In T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" love is not a benign force. The poet alludes to its effect in ancient love stories rewritten by renowned dramatists - to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, to Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and to the myth of Tereus and and Philomela - suggesting that it is often, but not always,destructive. That these allusions respectively in the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” and in the second section, “A Game of Chess,” suggest that in his landmark 1922 poem Eliot wanted to present this view of love in a mythopoeic framework. The question is 'why'?
Eliot's poetry, especially "The Waste Land" is marked by frequent recourse to allusion and quotation. A few critics have seen in this extreme pedantry. But Eliot himself believed that the increasing complexity of modern life necessarily demanded difficult poetry. More importantly, like the Matthaean master of the house, Eliot brings from his treasure "things both old and new." The 'new and old thing' the poet presents in "The Waste Land" is the sterility and necrotic state of modern life. In the second stanza of "The Burial of the Dead", quoting the prophet Ezekiel, the poet searches in vain among the dry stones, the dead trees and the "broken images" for some sign of life. Then, suddenly, Eliot turns to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, where an operatic watchman tells the dying Tristan that the ship of his love, Isolde, is nowhere to be seen on the horizon. In the second section the reader encounters a woman sitting on a chair with the appearance of a "burnished throne," an allusion to Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Nevertheless, even in the royal chamber the lethalness of love, imaged in the painting that depicts Ovid's mythopoeic tale of the rape of Philomela by King Tereus intrudes. This is followed immediately by verses describing the grubby details of modern life - aimless, neurotic, and childless.
Eliot's poetic calling, here presenting the destruction and hopelessness endemic to love, was to plumb the depth of our modern affiction in the works of bygone ages.