What happens in The Waste Land?

"The Waste Land" has long been considered T. S. Eliot's masterpiece. In its five sections, he delves into themes of war, trauma, disillusionment, and death, illuminating the devastating aftereffects of World War I. The poem's final line, however, calls for peace with the repetition of "shantih" (the Sanskrit word for "peace").

  • Part I opens with the famous line, "April is the cruellest month." The speaker, Marie, is a young woman who bears witness to the physical and emotional devastation caused by the war.

  • Parts II and III describe the inside of a wealthy woman's bedroom and the garbage-filled waters of the Thames, respectively. Part IV eulogizes a drowned man named Phlebas.

  • In the fifth and final part of the poem, the speaker "translates" the thunderclaps cracking over an Indian jungle. The poem ends with the repetition of the Sanskrit word for peace: "Shantih shantih shantih."

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Summary

I. The Burial of the Dead

The Waste Land's first section consists of four stanzas. In the first stanza, Marie, the speaker, reminisces about the carefree, innocent time before World War I. Here, Eliot includes references to Germany, such as a lake called the Starnbergerse, and uses German speech excerpts, such as the following (which means "I'm not Russian at all, I'm from Lithuania, really German"):

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

Marie speaks of the changes from winter (on which she looks back) to spring, as represented by April, which she calls "the cruellest month." It seems that barely has spring taken hold, however, when summer arrives ("Summer surprised us"). Winter, as Marie looks back on in memory, is connected to sledding with her cousin and overcoming her fears.

The mood turns darker, however, in the second stanza. The speaker no longer seems to be Marie, exactly, though it is not immediately clear who is speaking (or if it is simply Marie in a much different mood); this pattern of vocal instability persists for the length of the poem. The speaker comments on the desolation of the "stony rubbish" and "dry stone," referencing death in the image of the "dead tree." Their mood is pessimistic, fixating on "fear in a handful of dust." These images initially seem to be in contrast to the images in the quoted material of the innocent "hyacinth girl"; however, despite the sensual imagery of the hyacinths and the line "Your arms full, and your hair wet," the overall scene sets up a similar failure of flourishing and nature, and ends with the German for "Dull and empty is the sea":

I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.

The subject and ultimate speaker of the third stanza is Madame Sosostris, a fortune-teller who uses tarot cards. Eliot includes references to both the traditional cards in the deck and some innovations. Establishing one of the poem's central conceits, a focus on water and its lack, Eliot introduces the card called the "drowned Phoenician sailor"; Phoenicia also calls to mind the phoenix, symbolizing rebirth from flame (in contrast to water). Later in the stanza, Madame Sosostris commands,

Fear death by water.

(This command recurs as the title for the poem's fourth section, "Death by Water.")

Madame Sosostris also draws a blank, unreadable card ("Which I am forbidden to see"), symbolizing the unknowable future. Seeing plays an important role: this is illustrated by the pearls that are the sailor's eyes (a quotation from Shakespeare's The Tempest), the one-eyed merchant card, and the clairvoyant seeing a crowded ring of people. She urges caution in speaking about horoscopes.

The fourth stanza is set in London, called "Unreal City," where a wintry "brown fog" has enveloped London Bridge. The multitudes seem to be Madame Sosistris's predicted crowd. The speaker marvels at the crowd's size and uneasy state:

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

(The entire section is 2,614 words.)