The Waste Land – a reading


The poem describes a sense of deep disillusionment stemming both from the collective experience of the First World War and from Eliot’s personal troubles. Though Eliot described the poem as “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” it was seen, and it is now seen to represent a general crisis in western culture. One of its major themes is the barrenness of a post-war world in which human sexuality has been perverted from its normal course and the natural world too has become infertile.

The critic I. A. Richards – Eliot captured the “sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavour, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed.”


T S Eliot once read The Waste Land to the Queen Mother as a personal favour. Whenever the reading was subsequently referred to she was less than enthusiastic, commenting: “That Dreadful poem – the Desert?”

Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism

Does the fragmentary nature of the poem merely reflect the randomness and contingency of the world, or, as other readers would have it, does the poem have an overarching structure, or rationale or argument in which some form of salvation is achieved or achievable?

Anthropology had a huge influence on Eliot – the new readings of cultural history, where belief systems were seen to be similar across time and the world, and the need for such was being understood. So, can the Waste Land be read as a declaration that such beliefs, the old beliefs that inform Christianity and all religions, are essential, and even the only solution to modern man’s plight?


Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was very important to Eliot and to the composition of the poem. The poem’s epigraph was to be Kurtz’s “The horror. The horror.” From the end of the novel, but Ezra Pound though it insufficiently weighty. This is a novel that starts out in London – where the Wasteland is set (if it is set in any particular place) – and concerns itself with the moral emptiness at the heart of the modern European enterprise, as well as with the savage beating heart that lies beneath the apparent civility and sophistication of modern life. For Eliot the primal and visceral reality was not to be buried, but to be tapped into, in order to give our modern life a grounding that it did not otherwise have.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Did he live his life again, in every detail of desire, temptation and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath. ‘The horror! The horror!’

Instead, the epigraph chosen was:

“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi

in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:Σιβυλλα

τι θελεις; respondebat illa:αποθανειν θελω.”


Which is taken from the Satyricon by Gaius Petronius. Eliot’s translation:


“I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.””

The Satyricon tells of the misadventures of a former gladiator through the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. Only fragments of the story still exist. The scene Eliot quotes occurs during a feast at the villa of a wealthy buffoon named Trimalchio. Sibyl of Cumae was a prophetess in service to Apollo and a great beauty. Apollo wished to take her as his lover and offered her anything she desired. She asked to live for as many years as there were grains in a handful of dust. Apollo granted her wish, but still she refused to become his lover. In time, Sibyl came to regret her boon as she grew old but did not die. She lived for hundreds of years, each year becoming smaller and frailer, Apollo having given her long life but not eternal youth. When Trimalchio speaks of her in the Satyricon, she is little more than a tourist attraction, tiny, ancient, confined, and longing to die.



The opening four lines of the Waste Land:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding   

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing   

Memory and desire, stirring   

Dull roots with spring rain.

…are designed to recall the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the reader’s mind:

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote 

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour

When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought

Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout

Through every vein with liquid of such power

It brings forth the engendering of the flower;

Eliot is contrasting the cruelty of April in his poem to the sweet showers of April in the Canterbury Tales, which, according to Chaucer soothe the drought of March and bring forth life. The title of this section recalls the section from the English Church’s Common Book of Prayer, which deal with details the service for the dead: modern life is somehow dead, its process cruel, memory and desire both are buried and unpromising, and what comes from the land, if anything, does so unwillingly.


The negative presentation of spring, traditionally represented in literature as positive a time of new beginnings, of new life, is then contrasted with the winter that preceded it, which is show in a positive light:

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

What is it about modern life that is hard to confront, difficult to contend with and almost impossible to embrace with joy? The poet would rather hide away, take shelter, and eke out the most miserable of existences rather than embrace life. There is no virility; life is hollow and painful, offering us nothing. It is better to while away our existence in the dark than confront its full menaing.

Then we are given the second fragment in Eliot’s collage: there is no link with the lines that preceded them; the picture we are presented with, some kind of crass and inane goings on of the Belle Epoch (The Beautful Era) – a social existence on the continent that would always seemed doomed in retrospect, a period characterized by optimism, peace, new technology and scientific discoveries, where the arts flourished, and literature, music, theater, and visual having their heyday. The period was named in retrospect, when it was considered to be something of a golden age in contrast to what went after it – much like the women coming and going in Prufrock talking of Michelangelo: this is the hollow, meaningless existence that the Waste Land is exposing:


Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee   

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,   

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.   

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.   

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,   

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,   

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.   

In the mountains, there you feel free.   

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

This is life without meaning for Eliot. The deracinated (uprooted from any natural, geographical, social or cultural environment) existence of this class of people had psychosis at its heart; it was freewheeling towards destruction, and was out of sync with the earth’s natural rhythms. It is, to be fair, hardly the worst of early twentieth century life, but it stands for the collapse in any moral order, and a faltering in the meaningful existence of people going back into time immemorial.


Then we launch into a biblical register…

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow   

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only   

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,   

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,   

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only   

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),   

And I will show you something different from either   

Your shadow at morning striding behind you   

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;   

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


The world without water and the world without meaning (without tradition, religion, customs, rituals – anything to inform the world/life with meaning) are presented to us here. the absence of water is symbolic of the absence of meaning / significance. We need water just as we need redemption, but there is neither here. but is he merely commenting on, even bemoaning, or is he actually experiencing (living it) the breakdown in Christianity. The poem can be seen as the poet’s own purgatory – something he ahs to live through in order to find redemption. The final line also recalls the sibyl’s (of the epigraph) request for as many years of life as there are grains of sand – this is life suffered, not life lived. Is the final declaration enough to drive you, the reader/ the poet, to seek redemption?


Frisch weht der Wind

Der Heimat zu,

Mein Irisch Kind,

Wo weilest du?

What is the place in today’s world of the old stories and legends? This is Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, the great romantic tragedy: “The wind blows fresh to the homeland. My Irish girl, where are you lingering?” however, it should be noted that this is a tale of adultery and so of misdirected sexual energy which (rightly?) ends in tragedy.

