The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land presents a highly eloquent account of despair, its powerful vision of urban alienation spoke to a generation of young post-war readers and in doing so, it changed poetry forever.
T. S. Eliot’s landmark modernist poem The Waste Land was published in 1922. Divided into five sections, the poem explores life in London in the aftermath of the First World War, although its various landscapes include the desert and the ocean as well as the bustling metropolis. The poem is notable for its unusual style, which fuses different poetic forms and traditions. Eliot also alludes to numerous works of literature including the Bible, Shakespeare, St Augustine, Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts, as well as French poetry, Wagnerian opera, and Arthurian legend surrounding the Holy Grail. But the poem is also strikingly modern in its references to jazz music, gramophones, motorcars, typists and tinned food.
Not long after its publication, The Waste Land became a talking-point among readers, with some critics hailing it as a masterpiece that spoke for a generation of lost souls, and others denouncing it for its allusiveness (the US poet William Carlos Williams disliked it because it ‘returned us to the classroom’) or for its unusual modernist style. It continues to divide readers, but its reputation as one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century is secure.
Analysis of The Waste Land
The Waste Land can be viewed as a poem about brokenness and loss, and Eliot’s numerous allusions to the First World War suggest that the war played a significant part in bringing about this social, psychological, and emotional collapse. (Perhaps revealingly, Eliot completed the poem while recovering from a nervous breakdown.) Many of the characters who turn up in Eliot’s poem – such as Lil, the mother-of-five whose unhappy marriage is discussed by her friend in a London pub – lead unfulfilling lives and their relationships are lacking in intimacy and deeper meaning.
People’s lives in general are lacking spiritual significance. The typist in ‘The Fire Sermon’ is a good example of this: her job involves merely copying or repeating what others have said, and when she gets home from work her food is processed and comes in tins, and even her sex life is mechanical and repetitive, something Eliot neatly captures with his use of regular quatrains at this point in the poem. The music she listens to when her lover has gone is played on a gramophone: it’s a world away from the magical music Ferdinand heard on the enchanted island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Modern life has lost all sense of magic and meaning.
Eliot reinforces such an idea by overlaying his poem with a loose mythic structure, drawn from Arthurian legend and a work of comparative religious study, The Golden Bough by James Frazer. Specifically, Eliot uses the story of the Fisher King as a form of allegory for the modern world. The Fisher King has been wounded in the groin, and his wound has also affected the kingdom over which he rules. The once fertile and abundant soil has ceased to yield crops; the land has become a waste land.
The cure for this spiritual sickness which plagues the king and his land is the Holy Grail, but only those who are pure of heart will find the Grail (the cup that, according to Christian legend, caught Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion). Is anyone in the modern world of The Waste Land up to such a task? The poem’s references to the Buddhist Fire Sermon suggest that before we will become worthy of salvation, we must first learn to curb our worldly desires and passions in order to attain spiritual enlightenment.
The Waste Land begins with a reference to a ‘heap of broken images’ and ends with a collage of quotations taken from various poetic traditions, as well as a snippet from the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’. Art, literature, oral and written culture – civilisation itself – seem to be under threat. Can we do anything other than shore up the ruins? The poem ends on an ambiguous note, with the triple repetition of the Sanskrit word ‘Shantih’, which Eliot translates as ‘the peace which passeth understanding’. Has such peace finally been achieved, or is this merely wishful thinking? The breakdown of the poem into a confused medley of semi-coherent quotations implies that after the war, such peace remains a far-off dream.
|Fragmentation and decay||Enacted through the poem’s use of free verse (especially in ‘What the Thunder Said’) and its references to ‘fragments’ and ‘broken images’|
|Sex and relationships||Seen in the conversation in the London pub at the end of ‘A Game of Chess’, the section describing the typist and ‘young man carbuncular’ in ‘The Fire Sermon’, and the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth I (the ‘Virgin Queen’), among others|
|War||See the poem’s references to an ‘archduke’ (suggesting Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination caused the outbreak of WWI), rats, dead men and their bones, demobbed soldiers, and possible shell-shock victims (the man in the middle section of ‘A Game of Chess’)|
- The British Library website has some useful information about the original manuscript drafts of Eliot’s poem.
- My detailed analysis of The Waste Land (and each of its five sections) at my blog, Interesting Literature.
- A hypertext of Eliot’s The Waste Land, with line-by-line annotations.