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.)
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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...
(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...
(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 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...
(The entire section is 941 words.)
I. Burial of the Dead
The first section, as the section title indicates, is about death. The section begins with the words “April is the cruellest month,” which is perhaps one of the most remarked upon and most important references in the poem. Those familiar with Chaucer’s poem The Canterbury Tales will recognize that Eliot is taking Chaucer’s introductory line from the prologue—which is optimistic about the month of April and the regenerative, life-giving season of spring—and turning it on its head. Just as Chaucer’s line sets the tone for The Canterbury Tales, Eliot’s dark words inform the reader that this is going to be a dark poem. Throughout the rest of the first section, as he will do with the other four sections, Eliot shifts among several disconnected thoughts, speeches, and images.
Collectively, the episodic scenes in lines 1 through 18 discuss the natural cycle of death, which is symbolized by the passing of the seasons. The first seven lines employ images of spring, such as “breeding / Lilacs,” and “Dull roots with spring rain.” In line 8, Eliot tells the reader “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee.” The time has shifted from spring to summer. And while the reference to Starnbergersee—a lake south of Munich, Germany—has been linked to various aspects of Eliot’s past, to Eliot’s readers at the time the poem was published, it would have stuck out for other reasons,...
(The entire section is 3037 words.)