The Waste Land Summary

The Waste Land is a modernist poem by T. S. Eliot that illuminates the devastating aftereffects of World War I. First published in 1922, the poem is considered by many to be Eliot’s masterpiece.

  • The five sections of the poem employ multiple shifting speakers and delve into themes of war, trauma, disillusion, and death.
  • The poem bears witness to the physical and emotional devastation of the postwar landscape.
  • Settings include a wealthy woman’s bedroom, the garbage-filled Thames, the sea where a drowned man lies, and a drought-worn desert before a storm.
  • The poem’s final section calls for peace, or “shantih.”

Summary

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Last Updated on April 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2618

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"):

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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 many.

Death is addressed throughout, and the stanza echoes the winter–spring connection established at the poem's beginning. The people walk uphill toward a church, Saint Mary Woolnoth, that is chiming with a "dead sound." Given the poem's concern with the inaccessibility of traditional religion and belief, it is significant that the clock strikes "on the final stroke of nine," given that the Bible states that Jesus was crucified at the same time of morning—after which an unnatural darkness fell.

The last few lines include reference to a corpse. The speaker meets an acquaintance, Stetson, whom he knew from Mylae, the site of a third-century BCE battle between Rome and Carthage. He asks about a buried corpse in a garden, wondering if it will bloom. The theme of caution appears here as well, as the speaker warns Stetson to keep the dog from digging it up. The stanza and the section end with lines in French, from a poem in Charles Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, translated as: "hypocrite reader!—my fellow,—my brother!"

II. A Game of Chess

This section's title is an explicit reference to a play of the same title by Thomas Middleton; both this play and another of his, Women Beware Women, use chess as a metaphor for the steps in the process of seduction. The section consists of two dialogues focusing on two female characters, hailing from radically different social situations and expressing very different modes of sexuality—yet they share the experience of related suffering. The woman in the first part of the section wears the clothes and ornaments of wealth and privilege. The abundance of fiery colors that pervade this setting (e.g., "the glitter of her jewels," "vials of ivory and coloured glass," and "the flames of sevenbranched candelabra") suggest that a particular kind of erotic energy is simultaneously socially forbidden and culturally acknowledged as one of few available versions of female sexuality, which this woman embodies.

In these ornaments, however, her unhappiness and uncertainties are reflected, as in the personification of her perfumes:

Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused . . .

The trappings of her social class and the ideal of femininity, which she is determined to embody, press claustrophobically close, seeming to act on her body independently of her will. An example of this is the brush that appears to brush her hair of its own accord upon the approach of her lover:

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

Her unhappiness and loneliness are evident in the one-sided dialogue she pursues with her lover, as she demands again and again that he respond and express himself in ways she can relate to:

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
"What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
"I never know what you are thinking. Think."
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

In contrast to the woman of the first dialogue, Lil (the woman in the second) has performed society's requirements of her in marrying, supporting a husband while he was away fighting in the war, and having five children. However, where the woman from the first dialogue is the center of the scene, Lil's presence in this conversation—seemingly held in a pub due to the repeated "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" command, indicative of closing time and last call—is less central. Like the first woman, she seeks cosmetic assistance in maintaining her beauty, but the implication is that the false teeth she buys are not sufficient to keep her husband's interest. Since Lil took pills to induce an abortion, she notes that she's looked older (or, as the speaker says, "You ought to be ashamed . . . to look so antique"):

I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face . . .
The chemist said it would be all right, but I've never been the same.

The speaker criticizes Lil for her pregnancy, ascribing none of the blame to Lil's husband, Albert:

You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children.

The culminating line of the section—"Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night"—has ominous undertones in being reminiscent of Ophelia's monologue in Shakespeare's Hamlet, given shortly before she drowns herself. The clear implication is that, in assuming any sexual identity in the society in which Eliot writes, a woman voluntarily poisons herself and sets off on a downward spiral from which she can never recover. It dissipates the distinctions of class and context to view the two women of this section as living in a world where no form of feminine sexuality can be recognized, where any form of feminine sexual expression—whether socially acceptable or not—leads to a destruction of body, mind, and soul.

III. The Fire Sermon

An indeterminate speaker begins by describing the Thames River in the present and the way it used to look. At the moment the speaker describes it, which seems to be late fall or winter,

the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard.

The speaker describes multiple absences from the Thames in the poem's postwar setting of infertility and absence. The river holds not only no evidence of modern romance—

no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights

—but also no remnants of a primal, ancient eroticism: "The nymphs are departed," as the speaker repeats twice.

The speaker says that he wept by the "waters of Leman"; this is an apparent reference to Psalm 137, in which the captive Israelites weep near the rivers of Babylon over the home from which they were exiled (as well as a reference to Lake Geneva—Leman in French—at which Eliot received psychiatric treatment while working on The Waste Land). Perhaps, then, the speaker grieves the loss of the beauty of his home near the Thames.

