The Waste Land is arguably the single most influential modernist poem. When it first appeared in October 1922 some hailed it as the breakthrough poem of the age; others hated it for its classical approach and academic appeal.
Reading through this iconic poem is anything but straightforward (there are many references and quotations and footnotes); some lines are in French, others in German or Italian. Sanskrit is used in the final part.
The best approach it could be said is to slowly go through the whole poem, all five sections, to get a feel for the rhythms and syntax, and then return to pick it apart using the footnotes as a guide. Only then can the poem be appreciated as an entity, despite the ‘collage effect’, seemingly haphazard shifts in time and the ‘melting’ of characters.
But why did the poet need so many notes and references? Well, Eliot wanted his poem to be modern but to do that he felt he had to incorporate past historical, mythological and literary ideas in a new form.
- Gone were the neat iambic rhyming lines and straightforward narrative. Newly arrived were experimental free verse, varying line length, fragmentation and urban mythology.
The first-time reader certainly needs references if they are to fully understand each and every line and the language used. It’s the nature of the beast – The Waste Land is full of direct and indirect cultural influences and the reader cannot remain ignorant of such.
Eliot himself was acutely aware of the quotations, which he insisted were there for the critics, who in some earlier poems, had accused him of plagiarism.
At this time, between the end of the first world war and the early 1920s, several poets were attempting to capture the cultural crisis in one long creation.
For Eliot, recovering in Switzerland from a nervous breakdown, the time was ripe. Out of his personal trauma came the impersonal art. He returned to England with 19 pages of a new poem which he showed to none other than fellow American Ezra Pound, the spark and energy behind the modernist movement.
- Pound edited Eliot’s poem, cutting bits out, sharpening it up, effectively halving it. Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound who he called the better craftsman (IL MIGLIOR FABBRO)
Ezra Pound knew he had a winner:
‘Eliot’s Waste Land is I think the justification of the movement, of our modern experiment, since 1900.’
It was published in 1922 at a time when the western world was in flux following the disaster of the first world war, in which tens of millions were killed. The scale of destruction truly shocked in what was the first industrial war.
T.S. Eliot’s poem, with its shifting scenarios, multiple voices and changes in form seemed to sum up the state of modern consciousness. Uncertainty ruled. The old pre-industrial life had gone forever and in its place was the war machine.
Where was the world going? What did the future hold? What price had life now that masses beyond compare had perished so easily in the great war? And, importantly for Eliot, where was God in all this mayhem and alienation?
The Waste Land conjures up no magical answer to this question but instead takes the reader on a long journey full of swift changes, through bleak environments to a possible redemption.
Underpinning it however are two crucial themes:
- Fertility – the wasted land must be renewed. Eliot took inspiration from ancient vegetation rituals as described in the book From Ritual to Romance which highlights the progression from primitive pagan festivals through to spiritual quests for the Holy Grail and the healing of the Fisher King.
- Healing – for the land, and humanity, to experience rebirth, man and woman must come to terms with fear, sex and religion within their own relationships.
Eliot’s poem could be a search for a new spirituality in a world gone mad. It is full of allusions to mythology, religion and the occult. It frequently contrasts the plight of the individual in society and in nature and contrasts the relationships between male and female.
But don’t forget the poem also includes an Austrian Countess, a London pub landlord, Cockneys (east end Londoners with special accents and their own language), a typist with suspect underwear, a scruffy young clerk and a Phoenician sailor.
It isn’t an easy read. At all. There are many references and quotations, along with bits of German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. You may need an encyclopedia at your side before attempting it.
However, it is an essential poem because it brought the modern world kicking and screaming and despondent and spiritually withered out of the dark morass of cultural dismay into the light of new hope and form.
The Waste Land combines the old with the new, history with the present, mythology and real life, symbolism and psychic fragmentation. It directly influenced writers such as Ernest Hemingway(The Sun Also Rises), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl).
I. The Burial of the Dead (lines 1 – 76)
The natural cycle of the seasons reversed. April is cruel because life cannot now emerge from the ruined soil. Expectations turned upside down. Fear in a handful of dust. The future occult. Corpses buried in the Unreal City (London). Twisted morals.
II. A Game of Chess (lines 77 – 172)
Alludes to two plays by English dramatist Thomas Middleton: A Game at Chess (1624) and Women Beware Women (1657). Both focus on sexual intrigue.The game of chess is a cover for seduction and rape;the London pub scene a raunchy post-war dialogue about abortion and future relationships.
III. The Fire Sermon (lines 173 – 311)
Taken from the Buddha’s fire sermon, noted by Eliot ‘corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount. Basically, Buddha tells how to achieve liberation from suffering by detachment from the five senses and the mind. Longest section based in London, by the River Thames. Concerns relationship between a typist and a clerk and the role of blind Tiresias. Religious and Shakespearean allusions.
IV. Death by Water (lines 312 – 321)
Shortest section. Related to section I and the tarot symbol of the drowned Phoenician sailor. Also St Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 2, for example:
9 Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;
10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:
V. What the Thunder Said (322 – 434)
Final section. The meaning of the thunder in this case relates to a Hindu fable found in the ancient Sanskrit text of the Upanishads, 5. The supreme deity Prajapati speaks with the force of thunder and utters a special syllable to the gods: Da, meaning ‘be restrained’. To the humans he utters Datta, ‘give alms’ and to the demons Dayadhvam, ‘have compassion.’ The thunder also relates to the storm that led the Grail Knight to the Chapel Perilous and also has a biblical connection in several books.
