The tonal changes in “The Burial of the Dead” section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land are significant because they call attention to the multiple speakers and the deep importance of the various memories and desires.
The poem starts on a dour note, with the cruelty of April. The cold images of spring give way to the warmth of winter and the pleasant memory of a sleigh ride. The tone moves from a mature kind of moroseness to a childish glee. Marie’s cousin instructs her to “hold on tight.” According to the speaker, one can “feel free” in the mountains.
In the second stanza of the first section, the voice shifts several times. After the “handful of dust” line, the voice is subsumed by a scene from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. Then the voice transmutes again with the memory of the hyacinth girl.
The inevitable tonal shifts are significant because they underscore what might be called the thesis of the first section if not the entire poem. The opening lines acknowledge the “mixing / Memory and desire.” The sudden changes in voice underscore this heady fusion. The sharp alterations arguably relate to the powerful hold that the mélange of recollections and yearnings have on the speaker. The assorted tones could also lead one to conclude that the poem doesn’t have one speaker but many speakers.