What are some reasons that T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" is considered a critically valuable poem?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is valued as a poem by many readers for the following reasons (to mention just a few):

  • Its skillful use of allusions (implied or explicit references) to other texts
  • The ways in which it incorporates such numerous allusions into its own peculiar unity
  • The ways in which whatever unity it possesses is subtle and suggestive rather than overt and rigid
  • The ways in which its fragmented form and imagery are appropriate to its larger theme of social and cultural fragmentation
  • The ways in which it suggests a journey into the underworld without making that theme simplistically obvious
  • Its literary sophistication and daring experimentalism
  • Its break from traditional literary conventions that had come to seem, to many, stale and predictable
  • The ways it challenges readers to think rather than making them mere passive recipients of prepackaged thoughts and emotions
  • The fluidity of its structure(s)
  • Its use of recurrent images, such as water, to achieve a subtle unity
  • The ways it skillfully uses juxtaposition (abrupt contrasts) to imply its points rather than openly stating them
  • The ways it tries to make the past seem relevant to the present
  • The ways it alludes to a whole range of earlier cultures, not just (predictably) to classical Greece and Rome
  • Its focus on such undeniably important themes as life, death, and the possibility of at least some kind of symbolic resurrection
  • Its social relevance
  • Its skillful use of ambiguity, irony, and subtle suggestiveness
  • Its almost encyclopedic or epic ambitiousness, despite its relatively brief length

Yet there is also much to be said for the poem simply in terms of its sound effects. Consider, for instance, the opening four lines:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. (Italics and boldfacing added)

Note the way the italicized verbs are given maximum emphasis by coming at the ends of their respective lines. Active verbs (suggesting life and vitality) are juxtaposed with the dead landscape. Note how the repetition of such verbs in those places contribute to the rhythm and music of the poem. Notice the skillful use of the bold-faced alliteration, and notice, too, the balance of “Memory” and “desire” (one focused on the past, the other focused on the future) and of “Dull roots” (adjective/noun) with “spring rain” (adjective noun).  Whatever “The Waste Land” may or may not mean, it is often a powerfully well-written work, vivid in its imagery and striking in its sound effects.