T.S. Eliot was once quoted as saying, “An immature poet imitates, a mature poet steals.” Eliot has done a great deal of this within his poem “The Waste Land.” He alludes to many exceptional works, of his time and of the past, in the arguably most important poetical work of the twentieth century. “The Waste Land” is comprised of five sections and 434 symbolically packed lines. Eliot first published the work in the
Dial, 1922. Within the “Notes on The Waste Land,” Eliot points out many of the works that he “stole” from. The mixing allusions of popular work with Eliot’s own demoralizing verse, creates a land that epitomizes the feelings of the time.
In the first section, The “Burial of the Dead,” Eliot refers to the text of
My Past, an autobiography of Countess Marie Larisch, daughter of the Duke of Bavaria. “Morris’ discovery of Marie Larisch’s
My Past is of great significance for criticism of ‘The Waste Land’ because… it is a telling historical document of the time” (Knust 3). Eliot’s use of this autobiography in his poem aides the reader in assessing to the work an applicable reality. This Countess did exist; she lived in her own “waste land” which ties into the first eighteen lines of the poem. Not only does these first lines meet in the Countess’ autobiography, they also complement the title of section one:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (lines 1-4)
April is the cruelest month, especially to the dead, for new life is grown from the ground; lilacs springing out of the land, once dead from winter’s frost. After a small scene on the Starnbergersee, Eliot depicts the waste land. This passage, lines 19-30, could be seen as the remnants of World War I. There is nothing living, and there is no sign of any relief.
Eliot presses on into a scene with Madame Sosostris, “famous clairvoyante/…/the wisest woman in Europe,/With a wicked pack of cards” (lines 43-46). This woman reads an altered pack of Tarot cards, which Eliot himself admits that he is not familiar with the contents of an authentic pack (68). It is not the discrepancy of the constitution of the deck, it is what Madame Sosostris’ final words are: “One must be so careful these days” (line 59). The idea that one must be careful these days suggests that the world is falling apart and is on the verge of becoming a waste land, much like the world of the Countess. The last lines of section I, 60-76, give the reader a vision of London, described by Eliot as the “Unreal City.” It seems that the crowd traveling across London Bridge are all dead. Eliot’s line, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” This line coupled with the conversation concerning the corpse buried in Stetson’s garden gives the reader a vision of mass death, much like the plague that ravaged Europe not long ago.
Section II, “A Game of Chess,” as Cleanth Brooks puts it, “gives a more concrete illustration” than Section I (67). This section begins by describing a beautiful home, but it turns out to be meaningless when the two people who live there cannot hold a conversation. This provides the sense of sterility that is remarkably thorough in the text. The two people are useless to each other. A short interjection at line 128, “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag,” gives a sense of a reality that is quickly becoming very difficult to grasp. This line from a popular rag-time tune sets an eerie tone for the upcoming passage.
The final scene, lines 139-173, takes place in a pub, where one woman is criticizing another for what she did while her husband was in the military. Lil’s husband is thrown out of the military and is coming home after four years. Lil spent the money he gave her on an abortion rather than a new set of teeth. The narrator in this portion of the poem tells Lil that there will be others that will make him happy if she does not. This sterile environment, this reality, aides in bringing the reader closer to the text.
“The Fire Sermon,” noted by Allen Tate that “the typical scene is the seduction of the stenographer by the clerk,” goes a little farther into the depths of the waste land (31). Eliot starts off describing Thames river. He speaks of the litter and debris and how the “nymphs are departed.” Then Eliot moves on to Tiresias, a blind prophet, that observes the seduction scene. It is not quite a seduction, it is too sterile and mechanical to be a form of seduction. The woman is not fully aware that the man leaves and, rather, does not care. She says to herself, “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (line 252). This degrades man and shows how shallow he can sometimes be. When the reader departs this scene, Eliot returns to a description of the Thames. The litter-strewn river is now sweating “oil and tar.” The waste land is spreading like a disease and it is engulfing everything. The fourth section, “Death by Water,” is a short vignette of the drowning of Phlebas the Phoenician sailor. This section draws the reader close by and states, “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you” (line 321). This takes Phlebas and makes him, not the exception, but the rule.
The final, and fifth section “What the Thunder Said,” pulls the poem together in a final slew of lines. Eliot discusses death, destruction, and the thunder. Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, which Eliot uses as the three voices of the thunder, try to explain the wisdom contained in the poem. But in most cases, the message falls on deaf ears. The final passage, lines 424-434, bring together all the major images used in the poem. The last words spoken are “Shantih shantih shantih.” Eliot notes that “Shantih” is the formal ending to an Upanishad. It is translated as, “The Peace which passeth understanding” (74). The idea that the end shall provide a peace that passes understanding should be gratifying. But as D.C. Fowler points out, “It has been alleged…that the poem exhibits no progression-that it ends where it began” (34). Of course, “The Waste Land” does not end where it began: a lesson has been taught. Unless the reader does not learn the lesson, then it would leave the reader were he or she began: in confusion.
T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is an abstract conglomeration of the popular culture of his time. The mixture of emotions, ranging from sterility to happiness, find their way into the woodwork of the poem. Together, the force of this work as a learning tool is grand. This essay itself is only a small speck of everything involved with “The Waste Land;” many topics were not discussed, such as Jessie Weston’s
From Ritual to Romance, Dante’s
The Divine Comedy, Frazer’s
The Golden Bough, and many other works that provide allusions. But the work itself shows the sterility and self-destructiveness of popular culture.
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Waste Land: Critique of the Myth.”
A Collection of Critical
Essays on The Waste Land. Ed. Martin Jay. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968
Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.”
Selected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace &Company,
Fowler, D.C. “V. What the Thunder Said.”
A Collection of Critical Essays on The Waste Land. Ed. Martin Jay. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968
Wagner, The King, and The Waste Land. University Park: Pennsylvania
State University, 1967.
Tate, Allen. “III. The Fire Sermon.”
A Collection of Critical Essays on The Waste Land.
Ed. Martin Jay. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.