T.S. Eliot (1888–1965)

171 The Waste Land

“The Waste Land” from Bartleby

Explanatory Notes not covered in Bartleby

The title: The title references Eliot’s view of Western civilization in the years after World War I. Writers, artists, and intellectuals, especially, were stunned and dispirited by the inhumanity the war revealed. The poem is full of images reflecting Eliot’s despair, images of violence, lust, pollution, death, apathy, selfishness, decay—all redolent of the waste land he believed his world had become.The epigram: The text is in Latin and Greek and translates as follows: “For once I myself 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 replied “I want to die.’” The speaker is Encolpius, narrator of the first-century novel Satyricon by Gaius Petronius. The Sibyls were old women in Greek mythology, capable of foretelling the future. Apollo granted the Sibyl at Cumae (an ancient Greek city) immortality, but she did not ask for perpetual youth, and so she withered into old age. The desire for death she expresses echoes throughout the poem. The Cumaean Sybil reappears later in the poem as the fortune teller Madame Sosostris.


The dedication: Ezra Pound was Eliot’s friend and fellow poet. He edited The Waste Land, deleting whole sections from the original, when he thought they added little to the poem’s intensity. Eliot agreed with Pound’s changes, hence Pound is “Il miglior fabbro,” the better craftsman.


Part One: The Burial of the Dead: Part One contains four brief narratives, their plots and characters disparate, but united by the presence in each of unregenerative death.


Line 1: One of the great works of English literature, The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?-1400), opens with lines in praise of the restorative powers of April, bringing the spring rain, which will bring nature back to life, and encourage the citizens of London to set out on their religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, England’s holiest city. But in the waste land of post-war Europe, spring lilacs and the romantic feelings they inspire seem out of place compared to the more desirable “forgetful snow” of winter.


Line 5: The pronoun “us” likely refers to Countess Marie Larisch, cousin of the Bavarian King Ludwig, who, in 1886, drowned in the Starnbergersee, a lake just south of Munich. Death by water is a recurring image throughout the poem. Marie’s pride in her German heritage, expressed in line 12 (the translation is “I am not Russian, at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German”) suggests the nationalism that was a contributing cause of World War I.


Line 13: The archduke, to Eliot’s contemporary readers, would bring to mind Franz Ferdinand (1875-1914), heir to the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire; his assassination triggered World War I.


Lines 31-34: Part of a melody from Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, about lovers who long to be reunited but fail to do so. The German translates as “Fresh blows the wind to the homeland; my Irish child, where are you waiting.” The inability to consummate true love is a recurring motif in the poem.


Line 35: Apparently the narrator gives hyacinths to a young woman, as a romantic gesture, but, in a waste land, love cannot be fulfilled. In Greek mythology, Apollo, god of music and poetry, loved Hyacinth, a handsome young man, whose accidental, untimely death Apollo venerated when hyacinth flowers grew from the boy’s spilled blood. Note, again here, the motif of death and rebirth.


Line 42: “Waste and empty is the sea.” Continues the Tristan and Isolde story from lines 31-34. Here a shepherd tells Tristan there is no sign of Isolde’s arrival.


Line 43: The inhabitants of a waste land put more faith in fortune tellers than in holy men. The future foretold my Madame Sosostris references death, especially death by drowning. Water brings life back to nature and purifies Christians in baptism, but in the waste land it destroys. In Eliot’s own note for this section, he admits he invents Tarot cards and uses real ones arbitrarily to foreshadow later events in the poem. Madame Sosostris echoes the Cumaean Sybil of the poem’s epigraph.


Lines 63-75: Here the narrator seems to be the Questing Knight, the central figure—the protagonist—of the poem. Eliot acknowledged the influence on his poem of the grail legend, explained in detail in Jessie L. Weston’s 1920 study From Ritual to Romance. A Questing Knight embarks on a search for the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus and his disciples drank wine at The Last Supper. According to the legend, the waste land would be restored if the ruler of the land, the ailing “Fisher King” is healed and the Holy Grail is found. The Knight’s journey through war-ravaged London, whose citizens walk like zombies, indicates the extent of his challenge, as does the broken church bell of line 68, a symbol of lost faith. Mylae (line 70) was the site of an ancient battle and symbolizes the recurrence of war throughout human history. The narrator’s questions to an old friend, Stetson, suggest, again, death and resurrection, or lack thereof.


Line 76: You, hypocritical reader; my mirror image; my friend. Eliot quite suddenly breaks the narrative to address directly readers of the poem. Apparently, he wants his readers to understand they too are part of the waste land and complicit in its construction.


Part Two: A Game of Chess: In A Game at Chess, 17th-century playwright Thomas Middleton uses a chess match as a metaphor for negotiations between the kings of Britain and Spain for the marriage of their children, a typical waste land marriage, for political expedience, not love. The actual chess match does not occur until later in this section, where, again, it seems to occur between two people in a loveless marriage, possibly a reference to Eliot’s own marriage to his first wife, Vivien, the breakdown of which influenced the composition of the poem.


