Interpretation of T. S Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Written in the epic mold of such classic works as Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Waste Land by T.S Eliot is symbolic of the aridity and decadence of modern western civilization as well as the poet’s own inner despair at the desolate prospect of the post-World War I era, its chaos and frustration.The poem is replete with luxuriant allusions to myth, ritual, religion, history - both past and present. Eliot presents a quick succession of brilliant images in almost cinematic or kaleidoscopic fashion. These eclectic flashes are drawn from both past and present life. They include a wide range of socio-cultural, religious and secular experiences common to both an individual life and the collective life of Western society from ancient times right down to the present. These electrifying images dazzle not just the reader’s eye but also his/her mind.

A terrifying vision of the modern world

Eliot’s extraordinary poem The Waste Land projects a terrifying vision of our chaotic times and troubled lives. The waste land scenario he portrays throughout the poem is one that reflects the social anarchy and spiritual vacuity of modern urban life that drives the individual to the deep crises of emotional and intellectual despair. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece attempts to depict the total disarray and near collapse of Western civilization in the early 1920s. During the years, immediately following the monumental upheavals of World War I, European life-styles, social mores and moral values were all changed drastically. Poet’s personal melancholyThe Waste Land also contains a record of the poet’s personal melancholy at a crucial point in his life - his first marriage to Vivien Haight Wood was almost "on the rocks," and Eliot himself was on the verge of a psychological break down. Thus, the structure of the poem incorporates a multi-layered setting based on levels that range from the personal to the societal, giving it an almost universal significance and a timeless relevance.

The reccurrent symbols

Throughout the poem there are recurrent symbols of drought and dryness, decay and disintegration. The reader sees, in Eliot’s own words, "a heap of broken images" made up of dusty streets, dead trees, desert rocks, dry bones, rats scurrying in sewers, empty cisterns and exhausted wells. Eliot skillfully evokes the picture of a wasted world where universal symbols of life - such as earth, air, fire and water - prove both sustaining and destructive. Eliot seeks thereby to recreate in his poem a truly compelling portrait of the drab life we lead in our dreary modern cities. People work and live their whole lives in a mechanical, almost robot-like fashion today. This is emphasized all through the poem. Besides, Eliot constantly links the present with the past, showing as how much more futile our existence is today. With the modern world being almost rendered a total waste - by human greed and materialism, by industrial pollution and ecological over exploitation.

The four elements and sex

The driving force of all life is procreation and re-birth. The four elements are instrumental in providing the conditions to enable this: Earth provides nutrition and base for vegetation to grow; Air provides the oxygen required by all life forms and the wind for the dispersal of pollen; Fire (from the Sun) provides warmth and light; Water provides the essential liquid for plant and animal life.For millennia, different races have believed that the fertility of the land depended on the sexual potency of their ruler or favour of their gods. The Waste Land takes these themes and portrays a dead land that lacks the fertility and sexual potency needed to sustain and progress life. A land devoid of what is needed for re-birth.

The four life-giving elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, feature throughout the poem but as life-preventing or life-threatening factors as well as aids to life: Earth is sterile; Air is turned to "brown fog"; Fire burns; Water drowns. The sexual imageries are unproductive: sex is present as a lustful functional device but devoid of the necessary fertility. Superstitions are turned to by the society in search of the answer in the form of Tarot cards and religion is a constant thread as evidenced by the recurring Biblical references and themes. The waste land also knows no barriers to culture or language - it is ubiquitous with motifs present from various cultures and languages of the world.

The Title

The title of the poem consists of the central waste land symbol and a significant date 1922. For the title of his poem, Eliot chose the central symbol of a devastated land. The title evokes all the associations of a barren landscape blighted by drought and Famine, leading on to wide-scale human starvation, misery and death. At another level, this symbolic title recalls the ancient vegetation or fertility myths and primitive folklore associated with the sterility of a land affected by the impotence of its ruler. Both the land and its people could be saved by a virtuous and daring youth whose life was ritually sacrificed so as to renew the earth.

