The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot

‘The Waste Land’ signified the movement from Imagism – optimistic, bright-willed to modernism, itself a far darker, disillusioned way of writing.


T.S. Eliot

Nationality: American

T.S. Eliot is remembered today as a literary critic, poet, and editor.

His poems have had a lasting influence on a generation of writers.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: The search for meaning and connection in a fragmented and chaotic world.

Themes: Death, Journey

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Depression, Hopelessness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

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T.S. Eliot was no stranger to classical literature. Early on in his life, due to a congenital illness, he found his refuge in books and stories, and this is where the classics-studded poem The Waste Land stems from. Drawing allusions from everything from the Fisher King to Buddhism, The Waste Land was published in 1922 and remains one of the most important Modernist texts to date.

Modernist poetry, itself a calling-back to older ways of writing, and developing, in part, as a response to overwrought Victorian poetry, started in the early years of the 20th century, with the intent of bringing poetry to the layman – similar to Wordworth’s attempt over a hundred years before. Long poems were unusual in modernist poetry, however, post the 1930s, longer poetry took over from the shorter sequences and sound poetry of the 1920s. The Waste Land signified the movement from Imagism – optimistic, bright-willed to modernism, itself a far darker, disillusioned way of writing.

Some of the mythology used within The Waste Land was, at the time, considered obscure – bits from the Hindu Upanishads, from Buddhist lore, and the lesser-known legends of the Arthuriana are woven throughout the narrative, bringing forth several different voices, experiences, and cultures within the poem.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot


It is difficult to tie one meaning to The Waste Land. Ultimately, the poem itself is about culture: the celebration of culture, the death of culture, the misery of being learned in a world that has largely forgotten its roots. Eliot wrote it as a eulogy to the culture that he considered to be dead; at a time when dancing, music, jazz, and other forms of popular culture took the place of literature and classics, it must have felt, to Eliot, as though he was shouting into the wind. However, ‘The Waste Land‘s merit stems from the fact that it embodies so much knowledge within the poem itself. It serves as a living testimony to the enmeshed pattern of human spirit and human culture.

However, the fragmented writing that Eliot was infamous for – see also The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock – makes the poem a daunting one to analyse. It is split up into five sections, each of which has a different theme at the centre of its writing, as well as addendums to the poem itself which were published largely at the behest of the publisher himself, who wanted some reason to justify printing The Waste Land as a separate poem in its own book.

Although not a part of the poem quoted below, the allusions start before that: the poem was originally preceded by a Latin epigraphy from The Satyricon, a comedic manuscript written by Gaius Petronius, about a narrator, Encolpius, and his hapless and unfaithful lover. The phrase reads, in English, ‘I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to hear, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she replied, ‘I want to die’.’

Not a cheery way to start the poem: the oracle Sibyl is granted immortality by Apollo, but not eternal youth or health, and so she grows older and older, and frailer, and never dies. The meaninglessness of the oracle of Sibyl’s life is a testimony and an allusion to the meaninglessness of culture, according to Eliot; by putting that particular quotation from ‘The Satyricon’ at the start, he encapsulates the very sense of The Waste Land: culture has become meaningless, and dragged on for nothing.

Following that quote, there is a dedication to Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro. Originally, The Waste Land was supposed to be twice as long as it was – Pound took it and edited it down to the version that was later published. However, il miglior fabbro can also be considered to be an allusion to Dante’s Purgatorio (‘the best smith of the mother tongue’, writes Dante, about troubadour Arnaut Daniel), as well as Pound’s own The Spirit of Romance, a book of literary criticism where the second chapter is ‘Il Miglior Fabbro’, translated as ‘the better craftsman’. Although originally written in ink, later versions of the poem included the dedication to Pound as a part of the poem’s publication.

Eliot also included the following quote, headed underneath ‘Notes’: “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: From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). 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. To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Attis Adonis Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.”

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Detailed Analysis

I. The Burial of the Dead

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.
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 arch-duke’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.

Immediately, the poem starts with the recurring imagery of death: ‘April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain’. Note the cadence of every –ing ending to the sentence, giving it a breathless, uneven sort of reading: when one reads it, there is a quick-slow pace to it that invites the reader to linger over the words.

