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 section ends with a descent into a London pub where two women from the lower class discuss the return of Lil’s husband, Albert, from the war. He “wants a good time” upon his return, but Lil has no teeth, and she is a wreck since she took “them pills to bring it off,” a reference to her abortion. The sordid scene of sexual and personal sterility is presented in counterpoint with allusions to Ophelia’s farewell in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). Eliot consistently juxtaposes the decayed present with the heroic past, using allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, Richard Wagner, and other great sources of the past.
“The Fire Sermon,” the third section, is an allusion to the sermon preached by the Buddha against the fires of lust. Here, Eliot continues his analysis of the arid, meaningless sexuality that fails to bring life or renewal. He begins with negative images of the river Thames: “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends/ Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.”
Eliot juxtaposes the sordid modern river with Edmund Spenser’s marriage song, “Prothalamion.” He also refers to the Fisher King, who is “fishing in the dull canal” and whom he merges with an allusion to the passage in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623) in which Ferdinand mourns the supposed death of his father. The song by Ariel to Ferdinand suggests a process in which the bones of his father are metamorphosed into beautiful objects such as “pearls.” Eliot contrasts these positive images of metamorphosis with the death-in-life of his world.
Positive allusions are also contrasted with the gay-sex proposal of Mr. Eugenides and the mechanical sexual scene between the carbuncular clerk and the typist. The sexual scene is mediated by Eliot’s use of Tiresias, the blind Greek prophet. Eliot claimed that “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ’character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. . . . What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.” What Tiresias sees in that passage is the clerk engaging a “bored and tired” young typist in a sexual liaison that she neither desires nor resists. “His vanity requires no response.” At the completion of the meaningless, mechanical act, she says, “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad its over.”
These scenes are followed by one of the most positive images in the poem: There is music in a bar on Lower Thames Street “where fishmen lounge at noon.” Eliot expands the allusion to the Fisher King with a reference to a London church, Magnus Martyr, where the walls “hold/ Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold.” This is then contrasted with the recurring images of the river that “sweats oil and tar.” Another sexual interlude is contrasted with the glorious past, this time with an allusion to Queen Elizabeth sailing on the Thames with her favorite, Essex. After the sexual act, “He wept. He promised ’a new start.’ I made no comment. What should I resent.” The section ends with images of burning and of the fires of lust not purged in the poem, slightly mitigated by an allusion to Saint Augustine, who achieved a purgation of these fires by asking God to deliver him from its ravages.
The fourth section of the poem is as brief as it became controversial. It deals with the death of “Phlebas the Phoenician,” who drowns in water rather than being renewed by it, and ends with a warning of the transitoriness of life: “Gentile or Jew/ O you who turn the wheel to winward,/ Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” This passage resembles the burial of the body earlier, for this death, too, even though it is by water, brings no renewal.
The last section of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,” begins with imagery associated with the Passion of Christ. Eliot chooses to show the death of Christ rather than his resurrection, but even that is preferable to death-in-life: “He who was living is now dead/ We who were living are now dying/ With a little patience.” This is followed by images of dryness and an allusion to the appearance of Christ to the disciples at Emmaus.
After a reference to Hermann Hesse’s Blick ins Chaos (1920; In Sight of Chaos, 1923), which portrays the situation of Eastern Europe, the poem moves to the “empty chapel” where the quester passes the last test in the search for the Grail. This leads to the change to which the poem is pointing from the beginning: “Only a cock stood on the rooftree/ Co rico co rico/ In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain.” The imagery of rain presumably renews the wasteland. Eliot then turns to the renewal of the individual, using allusions from yet another tradition, the Indian Upanishads. He cites the three principles of renewal from that text: give, control, and sympathize. Control can be achieved, but the other principles are yet to become a part of the individual’s life. Each individual remains locked within himself, unable to give to others or to sympathize with their plight.
The poem ends with images of leaving the wasteland behind: “I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/ Shall I at least set my lands in order?” The only order that can be brought about is through a baffling series of allusions and the limited assent: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The last lines again refer to the principles of individual renewal from the Upanishads and to the work’s ending, “Shantih,” which Eliot translates in a footnote as “The Peace that passeth understanding.” This blessing expresses a desire for enlightenment and peace, but in the poem it is only cited, not achieved.
The Waste Land was recognized soon after its publication as a tremendously important work, one that both defined an attitude toward the period and established a model for other poets to follow. It was believed at the time that poetry needed to be complex, difficult, and filled with allusions to earlier writers, that its structure needed to be mythic and its style a dazzling juxtaposition of elements. The expectations and social role of poetry continually change, but The Waste Land continues to be regarded as a monumental achievement that challenges and rewards its readers.