We go back to the Wagnerian opera at line 42: Öd’ und leer das Meer – “Empty and desolate the sea” – Is this what modern sexual union and reproduction / fertility (life) has become?


“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

 They called me the hyacinth girl.”   

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,   

Your arms full, and your hair wet, 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.

Öd’ und leer das Meer.

The “arms full” and “hair wet” have strong sexual connotations, but any water in this poem is positive – because most of the poem is concerned with the absence of living giving water. But what is this excerpt designed to tell us? is this symptomatic of the feeble attempts of modern man to gain spiritual enlightenment? It recalls the Grail Legend – which Eliot has interwoven into the whole poem – an incident where the searcher for the grail meets the bearer of the grail, but fails to ask the right question.


Do the tarot card readings represent debased religion? Not finding the “hanged man” who traditionally is seen to parallel Christ – who dies for the redemption of mankind – is significant…

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,   

Had a bad cold, nevertheless   

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,   

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)   

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,   

The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,   

And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,   

Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,   

Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find   

The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.   

Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,   

Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:   

One must be so careful these days.

But Eliot isn’t dismissing religion, nor is he dismissing the romanticism of Wagner: he is not just satirising the romantic or the sentimental, to bury Romanticism – he is in many respects quite a Romantic poet. Fearing “death by water” is significant here in that this type of death was seen as something which would prefigure or lead to resurrection and the fertility of the land. Modern man is not committing himself to the rituals and rites and traditions of the past, not whole-heartedly – isn’t this the diagnosis of Eliot? So the prognosis would be…? This may well be satire, but does that mean that Eliot lays no store in a religious solution for the Waste Land?


Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,   

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,   

I had not thought death had undone so many.   

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,   

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,   

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours   

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.   

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!   

You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,   

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?   

Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?   

Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,   

Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”


This phantasmagorical little episode, staring off with a cleverly placed line from Dante’s Divine Comedy – The Inferno, (“such a long steam of people that I should never have believed that death had undone so many” – a vast crowd of unhappy spirits, those who in life know neither good nor evil, who never learnt to care for anyone but themselves) is an example of Eliot seeking out (and finding) historical and literary parallels for his own / our own perceived condition: a whole history of this journey being enacted, and so a kind of recovery as much as a denunciation. It is notable that it is those people who have done nothing constructive with their lives, who have offered nothing, that Eliot reprises here.

There are also echoes of the following from The Book of Common Prayer: “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou savest is not quickened except it die” – Corinthians, Order of the Burial of the Dead.

The sudden explosion of dramatic monologue leads to a strange place. But is there a sign of hope here? “Sprout” / “Bloom”? Is life stirring hopefully in the waste land?

The final line is from Baudelaire “You hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother.” Might be read as a rather direct and earnest appeal to the reader to attend to what is being addressed here, and to share in the spiritual journey, the purgatorial experience, through which the writer himself is going through. This is not the vapid dandy Prufrock speaking; this is the real prophet, not the laughable parody of John the Baptist that Prufrock briefly thought himself in the more ridiculous climaxes of his thinking.



The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,   

Glowed on the marble, where the glass   

Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines   

From which a golden Cupidon peeped out

(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)   

Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra   

Reflecting light upon the table as   

The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,   

From satin cases poured in rich profusion;

In vials of ivory and coloured glass   

Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,   

Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused   

And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air   

That freshened from the window, these ascended

In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,   

Flung their smoke into the laquearia,   

Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.   

Huge sea-wood fed with copper   

Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,

In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.   

Above the antique mantel was displayed   

As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene   

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king   

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale

Filled all the desert with inviolable voice   

And still she cried, and still the world pursues,   

“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.   

And other withered stumps of time   

Were told upon the walls; staring forms

Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.   

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.



Opening with a parody of Shakespeare’s Anthony & Cleopatra, this piece of the collage is baroque in its depth of detail, subjecting the reader to a claustrophobic feeling, one of sensory overload, trapped in a woman’s boudoir, stifled by the aesthetic. Here Eliot is presenting the reader with the sexual and emotional aspects of modern man’s spiritual collapse, juxtaposing the wealthy and educated with the poor and uncultured: this is how hollow and meaningless humanity’s sexual relations have become.


“Jug Jug” – is the song of the nightingale, as represented in Elizabethan poetry, but also Elizabethan slang equivalent of the modern “fu*k” – this is another reference to Philomela of ancient myth who was raped by Tereus, her sister’s husband, and had her tongue cut out so that she couldn’t tell anyone of the crime. She was later turned into a nightingale in order to escape Tereus’ wrath once she had taken her revenge (communicating the crime by means of a tapestry, she then conspired with her sister to make Tereus unwittingly eat his own son).

My nerves are bad to-night

“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.   


“What is that noise?”   

                      The wind under the door.   

“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”   

                      Nothing again nothing.


You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember   


        I remember   

                Those are pearls that were his eyes.

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”   


O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—   

It’s so elegant   

So intelligent

 jazz 1920

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?   

I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street   

With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?   

What shall we ever do?”   

                          The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.   

And we shall play a game of chess,   

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.


“O O O O” are the final “words” of Hamlet in some early editions of the play and have become a signifier of the tragic death and Shakespearean Tragedy – but it also redolent of the syncopated ragtime rhythm of Jazz that was filling the cafes and dancehalls of London about that time. This is one of the much odd juxtapositions by Eliot – though here working as a pun – to contrast what was once meaningful with what is now shallow.

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said,   

I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,


Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.   

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you   

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.   

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.   

And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,   

He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,   

And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.   

Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.

Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.   


If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said,   

Others can pick and choose if you can’t.   

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.   

(And her only thirty-one.)   

I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,   

It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.   

(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

The chemist said it would be alright, but I’ve never been the same.   

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?   


Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,   

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—   



Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.

Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.   

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.


The marriage ritual should restore life to the wasteland, but we are here presented with a grim parody of the reuniting of the husband and wife.

For Eliot there was no sustaining sense of values amongst the poor and uneducated (as with the decadent few). Ending with Ophelia’s last words in Hamlet, Eliot’s juxtaposition highlights the relative emptiness and meaninglessness of the scene just narrated: there is nothing significant or meaningful in what has gone on before, in contrast to the words of Ophelia dripping with significance in Shakespeare’s play.