The speaker also refers to "the king my brother's wreck," an allusion to when Prospero of The Tempest calls up a storm to wreck his brother's boat in revenge for his having abandoned Prospero on an island many years before. The speaker, then, seems also to feel abandoned and alone. He describes naked bodies on the ground and bones lying where the rats live, the death and decay adding to the sense of how terrible London has become. He goes on, referencing popular song lyrics of the era to show how much culture has decayed, how far humanity has fallen. Then, in the next stanza, he recalls the myth of Philomela (who came up earlier in the poem), a Greek princess who was raped and imprisoned by Tereus:

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd.
Tereu

The "rude forc[ing]" seems to refer to the rape itself, and the portions of birdsong to Philomela's transformation into a nightingale. The speaker again describes the foul city full of "brown fog" and names two places associated with lurid sexual encounters during Eliot's time: the Cannon Street Hotel and the Metropole. Again, the allusions to rape and locations of sordid liaisons serve to show how much London has changed. It is a place, now, characterized by the loss of natural rhythms and cycles—particularly, here, those relating to sex and reproduction.

In the next stanza, the mythological Greek prophet Tiresias is identified as the speaker ("I Tiresias"); whether he has been speaking since the section's beginning or has just begun to is unclear. Tiresias describes himself as "throbbing between two lives" because he has experienced life as both a man and a woman (this is why he is an "Old man with wrinkled female breasts"), and he can "see" something he wishes he did not: a young female typist living alone, with her undergarments—her "Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays"—vulnerably placed out to dry. He says,

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.

This lends a sense of fated prophecy to the painful scene to come. A young, pimpled man walks through her door—feeling very self-confident and full of "assurance," though he is apparently not anything special—and he "Endeavours to engage her in caresses" that do not appear to interest her at all. He assaults her, and he is so wrapped up in himself and his urges that he doesn't care about her "indifference" to him. The woman is just "glad it's over"—a horrifying indictment of ethics and love in the modern era in which the poem was published.

Eliot begins to wrap up this section by rewriting the lyrics to a Wagnerian opera. Rather than sing about the beauty of the Rhine, as Wagner's characters did, the speaker here sings of the disgusting Thames, returning to motifs of pollution and isolation in order to emphasize the moral pollution and degradation of humanity in the modern, postwar era. He also alludes to the infamous sexual relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester and refers to various religious texts that ask for aid against the pull of lust (e.g., Saint Augustine's Confessions and the Buddha's Fire Sermon), as in the section's end:

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning

By this cascade of allusions, Eliot draws further attention to how those in the modern era are sexually tempted in ways that are, ultimately, empty and unconnected—and which lead to moral ruin.

IV. Death by Water

In this section, the poem's shortest, the speaker comments on the death of a Phoenician man named Phlebas, a death foretold by Madame Sosostris in the poem's first section. He seems to have seen his life flash before his eyes—"the stages of his age and youth"—as he drowned. The speaker encourages the reader to consider this drowned man:

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Death, the end of this section knows, is inevitable—no matter how vibrant a person was in life.

V. What the Thunder Said

The speaker begins by referring to the time after the death of Christ but before his resurrection. We are, he implies, living in a similar state of spiritual darkness. We seem to be in a desert with "no water but only rock," and we are extremely uncomfortable in this wasteland; there can be no relief from it either. Here, there is "thunder without rain"; we might hope for water, but rain will never come. There is, however, a third person who "walks always beside" us—seemingly Christ himself.

The next lines seem to reference the soldiers of the Great War, "hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth," and how their movements destroyed Europe. There are "Falling towers" all over the world, and the violence and destruction seem "Unreal." The speaker describes a woman with "long black hair" who plays violin-like music on it; she is surrounded by baby-faced bats who crawl all over her, and everything is upside-down and frightening. The speaker also describes a cemetery and a chapel, empty and decayed: more physical manifestations of our spiritual corruption. There is still no water.

However, in the end, the speaker draws on a story from the Hindu Upanishads: men, demons, and gods ask the Creator how to live well. He only answers "DA," the sound of the thunder. When He says "DA," the men hear the word for give, the demons hear the word for compassion, and the gods hear the word for self-control. We don't actually seem to possess any of these qualities anymore, according to Eliot. Ultimately, Western culture is collapsing, just like the London Bridge of the children's song, quoted in the final stanza. The speaker alludes to Dante's Inferno and the hellfire meant to purify. The poem concludes with the three words heard when the thunder spoke—"Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata"—and then:

Shantih shantih shantih

If we can manage to cultivate giving, compassion, and self-control, then perhaps Western culture can be salvaged and we can find shantih—another term from the Upanishads, defined in Eliot's footnotes to the poem as the "Peace which passeth understanding."

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Themes