The Waste Land Summary


T. S. Eliot has been labeled a modernist concerning his poetry works. His poem The Waste Land is no exemption to the labeling of modernist poems. Eliot’s poetry portrays an obvious departure from the formal and traditional laws and rules of writing poems. His poems are different from his predecessors’, the early poets and those who have been labeled as fathers of poems. The ideas in The Waste Land and other poems he has written are unconventional in terms of the subject and his literary techniques. Due to these aspects, he has been labeled as a modernist. Modernism in poetry is a situation where a poet bolts from the conservative rules of writing a poem. The Waste Land poem is a direct counterattack to the anarchy and futility of contemporary history.

To begin with, The Waste Land poem is divided into five sections. Being written after World War 1, we can say that Eliot used this form of structure in his poem as a metaphor of the modern culture that was a degraded mess. The First World War had left Europe in a social, political and economical mess. Eliot used this technique to represent all the mess that had been created over the war. From the first section of The Waste Land poem, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, we can see the recollections of the persona that are painful. This first part involves the dead, which is very critical in the poem of The Waste Land; it helps in showing the confrontation between the past and the present, a metaphor that points out how things have badly decayed over time. The persona just spends her time reading since she cannot do much. Politics have taken paralyzed every aspect of life.

According to Eliot, the modern society of Waste Land has two types of people. They are seen through the people that crowd the London Bridge (Eliot, line 62-65). The descriptions in these lines are borrowed from Dante’s description of people in his poem Limbo. It represents dead people who are neither dead nor alive. The other category of people in Waste Land is also borrowed from Dante’s work and the description of people in the first level of hell. These people were born before Christ and thus have no knowledge of salvation. They can also not be saved. It is a representation of people living in the 20th century and they have no faith in anything. Their lack of faith is emphasized in a number of lines throughout the poem. In one of the scenes, the daughter of Thames claims that she cannot connect nothing with nothing (Eliot, line 301-302). Since she lacks faith, her life has no connections or faith. The story of the merchant in the poem also illustrates the lack of faith in the people of Waste Land. The merchants were the carriers of the secret of the vegetation cult in the country they lived in: the mythology in the main foundation of this poem. For the merchant described in this poem, he does not carry this secret. The merchant asks the protagonist to ask him to a weekend that is filled with homosexual debauchery instead of inviting him to secrets that life gives.

The Waste Land poem is very complex and complicated. Many interpretations have been made concerning this poem, and it is very difficult to get two critics agreeing on the meaning of the poem. However, the meaning that one receives from a poem should be an individual choice. The poem can, however, be interpreted in three levels as it is wide and covers a lot. The three levels include the society, the human race and the person. From a personal level, we can conclude that Eliot sort to reveal his personal feelings and why he decided to write the poems. The society level of interpretation, one can get the relation between the poem and the society the poem was referring too. Mostly, it has to be England as he was born there and the poem was written after World War 1. From the human race level of interpretation, the poem talks more about the society and includes people living in that society, whether in the past, present or future (Thompson 144). It is very common to have common themes when analyzing a poem in terms of society level and the human level. These levels are usually integrated together in real life and in literary works, and thus, they usually end up being the same.

One of the problems the people in Waste Land face is communication. Eliot has first illustrated this through the hyacinth girl who claims that she is unable to speak and cannot communicate with the protagonist (Eliot, line 35-41). The problem of communication is further illustrated through the woman in situations as she asks someone to speak to her. She keeps asking why they never speak. A further illustration of the problem of communication in Waste Land is through Dayadhvam, the response to the command who tries to sympathize but cannot communicate. All these people are sitting in prisons clueless of where they can get keys that can release them. The problem with these people is that they are selfish and proud and thus, they cannot unite. Without unity, they cannot be released from their bondage in prison, as they do not understand each other (Matthiessen 138). To lay emphasize on the problem of selfishness that these people possess, the encounter between the young girl and the typist can be used. None is interested in knowing about the other, or concerned about the welfare of the other party. Everyone in the community just wants to be himself/herself and please himself or herself without minding their neighbor. This illustration can be used to show much of the events that went on during the First World War. The politics and other factors that caused the war made people think only about themselves never minding their neighbors. In The Waste Land, communication has been paralyzed by the selfishness of the people in that society and the focus they just put on their personal lives.

As spring arrives, there is joy and hopes for something better. In the opening lines in this poem, however, we get a different feeling from the protagonist. Rather than being happy and having hope, the protagonist is sad and unhappy. He is afraid of the new beginnings, of what lies ahead in his new life. As much as he is afraid of the new life, he is also afraid of death. The protagonist states that he will show people fear in a handful of dust, referring to the fear of death or becoming just a handful of dust (Eliot, line 30). From line 69, we can also get another illustration of the fear of life or living, where the corpse is planted (Eliot, line 69-75), but the fear of death in brought back again in line 115, where we see the rats in the alley. They are a form of horror and representation of death. The people of Waste Land are afraid of living but, at the same time, they are also afraid of death. If this context is used in relations to World War 1, we can see that people were afraid that they would die during the war, but were also afraid of living after the war as they were not sure what lay ahead.