Lines 77-110: In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus begins his description of Cleopatra, with words—“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne / Burned on the water”—clearly echoed in this passage. Cleopatra, of course, was not above using love and sex for political gain. The description here of her royal room, rendered in beautiful Shakespearean blank verse, also echoes waste land love and sex. Philomel (line 99) was raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus and was transformed into a nightingale.


Lines 111-138: The scene shifts suddenly to record a conversation, perhaps between a husband and wife, perhaps echoing a conversation between Eliot and his wife, indicating their inability to communicate meaningfully with each other. The “Shakespeherian Rag” of line 128 is the title of a popular song of the time and may suggest Eliot’s own vocation as a poet.


Lines 139-172: Again the scene shifts suddenly to a London pub to record a conversation between two women—actually a monologue from one of the women telling a story about the relationship between her friend Lil and Lil’s husband. Though Lil is young, she looks much older, and she blames “them pills I took, bring it off” (line 159), a reference to her abortion. In Eliot’s time, of course, society was less tolerant about abortion and homosexuality than it is now, and their presence are more symptoms of a world which has become a waste land. The refrain in this section “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” are the words of the publican, telling his patrons the pub is soon to close. “Gammon” (line 166) is an English dish made of ham or bacon.


Part Three: The Fire Sermon: Preached by Buddha, against the fires of lust and hatred, which stymie spiritual fulfillment and destroy the sense of community necessary for a healthy society.


Line 173: i.e., the trees which formed a tent above the Thames have lost their leaves.


Line 182: Lake Leman is better known as Lake Geneva. Eliot worked on The Waste Land, while he was in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva, recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder.


Lines 185- 186: The Gothic image here is one of several in the poem. The lines echo Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” wherein a young man tries to seduce a young woman, arguing that time passes so quickly, we must live life to the fullest.


Line 189: The pronoun “I” here refers to the poem’s main character, the Questing Knight, in search of ways to restore the waste land. Fishing, a Christian symbol for spiritual restoration, recurs in several scenes throughout the poem and is embodied in the symbolic ruler of the land, the ailing Fisher King. The setting described here indicates the extent of the challenge to the Questing Knight.


Lines 197-201: In another instance of the kind of topical flight that occurs throughout the poem, the Questing Knight recalls lines from a poem by John Day, which he blends with lines from a bawdy Australian ballad, sung by the troops in World War I. The lines suggest the sexual promiscuity, in Eliot’s mind another symptom of a waste land.


Line 202: A line from a sonnet by French poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), which translates “And O, the voices of the children, singing in the dome.” The singing occurs while Parsifal, the Questing Knight, struggles to resist sensual temptations, which would inhibit his search for the Grail and his attempts to heal the Fisher King. It is, as such, a key line in the poem.


Lines 203-206: The song of the nightingale, from line 100, echoes here, as does Tereus’ rape of Philomel, cf. note to line 99.


Lines 207-214: Here the Questing Knight seems to continue his journey through London. A businessman, one Mr. Eugenides from Smyrna befriends him. Smyrna—now Izmir— is an ancient seaport in Western Turkey. The initials “c.i.f.” stand for either “carriage and insurance free” or “cost, insurance, and freight.” Sexual temptation which waylays the Questing Knight may be hinted at here. In Eliot’s day, the Canon Street, if not the Metropole Hotel, was reputed to be a site for homosexual hookups and liaisons.


Lines 215-256: In the Waste Land, sex is loveless and unfulfilling, not affectionate and restorative. In this section, a young man, “a small house agent’s clerk,” who works in the City pays a visit—in modern parlance a “booty call”—to a young woman, a secretary. Their sexual encounter is passionless and mechanical. The young man leaves, and the young woman is glad it is all over. The narrator of this section is Tiresias. In Greek mythology, he settled a dispute between Jove and Juno, who were arguing about the extent to which men and women experienced sexual pleasure, Jove asserting that a woman’s pleasure in sex was greater; Juno asserting a man’s was. Tiresias was the ideal judge because he had lived both as a man and as a woman. He judged in favour of Jove. Furious, Juno rendered him blind, but Jove, to compensate, gave him the power to foretell the future. Tiresias recurs in Greek mythology, as one who knows the future. In his own note to this section, Eliot asserts that Tiresias, a prophet both male and female, unites all of the characters in the poem.


Lines 257-265: Here the Questing Knight walks through a part of London which belies the waste land setting the poet has described to this point. He hears pleasant music coming from a bar, within which fishermen enjoy each other’s company over lunch. Nearby is a famous London church, St. Magnus Martyr (line 264), which Eliot explains, in one of his own notes for the poem, “is to my mind one of the finest among Wren’s interiors.” An important theme of the poem—that faith in God helps us find our way through the waste land—is referenced here.


Lines 266-67: The polluted waters of the Thames brings back the poem’s dominant waste land imagery.


Line 276: The Isles of Dogs (actually a peninsula) is near the borough of Greenwich in south London.


Lines 277-78: The neologisms are meant to imitate the sound of pealing bells, perhaps—and significantly—of a church.