Undoubtedly the biggest influence on The Waste Land comes from the book titled From Ritual to Romance written by Jessie L. Weston and published in 1920. Eliot openly acknowledged this:
Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie. L Weston’s book on the Grail legend … Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.
T.S. Eliot, Notes from The Waste Land 1922.
Both Eliot and Weston also studied an earlier work by Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough, published in 1890. It has been described as ‘ a monumental ‘ study of comparative folklore, magic and religion.
Eliot had been thinking about writing a long substantial poem, certainly early in 1921. In the summer of the same year, suffering from a nervous breakdown, he was able to take 3 months away from his job at Lloyds Bank in London.
He first spent 3 weeks of the summer of 1921 in the coastal town of Margate, on the English south coast, where he compiled lines sitting in the Nayland Rock beach shelter. In the autumn he travelled to Lausanne in Switzerland where he was treated by a well known psychiatrist Dr Roger Vittoz.
The Waste Land is a modernist poem because it broke new ground when it was first published in 1922.
- Eliot’s radical use of language, structure and content came together as never before. He managed to combine both personal and impersonal elements within a five section framework where voices shift in time and space, where experimental rhythms and syntax challenge the reader to make sense of the whole.
The Waste Land does have occasional full end rhyme but it is used in a rather haphazard fashion. There is no set rhyme scheme, no pattern to follow. This was Eliot skewing the norm, almost teasing the reader with random rhymes before reverting back to free verse within loose structure.
This mix of varied lineation, experimental syntax, dialogue and allusion combine to strengthen the ideas of uncertainty, confusion, sexual intrigue and loss – there is no linear narrative, there is no plot, only the notion of a search for something vital, without which humanity cannot be revitalised.
Fragmentation, the sudden changes, the variety of tone and the unorthodox language reflect the process of mental and emotional dissipation.
The reader is taken into a bewildering world where different voices offer various perspectives on life. The desolation is plain, just look at the landscapes – an empty sea, an Unreal city, a dimly lit bedsit, biblical deserts and rocky places, an Antarctic white road, Herman Hesse’s bleak Europe, Dante’s Hell.
We’re never far from the low life, constantly reminded of our religious heritage, part of a burial service, a dark play, river songs, fertility ritual, a London pub conversation, an occult gathering, a prayer.
The Burial of the Dead refers to the Anglican service of burial, found in the liturgical book which Eliot possessed. This might seem puzzling, to start a poem with death, but the world was still in shock from the first world war, and the mass destruction, so it must have been uppermost in Eliot’s mind.
The opening eighteen lines of the poem gradually reveal a female speaker, Marie, a certain Countess Marie Larisch in real life, who is said to have met and spoken with T.S. Eliot when he visited Munich in 1911 to study German.
The conversation seems to have stuck in the young poet’s mind because it found its way into the first stanza of The Waste Land.
Marie however is only one of several poetic personas in the poem, blending and melting voices, said to form one overarching female – Philomela or Philomel, from ancient Greek mythology. (The story of Philomel is covered in section II, starting at line 97).
Lines 1 – 4
The famous first line is known by many. It contrasts strongly with the section title, related to death, as it introduces the reader to the month of April, traditionally associated with new life, the beginning of Spring.
But why should this month be the cruellest? This counters all logic and perception – surely April is the least cruel because it allows new growth to begin, it helps spark the seed as the earth warms up?
Compare to Chaucer’s opening lines of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
The opening line of The Waste Land twists the natural order. The construction of the line, with a caesura (pause, caused by the comma), enjambment (the line runs on into the next without punctuation) and present participle breeding suggests something odd. It doesn’t quite fit into the traditional idea we have of April.
Yet lilacs appear out of the dead land, a flower particularly personal to Eliot. If The Waste Land is mainly a poem about spiritual desolation and psychological fragmentation, it also has elegiac tones.
Eliot incorporated both mythology and autobiography in the poem. In 1910/11 he studied in Paris and befriended a young Frenchman, Jean Verdenal, later killed in the Great War in April 1915.
In a published memory of Verdenal, Eliot recalls their last meeting in Paris:
‘my own retrospect is touched by a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later (so far as I can tell) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli.’
Hence the ‘Memory and desire’ of the third line as April comes round again and Eliot thinks of his young friend, tragically lost.
Note the recurring present participles – breeding, mixing, stirring – which keep the reader in an unusual Whitmanesque here and now. There is no full end rhyming but the echo of spring is heard in all of those participles.
Lines 5 – 7
The upside-down world continues with a warm winter, the opposite of what we’d normally expect. The pauses repeat, as do the participles.
- But what is new is the speaker revealing…us...a group, a family, a collective?
The warmth is for real, the snow helps people to forget that the earth is full of the dead.
James Thomson in his poem To Our Ladies of Death (1863) may well have inspired Eliot’s seventh line:
That we in turn may feed her with our death:
Lines 8 – 11
One of the longest lines in the whole poem, line 8, fourteen syllables, trochaic, then fading away into the Starnbergersee, a large lake to the south of the city of Munich in Bavaria, Germany.
