The nice thing about good poetry (or any other media) is that even if you don’t completely get it your first time, you can try again and get a little more every time you read it.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
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 a handful of dust.
We cannot peak about the roots and branches under the ground, because all we can see are the broken images and senses that the sun beats down on. Our view is hindered. We know only about the land of the living. And the land of the dead, beneath the red rock (a grave-maker?) is hidden and fearful. The shadow under this rock is different from the shadow at morning (youth) or from the shadow in the evening (old age).
How many poets have written about death? How many times have men and women of genius and insight been terrified by the handful of dust that awaits them?
But, I wonder, why do we look at the shadow?
Why do I look at the shadow striding behind me in the morning? Why do I gaze at it when it’s in front of me (though it is right before my eyes) in the evening? Why would I not, rather, look at the sun?
My shadow (the badge of mortality) is a small thing. It is not a part of me though it is related to me.
I cannot pretend to know exactly what happens under the red rock. I’ve never seen anything more than this heap of broken images, where the sun beats. But I find myself convinced that the sun somehow beats even under the red rock, though I’m not equipped to see it now. The shadow is a scary thing for me, true. But I don’t have that final fear Eliot is trying to express. I think that’s because I’m trying to look at the sun rather than my deepening shadow of morality.
It’s interesting, I think, that this poem was written years before Eliot converted to Christianity. I wonder what it would have said if he had written it after?
This is second-hand unless you’re reading it at http://www.theilliteratescribe.com