Line 279: The reference is to Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite courtier, Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, who may have been her lover.  They would sail upon the Thames, flirting in a way that disconcerted onlookers, an apparent reference, again, to the distasteful nature of love in a waste land.


Lines 292-295; 296-299; 300-306: Eliot explained these three stanzas as songs from each of the three “Thames daughters,” modelled on the Rhinedaughters in an opera by Wagner. The Rhinedaughters bemoan the Rhine River’s loss of beauty. Each song references a different Thames community: Richmond, Moorgate, and Margate. The songs also suggest recurring waste land images, especially the inability of couples to communicate. The link to Germany, at the time Great Britain’s bitter enemy, is significant.


Line 307: Here the poem, typically, jump cuts from London to Carthage, where St. Augustine lived a debauched life, until he was saved by the fire of God’s love, according to the story he tells in his Confessions. Eliot links Buddha’s Fire Sermon with Augustine’s story.


Part Four: Death by Water: Water is an important symbol throughout the poem. In a waste land, water drowns, as it drowns Phlebas the Phoenician sailor in this section. The Phoenician sailor was a card in Madame Sosostris’ tarot pack in Part One, and he reappears as Mr. Eugenides, the currant salesman, in Part Three. Note the pun on current, line 315. Water should also restore life, and, as in Christian baptism, wash sins away, but water has no such effect upon Phlebas.


Part Five: What the Thunder Said: The thunder “speaks” later in this part, and its message is one of the poem’s main themes.


Line 323: The “gardens” suggests the Garden of Gethsemane, site of Jesus’ betrayal and trial.


Line 328: Here the pronoun “He” likely refers, again, to Jesus, his death, and, this being the waste land, the unlikelihood of his resurrection.


Lines 331-359: This passage provides a dramatic physical description of the waste land, a rocky terrain devoid of the water that would bring it life. The cicada (line 354) suggests the biblical plague of locusts. The discordant buzz of the cicada silences the beautiful song of the hermit-thrush (line 357).


Lines 360-366: The “third” is the resurrected Christ whose spirit appeared to two of his disciples, as they walked to Emmaus (near Jerusalem) after Christ’s crucifixion. The disciples do not recognize him.


Line 367: The sound is likely composite—of war planes, sirens, and the cries of mothers. The rest of this section resonates with sounds and images of war and destruction.


Line 378: As the Questing Knight gets closer to the Chapel Perilous, where he is to rescue the Fisher King and restore vitality to the waste land, the obstacles he encounters become Gothic in nature, never more so than in this unnerving section of the poem.


Line 393: The crowing of the cock, signals the departure of evil spirits. Here, the climax of the narrative of the poem, the rain falls.


Lines 396-398: Ganga is the Ganges River in India. Himavant refers to the Himalayan Mountains. Note that the life-giving rain falls not in the waste land of Western Europe, but in the East.


Line 400: The title of this section is “What the Thunder Says,” and here the thunder speaks. Its message conveys a crucial theme of the poem. The message is adapted from the Upanishads, which are ancient Sanskrit texts, upon which Buddhism is based. Eliot was a student of Sanskrit and the Upanishads are an important influence on the poem.


Line 402: Datta means give or be charitable.


Line 412: Dayadhvam means show compassion.


Line 417: Coriolanus is a Shakespearean tragic hero, who, as a result of injured pride, leads the enemy against his own homeland. He is the apotheosis of the compassion the waste land needs to heal.


Line 419: Damyata means exercise self-control—as an expert sailor, in the lines following, controls his craft.


Lines 424-426: The image here of the Questing Knight, fishing, the “arid plain behind” him, suggests a happy ending to the story, but this is undercut by the implication that the Knight will set his “lands in order” but will turn his back on the waste land.


Lines 427-434: In its last “stanza,” the content of the poem is summarized. The “London bridge is falling down” nursery rhyme suggests the collapse of Western society in the wake of the World War I. Line 428, from Dante’s Purgatorio, translates “he hid himself in the fire which refines them,” and suggests the spiritual renewal Eliot felt essential to transition from waste to promised land. Line 429, from the Latin poem “Vigil of Venus,” translates “When shall I be as the swallow”? and suggests the metaphorical wish for springtime and recalls the nightingale referenced earlier in the poem. Line 430, from a French sonnet, translates “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” and suggests the Questing Knight, in the midst of a crumbling world, searching for a way to heal the Fisher King. “These fragments,” of line 431, may refer to the poem itself. Line 432 references a play, The Spanish Tragedy, by Kyd, wherein the protagonist, Hieronymo, avenges his son’s death by writing a play, in the course of which his son’s murderers are themselves killed.  In line 433, the Sanskrit words “redolent of for charity, compassion, and self-control”—the key to the theme of the poem—are repeated. The poem’s final line, 434, is modelled on a typical ending to a Upanishad (see note to line 400). “Shantih,” means peace beyond understanding and suggests the state of a world, unlike the one described in most of the poem, a world within which charity, compassion, and self-control are seminal values.


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English Literature: Victorians and Moderns Copyright © 2014 by James Sexton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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