The Epigraph

Eliot uses for epigraph a chance remark in the Roman poem The Satyricon by Patronius. Literally, this passage in Latin and Greek reads as follows: "I myself once saw, with my own eyes, the sibyl of Cumae hanging in a cage; and when the boys asked her: "What wouldst thou prophesy, Sibyl? She replied: "I want to die." The Sibyl of Cumae is one of the oldest and most famous prophetesses known to the ancient Graeco-Roman world. Once the God Apollo offered her immortality if she would be his lover. The Sibyl accepted but failed to ask for perpetual youth and hence, withered into old age. Thus, her death wish is linked to her desire to be rid of her antiquated life, just as the walking dead of the modern "Unreal City" have nothing to look forward to in life but death. Eliot, perhaps, suggests that we are about to be led into a kind of Dantean descent into the "hell" of a modern waste land just as the Sibyl guided Aeneas through Hades. Thus the epigraph of the poem gives us the initial implication of the world the poet is going to picture. The epigraph serves as a "leitmotif" to the whole poem. The prophecy of Sibyl sets the tone for The Waste Land as a poem that focuses sharply on the deadness and utter sterility of modern civilization post-World War I Europe. The Sibyl's predicament mirrors what Eliot sees as his own: He lives in a culture that has decayed and withered but will not expire, and he is forced to live with reminders of its former glory. Like the Sibyl the modern world has like but not the youthfulness and fertility. The youth is the symbol of energy, creativity, healthiness and sexual vigor.

The Burial of the Dead

The phrase "The Burial of the Dead" calls to mind several different associations. It recalls the various fertility myths of ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece and Western Asia, such as myths of Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz and Attis. The "burial of the dead" can also possibly refer to the agricultural practice of planting the dried or dead seed just before spring, so that the seed may germinate and sprout in summer. The title also recalls the Christian burial service in the Church of England’s The Book of Common Prayer and hence suggests death. The title "Burial of the dead" relates to the poems underlying mythological structure.The first seven lines

April is the cruellest month, breedingLilacs out of the dead land, mixingMemory and desire, stirringDull roots with spring rain.Winter kept us warm, coveringEarth in forgetful snow, feedingA little life with dried tubers.

Eliot, in these opening lines strikes an ironic contrast between the modern waste land and that in remote and primitive civilizations. Ancient societies celebrated the return of spring through the practices of their vegetation cults with their fertility rites and sympathetic magic. These rituals demonstrate the unique harmony that then existed between human cultures and the natural environment. But in the 20th century waste land, April is not the kindest but "the cruelest month," as it merely breeds "Lilacs out of the dead land." It stirs "memory and desire to no fruitful purpose, apparently. There is no quickening of the human spirit. Sex here becomes sterile, breeding not fulfillment in life but mere disgust and vague apprehensions.Usually, Easter Sunday, which commemorates Christ’s resurrection, falls in April. But Eliot ironically comments here that April is the "cruelest month" as the stirring of natural life and the spiritual resurrection symbolized in Easter fill humans today not with hope but fear and apprehension, if not despair. This is clearly suggested in the phrases "dead land," "dull roots," "dried tubers" and the bleak picture of earth covered in "forgetful snow." These four phrases suggest the bareness of earth and vacuity of life today. In ancient fertility cults, spring was celebrated as the propitious season, which brought back potency to the Fisher King and fertility to his land. Then there is a light chat between the two inhabitants of the waste land. In the 11 lines, the speaker seems to have changed and we, apparently, hear the narration of countess Marie Larisch about her childhood memories and present life. This passage of her reminiscences throws light upon her early emotional experiences, her wanderings through Europe as a political refugee from her native Lithuania and her own loss of identity resulting from her life as an ex - royal exile. This section creates a picture of an emotional waste land in the lives of aristocratic women like countess Marie who suffered great physical hardships and psychological dislocations as a result of the political turmoil in Europe immediately before during and soon after World War I.


The speaker is very much pessimistic about the future of the world. He says that we cannot expect much from this modern world because

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.