In the past, water was used as a symbol of life. The reason for this is that some myths point out that humans evolved from water through fish. Due to this, humans need water in their lives to survive. Water is held sacred and life-giving in many religions, including the vegetation cults. For the people of Waste Land, however, the scenario is different. According to the poem, these people have lost their ancient belief and through this, the life symbol has been corrupted. They believe that the life symbol is something that people should fear instead of believing in. One example is through the death of Phoenician sailor who drowned. For him, water does not represent life but death. As we can see from the poem, the protagonist is advised to fear death by water. For him, he does not believe in the ancient traditions and does not have faith for that matter; water to him represents the end of life (Williamson 125). In line 182, he also states that he wept by the waters of Leman; where leman means or represents lust (Eliot, line 182). By this, the protagonist means that unbridled lust has disturbed him. Through this, we see that water has been corrupted to represent death because of lack of self-control. Another representation of this is through line 199-201, where the poem shows that ordinary water can no longer be used for foot washing. In the legend of Fisher King, foot washing was a ceremony that preceded the restoration of a king. There is symbolism in these lines that shows that the faith that people had in water has been lost.

The poem has also integrated corruption of sex as an important theme. Many examples of sex corruption have been illustrated in the poem. For example, the descriptions of the lady of situations show the corruption of sex that is in the society. This scene shows how Philomel has changed since King Tereus, her brother in-law, sexually abused her. The King was married to Philomel’s sister, Phrocne (Eliot, line 122). It shows hoe people in power, especially in politics, mistreat people they rule, even if they are from the same country or region. I believe that these scenes are used as a metaphor of what the political world of today is all about. The second illustration on the corruption of sex in this society is the scene at the pub. In this scene, Albert wants to have a good time, regardless of whom he uses to have the good time (Eliot, line 140-172). To him, it does not matter whether someone gets hurt or not, as long as he has a good time. His main concern is that his wife might pass during her labor. His wife’s friend does not care either, whether he has sex with someone else or not. The illustration here is that the society is lustful and for them, their desires have to be achieved no matter what. The corruption of sex in this society is further emphasized through the typist and the young man (Eliot, line 222-256). From these lines, we can gather that the typist is both tired and bored, and the young man is flushed and undecided. The young man is just interested in pleasing and satisfying himself and his desires rather than pleasing and exciting the young woman. It shows that this modern society or Waste Land does not know anything about ‘love’ and they just have affairs that have no sentimental attachments. In the modern society, their form of love entails more of satisfying individual instinctive desires.


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These three are not the only scenes that illustrate sex corruption in this society. Some short scenes have been used to illustrate it too. For example, in lines 196-198, Eliot borrowed some lines from Marvell’s works. The use of motors in his poem, Eliot replaced with hunting, and Sweeney and Mrs. Porter were used in place of Acteon and Diana. All thee illustrations are a sign of the pursuit of love that people go through. In the past, love was treasured but in this society, it has been replaced with the use of sex for mere pleasure.

From the poem The Waste Land, we can see that the poet is discouraged about the society he is covering. The society has been describes as a Waste Land, but still, he does not offer any hope for the society that shows it might recover in one way or another in future. In one of the parts of the poem, Part V – ‘What the Thunder Said,’ keys to new life for the Waste Land have been shown. One can get these through interpreting DA- Datta, Dayadhvam and Damayata, which represent giving, sympathizing and control respectively. They are used as the anti-thesis of the modern troubles that are faced in the society. For Eliot, if people learn how to give, sex will have a new meaning in the society. People will not just use it for pleasure and fun, but just as a way of expressing their emotions. Though this, there will no longer be corruption of sex in the society. For sympathizing, if people learn how to have sympathy for each other, then the trouble of communication will be eliminated. People in the society will be at a position when it comes to communicating. They will be free to talk about their feelings and be at a better position to listen to the feelings of other people in the society and those around them. When we analyze self-control, we can conclude that if people develop self-control, they will regain their lost faith. Through this, they will no longer fear life or death.

From the poem, it is clear that many aspects of the political environment have been represented in different levels. From the lack of belief, corruption of sex, the personal relations of the people in that society and even the callous treatment of nature. Many problems exist in Waste Land and they offer no hope that the society in that land will recover. The name of the society is also symbolism that the society is dead and has been wasted through the political decays that are rotting within. Solutions have, however, been offered at the end that can help the society to recover; give, sympathy and control. Every poet makes it a point of offering some bit of solution in a poem that gives some hope; helps the readers to be optimists rather than pessimists.

Works Cited

  1. Mathiessen, Francis Otto. The Achievement of T.S. Eliot. New York: Oxford UP, 1947. Print
  2. Thompson, Eric. T.S. Eliot: The Metaphysical Perspective. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1963. Print.
  3. Williamson, George. A Reader’s Guide to T.S. Eliot. New York: Noonday Press, 1953. Print.

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