The first solid fact is given to the reader to play with: the Starnbergersee plonks us firmly into Germany, the group together again…us…drinking coffee in the Hofgarten (court garden: near the Starnbergersee) to escape the rain.
This little scene appears to be from Eliot’s meeting and chat with Marie Larisch in 1911. Are we to take this mention of Bavarian aristocracy as a symbol of the decline of this class of people, given the context and the poem’s main theme of loss of the old order?
A straight translation from the German:
I am certainly no Russian, I come from Lithuania, a true German.
Lines 13 – 18
The reader is introduced to Marie at last, in person so to speak, as she looks back on childhood freedoms whilst staying with her cousin, the arch-duke.
A first person admission ends this opening stanza. She reads at night, perhaps to alleviate boredom, perhaps because she is older. In winter she goes south, presumably for the warmth.
Lines 19 – 24
There is a change in the voice, the speaker. We leave Marie behind for the time being.
The first question to be asked in the poem is rhetorical and relates to renewal. What kind of life can emerge from ‘this stony rubbish?’
Eliot introduces the reader to the bible…it seems the question was aimed at the Son of man, not Christ according to Eliot’s notes on the poem but old testament prophet Ezekiel:
1. And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.
Son of man in this sense means human, or male human but can also mean simply humanity.
The old testament allusion continues as Eliot’s notes refer to the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 12, verses 5-7:
5. Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the street.
6. Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
7. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
Lines 25 – 30
The scene of desolation intensifies. Eliot’s notes refer to Isaiah, 32:2:
2. And a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
This is Isaiah’s prophecy concerning a Messiah and, in the context of the poem, reflects Eliot’s interest in the future of western society following the disaster of the first large scale industrial war.
This whole stanza is built on biblical/mythological ground – note that Adam means red, adamah red earth, according to the book of Genesis.
The speaker aims their voice at ‘you’, humanity – the ‘shadow’ lines beautifully illustrating that, from sunrise to sunset, physical existence is undermined by a fear of death.
Another famous line iambically conjures up the image of the speaker opening up their hand to reveal dust:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Not only are humans reduced to dust when they die and decay, dust is used in the burial service, related to Eccelsiastes 3:20:
All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
But it’s the idea that the dust holds fear – an emotional element. And by implication that this fear is all consuming and drives humanity to destroy humanity, the result of which is wasted land, spiritual emptiness.
Lines 31 – 43
The short lyric is from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde:
Fresh blows the wind
My Irish child,
Where are you waiting?
The lines are sung by a lovelorn sailor on Tristan’s ship, thinking of his Irish beloved.
Hyacinths feature in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, in the myth of a young boy killed by a rival for the love of Apollo, who turned the blood of the boy into a flower – a hyacinth. The story represents an ancient vegetation ritual/festival, where the flowers of spring are killed off by the heat of summer.
It’s a puzzle as to who is the speaker for lines 35 and 36 – the ‘hyacinth girl’...is it a separate female persona from Marie of the first stanza? It seems to be.
The reply is from a male? When the two got back from the Hyacinth garden he is in a changed state, between living and dead, temporarily blind, and ignorant. Is this an ambiguous war scene? Or imagined out of the Apollo myth, mixed with the story of Tristan and Isolde?
The final line is in German and again from Wagner’s opera. It means:
Wide and empty sea and is a message given to the dying Tristan as waits for Isolde to return.
Lines 43 – 46
Another shift, another angle. Here is one Madame Sosostris, Eliot plucked her out of a novel, Chrome Yellow (1921), by Aldous Huxley. In the novel she’s called Sesostris the Sorceress of Ecbatana and is actually a man dressed up as a woman.
Did Eliot make her sexually ambiguous for a reason? It could be.
She is a fortune-teller and clairvoyante (able to ‘see’ into the future) and represents that strata of society interested in the occult, spiritualism and magic, a la W.B. Yeats and Madame Blavatsky.
Her ‘wisdom’ is based on her wicked pack of cards, Tarot cards that is, used in this case for divination. Eliot in his notes wrote:
‘I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer (Sir James Frazer author of The Golden Bough), and because I associated him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician sailor and the Merchant appear later; also the crowds of people and Death by Water is executed in Part IV. The Man with Three Staves(an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate quite arbitrarily, with The Fisher King himself.’
Lines 46 – 50
The divination process continues, Madame Sosostris drawing cards depicting various symbols.
The Phoenician Sailor has pearls for eyes, a line taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2, Ariel’s song:
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Belladonna means beautiful lady and The Lady of the Rocks relates to Madonna, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1483-86 (Virgin of the Rocks). She is yet another aspect of the female speaker so dominant in the waste land.
Lines 51 – 54
The Man with Three Staves represents the Fisher King from the Grail story, the sexually maimed male who must be healed in order for the land to be fertile again.
The Wheel is fortune, destiny, change.
The One Eyed Merchant is Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, who appears in Part III. Is he in profile on the card hence the one eye? Or is he not all there, he cannot see the full picture. Neither can Madame Sosostris see what he carries on his back – she’s not allowed to see – perhaps because it is too dangerous for her to know. He carries a weight, of wrong doing? Of sin?
