What is the main theme in the poem The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot?

The main theme in the poem The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot is the decline of all the old certainties that had previously held Western society together. This has caused society to break up, and there's to be no going back. All that's left to do is to salvage broken cultural fragments from a vanished past.

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I wouldn’t feel comfortable reducing an intricate poem like “The Waste Land” to a single main theme. It might be more considerate to discuss a few central themes. You can pick the one that you feel is the most important.

One main theme is desire. Within the first three lines, Eliot is already talking about desire. He seems to claim April is the “cruellest month” in part because it mixes “Memory and desire.” In the second, there’s more desire with the woman and her “strange synthetic perfumes.” Also, in part two, there’s desire with Albert, who wants a “good time.” Lastly, you could argue the water and rock imagery links to Eliot’s theme of desire. In the poem, you could say desire flows freely while, at the same time, it’s somewhat immovable or hard to act upon.

Another main theme is communication or lack thereof. There are several snippets of dialogue, yet it’s not always clear who’s speaking. Sometimes people are talking and there’s no quotes. For example:

I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

In these moments, it’s like the poem’s speaker merges with the characters in the poem to create one big character. You could argue all of the talking reveals the abundance of communication in Eliot’s world. Although, the ample communication doesn’t seem to lead to understanding. It seems to produce fragmentation, disquiet, and perhaps even miscommunication.

One more theme I can give you is that of tradition. You could argue the main theme is the history of literature. Throughout the poem, there’s numerous references and allusions to past poets and writers. For example, the rather famous “handful of dust” phrase comes from John Donne’s theological text Devotions. The “Unreal City” refrain comes from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Sept vieillards.” There’s also numerous Dante and Shakespeare references. You could argue “The Waste Land” is built on the words and phrases of classic or renowned writers and texts. In that sense, you might claim tradition is the main theme. Without the tradition of literature, quite a bit of “The Waste Land” would be missing.

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The answer to this is really betrayed by T. S. Eliot's choice of title for his monumental poem. He is writing about the world after the First World War as a waste land, a place full of forgotten people, and a society which has begun to disintegrate. He populates this society with broken people, including the men in the pub who are still there when closing time is called and the women who have lost their teeth and are older than they should be for their age.

In the opening section of the poem, flowers, specifically lilacs, represent renewed growth coming out of the "dead land" which has been left by the ravages of war and a changing society. However, as Eliot indicates through the repeated allusions to poetry from times past, things never do actually rejuvenate; they simply repeat themselves. Much as society has decayed in the past and then been rebuilt, society is rebuilding itself now, over all the layers of what has come before, but it will never be the same again.

Eliot's Modernist preoccupation with death, rebuilding and the way the world has changed socially is one which can be identified in many other texts from the authors Eliot associated with and worked with at this point in time, when the world was still reeling from how fundamentally changed it had been by the war.

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In keeping with his fellow Modernists, Eliot sees modern society as in a process of cultural decline. Modern life, as represented most starkly by the “Unreal city,” with its zombie-like crowds shuffling across London Bridge, is characterized by atomization and alienation. This is because all the old certainties—cultural, political, and religious—are in a process of decay and therefore no longer have the same hold over people as they once did.

Even so, Eliot, in his pre-Christian phase, doesn't believe that it's either feasible or desirable to turn the clock back to some mythical golden age. Modern life cannot be avoided; it is impossible to escape from its iron grip. All that can be done is to retrieve as best we can certain cultural fragments from the past, whether it's from Elizabethan England, the Hindu religion, or various creation myths.

For Eliot the Modernist, the world has become a pretty chaotic place, and the only to impose some kind of order upon it is organizing it according to the wisdom of the past. That is precisely what Eliot seeks to do in The Waste Land, with its profusion of allusions and references to the great ideas and art works of the past.

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The principal theme of not only "The Waste Land" but all T.S. Eliot's earlier poetry (written before 1930) is the decay of the Western world and the loss of belief in traditional values. Eliot sees present-day culture as consisting of a kind of wreckage of the past. The present, in his view, is a post-historical age: man is no longer capable of the greatness, artistic or otherwise, of previous eras. "The Waste Land" itself functions as a metaphor of this age, in which fragments of the past are the only remaining things that have significance.

The poem consists largely of allusions to past cultural symbols and fragmentary quotes or paraphrases of past literature. For instance, the opening:

April is the cruelest month . . .

is a paraphrase of the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but with an inverted implication, altering Chaucer's view of spring as a time of hope and renewal into one of despair. Perhaps the most striking allusion is the following, which likens modern London to Dante's Inferno:

A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.

Elsewhere, there are quotes in foreign languages, such as one from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. And fragments of the pop culture of Eliot's time are presented, such as a song called "The Shakespearean Rag," as if to suggest this is what the greatness of Shakespeare and the past has deteriorated into. The dominant idea presented in "The Waste Land" as a whole is that of an intellectual's resignation and despair over his feeling that the modern world is meaningless and chaotic.

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T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" is a somewhat satirical look at the universal despair often associated with prophecy. The poem's structure is just as important as it's content as it is a multi-voiced work often imagined as a collection of dramatic monologues spoken by a host of characters, often including lines in foreign languages as well and drawing from variety of different cultures and literatures..

When first written the poem received a mix of praise and criticism both for its depressing content and its awkward structure that left many readers confused.

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