T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, is mainly about the despair and alienation of Western, modern life. The poem has multiple speakers and is broken up into five parts.
The first part is titled “The Burial of the Dead” and begins with Eliot’s famous contention, “April is the cruelest month.” Eliot pivots from gloomy spring imagery to children on sleds during the winter. He relates melancholy memories and writes about a suspicious fortune teller named Madame Sosostris.
The first section ends with drab images of London and a meeting between two people, one of whom seems to be named Stetson. The last line before part two is from a poem by the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Throughout his poem, Eliot makes use of other writers and historical figures.
The second section, “A Game of Chess,” starts in a heavily-perfumed room. Later on, Eliot introduces someone named Lil, who’s worried about the return of her husband, Albert. Albert has been in the army. Lil says she has taken pills “to bring it off,” which alludes to abortion. This anxious interaction is reinforced by a bartender repeating, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.”
In the third section, “The Fire Sermon,” the dejection continues. The speaker is by London’s River Thames. They’re meditating on its eerie emptiness. The nymphs and trash are all gone. There is, alas, a rat and the sound of motorcars.
Back in the surreal big city, the speaker, who now identifies as Tiresias, a gender-fluid prophet from Greek mythology, observes an unshaven merchant and then a typist with her lover.
Section 3 ends with images of oily, tar-filled water. The speaker repeats “burning,” which probably relates to the kind of wanton passion illustrated throughout the poem.
The next section, section 4, is the shortest section. Eliot brings in someone called Phlebas the Phoenician, who has been dead for two weeks. The speaker minutely describes Phlebas’s ghostly death. “A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers,” says the speaker.
In the final section, the speaker here is concerned with water and rock. There doesn’t appear to be the right balance between the two, which hints that the world is out of whack. The disharmony is reinforced with a slew of unsettling images like “hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains.” There are falling buildings and even London Bridge, as the nursery rhyme goes, is falling down.
This section, and thus the poem, ends with a chant from the Upanishads—a text that’s central to Hinduism. The chant suggests that the speaker, whoever the speaker is at this point, has made peace with the discord of modern life and can face the bleak future with a sense of equanimity.