The use of the word ‘winter’ provides an oxymoronic idea: the idea that cold, and death, can somehow be warming – however, it isn’t the celebration of death, as it would be in other poems of the time, but a cold, hard fact. Winter is the time for normal life to hibernate, to become suspended, and thus the anxiety of change and of new life is avoided. At the time of writing, Eliot was suffering from an acute state of nerves, and it could well be the truth behind the poem that change was something he was actively avoiding.

‘Starnbergersee’, and its shower of regenerating rain, refers to the countess Marie Louise Larisch’s native home of Munich. The reference to ‘Hofgarten’ also calls back to Munich; it is a garden in the centre of Munich, located between the Residenz, and the Englischer Garden, and she stands as a symbolic reference to European decadence, and thus, unavoidably, of Imagism. Marie Louise Larisch’s presence in the poem can be put down to quite a few reasons – after the crushing misery of the First World War, Marie Louise Larisch was a symbol of Old-World decadent Europe, the kind from before the war.

The two experiences recounted here could also well be seen as the dualistic nature of the world. From before the war – Marie and her cousin go sledding, that sense of excitement and adventure, ‘in the mountains, there you feel free’, and then the reference to ‘drank coffee, and talked for an hour’, which could stand for the post-war world, boring and sterile and emptied of all nuance, unlike the pre-war world. The separation of the two stanzas by German further emphasizes the idea that, while both alike, the two worlds remain at parallels to each other – ‘Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch’ means ‘I am not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, I am a real German’. This phrase further emphasises the separation that the author, and the reader, then, feels.

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.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
“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.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.

Here is another of Eliot’s allusions ‘son of man/ you cannot say or guess’, which is directly lifted from The Call of Ezekiel, in the Book of Ezekiel. This is how God addresses Ezekiel, and the use of it in the poem elevates Eliot to a god-like position, and reduces the reader to nothing more than a follower; this could also have been put in as a response to the vast advancements of the time, where science made great leaps of technology, however the spiritual and cultural sectors of the world lay forgotten, according to Eliot.

‘A heap of broken images’ shows the fragmented nature of the world, and the snapshots of what the world has become further serves to pinpoint the emptiness of a world without culture, a world without guidance or spiritual belief. Eliot himself noted that this is from Ecclesiastes 12, a book within the Bible that discuss the meaning of life, and the borne duty of man to appreciate his life. The references to shadows seems to imply that there is something larger and far more greater than the reader skulking along beside the poem, lending it an air of menace and the narrator an air of omnipotence, of being everywhere at once.

The German in the middle is from Tristan and Isolde, and it concerns the nature of love – love, like life, is something given by God, and humankind should appreciate it because it so very easily disappears. In Tristan and Isolde, the main idea behind the opera is that while death conquers all and unites grieving lovers, love itself only causes problems in the first place, and therefore it is death that should be celebrated, and not love. The use of it in Eliot’s poem adds to the idea of a welcomed death, of death needing to appear.

Another reference to tragic love, and uniting death, occurs in the use of the flowers ‘hyacinth’. Hyacinth was a young Spartan prince who caught the eye of Apollo, and in a tragic accident, Apollo killed him with his discus. Mourning his lover, Apollo turned the drops of blood into flowers, and thus was born the flower Hyacinth. There are twofold reasons for the reference to Hyacinth: one, the legend itself is a miserable legend of death once more uniting thwarted lovers and, two, the allusion to homosexuality would have, itself, been problematic. Homosexuality was not tolerated at the time of Eliot’s writing, and so he could be attempting to give the silenced a voice by referencing Hyacinth, one of the most obvious homosexual Greek myths. However, to continue with the same theme in the poem, the evidence of love will be lost to death, and there will be nothing more existing.

The stanza ends with another quote from Tristan and Isolde, this time meaning ‘empty and desolate the sea’.

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.

Cleanth Brooks writes: “The fortune-telling of “The Burial of the Dead” will illustrate the general method very satisfactorily. On the surface of the poem the poet reproduces the patter of the charlatan, Madame Sosostris, and there is the surface irony: the contrast between the original use of the Tarot cards and the use made by Madame Sosostris. But each of the details (justified realistically in the palaver of the fortune-teller) assumes a new meaning in the general context of the poem. There is then, in addition to the surface irony, something of a Sophoclean irony too, and the “fortune-telling,” which is taken ironically by a twentieth-century audience, becomes true as the poem develops–true in a sense in which Madame Sosostris herself does not think it true. The surface irony is thus reversed and becomes an irony on a deeper level. The items of her speech have only one reference in terms of the context of her speech: the “man with three staves,” the “one-eyed merchant,” the “crowds of people, walking round in a ring,” etc. But transferred to other contexts they become loaded with special meanings. To sum up, all the central symbols of the poem head up here; but here, in the only section in which they are explicitly bound together, the binding is slight and accidental. The deeper lines of association only emerge in terms of the total context as the poem develops–and this is, of course, exactly the effect which the poet intends.”

