"The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot is distinguished by its plethora of allusions to real and literary figures, replete even with footnotes. Some of the figures are historically minor but significant in Eliot's personal life, while others have cultural significance. The allusions tend to be brief and fragmentary, illustrating Eliot's sense of modernity, in which cultural traditions have fractured and remain only as "fragments I have shored against my ruins."
Countess Marie Louise Larisch von Moennich (24 February 1858 – 4 July 1940), daughter of Ludwig Wilhelm, Duke of Bavaria (1831–1920) and cousin to Crown Prince Rudolf was a member by marriage of the Austrian nobility. She recounted her memories of the Hofgarten to Eliot, and they stand in the poem for the decadent and luxurious, but also, to a degree, innocent lives of young European aristocrats before the devastation of World War I.
Many of the apparently historical characters are ones refracted through the lens of literature and tradition. Philomel was a daughter of Pandion I, King of Athens who was raped by her sister's husband and eventually turned into a nightingale. She appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. She signifies sorrow that has been transmuted into beautiful song.
Tiresias, the blind prophet found in Sophocles, is evoked both for his ability to see past, present, and future, and his experience of having been both male and female. He is a sort of universal narrative voice who perceives individual events from an almost god-like perspective in which all knowledge can be viewed as a mosaic rather than sequence of events, emphasizing the theme of fragments of tradition as they shape the present of the individual literary consciousness.
All of the figures are part of the concept of an image which by its reference evokes not just an individual event but all of its literary and historical associations in a single phrase, achieving a specificity and network of connections to other images and works that would not be present in a generic description such as "a mourning woman" or "a wise man."