The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot is probably the most influential poem of the twentieth century and one of the least understood. Published in 1922, it was perceived at the time as being a jarring and iconoclastic modernist attack on tradition. One reviewer described it as a “mad medley” and “so much waste paper.” Another thought it depicted “a world, or a mind, in disaster and mocking its despair,” adding that it expressed “the toppling of aspirations, the swift disintegration of accepted stability, the crash of an ideal.”
Its cultural impact was certainly very divisive. The modernist avant-garde gazed in awe at its many layers of allusive meaning; the old guard claimed that the layers were not so much allusive as an illusion, suspecting that the emperor had no clothes. The pessimism of its language and the libertine nature of its form accentuated the polarized reaction.
The detractors included poetic traditionalists, such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Alfred Noyes, none of whom were aware of Eliot’s own deep traditionalism, which would only become apparent a few years later with his embrace of Anglo-Catholicism and his description of himself as being a Catholic, a royalist, and a classicist.
It was not until his death more than forty years later that a more balanced perspective would emerge of the cultural impact which the misreading of The Waste Land had caused. The obituary to Eliot in The Times conveys such a perspective:
Its presentation of disillusionment and the disintegration of values, catching the mood of the time, made it the poetic gospel of the post-war intelligentsia; at the time, however, few either of its detractors or its admirers saw through the surface innovations and the language of despair to the deep respect for tradition and the keen moral sense which underlay them.
It is ironic that the key that unlocks The Waste Land is Eliot’s great admiration for Dante. “You cannot…understand the Inferno,” Eliot had written, “without the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.” The “disgust” that Dante shows in the Inferno “is completed and explained only by the last canto of the Paradiso…. The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting, by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the impulse toward the pursuit of beauty.” It is, therefore, in the light of the peace and resurrection at the end of The Waste Land that the earlier infernal and purgatorial aspects of the poem are to be seen.
The epigraph at the beginning of the poem sets the scene and the prophetic tone with its reference to the Cumaean Sibyl, the most famous of the ancient prophetesses whom the Greeks and Romans consulted about the future. She is described at length in Virgil’s Aeneid, in which she shows Aeneas how to enter the underworld, and she is featured in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, in which she delivers a prophecy which theologians would later interpret as a foreshadowing of the birth of Christ. The Cumaean Sibyl, in this sense, can be seen as a figure of John the Baptist, as one who cries in the wilderness, in the wasteland, prophesying the coming of Christ.
The poem itself is divided into five parts. Part One, “The Burial of the Dead,” begins with an allusion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which sets the scene of pilgrimage. There then follow a heap of biblical allusions from the Old Testament: references to Job, Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah, which provide the penitential atmosphere:
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….
In these few lines, echoing intertextually with cautionary verses from Scripture, the image of the wasteland of modernity is laid out before us. The “stony rubbish” of modern culture enables no roots of tradition to clutch and, therefore, no beautiful cultural fruits can be found on branches that cannot grow. Instead, we are left with nothing but incohesive and incoherent fragments, a heap of broken images. The poem’s fragmented form is itself a reflection of the fragmented formlessness of the modernity it satirizes and reproaches. As for its moral purpose, it is to show us something beyond our narcissistic selves:
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.
The Waste Land is, therefore, a memento mori, a reminder of death—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and the Four Last Things to which such a reminder points: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
The final section of part one introduces a new motif of the “unreal city,” an image of modernity severed from reality by accretions of artificiality or what we might now call virtual reality. Part one ends with the poet pointing the finger at the reader in its quoting of the final line of Baudelaire’s famous poem “To the Reader”: “You! Hypocrite lecteur! —mon semblable, —mon frère!” (You! Hypocrite reader! —my semblance, —my brother!) What we are reading is aimed at us. It’s personal. We are hypocrites who need to look at the plank in our own eye.
Parts two and three present tableaux of the lust and decadence of rich and poor alike, including intertextual allusions to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra; to Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester; to a middle-class typist and the “young man carbuncular” to whom she sacrifices her virginity, after which he bestows “one final patronizing kiss” before taking his leave; and to working class people in a pub who discuss sex within the context of abortion and other manifestations of the culture of death.
Part three ends the section on decadence and lust with a reference to St. Augustine’s Confessions (O Lord Thou pluckest me out), signifying and prophesying the turning point of the poem from the inferno of modern fatuity and vacuity to the purgatorial cleansing of the passions.
Part four is entitled “Death by Water,” offering a further memento mori but, beyond that, a promise of the death and resurrection wrought by baptism.
Part five begins with the barren and arid image of the desert and the thirst for water it induces. There then follows an allusion to Christ on the road to Emmaus and a listing of the “falling towers” of the Cities of Man:
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
All the major centers of civilization, which have been pivotal to human history, are listed as fallen and unreal, except for Rome, which is omitted ostentatiously. Only the Eternal City remains. Rome has not fallen, nor is it unreal.
The poem culminates and climaxes in the coming of the much-needed and much-desired rain, a symbol of grace, and “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” which is the acceptance of faith. As the thunder proclaims the need for sacrifice, compassion, and self-control, the poet ends with gratitude for the peace that passeth all understanding.
Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-ninth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”