The Phoenician sailor could be a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest; in this particular stanza, several images intermesh between water and rock, starting with the allusion to the tempest (water being the symbol used by Eliot for rejuvenation and regeneration) and then moving on to the idea of Belladona, ‘the lady of the rocks’, i.e. the never-changing and desolate landscape of the Waste land itself. Once more, it moves to water – the ‘man with three staves’ being the representation of the Fisher King, who was wounded by his own Spear, and is regenerated through water given to him from the Holy Grail.

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!”

‘Unreal City’ references Baudelaire’s The Seven Old Men, from Fleurs du Mal. It was written at the time when Paris was considered a decadent, overwrought paradise of science, technology, and innovation, but not very much culture; thus, Paris, in Baudelaire’s writing, takes on a nightmarish landscape. Here, Eliot uses it in much the same effect: a nightmarish landscape that is not quote Paris, and is not quite London, but is meant to stand in for several places at once.

‘Mylae’ is a symbol of warfare – it was a naval battle between the Romans and Carthage, and Eliot uses it here as a stand-in for the First World War, to show that humanity has never changed, that war will never change, and that death itself will never change.

‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men’ is a paraphrasing of a quote from John Webster’s The White Devil, a play about the Vittoria Accoramboni murder. In the play, a character named Marcello is murdered, and his mother tearfully implores Flamineo to keep ‘the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men / for with his nails he’ll dig them up again’. If he is dug up again, then his spirit will never find rest, and he will never be reborn – here, Eliot, capitalizing on the quote, changes it so that the attempt to disturb rebirth is seen as a good thing. After all, Eliot is implying, who would want to be reborn in a world without culture?


The second stanza moves on from the description of the landscape – the titular waste land – to three different settings, and three more different characters. The title is taken from two plays by Thomas Middleton, wherein the idea of a game of chess is an exercise in seduction.

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.

Decadence and pre-war luxury abounds in the first part of this stanza. The references to ‘throne’ could be attempting to pinpoint to Europe, or England, more specifically, but even without the remits of place, the idea is of pre-war Europe, the seductive and vicious Old World that American writers harped on about in their works. However, the luxury that is written about seems empty. The ‘golden Cupidon’ hides his face, and the reference to jewels, ivory, and glass seems to show an empty wealth – everything that is mentioned in the poem is a symbol of extravagance, however the fact that it is glass and ivory and jewels seems to suggest a certain fragility in its wealth. Even the colours seem muted, and the light seems to be fading throughout the first stanza, shedding light only for a moment; as we read, the extravagance seems to be withering.

‘Laquearia’ is a type of panelling.

The reference to Paradise lost – ‘sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous King’ – can be a reference to everything that the world has lost since the First World War: innocent soldiers, innocence in general, this sense of nothing every quite being right again. It can also stand for the violent death of culture, given away to the vapidity of the modern world. There is a sense of altogether failure in this section – the references to Cleopatra, Cupidon, sylvan scenes, and Philomen, are references to failed love, to destruction of the status quo. The description of the woman moves from powerful, and strong – her wealth is her shield – to weak, thereby showing again the difference between pre-war and post-war Europe, specifically pre-war and post-war England. Once a noble country, now it is old and doddering, crumbling (‘sad light / a carved dolphin swam’; ‘withered stump of time’).

“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.”

Here we see the insanity of the woman, thereby symbolising that all her wealth has not done a thing for her mind, lending the fragmented poem an even bigger sense of fragmentation, and giving it a sense of loss, though the reader does not yet know what we have lost. As this was written at the height of spiritualism, one could imagine that it is trying to draw an allusion to those grief-maddened mothers and mistresses and lovers who contacted spiritualists and mediums to try and come into contact with their loved ones. Alternatively, one can take it as the embodiment of England, trying to reach out to her dead.

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

Reference to the First World War again – the trenches were notorious for rats, and the use of this imagery further lends the poem a sense of decay and rot.

