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.