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The Waste Land is an essential modernist text. Like most modernist works from the first half of the twentieth century, the poem deals with the mass cultural disillusionment following World War I. There was a sense that the values of the former century were no longer relevant in a world where such a pointless, brutal war could be a reality, leaving thousands of soldiers and civilians traumatized. This gloomy outlook manifests in various ways throughout the work, mostly in its grand allusions to other texts and its desolate imagery.

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The Waste Land's style conveys a sense of fragmentation and chaos. Its use of free verse is a challenge to the more structured forms of poetry which dominated earlier eras—even the popular poems of just a decade before. (However, Eliot also uses blank verse and end rhymes at particular parts of the poem to lend emphasis.) Eliot also blends both high and low culture into his multitude of references and allusions, including everything from Ovid and Shakespeare to contemporary music, alluding to a loss of hierarchy in the modern age. The poem often alludes to classic myths and legends, such as the story of the Holy Grail and Greek tragedies; the blind prophet Tiresias and the Oracle of Delphi both appear as characters, for instance.

The myriad of allusions to other works within the poem are also Eliot's way of establishing his creation in the greater context of the history of human culture. He is taking pieces from what came before—whether that be other poetry or religious ideologies—and making something new from them. However, it should be noted that Eliot's allusions are largely Western, with the addition of references to the Buddha's Fire Sermon in the third section and the Upanishads in the fifth.

The imagery within the poem focuses on decay and death, with emphasis on dead trees and land, brown fog, and barren plants. The apocalyptic imagery ties into the modernist philosophy that the old ways no longer apply in an ever-changing modern world, given its new morals and technologies. While the month of April is evoked in one of the poem's most famous lines ("April is the cruellest month"), Eliot subverts the audience's traditional interpretation of April and springtime by placing a greater emphasis on death as opposed to rebirth and renewal.

Places Discussed

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London. Great Britain’s capital city, a place cloaked in brown fog, is populated by people who walk in circles without connection to anything or anyone. The walk from London Bridge down King William Street leads past a church to the financial district, which for Eliot represents spiritual and cultural emptiness. Although the street, named after William the Conqueror, the first king of England, and the church carry important names in England’s rich history and religious experience, the citizens take no note of them. Other scenes convey this spiritual emptiness: a tawdry sexual encounter between a clerk and a secretary in her shabby apartment and a conversation in a saloon involving an anxious pregnant woman concerned about how to deal with a pregnancy by another man now that her lover is returning from a tour of duty in the army.

London Bridge

London Bridge. Historic bridge over the River Thames; a transcendental symbol of all that is good and promising in contemporary life, London Bridge leads to the city of the dead, to the loss of possibility and meaningful spiritual life.

River Thames

River Thames (tehmz). England’s greatest river symbolizes a more romantic and joyful past and, in its present polluted condition, the spiritual emptiness of modern life. An elaboration of this symbolism comes in the reference to the Leman, the Swiss name for Lake Geneva, where Eliot was convalescing while writing this poem. Through the connection of watery sites, Eliot identifies with the biblical psalmist lamenting the...

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