“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

Further fragmentation of the poem, to the point where even the grammar seems to be suffering; ‘Shakespherian Rag’ was a renaming of the ‘Mysterious Rag’, and it is furthermore emphasising the death of culture for popular, high society dances and popular culture in general. However, it is interesting to note that he mentions Shakespeare again – once more, the reader thinks of the Tempest, a drama set on a little island, beset by ferocious storms.

“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.

The lack of purpose, lack of guidance, can be considered to be one of the causes of madness, and the further descent into fragmentation in the poem. There is a loose sense of time in this particular stanza – from ‘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’. It lends the poem a sense of suspended animation, as it did in the beginning, however here, the guideless manner of the people seems to be loosely defined by very small happenings – their days are structured through moments, rather than planned out.

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.

‘Lil’ could reference Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who was thrown out of Eden for being too dominant. However, in the poem, it could also be considered that Lil is merely a friend of the narrator’s – a woman who was unfaithful to her husband; here again is referenced the cloying and ultimately useless nature of love (‘And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said’). This seems to be built upon the idea of sex as the ultimate expression of manliness, a theme that Eliot enjoyed exploring in his works. The fact that the woman hints that there are ‘others who will’ implies that she herself is sleeping with her friend’s husband, however we cannot be certain of this.

This last part of the stanza seems to show the minutiae of the upper-class in shoddy lighting – with a hard emphasis on the nature of womanhood, and on the trials of womanhood. Lil is ‘only thirty one’ but looks much older; she took pills to ‘bring it off’, which we later understand is to induce abortions, and throughout the poem, the other woman attempts to give her advice, however, the irony is that the other woman is, as well, miserable, and wrapped up in her own misery to the point where her advice seems to be a little skewed.

Peppered throughout the latter stanza of the poem is the phrase ‘hurry up please its time’ giving a sense of urgency to the poem that is at odds with the lackadaisical way that the woman is recounting her stories – it seems to be building up to an almost apocalyptic event, a dark tragedy, that she is completely unaware of.

The last line references Ophelia, the drowned lover of Hamlet, who famously thought ‘a woman’s love is brief’. Therefore, we know for sure that this particular stanza of the poem is referencing sex – the ultimate pleasure for a man, and a duty of the woman’s.


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.

The line ‘Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song’ is from Spenser’s Prothalamion, and it references a marriage song. In Spenser, water represents a joyous occasion, which is at odds with its usage in Eliot’s Waste land. Here, the water once more represents a loss of life – although there is the sign of human living, there are no humans around.

The reference to ‘nymph’ could be calling back to the overarching idea of sex.

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!

There is no reason given, ultimately, for the wreckage of the Waste Land; however, following the idea of the Fisher King, we can assume this – that as the narrator suffers, so too does the world. The world, with the loss of culture, is now a barren continent, and with the onset of wars, has only served to become even more ruined and destroyed.

‘Sweeney and Mrs Porter in the spring’ – the legend of Diana, the hunting goddess, and Actaeon. Actaeon spied on Diana in the bath, and Diana cursed him with becoming a stag, who was torn to pieces by his own hounds. Here, Eliot tries again to show the ruin that love and lust can bring to the lofty spirit.

Et, O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole – ‘and O those children’s voices singing in the dome’, which is French and from Verlaine’s Parsifal, about the noble virgin knight Percival, who can drink from the grail due to his purity. It stands in this poem as a criticism of then-contemporary values; of the down-grading of lust.

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.

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.

‘Mr. Eugenides’ has a dual meaning here – tying back to the merchant in Madame Sosostris’ tarot cards, as well as standing in for the behaviour of soliciting gay men for affection. Canon Street Hotel and the Metropole were well known for this sort of behaviour among homosexual men, and thus once more, Eliot paints the cheapest possible sight of love.

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

Tiresias is from Greek Mythology, and he was turned into a woman as punishment by Hera for separating two copulating snakes. In the poem, it just serves, again, as a symbol of the cheapness of love and affection.

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.

The scene that plays out illustrates Eliot’s idea about the death of higher beliefs, such as the idea of romance and love. Note the lack of intimacy evidenced in the description above.

(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.

“This music crept by me upon the waters”

Reference to The Tempest.

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.

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

A reference to Elizabeth I, and the First Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, who were rumoured to be having an affair.

