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The Waste Land, the most important highlight of T S Eliot’s poetic career, is a complex and multifaceted poem widely regarded as one of the most significant works of modern literature. It was written in the year 1922. It was the time of Modernism, a movement in which artists and writers tried to find novel methods of observation and new methods of getting knowledge, leaving behind every established rule. In literature, it was characterized by fragmentation in narration and abandonment of an objective viewpoint. The literary works also concerned existential themes like the purposelessness of life and the quest for the meaning of life by individuals. This poem is written in the spirit of Modernism. The ideas of the poem are scattered around in the poem, and there is no coherence in the thought. There are a lot of allusions to other works of art. At the same time, the poem’s speaker does not remain the same throughout the poem. There are a lot of instances of existentialism in the poem. Many speakers of the poem are trapped in the anxiety and dread of being. They all try to give meaning to their lives in one way or the other.

After World War I, the people of Europe were left disturbed and disillusioned. The beliefs and values around which their societies were based lost their authenticity. The people of Europe questioned them and considered them to be the cause of the horrific war they had faced. They tried to leave behind their past and move on. They were on a quest to build a new world. In this way, their connection with their history was utterly lost. They rejected all the beliefs that they had held in the past.

Eliot had an immediate experience of these lawless times. He saw the European societies crumble down in a matter of a few years. He knew that these changes would have a significant effect on the continent. In The Waste Land, the poet has given an outlet to his mental condition and the condition of society. The physical deterioration of society is depicted in this poem through the images of infertility and dryness. The disjointed social setup of that time is shown in the poem through the images of broken things. The poem describes modern man’s infertility and speaks of humanity’s benumbed condition.

Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 433 lines and divided it into five sections. The poem is enormously complex, making great demands upon the readers. The Waste Land can be viewed as a poem about brokenness and loss. Eliot’s numerous allusions to the First World War suggest that the war significantly brought about this social, psychological, and emotional collapse. Many of the characters who turn up in Eliot’s poem – such as Lil, the mother-of-five whose unhappy marriage is discussed by her friend in a London pub – lead unfulfilling lives and their relationships lack intimacy and deeper meaning.

People’s lives, in general, are lacking spiritual significance. The typist in “The Fire Sermon” is an excellent example of this: her job involves merely copying or repeating what others have said, and when she gets home from work, her food is processed and comes in tins, and even her sex life is mechanical and repetitive, something Eliot neatly captures with his use of regular quatrains at this point in the poem. The music she listens to when her lover has gone is played on a gramophone: it’s a world away from the magical music Ferdinand heard on the enchanted island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Modern life has lost all sense of magic and meaning.

Eliot reinforces such an idea by overlaying his poem with a loose mythic structure drawn from Arthurian legend and a work of comparative religious study, The Golden Bough by James Frazer. Specifically, Eliot uses the story of the Fisher King as a form of allegory for the modern world. The Fisher King has been wounded in the groin, and his wound has also affected the kingdom he rules. The once fertile and abundant soil has ceased to yield crops; the land has become a wasteland.

The cure for this spiritual sickness which plagues the king and his land is the Holy Grail, but only those who are pure of heart will find the Grail -the cup that, according to Christian legend, caught Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion. The poem’s references to the Buddhist Fire Sermon suggest that before we become worthy of salvation, we must curb our worldly desires and passions to attain spiritual enlightenment.

The Waste Land begins with referencing a ‘heap of broken images’. It ends with a collage of quotations from various poetic traditions and a snippet from the nursery rhyme London Bridge is falling down. Art, literature, oral and written culture – civilisation itself – seems threatened. The poem ends on an ambiguous note, with the triple repetition of the Sanskrit word ‘Shantih’, which Eliot translates as ‘the peace which passeth understanding’. The breakdown of the poem into a confused medley of semi-coherent quotations implies that after the war, such peace remains a far-off dream.

T S Eliot

A mythical character, Sibyl of Cumae, appears in the poem’s epigraph. The speaker says that when a group of young boys visited Sibyl and asked her what she wanted, she replied that she wished for death.