In this segment one can hear again the voice of Tiresias, who depicts a sort of spiritual waste land. The tone here is reminiscent of old biblical prophets littering their somber prophecies. It portrays an agonized world filled with "stony rubbish," where "the sun beats" mercilessly down so that "the dead trees give no shelter" and the shrill cry of the cricket brings "no relief." In this desolate scenario "the dry stone" gives "no sound of water." Unlike in biblical times, when Moses could procure water from rocks using his "divining" rod and thus bring relief to the thirsty Israelites wandering the desert.

Thus, in Part I, there are recurrent images of a dry, sterile landscape - a "dead land" with barren rocks, dead trees, "stony rubbish," "dry tubers," "dull roots" and "roots that clutch." These images are scattered over the two opening segments of Tiresias’ commentary.
Then we move into the heart of the modern waste land –London, Paris, or any other metropolis. The poet introduces the tarok pack which was used in ancient Egypt to forecast the rise and fall of the river Nile. But now it is used for trite and forbidden fortune telling. In this modern world genuine people are not valued much as are the false, immoral wicked.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, Had a bad cold, neverthelessIs known to be the wisest woman in Europe,With a wicked pack of cards.

Tiresias then surveys the Unreal city,London and the crowd that moves over London Bridge.
The city has become an unreal and desolated place

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.

The unreal city has become enveloped in brown fogs and the crowds moving over London Bridge are the spiritual waste dead citizens of the waste land going their daily round of dull routine.
The second and third parts of the poem throw light on the failure of sex relationship in the modern waste land.Sex has become a matter of intrigue and has become a mere source of pleasure and lost its spiritual significance. The sexual life has lost spirituality and it has become a work without any real pleasure of both body and mind.

The picture of the vulgar sexual life and low morality both of the higher as well as the lower classes are drown in the Game of the Chess part.Part II also is chiefly located in modern-day London with the two sketches of the Rich Lady at her boudoir and the cockney women in the East-side pub. The two women of this section of the poem represent the two sides of modern sexuality: while one side of this sexuality is a dry, barren interchange inseparable from neurosis and self-destruction, the other side of this sexuality is a rampant fecundity associated with a lack of culture and rapid aging. There are brief references to Queen Cleopatra riding her golden barge down the River Nile at the start of Part II. The close of this section takes us to the court of King Claudius in Denmark with the crazed Ophelia’s famous lines: "Good night ladies... good night, sweet ladies etc. There is also a reference to the rape of Philomela by King Tereus, which takes us back momentarily to the land of Thrace in ancient Greece. In the conversations of the two cockney women, there are indirect references to the war-front from which Albert is about to return home to his wife Lil.

The Fire Sermon

The fire Sermon section also shows the lustful nature of the modern men. The title is taken from the famous sermon of Lord Buddha in which the world is shown burning with lust and passion. It also reminds one of the Confessions of St Auguustine wherein he represents lust as a burning cauldron. But the spiritually dead, modern humanity knows only lust and no true love. The sterile burning of lust is brought out by different sex experiences in the contemporary waste land.

In this case the picture of the female typist is most pathetic. She leads a sordid life and her sexual partner is very unmindful to her desires, likings and disliking.

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights Her stove, and lays out food; in tins.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses, The meal is ended, she is bored and tired, Endeavours to engage her in caresses Which are still unreproved, if undesired. Flushed and decided, he assaults at one; Exploring hands encounter no defence; His vanity requires no response, And makes a welcome of indifference.

Bestows one final patronising 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."

The mechanical, animal-like nature of sex-relationship in the contemporary waste land is emphasized by this sex relation. The lady is glad that it is over and looks in the mirror to see if her hair has been disarranged or the powder from the face removed.

