Could you please summarize the poem "The Waste Land' by T.S. Eliot?

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amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It isn't easy to summarize this poem.  There are so many images embedded, and a succinct summary will leave much out, but I will do my best for you.

The first part, entitled "The Burial of the Dead" is about death, just as the title suggests.  The images are of the changes in seasons, the passing of time, the death of plants, etc. in the midst of spring turning to summer which in turn changes to fall, and then winter.  There are also references to Germany, which to the audience of this poem at the time it was written would have evoked images of war since WWI had just ended.  He mentions also in this section that humanity is trapped in its own wasteland...rubbish left behind by the war, by dead feelings, by going through the motions of living without really living...a sort of depression of spirit, or walking in a fog...a living dead.

Section 2 of the poem, "A Game of Chess", is just what the title suggests:  a strategy for conquering your opponent.  In this section, Eliot moves from death to sex.  The images of the idle rich and the chess game that is being played out is full of seduction and divide and conquer flirtation.  Sex is also connected with procreation or perhaps even rebirth, so perhaps this section takes on a more hopeful view than the preceding one.  We move from the idle rich to the extremely poor represented by Albert and his wife.  Albert has just gotten out of the army and wants "a good time" or sex with his wife.  She has five children and he is drinking in the bar before going home to all of them and his good time.  In this story, the repetition of the "Hurry up please its time" is meant to remind us of the last call in a bar.  Perhaps she doesn't want sex as it produces too many children, and he needs the drink in order to ignore her complaints and her "antique" look complete with her bad teeth.  Instead of being a loving and nurturing experience between two people who love each other, sex for them has become loveless and perhaps even meaningless.

The third section, "The Fire Sermon", continues to address loveless sex.  The first images indicate the dying fertility of plantlife and other signs of lifelessness.  Throughout the section, he refers to rapes, indifferent women, and loveless sex.  The title suggests that men should attempt to douse or extinguish the "burning" fires of lust and passion.

The fourth section, "Death by Water", is the shortest section of the poem.  Eliot returns to the theme of death, and resurrects a sailor he first mentioned in section two of the poem.  He describes the sailor's drowning and how his body is torn apart by the rough sea.

Section five, "What the Thunder Said", continues to build on the themes of death and infertility.  It also offers hope that these things can be corrected and overcome.  The title refers back to an Indian belief that be communing with nature, people can restore life to the living deadness of the wasteland.  There are images of Jesus Christ, resurrection, rebirth, violence, death, moral decay and chapels.  Eliot's last words indicate that his message may be that only through peace can we restore life and rebirth to the wasteland of our own making.

nusratfarah | Student

I can help you giving some key facts about Eliot & the poem. Hope it'll work. But, remember these are only some key issues/points, not a wholesome paraphrase.

1. According to Eliot, modern  literature is essentially complex, because he thinks every writer's writings should portray his/her own age. since modern age is complex, so, modern writings (poems) must be complex. that's why, you'll find Eliot making his poems consciously complex which will make you think about the poem deeply.

2. The First World War has a huge impact on this poem. World Wars create nihilism (a feeling of nothingness or emptiness) in humans because of massive death & destruction.This sense of emptiness is the supreme image in the poem. Consequently, Death/barrenness is a major theme in the poem.

3. Apart from urbanization & industrialization there occurred some more intricate problems in the post-war period, and these were mostly psychological. Betrayal. doubt, loss of faith in God & self & fellow-beings, deterioration of values & morality now bother more. Besides, modern people are splintered selves, always wearing masks. Because of inner frustration & ennui, modern people suffer from death-wish. They have no true warm feeling for the fellow-mates; dryness prevails, in fact, in relationships also. Modern man is called 'Hollow man' since they are dreamless, hopeless. The inner picture of modern people reflects the outer scape of the post-war world. Modern people are carrying different images different times; they are like 'broken images'.

4. Now, you'll find Prufrockian symptoms in the poem: death-wish, pretentiousness, loss of faith. There is intertextuality with 'The Hollow Man' also.

5. As our thoughts are no more linear, simple, systematic. so, the style & language of the poem are complicated, abstract & it's full of allusions. Besides the allusions will foreground the problems of modernism & show that the problems are not individual, rather universal.

6. Though Eliot's attitude in this poem is not positive, but he's optimistic. he knows solution isn't possible now (he stretches 2 lines from Upanishads' Projapoti), yet he hints to a hope that something good could happen if we'd take steps both socially & individually. Purification of the individual's soul, removal of immorality, implementation of religious dogmas - all these are necessary. Most importantly, focus should be on 'Da' 'Da' 'Da'. One has to control, give & sympathize. one has to control his ego, id; he has to linger between the giving self & receiving self (own self & constructed self), or he can't survive like the knights.

7. Though the poem is seemingly divided in to 5 sections, it is a unified whole. Dramatization, punctuations, symbols, motifs, shifting of perspectives, Tiresias, theme/message of each section - all are acting as unifier.

8. Important motifs are: journey, search of Father (seeking the root as well as Christ's bestowal).

9. Symbols: drought, barrenness (intellectual/philosophical & physical), water, rain, fire, journey, wheel.

Now, what you've to do is to connect all the points above with one another.



shafiwazir | Student

the main theme of the poem is that modern man is materialistic and is running behind wordly objects.he is far away from nature and all this is happened to modern men after industrialization. so this materialistic attitude has taken man far away from nature and modern man has lost spiritual beauty.