This is a transitional section in the poem, from suffering, through purgation and towards nirvana. The Fire Sermon is preached by the Buddha against the fires of lust and other passions that consume men, suffered here amidst the

Recalling Edmund Spencer’s Prothalamion – a nuptial song / poem composed at the end of the sixteenth-century on the occasion of the marriage of the two daughters of the Earl of Worcester, which begins with description of the river Thames where he comes across two beautiful maidens who he wishes well for their marriages. However running through Eliot’s modern day version of such a poem runs a line form Marvel’s To His Coy Mistress – “But at my back… I hear” repeated twice: the line which follows this in the Marvel poem is “Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near” which, along with other notes and hints and images, such as the lamentations of the Israelites in exile in Babylon (by the waters… [of Babylon] I sat down and wept”), undermines the festive sense of Spencer’s poem – a poem celebrating an elaborate court marriage. And then to follow this with more images of the modern waste land, recalling the trenches and carnage of World War One, interspersed with images of death from Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf   

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind   

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.   

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,   

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends   

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.   

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.   

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…   

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,   

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.   

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.   


A rat crept softly through the vegetation   

Dragging its slimy belly on the bank   

While I was fishing in the dull canal   

On a winter evening round behind the gashouse.

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck   

And on the king my father’s death before him.   

White bodies naked on the low damp ground   

And bones cast in a little low dry garret,   

Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.

But at my back from time to time I hear   

The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring   

Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.   

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter   

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water   

Et, O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!   


Twit twit twit   

Jug jug jug jug jug jug   

So rudely forc’d.



Sweeny is Eliot’s natural man – something of a brute – one of the Boston Irish he recalls from his youth. Mrs. Porter (along with daughter) is apparently a brothel keeper in Cairo – notorious for passing on venereal disease – and features in many bawdy verses known by the troops. The washing of feet has clear religious connotations, and the line in French “And oh, these children’s voices singing in the dome” comes from a poem in which the protagonist’s (Parsifal) feet are ceremonially washed before he proceeds to the Grail – showing the triumph of a young and virgin knight over desire / lust & so enabling him to penetrate the grail’s mystery – the sick king is healed and the waste land is restored. However, the washing of feet in soda water here, by v.d. riddled prostitutes, suggests that the ceremony would be meaningless and ineffective.

A reappearance of Tereus – who raped and cut out the tongue of Philomela – reminds us of the emptiness of sexual desire without reproduction – sating the base desires of base men. Coming after a bawdy interlude, it underscores the importance Eliot is placing on sexual regeneration, fertility, fecundity, as opposed to the hollowed out sex of modern times – of the modern waste land.


Unreal City   

Under the brown fog of a winter noon   

Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant   

Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants

C. i. f. London: documents at sight,   

Asked me in demotic French   

To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel   

Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.

…corrupted sexuality – Mr Eugenides is after a dirty (homo-sexual – and so not generative) weekend in Brighton. The “unreal city” / London is a hollow and dead place.

And we are given another vignette to illustrate the state of modern life:

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back

Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits   

Like a taxi throbbing waiting,   

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,   

Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see   

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,   

The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights   

Her stove, and lays out food in tins.   

Out of the window perilously spread   

Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,

On the divan are piled (at night her bed)   

Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.   

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs   

Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—   

I too awaited the expected guest.

He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,   

A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,   

One of the low on whom assurance sits   

As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.   

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,   

Endeavours to engage her in caresses   

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.   

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;   

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,   

And makes a welcome of indifference.   

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all   

Enacted on this same divan or bed;   

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.)   

Bestows one final patronizing kiss,   

And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…   


She turns and looks a moment in the glass,   

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:   

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”   

When lovely woman stoops to folly and   

Paces about her room again, alone,   

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.

It is after this interlude (the typist as a modern parallel to Philomela) that the poem takes a discernible upwards swing, but the alienation of the young typist is yet another in our tour of the texture of modern life. But it is the appearance of Tiresias – the blind seer, the only person who knows what it is to be both man and woman – which starts this upwards turn. For Eliot “What Tiresias sees is the substance of the poem.” If we are to have a guide through the wasteland, something Eliot refuses to be, then we have to grab hold of Tiresias.

The old myths have been abused – man has turned his back upon the spiritual and is unable to glimpse the means of his redemption.

Lower Thames Street

“This music crept by me upon the waters”   

And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.   

O City City, I can sometimes hear   

Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,

The pleasant whining of a mandoline   

And a clatter and a chatter from within   

Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls   

Of Magnus Martyr hold   

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.


Here begins what Eliot called the “song of the three Thames daughters” imitating the three Rhine-daughters of Wagner’s Ring who are lamenting he theft of gold that led to the destruction of the old world.

The river sweats   

Oil and tar   

The barges drift   

With the turning tide   

Red sails


To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.   

The barges wash   

Drifting logs   

Down Greenwich reach

Past the Isle of Dogs.   

            Weialala leia   

            Wallala leialala   

Elizabeth and Leicester   

Beating oars

The stern was formed   

A gilded shell   

Red and gold   

The brisk swell   

Rippled both shores

South-west wind   

Carried down stream   

The peal of bells   

White towers   

            Weialala leia

            Wallala leialala


 …and a return to the modern scene…


“Trams and dusty trees.   

Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew   

Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees   

Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.“


“My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart   

Under my feet. After the event   

He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’   

I made no comment. What should I resent?”   


“On Margate Sands.

 I can connect   

Nothing with nothing.   

The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.   

My people humble people who expect   



      la la   


To Carthage then I came   


Burning burning burning burning   

O Lord Thou pluckest me out   

O Lord Thou pluckest




…the allusions pile up towards the end: “Only connect” is the epigraph to Forrester’s Howard’s End “Live in fragments no longer.” Then there’s an allusion to Augustine arriving at Carthage, where his senses are assaulted by a cauldron of unholy loves” before he converts and prays for the release form the temptation of the senses, especially sexual temptation. “Fishermen” is a reference to a physical place – Billingsgate Fishmarket – but also, fishermen are always very positive symbols for Eliot, and of course linking to The Fisher king of the underlying myth. And “people who expect nothing” is King Lear (Shakespearean Tragedy) who has been driven mad by his own ungrateful and monstrous daughters.



Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,   

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell   

And the profit and loss.   

                          A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell   

He passed the stages of his age and youth   

Entering the whirlpool.   

                          Gentile or Jew   

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


Is death by water to be feared? As Madam Sosostris claims on line 55. Death by water is symbolic of the sacrifice that precedes growth and rebirth and redemption. It is, in the Grail Romance and elsewhere, an integral part of the fertility ritual. This brief section functions as another transition in the poem. We are moving on. There is progress. But what are we moving towards? Is there available to us in the modern world / wasteland a form of redemption?




The final section channels the story of the Road to Emmaus incident from the bible where the apostles filled with fear and doubt meet the newly risen Christ, and the approach to the Chapel Perilous in the final stage of the Grail Quest where the knight is tested by the illusion of nothingness. We have God telling Moses to “smite a rock”, Christ as a vegetation god, the cross, crux, as death, and then resurrection as renewal. We enter the world of the risen god (though man cannot recognize him), Shakelton’s polar landscape, and we head towards eastern mysticism of the Upanishads (free yourself form the world of selfish desire) which might hold out a solution in Eliot’s mind for what ails us.

Chapel Perilous 

After the torch-light red on sweaty faces   

After the frosty silence in the gardens   

After the agony in stony places   

The shouting and the crying

Prison and place and reverberation   

Of thunder of spring over distant mountains   

He who was living is now dead   

We who were living are now dying   

With a little patience


Here is no water but only rock   

Rock and no water and the sandy road   

The road winding above among the mountains   

Which are mountains of rock without water   

If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think   

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand   

If there were only water amongst the rock   

Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit   

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains   

But dry sterile thunder without rain   

There is not even solitude in the mountains   

But red sullen faces sneer and snarl   

From doors of mud-cracked houses

                                If there were water

And no rock   

If there were rock   

And also water   

And water   

A spring

A pool among the rock   

If there were the sound of water only   

Not the cicada   

And dry grass singing   

But sound of water over a rock   

Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees   

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop   

But there is no water   


Who is the third who walks always beside you?   

When I count, there are only you and I together   

But when I look ahead up the white road   

There is always another one walking beside you   

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded   

I do not know whether a man or a woman   

—But who is that on the other side of you?   


What is that sound high in the air   

Murmur of maternal lamentation   

Who are those hooded hordes swarming   

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth   

Ringed by the flat horizon only   

What is the city over the mountains   

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air   

Falling towers   

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria   

Vienna London   



A woman drew her long black hair out tight   

And fiddled whisper music on those strings   

And bats with baby faces in the violet light   

Whistled, and beat their wings   

And crawled head downward down a blackened wall   

And upside down in air were towers   

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours   

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.   


In this decayed hole among the mountains   

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing   

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel   

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.   

It has no windows, and the door swings,   

Dry bones can harm no one.   

Only a cock stood on the roof-tree   

Co co rico co co rico   

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust   

Bringing rain   

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves   

Waited for rain, while the black clouds   

Gathered far distant, over Himavant.   

The jungle crouched, humped in silence.   

Then spoke the thunder   


Datta: what have we given?   

My friend, blood shaking my heart   

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender   

Which an age of prudence can never retract   

By this, and this only, we have existed   

Which is not to be found in our obituaries   

Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider   

Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor   

In our empty rooms   


Dayadhvam: I have heard the key   

Turn in the door once and turn once only   

We think of the key, each in his prison   

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison   

Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours   

Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus   


Damyata: The boat responded   

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar   

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded   

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient   

To controlling hands   


                      I sat upon the shore   

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me   

Shall I at least set my lands in order?   


London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down   


Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina   

Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow   

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie   

These fragments I have shored against my ruins   

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.   

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.   


      Shantih    shantih    shantih 

 Shantih    shantih    shantih

Only in love and in the loss of selfhood, however brief they may be, can modern man, isolated among the ruins of his culture, threatened by enemies within and without, his myths broken and his emotions wrecked, glimpse for a moment the possibility of the “peace which passeth understanding”.

So we may well be able to salvage something amid the detritus of contemporary flux: the discipline, achievements and coherence of past literature and tradition offer us something: a means of measuring the pettiness of modern life and exposing its hollowness: a life richer than the modern world of sterility and decline. Is this Eliot’s “message”? The relation of chaotic subjective experience to a higher and absolute experience. Yes, there is the known awfulness of the real world, but this is more to do with the “unmagicking of the world” – the disenchantment / disillusionment consequent on western man’s over-rationalisation, for whom the myths no longer function to weld the various parts of man’s life together and assure him of security, potency and a sense of well-being.



The Waste Land – An Interpretation


Adapted from Pericles Lewis’s “Cambridge Introduction to Modernism”



The Waste Land makes use of allusion, quotation (in several languages), a variety of verse forms, and a collage of poetic fragments to create the sense of speaking for an entire culture in crisis; it was quickly accepted as the essential statement of that crisis and the epitome of a modernist poem.


The first lines of the poem position it as a monument in a specifically English tradition by alluding to Geoffrey Chaucer, the first major poet of the English language, whom Dryden called “the Father of English Poetry.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins with a description of April’s “sweet showers,” which cause the flowers of spring to grow. The natural cycle of death and rebirth traditionally associated with the month of April appears tragic to Eliot’s speaker:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

For Eliot’s speaker, April’s showers are cruel, not sweet. The “us” in line 5—“Winter kept us warm”—seems to link the poet himself to the earth that is covered with snow. These opening lines, then, pose the question of the poet’s originality in relation to a tradition that seems barely capable of nourishing the “dull roots” of the modern poet’s sensibility. The poet lives in a modern waste land, in the aftermath of a great war, in an industrialized society that lacks traditional structures of authority and belief, in soil that may not be conducive to new growth. Even if he could become inspired, however, the poet would have no original materials to work with. His imagination consists only of “a heap of broken images,” in the words of line 22, the images he inherits from literary ancestors going back to the Bible. The modernist comes to write poetry after a great tradition of poetry has been all but tapped out. Despite this bleakness, however, the poem does present a rebirth of sorts, and the rebirth, while signifying the recovery of European society after the war, also symbolizes the renewal of poetic tradition in modernism, accomplished in part by the mixing of high and low culture and the improvisational quality of the poem as a whole.