Lines 55 – 59
Madame Sosostris cannot find the Hanged Man, the symbol of self-sacrifice, sometimes seen as Christ. Eliot thought that, for him, it represented the Christ who appeared before the disciples as they walked to Emmaus full of despair following the crucifixion.
So the idea could be one of faith delayed – the disciples did not recognise Christ until later on when he broke bread with them – which in the poem means there is not yet any sign of faith (in humanity, in God?) being renewed.
Fear death by water – this is a direct warning from Madame Sosostris, both water and drowning being of crucial importance.
The crowds of people could be those crossing London Bridge later on in the poem (line 62), although these appear to be in a ring, some sort of ritual?
The last three lines reflect the times in which the poem was written. Astrologers and fortune tellers could be had for fraud and brought before the courts, or fined. Madame Sosostris is being cautious and will take the horoscope to her client Mrs Equitone by hand, not risking the mail.
Note the grammar of the next to last line..Tell her I bring.…which is what a foreign person might say, instead of …Tell her I will bring…
Lines 60 – 63
The final stanza of this first section begins with a reference to a poem by French poet Charles Baudelaire. Its title is Les Sept Vieillards, The Seven Old Men, from his celebrated Les Fleurs du Mal, The Flowers of Evil, published in 1857.
Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de reves,
Ou le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!
(Swarming city, city filled with dreams,
Where the spectre in broad daylight accosts the passer-by,)
The Unreal city is London, Eliot’s chosen home in real life, and his poetic waste land metropolis. Crowds are on London Bridge but they are the massed dead. There is a reference to Dante’s Inferno III, 55 – 57:
On his arrival in the Inferno, Dante sees the crowds ‘such a long procession of people, that I would never have believed that death had undone so many.’
Lines 64 – 68
Dante’s Inferno again for line 64:
Dante is further into hell where the virtuous pagans are gathered: ‘Here, if one trusted to hearing, there was no weeping but so many sighs as caused the everlasting air to tremble.’
King William Street is an ancient road off London Bridge, whilst Saint Mary Woolnoth is an Anglican church, on the same street.
Eliot’s notes confirm a dead sound from the bell on the ninth stroke:
‘A phenomenon which I have often noticed.’
Lines 69 – 76
All of a sudden the speaker sees someone he knows, a man by the name of Stetson.
They were together at Mylae, which is a Sicilian port, the scene of a battle between the victorious Romans against the Carthaginians in 260 BC.
This sidestep into history is no real shock but the next few lines take the burial and rebirth theme to its limit. The speaker knows that Stetson has planted a corpse in his garden and asks if he’s a got a response yet – such an image for the reader to contemplate.
Eliot’s dramatic scene continues with lines taken from The White Devil, a play written by John Webster in 1612. One son has murdered another and buried him, so Mother sings:
But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men;
For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.
The last line is from the same Baudelaire book again, the last line of a prefatory poem Au Lecteur (To The Reader):
Hypocrite lecteur! – mon sembable, – mon frere!
(Hypocrit reader! – my likeness, – my brother!)
A Game of Chess is based upon Thomas Middleton’s play A Game at Chess from 1624. This is a political allegory with sexual undertones. Eliot was heavily influenced by Renaissance drama and also drew upon Middleton’s Women Beware Women, 1657, a tragedy about couples falling in love. Fertility, intrigue and murder feature strongly.
John Webster’s plays are likewise used by Eliot in this section – The Duchess of Malfi (1612), The White Devil (1612) and The devil’s Law case (1619).
Eliot juxtaposes high life with low life in this section, which contrasts the fate of several women: from the anonymous woman in the ‘burnished throne’ of a chair to Shakespeare’s Ophelia; from mythological Philomel to the London pub woman Lil (short for Lilian).
Lines 77 – 93
The opening lines refer to a scene in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, ii, when Cleopatra first meets Antony, as told by the character Enobarbus:
‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned on the water.’
Eliot borrows heavily from this exotic, seductive scene. The woman in the chair is both beautiful and dangerous, the surroundings rich and ornate. This is a very special setting for a game of chess. But who is making all the right moves? Who is black, who is white? And when, if ever, will checkmate occur?
The Cupidon (French for Cupid) is a figure of love from Greek mythology, associated with love and desire. Is there some fault in loving because one of the Cupidons is hiding?
The seven branched candelabra is the menorah, used in Jewish worship.
Unguent is an ointment.
That curious word laquearia (golden panelled/coffered ceiling) in line 92 is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. When Aeneas, the Trojan hero, arrived in Carthage he was welcomed by the queen Dido. She fell in love with him but the story ends in tragedy, as in the case of Cleopatra, with suicide.
These lines, 77 – 92, are a single sentence, heavily punctuated, with many sub-clauses. The syntax is engineered to challenge the reader through a series of unbroken lines which together with enjambment create momentum before caesurae (pauses) help break up the flow.
Lines 93 – 103
Further descriptions of the fantastic hall/room continue, creating an image both classical and vivid.
Eliot’s note to line 98, the sylvan scene (wooded) refers to Milton’s Paradise Lost, IV, 140.
Leading on into the next line, 99, there is the story of Philomel displayed. Philomel or Philomela is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, VI. This story involves Tereus, king of Thrace and his wife Procne and her sister Philomela.
