positive aspects of the monster's existence. Immediately after "I sat down and wept," the monster explains he has been so strongly tormented that there is no place for him to go but up: "Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation {44} of pleasure. I started up, and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees" (98).

Such a condition -- affirmation that the worst had passed -- would not be unwelcome amid the boundless emptiness of "The Fire Sermon." This affirmation, however mitigated, appears in line 182. The speechless terror Frankenstein has beheld in his first two meetings with the monster is dramatically transformed after the monster's disquisition. The monster's terror persists, but it is considerably different -- it is informed, philosophically potent. The fright generated by the monster is no longer abstract and visceral, but rather, keenly defined.

Similarly, The Waste Land moves from a random pastiche of terrifying and desolate images in the first three sections to a specifically accessible vision of the potential for something like redemption, emergence, or at least closure. The water-dripping song, the voice of the thunder, the guidance offered in Datta, Dayadhram, Damyata, all represent a kind of focusing and thus control of terror. A message may be read and understood, leading to the salvational "Shantih."

Eliot's typescript of The Waste Land began with an epigraph from Heart of Darkness that included Kurtz's haunting last words: "The horror! The horror!" In view of Eliot's expression of affinity with Frankenstein's monster at the part of the poem that seems most autobiographically expository, The Waste Land can be read as a Gothic spectacle of monstrously horrific thrills. This reading is perhaps too obvious, too visceral, for current critical sensibilities, yet it allows us to define a pervasive landscape in the poem as few other readings do. (This is important if for no other reason than that the poem's title specifically tells us that it presents some sort of mysterious "land" -- the reader's task is to survey and chart that domain.) The poem's setting is a vision of the Gothic terrain, with its "heap of broken images," "That corpse you planted last year in your garden," "The wind under the door," "bones cast in a little low dry garret,/ Rattled by the rat's foot only," "Murmur of maternal lamentation," "hooded hordes swarming/ Over endless plains," "Falling towers," "bats with baby faces in the violet light," "tumbled graves, about the chapel," "Dry bones," "memories draped by the beneficent spider," and the mad Hieronymo (53-69, passim).

Eliot's abyss of disillusion is obvious, and is simply evoked through the allusion to Frankenstein in line 182: the {45} speaker has confronted the monstrous nature of his modern existence. But one should not ignore the germ of optimism Eliot has seized. The monster is educated, powerful, strongly motivated to succeed at his quest. Both Shelley's monster and Eliot's modern appropriation of that persona are at home amid the Gothic, and are able to march forward undaunted by the landscape of terror. The monster is only an assembly of fragments of other men, but in the schema of The Waste Land, such organization is the ultimate source of strength: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (69).


1. T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (New York, 1970), 60. Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

2. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (Chicago, 1974), 97. Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

3. Valerie Eliot, ed., The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts (New York, 1971), xxii.