What the thunder said

Again the picture of the desolated modern world is portrayed in the last section of the poem. In this section the religious aridity is portrayed. The trial of Christ is drawn and implied that the crusification of Christ was not his death, for Christ lived through his religion and in the hearts of his disciples. But we the 20th century people have killed him by our indifference.
He who was living is now deadWe who were living are now dying

The modern men are now crucifying Christ at every step. People still go to the church, hymns are formally sung but real faith is no more. People still go to the Church but there is no deep religious feeling among the people and the prayer has become lifeless and empty words
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hoursAnd voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

The Waste Land closes with a reference to the Hindu pantheon of ancient Vedic times in India. Prajapati, the father of all, dwelt in the Himalayan ranges along with Gods (Devas), Men (Manusyas), and Evil spirits (Asuras) who were all his students or brahamacharis. Prajapati taught them to subdue, to give and to be merciful. This reference proclaims the final message of the poem: "Shantih ... "The ending of the poem recalls Coleridge’s concerns in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner i.e. the need for redemption through prayer, penance and self-abnegation after a life of sin. Eliot was inspired by the effects of World War I on Europe and considered its potential for regeneration and rebirth after the war. As all future generations procreate from the old ones the poem emphasises rebirth from civilisations and cultures that have gone before. Eliot demonstrates a profound knowledge of literary culture, particularly of English Literature, in presenting a complex, inter-dependent, and eclectic mix of characters from history, drama, the Arts, mythology and religion. With these he assembles a rich collage of discontinuity, broken images and diverse languages that collectively render a powerful and memorable commentary on the potential of future society and mankind culminating at the very end of the poem with hope of salvation, but with a shadow of despair: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih".

Minor theme

Closely allied to the central spiritual or religious theme of The Waste Land is Eliot’s concern with the socio-cultural scenario of post-war Europe. The 20s generation attempted to destroy the last vestiges of pre-war western civilization through their iconoclastic attacks on the prudery and Puritanism of Victorian times, their uninhibited displays of vulgarity, cheap sensationalism and their desire to shock by extreme forms of eccentric behavior. Western society had exhausted its spiritual and cultural legacy. So people now sought replacements in magic, science, other cults and a life of quick sensations through indulgence in drug taking, sex and cheap thrills. The majority felt that despair was the only honest response to their chaotic post - war universe. All this and much more of the socio-cultural malaise that affected Western Society in the 1920’s is very effectively projected by Eliot in his poem The Waste Land. In its epic sweep, it captures the near collapse of 2000 years of Western civilization. This forms the secondary theme of The Waste Land, if not indeed at least a subject closely allied to the central religious theme. Other minor Themes are related to Eliot’s perspective on time as telescopic or continuous i.e. the past, present and future are inextricably linked in one "continuum." Hence the poem constantly shifts its perspectives from the present to the past and vice versa. The ancient myths, classical legends, allusions to old literary masterpieces, landmarks in World history are all frequently juxtaposed in the context of contemporary events and personalities, shedding a fresh and illuminating light on both the past and the present. An understanding of Eliot’s time concept is crucial to over understanding of the poem itself.