Procne asks Tereus if he will sail and bring her sister to visit. Tereus does so but when he sets eyes on the virgin girl he is ‘possessed by unbridled desire‘ and hatches a devious plan en route back to Procne.
Basically, he takes her to a walled building and rapes her repeatedly. Then he cuts her tongue off so she can’t tell of the violation. He returns home with a sad tale of Philomela’s death.
Procne however gets to learn of her husband’s dark deed and rescues her sister. In revenge she kills their son Itys, cooks him up, invites Tereus to a feast and watches as he eats his own son.
When Tereus is told the grim news he chases the girls but before he catches them he is turned into a hoopoe bird, as the gods would have it. Procne becomes a nightingale, a songster, Philomela a swallow, with blood stained throat.
Hence in line 103 the supposed sound of the nightingale Jug Jug (which is how Elizabethan poetry renders the bird’s song) to the dirty ears, ears that cannot hear.
Lines 104 – 110
There are more ancient stories on the walls ‘withered stumps of time’ but we’re given no more details. Ambiguity rules – forms are staring, quietly affecting the ambience in the room.
There are footsteps, shuffling on a stair that leads somewhere, nowhere. All the while the woman in the chair has been there but the reader could be forgiven for thinking that she’s disappeared.
The speaker’s enthusiasm for depicting all the objets d’art has overwhelmed – it’s only in the last three lines that the woman returns, brushing her hair into the words themselves glowing, sharply defined.
The reader knows nothing concrete about the woman but is given great detail of the room she is in. It’s as if she is incidental to her surroundings. There is a great emphasis on light and colour, a conscious effort to highlight the roomful of stuff, which means the woman in the room is virtually ignored.
The scene is set for a meeting of potential lovers, the man shuffling in, the woman finishing off her hair.
Lines 111 – 138
The man and woman meet in dialogue. This is a shift in form, the two minds attempting to work out what to do next, exploring an existential threat. Here we have two voices, disembodied, trying to make sense of their relationship.
- To and fro the voices go, uncertain, nervy, questioning.
The rat’s alley could be a reference to one of the world war one battle trenches of the Somme, which were notoriously rat infested, the rats feeding on corpses, the lost bones being those of many soldiers who were never identified or recovered.
‘The wind under the door’ comes from John Webster’s play The Devil’s Law Case – Is the wind in that door still? – which relates to the speaker asking if someone is still alive.
One of the voices is remembering the drowned Phoenician sailor from section I The Burial of the Dead…Those are pearls that were his eyes.’
There is profound uncertainty in this dialogue. Which one is truly alive? They both seem confused. The form reflects this hesitation, with long white stretches between lines, the idea that time (and space) no longer conform to the norm.
In line 128 there is an exaggerated O O O O which could be straight from a Shakespeare play, followed by a play on his name Shakesp – pe – heerian Rag.
At the time the poem was written Ragtime music, a syncopated fast moving dance music from America was popular. The lines It’s so elegant/So intelligent are based on a chorus of a 1912 song The Shakespearian Rag…’most intelligent, very elegant.’
The voices are looking for kicks, they don’t know what to do; they ask forlornly of each other. There is a sadness, a desperation about them – perhaps they’re feeling low, they don’t know what the future holds.
There are domestic habits to compensate perhaps. Hot water in readiness for a drink. The weather to think about. A game of chess to be played. A taxi if they need to go out in the rain.
Those lidless eyes suggest sleeplessness or craziness.
The knock on the door signifying being taken away…by death? From Middleton’s play Women Beware Women.
Some think this whole dialogue a reflection of Eliot’s own relationship with his first wife Vivienne. She had a nervous disposition and eventually ended up in a mental hospital. It is said they were never really compatible.
Lines 139 – 172
We’re in a pub, probably a London pub. There’s talk of Lil and Albert, husband and wife. Albert got demobbed (demobilised, discharged from the military after WWI) and someone is suggesting Lil better smarten herself up because Albert is on his way home and after a good time.
In other words, after four years fighting the war Albert will be more than ready for a bit of how’s your father….sex.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME is the call of the pub landlord reminding drinkers to drink up, or order a last drink because the pub is going to close. Needless to say, it could take many calls before the drinkers all complied.
In line 159 Lil has been taking pills to get rid of an unwanted baby, to have an abortion.
When Albert does return they eat a hot gammon (thick slice of ham).
The last three lines see those in the pub leaving and saying goodnight…goonight.
Ta ta is the British informal way of saying goodbye for now.
The final line is inspired by Ophelia’s ‘Good night ladies, we’re going to leave you now’ just before she committed suicide by drowning herself in a stream. (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5)
So it seems that Lil has let herself go physically whilst waiting for Albert to return and Ophelia tragically lost her mind over the death of her father and heart-break over Hamlet’s lack of response. Could both their lives be defined by the relationships with men?
The Fire Sermon is a bewildering mix of imagery, voice and religious allusion. The title itself comes from the Pali Canon, a collection of Buddhist scriptures. The Fire Sermon or Adittapariyaya Sutta relates to liberation from the mind and senses. Eliot thought it equal in importance to the Sermon on the Mount.