The poet’s struggle to make a new poem out of the inherited language of tradition seems to be mirrored in the unevenness of the poem’s language and form. The opening lines vary between five and nine syllables each. Five of the seven lines end with a single verb in participial form, following a comma (which marks a caesura, or pause, in the poem’s rhythm). These lines seem uneven—as if the poet had started to write iambic pentameter but not completed the lines or as if he had intended to write shorter lines with three or four beats each but felt compelled to add the words that appear after the commas. Each of the participles introduces an enjambment—in which a unit of meaning carries beyond a line-ending into the next line. The poem makes sparing use of end-rhyme, which is associated with completion and closure. Yet the participial verb forms that end five of the first seven lines perform something like the function of rhyme, linking together the various underground motions of winter and spring: breeding, mixing, stirring, covering, feeding: indeed, “breeding” and “feeding” do rhyme. Eliot also makes use of alliteration—the repetition of consonants—in phrases such as “lilacs out of the dead land,” “mixing / Memory,” “Winter kept us warm,” and “a little life.” Alliteration is an older poetic technique than rhyme and typical of Old English poetry, which, like these lines, was heavily accented. Eliot adopted these Old English poetic techniques from Pound, who had translated the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” into alliterative modern English. They suggest that Eliot is drawing on resources even older than Chaucer’s Middle English. Even as he describes the decay of modern civilization, he seeks power in the primitive resources of the English language. The caesuras and enjambment give the verse a ritual air, as if we were witnessing a “rite of spring,” such as Stravinsky celebrated before the war. The title of this first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” from the funeral service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, reinforces this ritual quality. The participial phrases emphasize the continual activity that underlies the winter’s “forgetful snow” and the spring’s “dead land”: life is breeding and stirring; dry roots are soaking up water; the emotions of the past and the future, memory and desire, are mixing in the rebirth of spring. Something is germinating.


For Eliot’s speaker, this rebirth is cruel, because any birth reminds him of death. The soil out of which the spring plants grow is composed of the decayed leaves of earlier plants. April is the month of Easter, and Eliot is invoking here both the Christian story of the young god who dies in order to give new life to the rest of us and the many other versions of this myth chronicled by Sir James Frazer in his anthropological work The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston in her From Ritual to Romance. Frazer and Weston explored the links among the mythology of the ancient near east, the Christ story, fertility rites, folk customs like May Day, and degenerate modern forms of magic such as the Tarot deck. What made Frazer’s and Weston’s discoveries shocking to some of their first readers was the evidence that many Christian myths and rituals had their origins in ancient, pagan forms of magic. Eliot was particularly interested in the myth of the Fisher King, most famously embodied in the Arthurian story of the quest for the holy grail. The Fisher King is impotent, his lands infertile and drought-stricken; one cause of this infertility is a crime, the rape of some maidens in the King’s court. Only the arrival of a pure-hearted stranger (Perceval, Gawain, or Galahad in different versions of the Arthurian tales) permits the land to become fertile again. Weston emphasized the sexual symbolism of the story, notably the grail (a cup said to have been used at the last supper) and the lance (said to have pierced Christ’s side), which can be interpreted as symbols of the female and male genitalia. This suggests ancient practices of imitative magic, including ritual marriages intended to encourage the plants to grow; Frazer thought that the tradition of the May Queen and King derived from such rites. Much of the symbolism of The Waste Land suggests these ancient fertility rites, but always gone awry, particularly in such modern instances as the fortune-teller Madame Sosostris, whom Eliot drew from Crome Yellow (1921), a satirical novel by the young Aldous Huxley.


Many myths attribute the death of winter and the rebirth of spring to the death and rebirth of a god with human attributes, who in some ancient practices is a man ritually murdered and in others an effigy buried or thrown into the sea to guarantee fertility or to bring rain. In The Waste Land, however, the god himself is conspicuously absent, except in debased forms like the (missing) Hanged Man in the Tarot pack or the drowned Phoenician Sailor, who returns as “Phlebas the Phoenician” in the fourth section, “Death by Water.” Other, more modern versions of the Christ story find a place in the poem. The Waste Land echoes Whitman’s “When Lilacs last in the Door-Yard Bloomed” (1865), in which Whitman makes use of a similar mythology to commemorate Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated at the end of the American civil war on Good Friday, 1865. Eliot probably also had Rupert Brooke’s poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” (1912), in mind; it begins, “Just now the lilac is in bloom.” Brooke himself combined the roles of poet and martyr when he was transformed into a mythical figure of the English “poet-soldier” after his death. In the more immediate past, W. B. Yeats had recently published “Easter, 1916,” celebrating the martyrs of the Easter rebellion. Chaucer drew on this same mythological structure in the Canterbury Tales: his pilgrims are headed to Canterbury, “the holy, blissful martyr for to seek, / He who hath helped them when they were sick.” Eliot would later write a play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), about the death of Thomas à Becket, Chaucer’s “holy, blissful martyr.” Spring, the season of rebirth, is also a season for celebrating martyrs, and Eliot’s speaker seems to align himself with such martyrs as Christ, Becket, Lincoln, Brooke, and the war dead.

