“What The Thunder Said” and What We Say Back

by Claire Wilgus (Guttman CC, English and American Literature, 2021-2022 CRSP cohort)

The work was done as a part of the CRSP program at Guttman Community College/CUNY, under the supervision of Dr. Ria Banerjee.

This article has been published as part of the Special Edition of Ad Astra, which features the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP) across The City University of New York. The issue is accessible at http://www.adastraletter.com/2024/crsp-special-edition/.


Claire Wilgus

Claire Wilgus

Claire Wilgus graduated from Guttman Community College in 2022. She is a current undergraduate student at New York University studying English and American Literature. Her literary interests include modernist and postcolonial poetry, as well as ecopoetics.

This paper grew out of a CUNY Research Scholar Program funded project on reading T.S Eliot at Guttman Community College with Dr. Ria Banerjee in 2022. The purpose of the project was to understand how poetry from 1922 can still speak to the concerns of audiences in the 21st century. The project was given an award at the CRSP 2022 Winter Symposium.


“What the Thunder Said” is the fifth and final section of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The section that precedes it, “Death by Water”, features the figure of the drowned man entering the whirlpool, completely powerless to his environment. Both “What the Thunder Said” and “Death by Water” are centered around a figure hopeless to their surroundings. Juxtaposing the previous scene of excess, the second stanza of “What the Thunder Said” locates itself in a dry, desolate environment. Rather than water being omnipresent and an element of destruction, its presence, though completely absent, would bring relief to the speaker’s apocalyptic environment. The instinct is to read this stanza as portraying a world where both nature and the speaker are trapped in a state of stagnation and suffering. However, what can this section of the poem offer in the face of already overwhelming environmental calamities? Caylin Capra-Thomas in her essay “What the Thunder Said: Environmental Agency in The Waste Land” provides the beginning of a more hopeful analysis. She claims a reading of the environment and individual’s voice through an ecological perspective “reveals a poem that is not only observing environmental degradation, but also engaging with that environment in ways that have meaning for and beyond its degradation” (236). Depicted as an agent with its own voice and ability to act, the environment departs from the narrative of an idle or passive entity that harm is thrust upon. The stanza’s illustration of danger boomerangs between nature and the human subject, providing an example of how humanity’s damage to nature consequently creates an environment unsuitable for humanity. This cyclical portrayal of degeneration offers a motive for action and underscores the urgency for preservation and sustainability that would restore a harmonious relationship with humans and the world in which we live. To be clear, The Waste Land and Eliot do not specifically prescribe to an environmentalist stance, and such concerns were arguably far from the poet's mind when writing in London 1922. However, the poem’s imagination of nature and natural phenomena as agentic beings who speak and have meaning beyond the human limits of comprehension anticipates an environmentalist posture. Consequently, The Waste Land crucially exceeds the poet’s original purpose, suggesting humans are not the primary concern of our larger ecological system. The poem remains relevant to readers today precisely because it rejects the limitations of the pathetic fallacy literary form by offering an expansive philosophical view of the relationship between people and the world around us.

The second stanza of “What the Thunder Said” opens by emphasizing the lack of resources in the land, “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road” (Eliot lines 331-332). While the first line utilizes “but”, identifying a contrast or separation between the water and the rock, the second line utilizes “and”, drawing a grammatically equal connection. Both lines articulate the presence of rock and the absence of water; however the use of “and” identifies that the presence of rock in of itself denies the presence of water. In other words, because of the rock, there can be no water. Not only is rock “here”, in proximity to the speaker, it is also far off in the distance, “the road winding above among the mountains / Which are mountains of rock without water” (lines 333-334). The speaker, repetitive in their diction, is mirrored by the land’s homogeneity. This relation produces an amplified sense of the speaker’s futile position.

Additionally, the stanza continues to obsess over the land’s deprivation, “If there were water we should stop and drink / amongst the water one cannot stop or think / …if there were only water amongst the rock” (lines 335-336, 338). The stanza is crowded with negatives: “no water” is repeated twice followed by “without water” and “without rain” (lines 331-332, 334, 342). The excessive appearance of negatives in the stanza generate a speaker that is desperately engulfed in their present condition. The fixation on the lack of water as an opportunity for relief exhibits a dehydration delirium. A stagnant consciousness is created, making the time within the stanza equally stagnant. The poem takes on a partially elegiac, partially anti-pastoral form - lamenting the barren land and expressing nature’s denial of peace. Jahan Ramazani in his essay “Burying the Dead: The Waste Land, Ecocritique, and World Elegy'' categorizes the poem as a world elegy, emphasizing how the poem demonstrates a mourning for the world due to anthropogenic climate change and the hopeless public affect in the aftermath of WWI. Distancing itself from the Romantic impulse to appropriate nature “as a balm, a solace, to the human species that's destroying it,” the poem challenges us to consider “what happens when nature no longer promises ‘Retreat and return’, ‘when the figurative potential for natural renewal or refuge becomes no longer possible’ (Ramzani 15, as cited in Gifford and Ronda). Through the withholding of peace, the individual is not only trapped in a perpetual state of brooding but comes directly in contact with the dire state of the environment. The consequences of humanity’s neglect have arrived for the speaker to now undergo for themselves.

