Study Guide

The Waste Land

by T. S. Eliot

The Waste Land Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Waste Land

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 tradition are set against bleak images of modern life, where spiritual death breeds cultural death, and the ashen landscape reflects a barren world void of transcendental value.

Describing a series of failed encounters between various men and women, Eliot creates composites of fertility archetypes who ironically are incapable of offering spiritual nourishment to a dying world. The characters drift in and out of meaningless relationships; the men and women are impotent, shallow, vain, excruciatingly ordinary. Culture is reduced to common clichés; the well of redemption becomes a “dull canal.” The world is filled with “a heap of broken images” where “the dead tree gives no shelter.” The only salvation appears to be in personal responsibility, self-control, and a faith in cultural continuity based on common Western European values.

The poem is an elitist document. Eliot provides copious footnotes, and the text is loaded with difficult literary, historical, and anthropological allusions; it is meant to be understood only by a few. As an account of the dilemma faced by the West of its being threatened by the loss of its privileged, white, patriarchal position of cultural dominance in the first half of the twentieth century, The Waste Land is indispensable.

The Waste Land Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 of the past seem to embitter her, and she spends much of her time reading. The following stanzas describe the visions of the Sibyl, a prophetess in Greek mythology, and compare these to the bogus fortune-telling of a modern Sibyl, Madame Sosostris. The section’s final stanza imagines a fog-shrouded London Bridge as a pathway in the Underworld, where souls fleetingly recognize one another.

In part 2, a narrator describes the sensual surroundings of a wealthy woman’s bedroom—the ornate chair in which the woman sits, the room’s marble floor and carved fireplace, her glittering jewels and heavy perfumes. She is bickering with a man, her husband or her lover, and complains that her “nerves are bad to-night.” Then a contrasting setting appears: a London pub. Two women are gossiping in Cockney English about a friend’s marriage gone bad.

A description of the River Thames begins part 3. The narrator juxtaposes the pretty stream that Renaissance poets saw with the garbage-filled canal of the twentieth century. Most of the section tells the story of an uninspired seduction. The speaker, ironically, is the Greek sage Tiresias, who, in legend, was changed from a man into a woman. In this androgynous mode, Tiresias can reflect on both the male and the female aspects of the modern-day affair between a seedy clerk and a tired typist. This section ends with snippets of past songs about the Thames and the Rhine.

The brief stanzas in part 4 picture Phlebas, a Middle Eastern merchant from the late classical period. The tone is elegiac: The speaker imagines the bones of the young trader washed by the seas and advises the reader to consider the brevity of life.

The final section, part 5, is set in a barren landscape, perhaps the Waste Land itself, where heat lays its heavy hand on a group of anonymous speakers. They seem to be apostles of some sacrificed god, perhaps Christ himself. The opening stanza’s description of confused “torchlight on sweaty faces” in a garden and an “agony in stony places” tends to suggest this Christian interpretation. Hope, however, has fled the holy man’s followers, who wander through the desert listening to thunder that is never followed by rain. Nevertheless, the thunder holds some small promise. The poem shifts setting again. Now the thunder crashes over an Indian jungle while the speaker listens and “translates” the thunderclaps. The thunder speaks three words in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, which is also the language of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. The first word is “Datta” (“given”), the second is “Dayadhvam” (“compassion”), and the third is “Damyata” (“control”). In this three-part message from the natural world, which tells of God’s gifts of compassion and self-control, the speaker finally finds cause for “peace”—the “shantih” of the closing line.

The Waste Land Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

The Waste Land Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 intent upon voice and vision, but not to the exclusion of the other senses.

When he republished the poem in book form, also in 1922, he added more than fifty notes to it, some of which direct the reader to such sources as Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915), the former for its handling of the Grail Quest and the waste land motifs, the latter for its expositions of vegetation myths and rituals.

Eliot’s note to line 218 helps explain the overall unity of the work and offers a useful starting place for a serious and necessary rereading of the poem by newcomers to the poem and to Eliot. “Tiresias,” he wrote, “although a mere spectator and not indeed a ’character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” All the male characters become one, all the women, one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.

The poem’s title, derived from the medieval Grail Quest, holds a clue: The questing reader must ask the right question of the Fisher King (who merges into Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, and, indeed, into the poet). The Greek and Latin epigraph concerns the Cumaean Sibyl who, asked by a boy what she wishes, states that she wishes to die—an impossibility, since she had asked of Apollo and been granted as many years as he had grains of sand in his hand. Unfortunately, she had not made the right first request: for eternal youth. One must, then, ask carefully. The Dantean dedication, to Ezra Pound, “the better craftsman,” fuses ancient, medieval, and modern at the outset of the poem, while acknowledging Pound’s role in shaping the work.

“The Burial of the Dead,” part 1, contains a number of speakers, ranging from Marie to Madame Sosostris to Stetson, whose fragments of conversation in English, French, and German wind around ritual reenactments of burial and rebirth. From the Dantean vision of the dead walking over London Bridge to the dangerous business of doing a simple errand to the buttonholing last line from the French poet Charles Baudelaire, in which the reader is addressed directly as hypocrite and brother, the atmosphere is menacing. Structurally, the poem contains varieties of motion to organize it: motion in time across days, months, seasons, years, and centuries, motion in change from youth to age, action to stillness, and death to rebirth, as Bernard Bergonzi has observed.

Part 2, “A Game of Chess,” elaborates the themes of aridity and rebirth in the story of Lil’s barren sexuality and Philomel’s mythic reincarnation after sexual abuse, thus blending the mythic and the prosaic to reveal a relatively mindless luxury devoid of satisfying significance. Whether in the ornate boudoir which opens the sequence or the working-class pub which closes it, the pleasures of the world seem unsatisfying. In a memorable phrase that has rung through every English pub since their Victorian regulation, the barman’s call for closing becomes, in the poet’s hands, an advent call for change or a hastening of some final, eschatological closure: “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.”

In part 3, “The Fire Sermon,” the poet deals with the refining fire of purgation, unites Western and Eastern mystical theology in Saint Augustine and the Buddha, and combines ancient and medieval literary tradition in Tiresias and the Fisher King. These higher quests are played off against the more sordid ones of Sweeney and Mrs. Porter, the typist and the carbuncular young man, and Mr. Eugenides (“well-born” but decadent), as Tiresias begins to tie elements of the poem together.

The brief, ten-line “Death by Water,” part 4, presents water as destroyer, cleanser, and paradoxical life-giver in the case of Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor who passes, two weeks dead, backward through the stages of his age and youth and enters the whirlpool. This, too, Tiresias sees and possibly relates.

“What the Thunder Said,” part 5, brings rain and its promise of rebirth. The thunder reverberates with the words of the Upanishads (Hindu philosophic writings) for “give, sympathize, control,” keys to unlocking the prisons in which each individual is kept a solitary prisoner. The resolution offered to those journeying to Emmaus, to the Chapel Perilous, through “the present decay of eastern Europe,” depends upon the trinity of commands or counsels from the thunder and becomes “the peace which passeth understanding” (“shantih,” quoted from the Upanishads) repeated at the close of the poem.

Eliot’s achievement in this highly sophisticated poem is the blending of the disparate elements of varied traditions into a unity that may itself be both an object lesson in and a plea for the necessity of artistic wholeness. This is one possible reading of the piece as a metapoetical work that points as much to itself as it does to the traditions in which it exists and which it, in turn, alters.

The Waste Land Summary

I. Burial of the Dead
The first section, as the section title indicates, is about death. The section begins with the words...

(The entire section is 3037 words.)