The poem ultimately does promise a new beginning, but Eliot’s speaker appears, perversely, to prefer winter to spring, and thus to deny the joy and beauty associated with rebirth. He emphasizes the role of death and decay in the process of growth, most memorably in the conversation between two veterans who meet near London bridge after the war: “‘Stetson! / ‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! / ‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / ‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? / ‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’” The war is the essential background to the poem, but instead of referring to it directly, Eliot alludes to the battle of Mylae in the Punic Wars of the third century B.C.E., suggesting that all wars are in reality one war. The fact that the first world war was fought not primarily on ships but in trenches is expressed only indirectly through the idea of the sprouting corpse, which seems a grotesque parody of Brooke’s image of the foreign burial plot (in “The Soldier”) as “forever England.” Similarly, the poem’s “rats’ alley” owes something to the rats that appear in poetry about trench warfare by such soldier-poets as Siegfried Sassoon. Later, Eliot casually introduces the minor character Albert, Lil’s husband, a demobilized soldier. History enters the poem not as a subject for direct treatment but through snatches of overheard dialogue.

In the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot adapts some of the crucial imagery of the poem—the rocky, deserted land, the absence of life-giving water, the dead or dying vegetation—from the Biblical books of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes. Other quotations or translations come from writers of near-sacred status: Shakespeare (“Those are pearls that were his eyes,” line 48) and Dante (“I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled,” lines 63-4). Eliot helpfully, if somewhat pedantically, included a set of notes on the poem that allowed even his early readers to identify the sources of these allusions, although he later ridiculed his own notes as “a remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship.” The notes themselves are an indication of what is new about the poem. Previous poets would have assumed that their readers shared a common culture with themselves and would probably have alluded only to materials from that common culture. Eliot inherits from the symbolists a concern with private, esoteric meanings, but he adds a structure of notes in order to make some of those meanings accessible to his readers. The Bible, Shakespeare, and Dante obviously provide historical and aesthetic ballast for Eliot’s apparently chaotic modern poem, but other types of allusion seem more bizarre. Many of the quotations appear in foreign languages, such as the lines from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (1857-59), a legendary story of adultery which helps Eliot to establish the theme of frustrated or misdirected sexuality. While occasionally quoting his favorite modern French poets, including Baudelaire, he also includes passages of everyday conversation, such as the snippets in lines 8 to 16 from the reminiscences of Countess Marie Larisch, the niece of the former Empress of Austria and a fashionable contemporary of Eliot.

Eliot’s use of allusion and quotation seems in part a response to the dilemma of coming at the end of a great tradition. The poet seeks to address modern problems—the war, industrialization, abortion, urban life—and at the same time to participate in a literary tradition. His own imagination resembles the decaying land that is the subject of the poem: nothing seems to take root among the stony rubbish left behind by old poems and scraps of popular culture. The method of assembling “fragments” or “broken images” from the past into a sort of mosaic allows him at once to suggest parallels between contemporary problems and earlier historical situations and to disorient the reader, turning the reading process into a model of modern, urban confusion. It parallels the cubist use of collage, calling attention to the linguistic texture of the poem itself and to the materials—literary and popular—out of which it is constructed. Eliot’s allusive method is a distinctive feature of his poetry, but he developed it in part on the model of some of Pound’s earlier poems, and Pound’s editing of The Waste Land greatly increased its fragmentation. An even more important influence was Joyce. Eliot read the early episodes of Ulysses that appeared in the Little Review; as assistant editor at The Egoist, he read the original drafts of five episodes that were published there in 1919. He also read other parts of the novel in manuscript and corresponded with Joyce about it. He later confessed to having felt that Joyce’s Ulysses did “superbly” what Eliot himself was “tentatively attempting to do, with the usual false starts and despairs.” Allusion would become a favorite modernist technique for reconciling formal experiment with an awareness of literary tradition.


Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land was “He do the Police in Different Voices.” The line, another quotation, comes from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and describes the foundling Sloppy’s skills as a reader of the newspaper—imitating the voices of the police in the crime reports. The Waste Land is composed of many voices, not always distinguishable from one another. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” contains a medley of voices. The opening passage draws on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to describe a richly furnished room, in which a depiction of Ovid’s story of the rape of Philomela and her transformation into a nightingale is displayed above the mantel. The “inviolable voice” of the painted or sculpted nightingale also enters the poem inarticulately through a conventional representation of birdsong from Renaissance poetry: “Jug jug” (103). The following passage relates a conversation between a neurotic woman and a laconic man. The woman’s remarks appear in quotation marks: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.” These comments alternate with lines, not in quotation marks, that may be spoken or thought by her male companion: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.” The ominous tone of these replies suggests, however, that the words may issue from some supernatural source. A moment of ragtime music breaks in before the neurotic woman threatens to rush out into the street. (Eliot’s friends thought that the woman in this passage was very closely based on his first wife, who was later institutionalized). The section ends with an overheard monologue, this one drawn from a story told by the Eliots’ maid concerning Albert, the demobilized soldier, and Lil, his wife, who has bad teeth and has taken some pills to induce an abortion. The maid relates her own conversation with Lil. Another ominous voice (or the same one?) interrupts the monologue, announcing with increasing frequency “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,” the standard warning that closing time is approaching in a pub. Here, the words have a sinister quality, suggesting that “time” means death, or apocalypse. The final words of the section recall Ophelia’s last scene before her suicide in Hamlet. The section makes use of at least seven voices: the initial narrator, the nightingale, the neurotic woman, her companion, the gramophone, the maid, and the barkeeper.

Among the mix of voices are those of popular culture. The influential critic Clive Bell, brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf, described Eliot’s poetry as largely “a product of the Jazz movement,” and saw The Waste Land as part of a “ragtime literature which flouts traditional rhythms and sequences and grammar and logic.” Eliot riffs on a ragtime song (“The Shakespearean Rag”): “O o o o that Shakespeherian rag, / It’s so elegant, so intelligent.” The critic Michael North has shown that many of Eliot’s first reviewers associated his modernism with the Jazz Age. The poem’s syncopated rhythms might seem, to a conservative critic, to bring all of literary tradition down to the level of jazz, but they can just as plausibly be seen as including popular culture in a new canon that erases the boundaries between high and low.

