Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, is a long, complex poem about the psychological and cultural crisis that came with the loss of moral and cultural identity after World War I. When it was first published, the poem was considered radically experimental. Eliot dispenses with traditional verse forms and instead juxtaposes sordid images of popular culture with erudite allusions to classical and ancient literature and myths. The title is indicative of Eliot’s attitude toward his contemporary society, as he uses the idea of a dry and sterile wasteland as a metaphor for a Europe devastated by war and desperate for spiritual replenishment but depleted of the cultural tools necessary for renewal.
The poem is deliberately obscure and fragmentary, incorporating variant voices, multiple points of view, and abrupt shifts in dramatic context. The motif of moral degeneration, however, is prevalent throughout the poem, the premise being that contemporary Europe, obsessed with novelty, trends, materialism, and instant gratification, lacks the faith and substance to reaffirm its cultural heritage, to reestablish the sense of order and stability that historical continuity once provided. In an attempt to counter the cultural deficit of the present with the rich cultural heritage of the past, Eliot combines images from pagan rituals and religious texts with ancient fertility rituals and allusions to legends of the Grail. These images of ceremony and...
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Waste Land Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In order to understand The Waste Land—one of the most difficult poems in a difficult literary period—the reader might do well to envision the work as a much-spliced film or videotape, a montage of images and sounds. This imaginary film is, in a sense, a real-life documentary: There are no heroes or heroines, and there is no narrator telling readers what to think or how to feel. Instead, Eliot allows multiple voices to tell their individual stories. Many of the stories are contemporary and portray a sordid society without values; other stories are drawn from world culture and include, among other motifs, Elizabethan England, ancient Greek mythology, and Buddhist scriptures.
The poem is divided into five sections. In the first, “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker is an old Austro-Hungarian noblewoman reminiscing about the golden days of her youth before the disasters of World War I. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” is set in the boudoir of a fashionable contemporary Englishwoman. The third, “The Fire Sermon,” mixes images of Elizabeth’s England, the Thames and Rhine rivers, and the legend of the Greek seer Tiresias. The fourth, “Death by Water,” is a brief portrait of a drowned Phoenician sea-trader. The fifth, “What the Thunder Said,” combines the above themes with that of religious peace. These parts combine in the poem’s overall montage to create a meaning that encompasses all of them. Because the poem is so complex, that meaning must be left to the individual reader; however, many students of the poem have suggested that, generally, Eliot shows his readers the collapse of Western culture in the aftermath of the war.
Part 1 is a natural beginning for Eliot’s overall panorama because the speaker, Marie, describes her memories of a key period in modern history. Clearly, her life has been materially and culturally rich. Now in old age, thoughts...
(The entire section is 781 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
T. S. Eliot, together with Ezra Pound, revolutionized the style and structure of poetry in the early twentieth century. Eliot was a modernist poet who, as Pound claimed, modernized himself. His reading of the French Symbolists, especially Jules Laforgue, and such seventeenth century metaphysical poets as John Donne, gave him models for the use of precise imagery and complex structures that contrasted with the softness of late Romantic poetry. With his first book of poems, Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917), a new voice appeared in poetry.
Eliot was very successful as a poet and critic in his early years in London. He completed a doctoral dissertation on F. H. Bradley, the philosopher (though he never returned to Harvard to defend it), and in 1915 he married Vivienne Haig Wood. The marriage was unhappy, however, and in 1921 Eliot entered a sanatorium in Switzerland to recover from an emotional breakdown. It was during this disturbed period of his life that he wrote The Waste Land. Later that year, Eliot gave the poem to Pound, who cut it by half into its latest form. Eliot’s original title for the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” but Pound preferred emphasizing the mythic structure and cut the social satire. Upon publication in 1922, the poem was immediately recognized as a major if very difficult creation. The poet later described The Waste Land as “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” It was read by most critics, however, as a social indictment rather than as a personal utterance.
The poem begins with an epigraph from Petronius and a dedication to Ezra Pound as il miglior fabbro (the better maker), the tribute paid by Arnaut Daniel to Dante in Purgatory of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). The epigraph portrays the Cumean Sibyl responding to the question “Sibyl, what do you want?” with the answer “I want to die.” This sets the mood of despair and hopeless resignation. In portraying the spiritual, sexual, and social emptiness of the post-World War I world, Eliot drew on Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), on the medieval quest for the Grail, and on James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915), especially the sections on a dying god who is resurrected. From its inception, the poem was centrally concerned with the myth of a dead land that needs to be renewed by a quester or a sacrificial god.
The first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” is a reference to the burial service in the Anglican Church. The time is April, but instead of being a period of renewal it is “the cruelest month.” The outer renewal of the seasons is not matched by that within the speakers and characters in the poem. The imagery shifts to the dryness of the wasteland, a place “where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/ And the dry stone no sound of water.” The imagery of dryness becomes a central motif in the poem and is used to define the spiritual and social aridity of the time.
Knowledge and authority in this decayed world are found in “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” and her pack of tarot cards rather than in the church or state. One of the cards in that deck, “the man with three staves,” represents the Fisher King, the wounded ruler whose disease causes the wasteland; the disease can be relieved only by the quester for the Holy Grail who successfully answers ritual questions at the Chapel Perilous. His answers complete the quest and bring fertility to the land. In the last part of this section, Eliot portrays the “Unreal City,” an allusion to Charles Baudelaire, with a crowd of dead crossing London Bridge and a corpse that is planted, which will not bloom or provide relief—a parody of renewal. The world of the wasteland is dominated by the living dead.
In the next section, “A Game of Chess,” Eliot explores the social world of the wasteland. First, he shows a nervous society woman who isolates herself among the “glitter of jewels” and “synthetic perfumes.” Her social life is a substitute for a meaningful one; her routine consists of “The hot water at ten./ And if it rains, a closed car at four.” The social world depicted here is similar to the fearful and frustrated world of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
(The entire section is 1831 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The most celebrated poem of the twentieth century, The Waste Land epitomizes modernism—its anxious usurpation of previous texts in the literary tradition, its self-conscious desire to be new, its bleak analysis of the present as a post-lapsarian moment between a crumbling past and an uncertain future. Composed of five separate poems, the overarching poem is, in poetic range and effect, greater than the sum of these parts. Eliot combines many of the themes and techniques he had examined in his earlier work, themes such as aridity, sexuality, and living death, and techniques such as stream-of-consciousness; narration; historical, literary, and mythic allusions; and the dramatic monologue. As in his earlier works, he is...
(The entire section is 941 words.)