“The Waste Land” is a modernist poem by T. S. Eliot caused a sensation when it was published in 1922. It is today the most widely translated and studied English-language poem of the twentieth century. This is perhaps surprising given the poem’s length and its difficulty, but Eliot’s vision of modern life as plagued by sordid impulses, widespread apathy, and pervasive soullessness packed a punch when readers first encountered it. Pound’s influence on the final version of “The Waste Land” is significant.
At the time of the poem’s composition, Eliot was ill, struggling to recover from his nervous breakdown and languishing through an unhappy marriage. Pound offered him support and friendship; his belief in and admiration for Eliot were enormous. Pound, like Eliot a crucible of modernism, called for compression, ellipsis, reduction.
The poem grew yet more cryptic; references that were previously clear now became more obscure. Explanations were out the window. The result was a more difficult work — but arguably a richer one.
Eliot did not take all of Pound’s notes, but he did follow his friend’s advice enough to turn his sprawling work into a tight, elliptical, and fragmented piece. Once the poem was completed, Pound lobbied on its behalf, convincing others of its importance. He believed in Eliot’s genius, and in the impact “The Waste Land” would have on the literature of its day. That impact ultimately stretched beyond poetry, to novels, painting, music, and all the other arts. John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer owes a significant debt to “The Waste Land,” for example.
Eliot’s take on the modern world profoundly shaped future schools of thought and literature, and his 1922 poem remains a touchstone of the English-language canon.
Two of the poem’s sections — “The Burial of the Dead” and “Death by Water” –refer specifically to this theme. What complicates matters is that death can mean life; in other words, by dying, a being can pave the way for new lives. Eliot asks his friend Stetson: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
The Christ images in the poem, along with the many other religious metaphors, posit rebirth and resurrection as central themes. The Waste Land lies fallow and the Fisher King is impotent; what is needed is a new beginning. Water, for one, can bring about that rebirth, but it can also destroy.. Hence the prevalence of Grail imagery in the poem; that holy chalice can restore life and wipe the slate clean; likewise, Eliot refers frequently to baptisms and to rivers – both “life-givers,” in either spiritual or physical ways.
“The Waste Land” opens with an invocation of April, “the cruellest month.” That spring be depicted as cruel is a curious choice on Eliot’s part, but as a paradox it informs the rest of the poem to a great degree. What brings life brings also death; the seasons fluctuate, spinning from one state to another, but, like history, they maintain some sort of stasis; not everything changes. In the end, Eliot’s “waste land” is almost seasonless: devoid of rain, of propagation, of real change. The world hangs in a perpetual limbo, awaiting the dawn of a new season.
Perhaps the most famous episode in “The Waste Land” involves a female typist’s liaison with a “carbuncular” man. Eliot depicts the scene as something akin to a rape. This chance sexual encounter carries with it mythological baggage – the violated Philomela, the blind Tiresias who lived for a time as a woman.
The references to Tristan und Isolde in “The Burial of the Dead,” to Cleopatra in “A Game of Chess,” and to the story of Tereus and Philomela suggest that love, in “The Waste Land,” is often destructive. Tristan and Cleopatra die, while Tereus rapes Philomela, and even the love for the hyacinth girl leads the poet to see and know “nothing.”
“The Waste Land” lacks water; water promises rebirth. At the same time, however, water can bring about death. Eliot sees the card of the drowned Phoenician sailor and later titles the fourth section of his poem after Madame Sosostris’ mandate that he fear “death by water.” When the rain finally arrives at the close of the poem, it does suggest the cleansing of sins, the washing away of misdeeds, and the start of a new future; however, with it comes thunder, and therefore perhaps lightning.
History, Eliot suggests, is a repeating cycle. When he calls to Stetson, the Punic War stands in for World War I; this substitution is crucial because it is shocking. At the time Eliot wrote “The Waste Land,” the First World War was definitively a first – the “Great War” for those who had witnessed it. There had been none to compare with it in history. The predominant sensibility was one of profound change; the world had been turned upside down and now, with the rapid progress of technology, the movements of societies, and the radical upheavals in the arts, sciences, and philosophy, the history of mankind had reached a turning point.Eliot’s poem is like a street in Rome or Athens; one layer of history upon another upon another.
The five parts of The Waste Land are titled:
1. The Burial of the Dead
2. A Game of Chess
3. The Fire Sermon
4. Death by Water
5. What the Thunder Said
The Waste Land Section I: “The Burial of the Dead”
The first section of The Waste Land takes its title from a line in the Anglican burial service. It is made up of four vignettes, each seemingly from the perspective of a different speaker. The first is an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, in which she recalls sledding and claims that she is German, not Russian. The second section is a prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, where the speaker will show the reader “something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / [He] will show you fear in a handful of dust” (Evelyn Waugh took the title for one of his best-known novels from these lines). The almost threatening prophetic tone is mixed with childhood reminiscences about a “hyacinth girl” and a nihilistic epiphany the speaker has after an encounter with her.
