The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, is a long, complex poem about the psychological and cultural crisis that came with the loss of moral and cultural identity after World War I. When it was first published, the poem was considered radically experimental. Eliot dispenses with traditional verse forms and instead juxtaposes sordid images of popular culture with erudite allusions to classical and ancient literature and myths. The title is indicative of Eliot’s attitude toward his contemporary society, as he uses the idea of a dry and sterile wasteland as a metaphor for a Europe devastated by war and desperate for spiritual replenishment but depleted of the cultural tools necessary for renewal.
The poem is deliberately obscure and fragmentary, incorporating variant voices, multiple points of view, and abrupt shifts in dramatic context. The motif of moral degeneration, however, is prevalent throughout the poem, the premise being that contemporary Europe, obsessed with novelty, trends, materialism, and instant gratification, lacks the faith and substance to reaffirm its cultural heritage, to reestablish the sense of order and stability that historical continuity once provided. In an attempt to counter the cultural deficit of the present with the rich cultural heritage of the past, Eliot combines images from pagan rituals and religious texts with ancient fertility rituals and allusions to legends of the Grail. These images of ceremony and tradition are set against bleak images of modern life, where spiritual death breeds cultural death, and the ashen landscape reflects a barren world void of transcendental value.
Describing a series of failed encounters between various men and women, Eliot creates composites of fertility archetypes who ironically are incapable of offering spiritual nourishment to a dying world. The characters drift in and out of meaningless relationships; the men and women are impotent, shallow, vain, excruciatingly ordinary. Culture is reduced to common clichés; the well of redemption becomes a “dull canal.” The world is filled with “a heap of broken images” where “the dead tree gives no shelter.” The only salvation appears to be in personal responsibility, self-control, and a faith in cultural continuity based on common Western European values.
The poem is an elitist document. Eliot provides copious footnotes, and the text is loaded with difficult literary, historical, and anthropological allusions; it is meant to be understood only by a few. As an account of the dilemma faced by the West of its being threatened by the loss of its privileged, white, patriarchal position of cultural dominance in the first half of the twentieth century, The Waste Land is indispensable.
In order to understand The Waste Land—one of the most difficult poems in a difficult literary period—the reader might do well to envision the work as a much-spliced film or videotape, a montage of images and sounds. This imaginary film is, in a sense, a real-life documentary: There are no heroes or heroines, and there is no narrator telling readers what to think or how to feel. Instead, Eliot allows multiple voices to tell their individual stories. Many of the stories are contemporary and portray a sordid society without values; other stories are drawn from world culture and include, among other motifs, Elizabethan England, ancient Greek mythology, and Buddhist scriptures.
The poem is divided into five sections. In the first, “The Burial of the Dead,” the speaker is an old Austro-Hungarian noblewoman reminiscing about the golden days of her youth before the disasters of World War I. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” is set in the boudoir of a fashionable contemporary Englishwoman. The third, “The Fire Sermon,” mixes images of Elizabeth’s England, the Thames and Rhine rivers, and the legend of the Greek seer Tiresias. The fourth, “Death by Water,” is a brief portrait of a drowned Phoenician sea-trader. The fifth, “What the Thunder Said,” combines the above themes with that of religious peace. These parts combine in the poem’s overall montage to create a meaning that encompasses all of them. Because the poem is so complex, that meaning must be left to the individual reader; however, many students of the poem have suggested that, generally, Eliot shows his readers the collapse of Western culture in the aftermath of the war.
Part 1 is a natural beginning for Eliot’s overall panorama because the speaker, Marie, describes her memories of a key period in modern history. Clearly, her life has been materially and culturally rich. Now in old age, thoughts of the past seem to embitter her, and she spends much of her time reading. The following stanzas describe the visions of the Sibyl, a prophetess in Greek mythology, and compare these to the bogus fortune-telling of a modern Sibyl, Madame Sosostris. The section’s final stanza imagines a fog-shrouded London Bridge as a pathway in the Underworld, where souls fleetingly recognize one another.
In part 2, a narrator describes the sensual surroundings of a wealthy woman’s bedroom—the ornate chair in which the woman sits, the room’s marble floor and carved fireplace, her glittering jewels and heavy perfumes. She is bickering with a man, her husband or her lover, and complains that her “nerves are bad to-night.” Then a contrasting setting appears: a London pub. Two women are gossiping in Cockney English about a friend’s marriage gone bad.
A description of the River Thames begins part 3. The narrator juxtaposes the pretty stream that Renaissance poets saw with the garbage-filled canal of the twentieth century. Most of the section tells the story of an uninspired seduction. The speaker, ironically, is the Greek sage Tiresias, who, in legend, was changed from a man into a woman. In this androgynous mode, Tiresias can reflect on both the male and the female aspects of the modern-day affair between a seedy clerk and a tired typist. This section ends with snippets of past songs about the Thames and the Rhine.
The brief stanzas in part 4 picture Phlebas, a Middle Eastern merchant from the late classical period. The tone is elegiac: The speaker imagines the bones of the young trader washed by the seas and advises the reader to consider the brevity of life.
The final section, part 5, is set in a barren landscape, perhaps the Waste Land itself, where heat lays its heavy hand on a group of anonymous speakers. They seem to be apostles of some sacrificed god, perhaps Christ himself. The opening stanza’s description of confused “torchlight on sweaty faces” in a garden and an “agony in stony places” tends to suggest this Christian interpretation. Hope, however, has fled the holy man’s followers, who wander through the desert listening to thunder that is never followed by rain. Nevertheless, the thunder holds some small promise. The poem shifts setting again. Now the thunder crashes over an Indian jungle while the speaker listens and “translates” the thunderclaps. The thunder speaks three words in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, which is also the language of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. The first word is “Datta” (“given”), the second is “Dayadhvam” (“compassion”), and the third is “Damyata” (“control”). In this three-part message from the natural world, which tells of God’s gifts of compassion and self-control, the speaker finally finds cause for “peace”—the “shantih” of the closing line.