The stanzas take the reader from the River Thames in London via a poem, Prothalamion (1596), by English poet Edmund Spenser, to a typist’s grubby bedsit via the mind of Tiresias, prophet of Greek mythology. (see separate text).
St Augustine makes an appearance towards the end. And watch out for the Australian song lyrics made popular by soldiers in the Great War.
Lines 173 – 202
Trees are losing their leaves over the river Thames so it must be autumnal London. Personification brings the riverbanks closer to the reader who should be aware that Eliot is now using Edmund Spenser’s betrothal poem Prothalamion as a guide.
In fact he borrows the refrain straight from the poem, adding a comma after Thames:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song. (original)
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
Although please note that in line 183 only he uses the original version. Eliot used the nymphs too, but chooses to have them already departed. In Spenser’s poem they’re an integral part of proceedings.
Note the modern twist on a list of everyday things that are not in the river…bottles and cigarette ends and the like…the debris of summer. And the city directors’ heirs have all left too, no forwarding addresses given, just up and gone, leaving the city to fend for itself financially?
This is corroborated in line 182, a different take on Psalm 137 which has the exiled Jews mourning for home:
‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Leman could refer to Lac Leman the French name for Lake Geneva. Eliot wrote most of The Waste Land at Lausanne, on its shoreline.
Moving on, line 185 is taken from Andrew Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress :
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
From here to line 198 the speaker describes the rat infested desolation of the autumn/winter scenery as he fishes on the bank of a canal ‘Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck’ (reference to the Tempest 1. ii and Ferdinand’s meditation).
There is a repeat of Marvell’s line – 196 – before the speaker describes ‘The sound of horns and motors’, a not so obvious parallel with that of hunting and the chase. Eliot used lines from a poem by Elizabethan poet John Day called Parliament of Bees:
‘When, of the sudden, listening, you shall hear,
A noise of horns and hunting, which shall bring
Actaeon to Diana in the spring.’
Actaeon was unlucky (or lucky) enough to catch the goddess of the hunt Diana bathing naked. She turned him into a stag and he was killed by his own hounds.
In Eliot’s poem two characters meet – Sweeney and Mrs Porter – but nothing so dramatic happens to these two. Sweeney is a character from previous Eliot poems, Sweeney Erect and Sweeney Amongst the Nightingales. He is a modern man but has a primitive, dark animalistic streak and is what might be termed sexually charged.
Mrs Porter is the subject of an Australian popular song of the early 1900s, made into a bawdy version by Australian soldiers in the first world war. Here is one among several versions:
Oh the moon shines bright on Mrs Porter
And on her daughter,
A regular snorter;
She has washed her neck in dirty water
She didn’t oughter,
The dirty cat.
The last line of this stanza, line 202, comes from a poem by French poet Paul Verlaine. The line translates as: And O those children’s voices singing in the dome. The poem’s theme? Resisting fleshly temptations.
The curious bird song returns, the song of the nightingale as rendered by the Elizabethans. The lines are short, nothing like the continuous actual song of the nightingale. Here is Philomel again, the girl with the cut tongue raped by the monstrous Tereu, king of Thrace.
Then the reader is back in the Unreal city (see also line 60) which is modern day London.
A certain Mr Eugenides, presumably the one-eyed merchant from Madame Sosostris’s tarot pack, he of Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey, declares his pocketful of currants, complete with C.i.f. (cost, insurance and freight) documentation.
There’s some negotiation going on. Mr Eugenides’ vulgar/primitive French asks if luncheon is possible at the Cannon Street Hotel, a once popular meeting place for businesspeople in London city, followed by a weekend at the Metropole, a disreputable hotel in the seaside town of Brighton on the English south coast.
What is happening here? And why? Well, Mr Eugenides is after a dirty weekend, cheapening the whole commercial world, debasing the currency of love. Don’t ask why.
The next thirty three lines are some of the most important in the poem for they allow the reader to grasp an essential fact about the voices/speakers so far encountered.
- Both male and female speakers are ‘united’ in one figure, Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo in Greek mythology, known for his clairvoyance and for being turned into a woman for seven years for hitting mating snakes and displeasing the goddess Hera.
Eliot explains in a footnote:
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.
The protagonists in this section are a typist and a clerk, ordinary working people of the Unreal city, meeting for sex.
Lines 215 – 248
The first person speaker is Tiresias, who sees all in the poem but especially at the violet hour, just before twilight, when the workers are returning home, when day fades, when the fisherman comes home (line 221)…which could be a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Requiem:
Home is the sailor, home from the sea.
But Eliot did write in a footnote:
This may not appear as exact as Sappho’s lines (ancient Greek poet) but I had in mind the ‘longshore’ or ‘dory fisherman’ who returns at nightfall.
The scene is rather grubby. Here is the typist with her drying underwear; here is the old man with wrinkled breasts (dugs) forecasting.
- Note the full rhymes from time to time, linking the two people, introducing familiarity, a false sense of togetherness. (rest/guest…stare/millionaire)
The silk hat on a Bradford millionaire is similar to the saying ‘dressing up a turd’ but has serious connections. Bradford, a woollen manufacturing town in the North of England, profited immensely from the Great War. Eliot is said to have had bank dealings with an actual Bradford millionaire during his career.