The use of so many voices in this kind of collage allows the poet to distance himself from any single statement. As the critic Louis Menand has put it, “nothing in [the poem] can be said to point to the poet, since none of its stylistic features is continuous, and it has no phrases or images that cannot be suspected of—where they are not in fact identified as—belonging to someone else….. Eliot appears nowhere, but his fingerprints are on everything.” Menand’s comment recalls Flaubert’s idea of the godlike author who is “present everywhere and visible nowhere,” and the demand of the prosecuting attorney in the Madame Bovary trial: “Would you condemn her in the name of the author’s conscience? I do not know what the author’s conscience thinks.” Indeed, some of Eliot’s most important influences were the post-Flaubertian novelists Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce. Is the poet himself speaking the lines describing the room, or is this merely a pastiche of Renaissance drama? Who is issuing the warnings about closing time? Although The Waste Land is, by Eliot’s own admission, a highly personal document, it also aspires to a certain kind of impersonality.


This doctrine of impersonality was closely linked to Eliot’s claim that his poetry was “classical” and not “romantic,” by which he meant in part that it was more concerned with form and balance than with the expression of emotion. Impersonality did not mean his poetry avoided emotion. However, the emotions are assumed in something like the way an actor takes on a role—Eliot, in The Waste Land, “does” a variety of different characters in different voices. Paradoxically, by trying several personae on, and not identifying himself with any one persona, Eliot manages to achieve a kind of impersonality. Like Pound, Eliot drew for his conception of impersonality on Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, in which he took on the roles of such figures as the Duke who casually tells the story of how he put a stop to his first wife’s suspected adultery (“My Last Duchess,” 1842) or the Renaissance professor who devotes his whole life to the smallest aspects of Greek grammar (“A Grammarian’s Funeral,” 1855).

In a note to the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot wrote:

Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.


Eliot thus suggests that all the many voices in the poem may be aspects of two voices, those of one man and one woman, or indeed of a single voice, that of Tiresias, the man who was changed into a woman and back into a man, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who foresaw the destruction of Thebes, according to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, and who was visited by Odysseus in the underworld in book eleven of the Odyssey. The background suggests one undercurrent of the dialogue between men and women in The Waste Land. The title “A Game of Chess,” drawn from a Renaissance play about a seduction, and the chess imagery of this section, point to an understanding of marriage and sexuality debased into a game of strategy in which men and women battle over sex. Instead of a life-giving act of love, sex occurs in the poem as seduction or rape, leading to abortion. Eliot’s note also suggests that the entire poem can be understood as a vision of a possible destruction, and near the end of the poem such a catastrophe seems to be envisioned in the words of the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down.” From the point of view of impersonality, the central role of Tiresias suggests that the various voices of the poem can be understood as a sort of chorus, with each part being spoken by representatives of one sex or the other. The distance from such earlier poems as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) or even from Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is apparent; the lyric “I” and the concentration on a single speaker’s or character’s experience has given way to a sort of dream vision, in which many voices speak at once. The resulting cacophony suggests the impossibility of a truly unified understanding of the poem, even if Eliot hoped that all the voices could be subsumed in that of Tiresias.


Words at Liberty

The Waste Land could not have been written without the assault on the English poetic tradition undertaken by Ezra Pound and the imagists. The most obvious way in which The Waste Land differs from most of the poetry of the nineteenth century, and from more recent poets like Kipling or even Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, is in its play with and partial rejection of traditional meter, rhyme, and stanza form. Parts of the poem are written in free verse. Eliot himself did not much like free verse in general and even insisted that it did not exist. Using the French term for free verse (vers libre), Eliot wrote that “no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” In particular, although he was happy to do away with standard rhyme schemes, Eliot claimed in an essay of 1917 that all verse (perhaps all language) made use of some kind of meter; what was distinctive about his work was the complexity of his use of meter: “the most interesting verse…has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.” In this regard, Eliot’s rhetoric clashed with that of Pound, but both men claimed to be experimenting with very difficult techniques for recording the rhythms of actual speech. Indeed, their views had converged in the years immediately preceding The Waste Land, with Pound experimenting more with traditional meters and Eliot using some aspects of free verse. Eliot’s divergences from traditional meters, then, were meant to achieve particular poetic effects rather than simply to shock. 
At first glance, The Waste Land may appear to follow no set metrical pattern. Yet, just as the opening lines of the poem subtly introduce a form of rhyme, Eliot frequently draws on regular meters. Eliot makes use of many fragmentary lines like those of the nightingale’s song in the “Fire Sermon” section:

Twit twit twit

Jug jug jug

jug jug jug

So rudely forc’d


Here, the first two lines seem to be made up entirely of stressed syllables, although they tend to fall into groups of three. The third and fourth lines, however, are composed of iambs. The iamb is the dominant “foot,” or metrical unit, of English poetry, consisting of two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed.

Often, as Theodore Roethke observes, “free verse is a denial in terms…[because] invariably, there is the ghost of some other form, often blank verse, behind what is written.” Blank verse is the English name for iambic pentameter (lines of five iambs) without rhymes, the verse form of Shakespeare’s plays and of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Wordsworth’s Prelude. Many verses of The Waste Land are composed in iambic pentameter, and others closely resemble that meter. Eliot’s frequent adaptation of lines from other poets, such as Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Webster, and Andrew Marvell, often reinforces this tendency to revert to the standard meter of English long poems, for example in the opening lines of the second section, “A Game of Chess.” Indeed Pound criticized these passages as “too penty,” that is, too close to iambic pentameter, or as Pound also put it, “too tum-pum at a stretch.” In addition to the many lines clearly written in blank verse, Eliot uses various rhyme schemes, often to comic effect. For example, in “The Fire Sermon,” one of the unwholesome couplings is introduced by a rhyming couplet: “The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.” In another part of “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot relates the unsatisfactory tryst between the typist and the young man carbuncular from the perspective of Tiresias, who, according to one version of the myth, was blinded by the goddess Juno for his claim that women enjoyed sex more than men. In the encounter related in the poem, neither participant seems to experience much pleasure. Eliot uses quatrains (rhyming units of four lines) to describe the tryst. Eliot’s slightly forced rhymes call attention to the coercive nature of the sexual encounter between the “young man carbuncular” and the typist. When he has left,

She turns and looks a moment in the glass

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

The double or feminine rhymes (rhyming the last two syllables of each line) have a darkly comic effect. The traditional meter and rhyme in such passages sets them off from the free verse of the rest of the poem, but often Eliot seems to be using the meter to call attention to a disjuncture between his low subject matter and the formal style with which he describes it. In fact, often the formality of the language is inversely related to the seriousness of the material Eliot is describing. Frequently, the lower-class material in the poem is treated satirically, in contrast with the work of Joyce, who showed a great fondness for the lower middle-class milieu of Ulysses.