These recollections are filtered through quotations from Wagner’s operatic version of Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss. The third episode in this section describes an imaginative tarot reading, in which some of the cards Eliot includes in the reading are not part of an actual tarot deck. The final episode of the section is the most surreal. The speaker walks through a London populated by ghosts of the dead. He confronts a figure with whom he once fought in a battle that seems to conflate the clashes of World War I with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (both futile and excessively destructive wars). The speaker asks the ghostly figure, Stetson, about the fate of a corpse planted in his garden.
Eliot’s opening quotation sets the tone for the poem as a whole. Sibyl is a mythological figure who asked Apollo “for as many years of life as there are grains in a handful of sand” (North, 3). Unfortunately, she did not think to ask for everlasting youth. As a result, she is doomed to decay for years and years, and preserves herself within a jar. Having asked for something akin to eternal life, she finds that what she most wants is death. Death alone offers escape; death alone promises the end, and therefore a new beginning. Eliot’s poem, like the anthropological texts that inspired it, draws on a vast range of sources. Eliot provided copious footnotes with the publication of The Waste Land in book form; these are an excellent source for tracking down the origins of a reference. Many of the references are from the Bible: at the time of the poem’s writing Eliot was just beginning to develop an interest in Christianity that would reach its apex in the Four Quartets.
The Waste Land Section II: “A Game of Chess”
This section takes its title from two plays by the early 17th-century playwright Thomas Middleton, in one of which the moves in a game of chess denote stages in a seduction. This section focuses on two opposing scenes, one of high society and one of the lower classes. The first half of the section portrays a wealthy, highly groomed woman surrounded by exquisite furnishings. As she waits for a lover, her neurotic thoughts become frantic, meaningless cries. Her day culminates with plans for an excursion and a game of chess. The second part of this section shifts to a London barroom, where two women discuss a third woman.
Between the bartender’s repeated calls of “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” (the bar is closing for the night) one of the women recounts a conversation with their friend Lil, whose husband has just been discharged from the army. She has chided Lil over her failure to get herself some false teeth, telling her that her husband will seek out the company of other women if she doesn’t improve her appearance. Lil claims that the cause of her ravaged looks is the medication she took to induce an abortion; having nearly died giving birth to her fifth child, she had refused to have another, but her husband “won’t leave [her] alone.
The first part of the section is largely in unrhymed iambic pentameter lines, or blank verse. As the section proceeds, the lines become increasingly irregular in length and meter, giving the feeling of disintegration, of things falling apart. As the woman of the first half begins to give voice to her paranoid thoughts, things do fall apart, at least formally: We read lines of dialogue, then a snippet from a nonsense song. The second half of the section is a dialogue interrupted by the barman’s refrain. Rather than following an organized structure of rhyme and meter This is perhaps the most poetically experimental section of the entire poem. Eliot is writing in a lower-class vernacular here that resists poetic treatment.
This section refutes the prevalent claim that iambic pentameter mirrors normal English speech patterns: Line length and stresses are consistently irregular. The two women of this section of the poem represent the two sides of modern sexuality: while one side of this sexuality is a dry, barren interchange inseparable from neurosis and self-destruction, the other side of this sexuality is a rampant fecundity associated with a lack of culture and rapid aging.
The comparison between the two is not meant to suggest equality between them or to propose that the first woman’s exaggerated sense of high culture is in any way equivalent to the second woman’s lack of it; rather, Eliot means to suggest that neither woman’s form of sexuality is regenerative.
The Waste Land Section III: “The Fire Sermon”
The title of this, the longest section of The Waste Land, is taken from a sermon given by Buddha in which he encourages his followers to give up earthly passion (symbolized by fire) and seek freedom from earthly things. A turn away from the earthly does indeed take place in this section, as a series of increasingly debased sexual encounters concludes with a river-song and a religious incantation. The section opens with a desolate riverside scene: Rats and garbage surround the speaker, who is fishing and “musing on the king my brother’s wreck.” The river-song begins in this section The speaker then proclaims himself to be Tiresias, a figure from classical mythology who has both male and female features (“Old man with wrinkled female breasts”) and is blind but can “see” into the future.
Tiresias/the speaker observes a young typist, at home for tea, who awaits her lover, a dull and slightly arrogant clerk. The woman allows the clerk to have his way with her, and he leaves victorious. Tiresias, who has “foresuffered all,” watches the whole thing. After her lover’s departure, the typist thinks only that she’s glad the encounter is done and over. A fisherman’s bar is described, then a beautiful church interior, then the Thames itself. These are among the few moments of tranquillity in the poem, and they seem to represent some sort of simpler alternative. Queen Elizabeth I in an amorous encounter with the Earl of Leicester. The queen seems unmoved by her lover’s declarations, and she thinks only of her “people humble people who expect / Nothing.” The section then comes to an abrupt end with a few lines from St. Augustine’s Confessions and a vague reference to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon (“burning”).