The young clerk is a lowly city dweller, with pimples. After the tinned meal he takes his chance and fumbles his way into a sexual liaison with an indifferent partner.
It’s all pretty sordid. Tiresias saw it all coming, he who once prophesied at the market wall in Thebes (in Greece) foretelling the fate of kings, now has to make do with sex on a divan in a dimly lit London bedsit.
Lines 249 – 278
The pimple-faced clerk has left and the woman is glad the business is over. She can get on with her life. The reader isn’t told whether or not she has a loving relationship with the male but everything points to a casual encounter, passionless and hollow.
Eliot took line 253 from The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) a popular, sentimental novel. The lyrics of a song from the novel go:
“When lovely woman stoops to folly / And finds too late that men betray / What charm can sooth her melancholy, / What art can wash her guilt away? / The only art her guilt to cover, / To hide her shame from every eye, / To give repentance to her lover / And wring his bosom—is to die.”
Yet another line from Shakespeare’s Tempest – line 257 – from Ariel’s song. Then follow some descriptive lines highlighting streets in London, near London Bridge, and one church interior, that of St Magnus Martyr, one of Eliot’s personal favourites.
At line 266 the form alters drastically and becomes short and lyrical. This is the start of ‘the song of three Thames-daughters’ which is based on the song of the Rhine-daughters in Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung. Basically the song is a lament for the lost beauty of the river.
The Isle of Dogs is a peninsula in east London bounded on three sides by the curving Thames.
Lines 279 – 311
The short lines continue, as does lack of punctuation and any sense of steady rhythm, making this (from lines 266-292) a sparse and odd little section.
The characters Elizabeth and Leicester are the Queen of England, Elizabeth 1st, and the Earl of Leicester. They’re in a barge on the Thames and rumour has it that someone is urging them to marry, so close they seem.
But the romance does not come to fruition. Elizabeth never married, didn’t have children. She reigned for 45 years as a strong and remarkable queen, sacrificing ‘love’ for state duties and loyalty to the cause.
- What follows are the three voices of the Thames daughters, based on Wagner’s Rheinmaidens (or nymphs) in his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. Eliot seems to form the verses as ambiguous riddles, but each one relates to sexual experience and a specific place – two in London and one in Margate.
Trams and dusty trees.…here is a reference to different areas of London – Highbury, Richmond and Kew, relatively affluent areas. The lines are taken from Dante’s Purgatorio:
Remember me, who am la Pia; Sien made me, the Maremma undid me.
There is a sexual suggestion in the image of someone lying, knees apart in a canoe.
My feet are at Moorgate... Moorgate is another London district, right in the centre of the city. Eliot worked close by at Lloyd’s bank and used the metro station at Moorgate.
The ‘event’ caused the male to weep and want a new start. There is some trauma here, an echo of Eliot’s own relationship to Vivienne his first wife.
On Margate Sands….Eliot started The Waste Land in Margate, on the English south coast, whilst recuperating from a breakdown.
There’s certainly an air of desolation in this voice, a going nowhere, the aftermath of a trauma.
The shortest line of the poem…la la…is based on Wagner’s opera again, where the Rheinmaidens end their songs with a strange refrain, old German words that come from nursery rhymes. Hence the Weialala leia...more of a wailing.
Another shift in perspective with line 307, inspired by St Augustine’s youthful exploits in his famous work Confession...’to Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang about mine ears.’
The last four lines, decreasing in length, are taken from Buddha’s fire sermon (see previous entry) and the bible’s old testament Zechariah 3:2.
The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.
The shortest section of The Waste Land. Here is Phlebas the merchant, the drowned Phoenician from Madame Sosostris’s tarot pack, he with pearly eyes.
Eliot knew of James Joyce’s book Ulysses:
A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?
and also Corinthians 12,13 :
“For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”
There is startling imagery in these ten lines as Phlebas, a fortnight dead, leaves the life of the senses behind. Gone are the figures of trade, his materialistic life. Water, symbol of life, spirituality and transformation is reducing him to mere bones, bit by bit.
As the currents worked their magic his memories were relived, before he finally entered the whirlpool:
We have passed Age’s icy caves / and Manhood’s dark and tossing waves / And youth’s smooth ocean.
Shelley, Prometheus Unbound II
This is a cleansing, a new life emerging out of the depths. It is spiritual transformation. Fear death by water said Madame Sosostris.
For those who steer the wheel (of the ship, that is, the economic forces) in the future it is best to recall the fate of Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall but who succumbed to materialism, lust and hedonistic pursuits.
Radical change cannot be avoided; no escape from the wheel achieved.
One last reference, from Dante’s Inferno, 26, 118-20:
Consider your nature, you were made not to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.
Eliot’s note for the last one hundred and twenty two lines, which he considered the best, because once written they were not changed or chopped:
In the first part of Part V three themes are employed: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous (see Miss Weston’s Book) and the present decay of eastern Europe.
Europe following the war was in a poor state and the land in need of help. In the poem there are images of dry rock and sand – there is no water. Certainly it seems a renewal is needed here; a fertility festival, a healing of the Fisher King.
Unusual syntax with occasional full rhyming lines marks this out as a true mix of the modern with traditional. Enjambment rules, line after line flowing into the next, the reader challenged to pause, to take a deep breath, move on.