Eliot also makes use of a number of the patterns and systems for making meaning available to free verse, some of which have been summarized by the critic Paul Fussell. They include the use of enumeration or cataloguing. Lists are one of the most ancient poetic forms, visible in the catalogues of ships in Homer’s Iliad or in the “begats” of the Bible. A brief list appears at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon”: “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed” (177-179). In this case, Eliot begins in iambic hexameter (six feet), but allows the meter to break down in the third quoted line. Eliot also makes use of another typical device of free verse, the repetition of phrases or syntactical forms, like the refrain “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” in the passage about Albert and Lil.

Another method of structuring free verse, seldom used by Eliot, is to write very long lines, each of which contains a full syntactic unit, as Whitman often does, thus creating the effect of a formal speech and sometimes even a Biblical tone. Conversely, writers of free verse may run a series of very short lines together, dividing a syntactical unit into as many as four or eight lines, as in William Carlos Williams’s “This is just to say” (1934) :

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which 
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Eliot sometimes combines the techniques of Whitman and Williams, by writing a long line that introduces a set of variations on a theme; the line then re-appears but broken up by enjambment as if the speaker were mulling over his thought, unable to phrase it adequately. Thus the line, “If there were only water amongst the rock,” forms the basis for the fugal sequence:

If there were water

And no rock

If there were rock

And also water

And water

A spring

A pool among the rock

If there were the sound of water only

Not the cicada

And dry grass singing

But sound of water over a rock

Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop 

But there is no water

The Waste Land thus makes use of a wide range of metrical patterns and rhyme schemes, as well as techniques for structuring free verse. Although the effect appeared chaotic to some of Eliot’s first readers, the poem fulfills Pound’s dictum that “Rhythm must have meaning” (1915). Later poetic practice was largely shaped by Pound’s advocacy of free verse and Eliot’s example.



The Waste Land is also characteristic of modernist poetry in that it contains both lyric and epic elements. Modernism continued the tendency, begun in romanticism, to prize lyric highly, but many modernist poets also sought to write in the traditionally highest form, epic. Eliot defined the lyric as “the voice of the poet talking to himself, or to nobody,” and if we accept his description of The Waste Land as a “piece of rhythmical grumbling,” it may seem to belong to the lyric tradition. Yet its broader ambitions are obvious. “Eliot came back from his Lausanne specialist looking OK; and with a damn good poem (19 pages) in his suitcase,” wrote Pound after reading the manuscript of the poem. “About enough, Eliot’s poem, to make the rest of us shut up shop.” Pound defined an epic as a “poem including history.” Although much shorter than Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Waste Land does contain history—both contemporary history and the history of the world understood in mythological terms. One of the factors that helped to create “high modernism” was the attempt of poets, after the war, to extend the techniques of the pre-war avant-gardes to address broad, historical questions, the sorts of questions normally addressed by epic. They remained suspicious, however, of attempts to tell the history of the world from a single, unified perspective—the “Arms and the man I sing” of the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which both the poet (“I”) and his hero (“the man”) are singular. Instead, their epics tended to treat historical experience as fragmentary, and often it is difficult to say whether their long poems are epics or merely collections of lyrics. Instead of granting perspective on history, they struggle to contain it in their irregular forms. In the first draft of his own fragmentary epic, The Cantos, in 1917, Pound had written that “the modern world / Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thoughts in.” The modernist epic would have to be a rag-bag.

Perhaps the most famous of modernist rag-bags is the concluding section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said.” Eliot wrote this section in a flash of inspiration and published it virtually unedited. Eliot invokes three ancient Sanskrit words from the Upanishads, ancient Hindu scriptures: Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata, each announced by the single syllable “DA,” representing a clap of thunder. The return of the waters suggests the possibility of a different type of sexual relation from those seen in the poem so far: “The sea was calm, your heart would have responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.” However, the flood and the purifying fire arrive, and the last lines of the poem seem to announce destruction, in many languages, as partial quotations pile up and the speaker (perhaps at last representing the poet himself), announces: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” After the destruction, the poem ends on a note of peace, with the words “Shantih Shantih Shantih,” which, as Eliot informs us, mark “the formal ending to an Upanishad.”


Eliot’s intentions in making a miniature epic out of the various lyrical moments and borrowed fragments that make up The Waste Land can best be understood in terms of his own analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, which served as perhaps the most important model for the poem. Eliot wrote that the parallels Joyce draws between his own characters and those of Homer’s Odyssey constitute a “mythical method,” which had “the importance of a scientific discovery.” He went so far as to compare Joyce to Einstein. The mythical method, according to Eliot, “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Many of Joyce’s readers have felt that Joyce himself did not necessarily aim for control and order, but most are in agreement that Eliot’s essay describes well the intention of The Waste Land, in which the many parallels that have been briefly discussed here help to convert chaos into a kind of order.

Like other modernist models of history—Yeats’s gyres, Pound’s vortex, Joyce’s Vichian cycles—Eliot emphasize the current moment as one of crisis, either preparing for or recovering from a radical break in history. This radical break certainly has something to do with the first world war, but it is also an aspect of the modernists’ eschatological view of the world, that is their fascination with the problem of destiny and the last judgment. It is for this reason that Kurtz’s famous last words (“The horror! The horror!”) in Heart of Darkness ring through so much of later modernism. Eliot originally intended to use them as the epigraph for The Waste Land. As Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, says, “he had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate.” The capacity to judge a civilization that teeters on the edge of chaos was highly prized by Eliot, as it was by Pound, Whose Cantos shares some of the features of The Waste Land, and by the other modernists who attempted their own epics.[1]


Adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 129-151.


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