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

“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


‘To Carthage then I came’ references Augustine’s journey to overcome his secular and pagan lifestyle. Contrasting with the earlier part of the Fire Sermon, where Buddha was preaching about abstaining, here the poem turns to Western religion – however, regardless of their position, they’re written into the poem with a slightly mocking overtone.


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.

The circle of rebirth: the drowned sailor returns to the water, and will be reborn again in time as he has ‘entered the whirlpool’, and thus re-entered the cycle of life.


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

The final section of the poem opens up with a recounting of the events after Jesus was taken prison in the garden of Gethsemane, and after the crucifixion itself. Notice the almost apocalyptic language used in this part of the description, the way the language itself seems to emphasize the silence through the use of language words – ‘shouting’, ‘crying’, ‘reverberation’ are all words of noise, however this section of the poem brings about an almost deathly quiet, and an intermeshing of life and death that makes it difficult for the reader to tell whether the states exist separately or together. ‘He who was living is now dead’ also ties back to the idea of the rebirth sequence.

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

The apocalyptic imagery continues in the following section of the stanza. Once more, the poem returns to its description of the rock: the barren, desolate waste land of life that calls back to the cultural waste land that Eliot is so scornful of, the lack of life that corroborates to a lack of human faith. Water, the symbol of rebirth and regeneration, is surrounded on all sides by death, symbolized as rock, and thus leaving the idea of rebirth ambiguous.

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?

The hooded figure can be seen as some sort of guardian, an allusion to the Biblical passage where Jesus joins two disciples in walking to the tomb in Sepulchre, and a guide through the chaotic mess of the world that is left behind. It is unclear if Eliot is implying that poetry should itself be the guiding principle which all people follow.

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

Another reference to the total destruction rendered by war – ‘falling towers’ also calls the Biblical imagery of the tower of Babylon.

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

Empty faith once more symbolized explicitly by the ’empty chapel’. This can also reference the Chapel Perilous – the graveyard for those who have sought the Holy Grail, and failed.

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

The imagery of the fisherman sitting on the shore – ‘with the arid plain behind me’ – is a direct allusion to the Fisher King and his barren waste land. ‘Shall I ate least set my lands in order?’ is a quote from the Cible, from the Book of Isaiah: “Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live”.

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

In the very last stanza, Eliot hints at the reason for the fragmentation of this poem: so that he could take us to different places and situations. Ruins, no matter where they are, are always ruins, and madness and death will never change regardless of the difference in place.

Michael H. Levenson puts the last stanza into perspective from a linguistic point of view: The poem concludes with a rapid series of allusive literary fragments: seven of the last eight lines are quotations. But in the midst of these quotations is a line to which we must attach great importance: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” In the space of that line the poem becomes conscious of itself. What had been a series of fragments of consciousness has become a consciousness of fragmentation: that may not be salvation, but it is a difference, for as Eliot writes, “To realize that a point of view is a point of view is already to have transcended it.” And to recognize fragments as fragments, to name them as fragments, is already to have transcended them not to an harmonious or final unity but to a somewhat higher, somewhat more inclusive, somewhat more conscious point of view. Considered in this way, the poem does not achieve a resolved coherence, but neither does it remain in a chaos of fragmentation. Rather it displays a series of more or less stable patterns, regions of coherence, temporary principles of order the poem not as a stable unity but engaged in what Eliot calls the “painful task of unifying.”

Historical Background

From the Modernism Lab at Yale University: “Eliot’s Waste Land is I think the justification of the ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment, since 1900,” wrote Ezra Pound shortly after the poem was published in 1922. T.S. Eliot’s poem describes a mood of deep disillusionment stemming both from the collective experience of the first world war and from Eliot’s personal travails. Born in St. Louis, Eliot had studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford before moving to London, where he completed his doctoral dissertation on the philosopher F. H. Bradley. Because of the war, he was unable to return to the United States to receive his degree. He taught grammar school briefly and then took a job at Lloyds Bank, where he worked for eight years. Unhappily married, he suffered writer’s block and then a breakdown soon after the war and wrote most of The Waste Land while recovering in a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the age of 33. Eliot later described the poem as “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” Yet the poem seemed to his contemporaries to transcend Eliot’s personal situation and 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. Eliot went on to convert to a High Church form of Anglicanism, become a naturalized British subject, and turn to conservative politics. In 1922, however, his anxieties about the modern world were still overwhelming.

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Elise Dalli Poetry Expert
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