And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” 1922
For me, the phrase, “fear in a handful of dust” signifies that sense of nameless dread that can arise without an immediate cause. Anyone who hasn’t experienced such a sense of impending doom sometime this past year was not paying attention!
The poem from which the line was taken, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste land, is considered one of the most important early 20th century poems, announcing the ascendency of modernism in poetry – there was little appetite for 19th c. romanticism after the First World War. At the same time, as Eliot made clear in extensive notes, he drew heavily on an ancient legend, that of The Holy Grail, a central image in the Arthurian legends, but with roots stretching back to the Bronze Age.
Like Eliot before him, Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Waste Land. The legend revolves around Sacred Kingship, where the health of the land and the health of the sovereign are one. Behind the ailing Arthur is the Fischer King, with a wound that will not heal. The land is waste and can only be healed by the recovery of the Holy Grail. (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology).
In Christianized tellings the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, but in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the version most quoted by Campbell, the Grail is a stone: “Its name is ‘lapis exiles,’ which is one of the terms applied in alchemy to the philosopher’s stone.” The gifts of the Grail are different for each person, corresponding to their deepest desires.
In Wolfram’s telling, to redeem himself and the land, the Grail seeker must ask the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?” For all my fascination with the Grail legend over the years, I’ve never been able to understand that question. Until maybe last year.
Sheltering in place, cut off from most ordinary activities, there was plenty of time to reflect. The most important reflection was probably, “What is most important?” What matters most to me? What do you say to fear in a handful of dust, or fear in the darkness when you wake up at 3:00 am during a plague year?
At this moment in time, I’m old enough to say I know. For now. Answers change as we change, but answers may not be the main thing. To redeem the Grail what matters most is asking the right question.