The rest of the poem is divided into five different sections:

(I) The Burial of the Dead
(II) A Game of Chess
(III) The Fire sermon
(IV) Death by water
(V) What the Thunder Said

The Burial of the Dead

“The Burial of the Dead” sets the tone for the entire work and introduces critical themes of death, decay, and spiritual desolation. In this section, Eliot draws on various literary and cultural references, creating a mosaic of voices and images. The title itself evokes a sense of mourning and loss.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

This opening reflects a paradoxical view of April, traditionally a time of rebirth and renewal, as the “cruellest month”. The mention of lilacs and spring rain, typically associated with growth and vitality, is juxtaposed with the image of a “dead land”, emphasizing the theme of decay and spiritual barrenness.

At the start of this part, the speaker —an aristocratic lady —speaks of her happy past days. She recollects the beautiful days in Germany. She talks of her visit to her cousin and their fun activities. Intermingled with these pleasant recollections, there is a shadow of the infertility of modern times.

After this happy episode, a new speaker tells an unknown listener about showing them a novel thing. Then he starts talking about the inevitable death and the desiccation of humanity in modern times. He gives the image of love in modern times, which is only fixed upon lust and physical needs. It has no spirituality left in it.

The next shift in the scenes brings a card reader. She is named Madame Sosostris. She foreshadows that water will bring death and that the men should fear it. She also talks about how she is forced to carry out her business secretly.

The scene changes again, and the speaker describes the condition of ordinary men in modern times. He says that many people are walking in London’s streets but have lost their vitality. They seem alive but are dead from the inside. The speaker then recollects a meeting with a soldier during a war. One soldier asks the other whether the corpse he buried in his garden has sprouted. Suddenly, the speaker turns his attention towards the readers and accuses them that they are not innocents. They have an equal share in the wrongs described in the poem.

Throughout “The Burial of the Dead”, Eliot weaves various voices and perspectives, including references to classical literature, mythology, and contemporary culture. The poem is highly allusive, incorporating elements from The Canterbury TalesThe Bible, and The Grail Legends, among other sources.

The section also introduces the figure of the Fisher King, a wounded king whose infertility is connected to the land’s desolation. This mythic motif serves as a metaphor for the spiritual malaise and sterility of the contemporary world.

A Game of Chess

In “A Game of Chess”, Eliot draws on various mythological and literary sources to depict a sexual encounter. The title itself suggests the strategic and ritualistic nature of the sexual encounter, turning a personal act into a detached and calculated game.

The section opens with a description of a luxurious, decadent bedroom, possibly belonging to a woman named Cleopatra. She is sitting on a burnished chair, waiting for someone. Scattered among the artificial objects of ornamentation, there are a few glimpses of the past time. The setting is opulent, but a sense of emptiness and disillusionment marks the characters’ interactions. When the person she is waiting for arrives, they indulge in a meaningless dialogue. The person tells her they are in “rats’ alley” and cannot do anything. They talk about how they will pass their time and wait for the knock on the door.

The next part of this section discusses a meeting of two underprivileged ladies sitting in a bar. They are talking about a woman named Lil. They say her husband is returning after serving for a long time in the army. They show their concerns about the appearance of Lil as she has not treated her teeth and has lost her charm. Therefore, they think her husband will try to find recompense in other women. One of the two ladies says that Lil blames the abortion pills she has used for her bad teeth. While these two women are talking, the barkeeper repeatedly tells them to hurry up because the time is over. Towards the end, the two women depart, bidding good night several times.

The references in this section are wide-ranging and include Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the myth of Tiresias, a blind prophet from Greek mythology, and contemporary cultural references. These diverse sources contribute to the poem’s theme of cultural disintegration and the loss of a cohesive, meaningful narrative in the modern world.

In “A Game of Chess”, Eliot explores the consequences of unchecked desire and alienation from superficial, disconnected relationships. The sexual encounter is portrayed as mechanical and devoid of genuine emotion, emphasizing a sense of spiritual emptiness.

The Fire Sermon

In “The Fire Sermon”, the poet presents a bleak and desolate vision of a world ravaged by spiritual and moral decay. The title, borrowed from Buddhist teachings, suggests a sermon that addresses the destructive nature of desire and the pursuit of worldly pleasures. The Buddha’s Fire Sermon, as mentioned in the poem, emphasizes the burning nature of desire and the need to overcome attachment to sensory pleasures.