This section of The Waste Land is notable for its inclusion of popular poetic forms, particularly musical ones. The more plot-driven sections are in Eliot’s usual assortment of various line lengths, rhymed at random. “The Fire Sermon,” however, also includes bits of many musical pieces’ the use of such “low” forms cuts both ways here: In one sense, it provides a critical commentary on the episodes described, the cheap sexual encounters shaped by popular culture (the gramophone, the men’s hotel). But Eliot also uses these bits and pieces to create high art, and some of the fragments The opening two stanzas of this section describe the ultimate “Waste Land” as Eliot sees it.
The wasteland is cold, dry, and barren, covered in garbage. Unlike the desert, which at least burns with heat, this place is static, save for a few scurrying rats. Even the river, normally a symbol of renewal, has been reduced to a “dull canal.” while Buddha can only repeat the word “burning,” unable to break free of its monotonous fascination. The poem’s next section, which will relate the story of a death without resurrection, exposes the absurdity of these two figures’ faith in external higher powers. That this section ends with only the single word “burning,” isolated on the page, reveals the futility of all of man’s struggles.
The Waste Land Section IV: “Death by Water”
The shortest section of the poem, “Death by Water” describes a man, Phlebas the Phoenician, who has died, apparently by drowning. In death he has forgotten his worldly cares as the creatures of the sea have picked his body apart. The narrator asks his reader to consider Phlebas and recall his or her own mortality. Analysis
While this section appears on the page as a ten-line stanza, in reading, it compresses into eight: four pairs of rhyming couplets. Both visually and audibly, this is one of the most formally organized sections of the poem. It is meant to recall other highly organized forms that often have philosophical or religious import, like aphorisms and parables. The alliteration and the deliberately archaic language (“o you,” “a fortnight dead”) also contribute to the serious, didactic feel of this section. The major point of this short section is to rebut ideas of renewal and regeneration. Phlebas just dies; that’s it. Like Stetson’s corpse in the first section, Phlebas’s body yields nothing more than products of decay. However, the section’s meaning is far from flat; indeed, its ironic layering is twofold.
The Waste Land Section V: “What the Thunder Said”
The final section of The Waste Land is dramatic in both its imagery and its events. The first half of the section builds to an apocalyptic climax, as suffering people become “hooded hordes swarming” and the “unreal” cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. A decaying chapel is described, which suggests the chapel in the legend of the Holy Grail. Atop the chapel, a cock crows, and the rains come, relieving the drought and bringing life back to the land. Curiously, no heroic figure has appeared to claim the Grail; the renewal has come seemingly at random, gratuitously.
Eliot launches into a meditation on each of these aspects of the thunder’s power. The meditations seem to bring about some sort of reconciliation, as a Fisher King-type figure is shown sitting on the shore preparing to put his lands in order, a sign of his imminent death or at least abdication. The poem ends with a series of disparate fragments from a children’s song.
The final stanzas of “The Waste Land” once again link Western and Eastern traditions, transporting the reader to the Ganges and the Himalayas, and then returning to the Thames and London Bridge. Eliot’s tactic throughout his poem has been that of eclecticism, of mixing and matching and of diversity, and here this strain reaches a culmination. The relevant Upanishad passage, which Eliot quotes, describes God delivering three groups of followers -– men, demons, and the gods -– the sound “Da.” The challenge is to pull some meaning out of this apparently meaningless syllable. For men, “Da” becomes “Datta,” meaning to give; this order is meant to curb man’s greed. For demons, “dayadhvam” is the dictum: these cruel and sadistic beings must show compassion and empathy for others. Finally, the gods must learn control – “damyata” – for they are wild and rebellious. Together, these three orders add up to a consistent moral perspective, composure, generosity, and empathy lying at the core.
The initial imagery associated with the apocalypse at this section’s opening is taken from the crucifixion of Christ. Significantly, though, Christ is not resurrected here: we are told, “He who was living is now dead.” The rest of the first part, while making reference to contemporary events in Eastern Europe and other more traditional apocalypse narratives, continues to draw on Biblical imagery and symbolism associated with the quest for the Holy Grail. The repetitive language and harsh imagery of this section suggest that the end is perhaps near, that not only will there be no renewal but that there will be no survival either. Cities are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed, mirroring the cyclical downfall of cultures. The meditations upon the Upanishads give Eliot a chance to test the potential of the modern world.
Asking, “what have we given?” he finds that the only time people give is in the sexual act and that this gift is ultimately evanescent and destructive: He associates it with spider webs and solicitors reading wills. Just as the poem’s speaker fails to find signs of giving, so too does he search in vain for acts of sympathy—the second characteristic of “what the thunder says”: He recalls individuals so caught up in his or her own fate—each thinking only of the key to his or her own prison—as to be oblivious to anything but “ethereal rumors” of others. The third idea expressed in the thunder’s speech—that of control—holds the most potential, although it implies a series of domineering relationships and surrenders of the self that, ultimately, are never realized.