The initial nine lines (321 – 330) relate to Christ’s final few hours in the Garden of Gethsemane, on Golgotha, the hill where he was crucified and the road to Emmaus, where he appeared as a stranger to two of his disciples.
Then begins a remarkable journey into rock and water, or absence of water, which is ironic given that substantial parts of the poem focus on rain and a river. Here there is none and the speaker seems at a loss to understand why.
The mountains are the natural abode of those who seek spiritual attainment: the ascetic, the hermit, the monk. But in this section the mountains are seen as dry and desolate.
As the speaker passes through this difficult place even the locals are unhappy – there is a lack of spirit.
In line 357 there is mention of the hermit-thrush, (Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii) a bird which is said to produce a song that sounds like water dripping, tink tink, into a pool.
Lines 360 – 366 tell of someone who walks beside – the magical travelling companion so called. Eliot explains in his note:
‘The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s); it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member that could actually be counted.’
Lines 367 – 377 were inspired by Herman Hesse’s nonfiction book Blick ins Chaos (A Glimpse into Chaos) which details the state of eastern Europe following the war.
Lines 378 – 385 has an image that could easily come out of an Hieronymous Bosch painting. It is a little bit nightmarish. Note the use of full and near end rhyme.
Lines 386 – 395 is the approach to the Perilous Chapel of the Holy Grail story, which is empty. Only a cockerel is present and it’s call signifies the end of the dark, a dawning anew. In certain folklores it makes the ghosts flee.
Rain is on its way, the renewal can begin, potential new life.
Lines 396 – 423 start off with a description of the Indian river Ganges (Ganga is the Sanskrit name), a parallel with section III The Fire Sermon, and the description of the Thames.
Here is a low river waiting to fill with fresh rain. Himavant is a Himalayan peak. There is an anticipatory tone. All is silent, the calm before the storm. Then the thunder speaks:
This is Sanskrit, taken from a Hindu fable in the Upanishads (ancient sacred manuscript). The supreme deity Prajapati gives instructions in the form of a syllable DA which the gods know as ‘be restrained’ (Datta), humans know as ‘give alms’ (Dayadhvam) and demons know as ‘have compassion’ (Damyata).
IN line 408 the ‘beneficent spider’ comes from Webster’s play The White Devil: they’ll remarry/Ere the worm pierce your winding sheet, ere the sp[der/Make a thin curtain for your epitaphs.
In line 412 there is reference to Dante’s Inferno, 33:46: where Ugolino recalls his imprisonment with his sons in the tower where they starved to death. ‘And I heard below the door of the horrible tower being locked up.’
And Coriolanus (line 417) is from Shakespeare. He is the Roman patrician who, when the mob rose in Rome, joined forces with the enemy he had once defeated.
The speaker returns to first person and is fishing (as in line 189 of The Fire Sermon) which makes him the Fisher King, asking the question:
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
So are we to assume that the Fisher King is healed but still not certain about the renewal of the land, and the idea that water (spiritual cleansing) is needed to revive the vegetation?
The reader has to be a little confused at this juncture. If this is the voice of a healed Fisher King then he has gone off the rails, surely. In line 427 we’re back in London, a repeated nursery rhyme line confirming that London Bridge is falling down.
The next line is in Italian and means ‘And so I pray you, by that Virtue which guides you to the top of the stair, be reminded in time of my pain.’ Then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them.’
This is taken from Dante’s Purgatorio 26:148 where the poet Arnaut Daniel is encountered among the lustful. Fire in this case is purging.
An allusion to the Philomel and Procne myth follows in line 429, where Philomel is turned into a swallow.
In line 430 there is reference to a sonnet El Desdichado (The Disinherited) by French writer Gerard de Nerval…’.The prince of Aquitania in the ruined tower.’
The final three lines pertain to the poet’s (and the Fisher King’s) idea of the whole…the fragmentary nature of the voices he has used to keep the story intact and himself sane. Yet, what does it take to keep the soul from falling into the abyss?
Eliot used dialogue from a play, The Spanish Tragedy (1586) by Thomas Kyd, English playwright:
Hieronimo: Is this all?
Balthazar: I, this is all.
Hieronimo: Why then, ile fit you: say no more. When I was young I gave my mind And applied myself to fruitless poetry/Which though it profit the professor naught/Yet is it passing pleasing to the world.
The final line is a repeated Shantih, a formal end to a Upanishad, meaning inner peace.
As mantra, shantih conveys … the peace inherent in its inner sound….As a closing prayer, shantih makes of what comes before it a communal as well as a private utterance….And as the “formal ending of an Upanishad” it revises the whole poem from a statement of modern malaise into a sacred and prophetic discourse.
Cleo Mc Nelly Kearns, T.S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief,1987
When The Waste Land was published in 1922 not everyone in the modernist team jumped for joy. New Jersey doctor and poet William Carlos Williams, believer in spontaneous, local short poetry in the American grain, thought that Eliot with his long epic ‘gave the poem back to the academics’ something Williams abhorred.
In his autobiography Williams wrote:
‘To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which would give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was defeated. Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of renewing my world.’
On Poetry and Poets, T.S.Eliot, Faber, 1937
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 2005