Eliot’s version, “The Fire Sermon”, explores themes of lust, disillusionment, and the degradation of modern society. The poet describes a world where desire has become insatiable, leading to spiritual emptiness and the degradation of human relationships. The imagery in this section is often vivid and disturbing, reflecting the poet’s critique of contemporary society’s spiritual and moral bankruptcy.

This section opens with the description of a dirty place by a riverside. The river is filled with garbage, and rats are pushing themselves here and there. The speaker tries to catch fish in this river and thinks about his father and brother. He recalls how both of them died in the same manner. With the shift in the setting, the speaker narrates an event when he was invited to homosexuality. He says that a merchant, Eugenides, offered to have dinner with him and spend the weekend with him in a notorious hotel.

Then, a speaker named Tiresias starts narrating the proceedings of a hectic day for a female typist. She is a young lady and works till late. She comes home after work, and the dirty dishes from breakfast wait for her in her room. She cleans the mess and waits for her lover. The lover, who is a dull young guy, comes, and they indulge in sexual activities. However, their actions have no warmth. The typist shows no emotions when the deed is being done. She even expresses her happiness when this activity ends.

At this section’s end are happier images of a church, a bar, and the river Thames. The speaker recalls the love affair between the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth. The speaker says that Queen Elizabeth only thought about her people and sacrificed her liking for the people’s interest. Then, there is a confession of a lady of modern times who talks about her affairs with many men. She says she was promised a new start but said nothing. The last few lines of the section include a prayer to the Lord where the speaker asks for salvation and mercy as he is burning in fire.

Death by Water

The title “Death by Water” suggests a watery demise, and this section is often associated with the myth of the drowned Phoenician sailor. Water imagery carries destructive and purifying connotations in the poem’s context.

The section describes a drowned sailor and a series of water-related images, including a sea nymph. The speaker says that Phelabas has died by drowning in water and that his body has lost connection with the outside world. In the same manner, the speaker warns that the readers’ bodies will lose connection with the world, and they will die. Therefore, they should remember their deaths.

The drowning motif can be interpreted in various ways, symbolising physical death and spiritual cleansing or rebirth. The drowned sailor may represent the destructive consequences of unchecked desires or the perils of navigating the turbulent waters of modern life.

The mention of a sea nymph recalls classical mythology, adding a layer of allusion to the poem. In mythology, the sea nymph is associated with the water, often symbolising a connection between the earthly and the divine.

What the Thunder Said

“What the Thunder Said”, the concluding part of the poem, is particularly enigmatic and contains some of the most challenging and cryptic passages. The title suggests a revelation or divine message, drawing on the elemental force of thunder as a symbol. The section begins with disconnected and fragmented images, including references to ancient mythology, religious texts, and historical events. The language is often surreal and difficult to pin down, contributing to the poem’s sense of dislocation and spiritual crisis.

At the start of this section, the speaker talks about the condition of the modern man. He says modern men move around in the cities but have lost their human vitality. They are unreal human beings. They might walk and work like humans but are dead from the inside. Therefore, cities like London, Vienna, Athens, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, where these unreal humans live, have also become unreal. The speaker describes a chapel’s condition and says it is empty. There is no one inside it but the wind.

Suddenly, there is a shift in the setting, and the speaker describes the conditions of the East. He says that it is going to rain near the Ganges. Here, the three aspects of thunder, according to Hindu mythology, are introduced. The first aspect of thunder is “Datta,” which means “give”. The second aspect of thunder is “Dayadhvam,” which means “sympathise”. The third aspect of thunder is “Damyata,” which means “control”. These are drawn from the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads. They represent moral and ethical imperatives, suggesting a call for spiritual renewal and ethical behaviour.

In this context, the thunder can symbolise divine revelation or a higher power delivering a message to humanity. The use of Sanskrit adds a layer of religious and cultural allusion, highlighting the poem’s exploration of diverse traditions. The poem ends with the repetition of the word “Shantih”.

This section suggests the possibility of redemption and renewal in the face of the cultural and spiritual desolation depicted throughout the poem. However, the meaning remains elusive and open to interpretation, encouraging readers to engage with the complex web of references and symbols that characterise Eliot’s modernist masterpiece.

The Waste Land remains a landmark work of modern literature, its complex themes and innovative techniques continuing to inspire and challenge readers today. It is a poem that demands careful study and reflection, offering a profound insight into the human condition in the face of cultural and spiritual upheaval.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.