In addition to the speaker being consciously immobile, the bleak environment physically suppresses the speaker, “Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think / … Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit” (lines 336, 340). The image of sterility is extended from nature to the speaker’s mind and body, making them completely defenseless. Rather than movement being obviated, the speaker is forced into restlessness. The disparity between the speaker’s immobile consciousness and forced physical mobility ultimately erode the speaker’s autonomy and subjectivity. While the speaker is both detached from themselves and civilization, there appears to be a desire for further removal, “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 mudcracked houses” (lines 341-345). In saying, “there is not even” the speaker suggests a complaint or displeasure with the lack of solitude and silence. Prior to these lines there is a prominent sense of claustrophobia, and a desire for solitude and silence would, on the surface, perpetuate the speaker’s disconnection and feelings of despair. However, for the speaker, solitude and silence would bring peace, most likely due to the hostility of the “dry sterile thunder” and mysterious “red sullen faces” (lines 342, 344). Solitude and silence are more pleasurable than the threatening elements of their environment. Capra-Thomas astutely emphasizes “the numerous non-human entities producing a range of meaningful utterances in the poem” (230). Like the speaker’s obsession over the land’s desolateness, the dry thunder begs for catharsis. The communicational blockage between the individual and the land is opened, where “the thunder is an entity in which voice and environment intersect” (Capra-Thomas 233).

Prior to the stanza’s final lines, “But red sullen faces sneer and snarl / From doors of mudcracked houses”, there is no resemblance of civilization (lines 344-345). Finally, the glimpse that we do get of some sort of company among the speaker is that of hostility and primitiveness, perpetuating the speaker’s insecure position. This striking image is almost like a hallucination, causing readers to question the speaker’s senses. The spatial status of the red faces, suspended in the doorway, symbolize a point of division or in-betweenness. The faces are neither entering the speaker’s desolate landscape nor entirely occupying the mudcracked houses. While the speaker would likely not want to join the savage figures, their entry is denied. And while the faces do not pose an immediate threat, the speaker can spot the potential of danger. This scene corresponds to the feeling of the “dry sterile thunder without rain”. There is both a perpetual denial of water and safety. Both images create feelings of anticipation without relief that further amplify the speaker and the environment’s inability to act.

The scene created in this stanza is both one of infertility and primitiveness. In addition to the thunder and the red faces, the speaker anthropomorphizes the mountains of rock by describing a “dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit” (line 349). While it is difficult to discern what the speaker means by a mountain that “cannot spit”, the line resembles that of the thunder that cannot release rain. It appears that nature is not only restricting the speaker but is restricted itself. The environment, unavailable as a source of relief for the speaker, is also not regenerative for its own gain. The poem provides a zone where the environment is not “othered” or elsewhere. In the face of powerlessness, the “overlapping and interpenetrating” relationship between nature and person is demonstrated (Ramazani 14). By accepting this enmeshed coexistence, rather than an imbalanced dynamic, one can imagine, and therefore live with, a more rounded sense of humanity and nature’s position in the world. Nature is no longer abstracted, ghostlike, or faceless. It is no longer self contained or out of arm's reach. One can see directly that a crisis in nature is a crisis in civilization. This notion dramatically troubles our sense of the speaker’s positioning relative to their environment. Rather than nature being the oppressor and the speaker the victim, there is the possibility that both are suffering at the hands of one another. Both the speaker and the mystic desert are robbed of the possibility to advance, not necessarily due to the actions of the individual itself, but as a result of humanity’s collective abuse imposed on nature.

Ramazani asserts that elegiac form of The Waste Land “global in scope, blurring the divide between the human and the natural, eschewing pastoral retreat, refusing to idealize the past, engaging the anxieties posed by the future, and flinging our collective complicity in our faces–mourns the world without redeeming it” (19). The complication with mourning the future, with “anticipatory grief” for what will or might pass, is that it may relieve us of responsibility for the present. Reading “What the Thunder Said” as simply an elegy suggests that nature’s degradation is a lost cause and all we can do from now on is passively lament (17). Recovering nature’s agency offers a collective scale between human and environment. When our own damage catches up to us and when nature is no longer at our service, we are reminded of what we can no longer do, but in a more regenerative spirit, what we have not yet done.

Works Cited

Capra-Thomas, Caylin. "What the Thunder Said: Environmental Agency in The Waste Land." The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, vol. 5, 2023, pp. 229-238. Project MUSE https://muse.jhu.edu/article/900510.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land, edited by Michael North, W.W Norton & Company, 2001.

Gifford, Terry. "Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral." In The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, edited by Louise Westling, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Ramazani, Jahan. "Burying the Dead: The Waste Land, Ecocritique, and World Elegy." The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, vol. 4, 2022, pp. 7-23. Project MUSE https://muse.jhu.edu/article/878358.

Ronda, Margaret. Remainders: American Poetry at Nature's End, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.