Because of his wide-ranging contributions to poetry, criticism, prose, and drama, some critics consider Thomas Sterns Eliot one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. The Waste Land can arguably be cited as his most influential work. When Eliot published this complex poem in 1922—first in his own literary magazine Criterion, then a month later in wider circulation in the Dial— it set off a critical firestorm in the literary world. The work is commonly regarded as one of the seminal works of modernist literature. Indeed, when many critics saw the poem for the first time, it seemed too modern. In the place of a traditional work, with unified themes and a coherent structure, Eliot produced a poem that seemed to incorporate many unrelated, little-known references to history, religion, mythology, and other disciplines. He even wrote parts of the poem in foreign languages, such as Hindi. In fact the poem was so complex that Eliot felt the need to include extensive notes identifying the sources to which he was alluding, a highly unusual move for a poet, and a move that caused some critics to assert that Eliot was trying to be deliberately obscure or was playing a joke on them.
Yet, while the poem is obscure, critics have identified several sources that inspired its creation and which have helped determine its meaning. Many see the poem as a reflection of Eliot’s disillusionment with the moral decay of post–World War I Europe. In the work, this sense of disillusionment manifests itself symbolically through a type of Holy Grail legend. Eliot cited two books from which he drew to create the poem’s symbolism: Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890). The 1922 version of The Waste Land was also significantly influenced by Eliot’s first wife Vivien and by his friend Ezra Pound, who helped Eliot edit the original 800-line draft down to the published 433 lines. While The Waste Land is widely available today, perhaps one of the most valuable editions for students is the Norton Critical Edition, which was published by W. W. Norton in 2000. In addition to the poem, this edition also includes annotated notes from editors and from Eliot, a publication history, a chronology, a selected bibliography, and a collection of reprinted reviews from the 1920s to the end of the twentieth century.
An attempt to examine, line by line, the specific meaning of every reference and allusion in The Waste Land would certainly go beyond the intended scope of this entry. Instead, it is more helpful to examine the overall meaning of each of the five sections of the poem, highlighting some of the specific references as examples. But first a discussion of the poem’s title The Waste Land is necessary. The title refers to a myth from From Ritual to Romance, in which Weston describes a kingdom where the genitals of the king, known as the Fisher King, have been wounded in some way. This injury, which affects the king’s fertility, also mythically affects the kingdom itself. With its vital, regenerative power gone, the kingdom has dried up and turned into a waste land. In order for the land to be restored, a hero must complete several tasks, or trials. Weston notes that this ancient myth was the basis for various other quest stories from many cultures, including the Christian quest for the Holy Grail. Eliot says he drew heavily on this myth for his poem, and critics have noted that many of the poem’s references refer to this idea.