The Waste Land : a modern poem

Eliot’s The Waste Land is a key or canonical text of modernist literature. It reflects in theme, tone and technique most of the principal facets of literary modernism. The hey-day of Modernism began in November 1918, after 52 slaughterous months that changed the world forever. When the World War started in 1914, the Modernist Revolution was well under way. But the sordid experiences and realities of this horrendous war propelled that revolution forward in a way that was both violent and totally unprecedented. Poetry and literature would never be the same again, as writers could never forget the particular horrors of the monstrous sufferings and mass scale slaughter unleashed by the Great War. Ezra Pound in his seminal post-war poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920) speaks of these horrors as "Wastage as never before" and calls them "disillusions ... hysteria, trench confessions, laughter out of dead bellies." Pound’s poem inaugurates this decade and sums up the Modernist poet’s sense of "a botched civilization." Eliot too shared Pound’s belief in the traumatic failures of modern life in the post-war era and voiced the anxieties and fears about the age in his classic poem The Waste Land. At Harvard, both Eliot and Pound were trained to value the writings of earlier cultural periods. Both imitated or emulated classical, medieval, Italian, Provençal French and even Chinese poems. This trait is quite evident in Pound’s Cantos (1917-69) where he organizes his selections from world history into a vast poetic panorama that provides moral, political and aesthetic education for readers of the post-war 20th century generations. Eliot, two, does something quite similar in The Waste Land which is akin to a socio-cultural and spiritual encyclopedia of human civilization. Pound was also one of the leaders of the new Imagist Movement in poetry. The Imagists felt that English poetry in the early 20th century had become stale, tired, repetitive and convention-bound. They advocated greater freedom of subject matter, concentration of poetic statement, originality of imagery and a verse technique free of the rigid rules of rhyme and meter. Though Eliot was not strictly a member of the Imagist group, he shared most of their aims and enshrined them in his Waste Land, especially in his use of free verse, concentrated expression and original poetic images. Like the Imagists, Eliot also rebelled against the uncontrolled expression of romantic emotion in stale or clicked language. He preferred a laconic and somewhat understated style of writing, which characterizes most of his poetry. The symbolist movement in French poetry also influenced Eliot. The symbolists did not care for the Realists mode of more direct forms of representing reality, their rather restrained use of imagination and their reformist zeal to change the abuses and evils of society. Instead, the symbolist mode was indirect, allusive and often obscure. They concentrated more on evoking individual moods and elusive states of mind through a complex of words, images and symbols with diverse psychological associations. Thus, readers of symbolist poetry must constantly explore the endless maze it presents. All these features of symbolist writing are amply evident in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue were the two symbolists who wielded the deepest influence on Eliot. They reveal a wry sense of humor, a mocking self-awareness that helps to balance their inner melancholy. Baudelaire made his readers aware of the city in all its ugliness, squalor and excitement, its crowds, its variety, its violence and the alienation it gives rise to in sensitive souls. These facts are abundantly found in Eliot’s The Waste Land too. Eliot read Arthur Symons' influential work The Symbolist Movement in Literature in 1908. Though he often rejected more recent poetic models (like Walt Whitman and E. A. Poe) Eliot turned to Robert Browning for his skilled handling of the dramatic monologue and use of colloquial language. Many of Eliot’s poems have features of an extended dramatic monologue in which we encounter a character revealing his or her thoughts and inner personality in a given situation e.g. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Gerontion and even The Waste Land. Another poet who profoundly influenced Eliot was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Italian poet, whose Divine Comedy Eliot studied closely at Harvard. Eliot admired the frankness and economy of Dante’s language and the vast gamut of emotional experience he depicts in the 3 parts of his epic in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Eliot admired Dante’s restraint and self- effacement. Eliot, too, self distances himself in his verse throughout. The Waste Land he is possibly present in the guise of Tiresias, but is never obtrusive. Eliot was deeply stirred by Joyce’s Ulysses, whose early manuscript (prior to publication) Eliot read in Paris in 1918. In Ulysses a single day in the life of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, is depicted in detail against the framework of Ulysses’ wanderings as depicted Homer’s Odyssey. This gives the novel a richness of associations and cross-references. Eliot drew upon Joyce’s method in his The Waste Land, using the consciousness of Tiresias to make cross-references through history and myth. He also tried to manipulate traditional myths and drew parallels or contrasts between contemporary life and ancient times. Thereby, Eliot hoped to give definite shape and meaning to "the intense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history," (T.S. Eliot in his Preface to James Joyce’s Ulysses 1922). A close examination of Eliot’s poetry reveals that several contemporary strands of English verse are subtly interwoven into his masterpiece. The Waste Land embodies the mood of exhausted bitterness of war poetry, the "hard and dry" surfaces of Imagist verse, the expansive use of mythical and literary allusions of Pound, Joyce or Yeats, the dislocations and grotesque hallucinations of James Joyce and Edith Sitwell. These, he blended subtly into the cohesive artistic unity of The Waste Land such a complex and composite mode alone, Eliot felt, could meet the challenge of theme and technique for modernist poetry in a post world war world.In Part I of the poem, the reader shuttles back and forth across time and traverse vast spaces scattered over the globe. Mainly though, the reader is given a view of the "Unreal City" of London and other similar urban centers in modern Europe, where he or she meets such characters like Countess Marie and Madam Sosostris.