My Literary Analysis of "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot


          T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is arguably one of the most impactful poems on literary modernity of the twentieth century. It is a narrative poem that is characterized by the intensity of despair, nihilism, death, and spiritual and moral decay. Fascinatingly, the work employs a multitude of allusions ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer to Walt Whitman to William Shakespeare to Ezra Pound; in about every two lines, one is used. Eliot’s work is not depicted through one character, but rather a diverse scheme of voices which includes both dialogues and dramatic monologues. The structure is notably unique in many ways, one being the breach of sense, location, time, and view point of characters throughout the poem. It continuously transitions from speaker to speaker and place to place, etc. Not only that, Eliot also employs a heavy use of caesura and enjambments, especially in the first couple of lines, which continues to aid in this discontinuous fluidity. A tool the author may have used to reinforce this concept of disillusionment. Although there are some universal themes this poem attempts to explore, the work is said to be, by many scholars, a bit ambiguous. Interestingly, Eliot’s publisher requested additional notes from him explaining the details and further defining the rhetorical and literary devices he had used. Just to note, it is definitely not a poem to be read once and then easily understood; rather, its complexities and limitless interpretations are still being discovered and redefined today.

            The poem is divided into five sections each comprised of a varying structure and form. Section one, “The Burial of the Dead”, seems to describe a postwar world in which humanity’s collapse is an inevitable stain left by the atrocities of war. As mentioned in the poem, “I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing”. People walked with a haze, a heavy burden of depression and loss. The speaker characterizes the city as “unreal” which might actually be a characterization of the people as well. The citizens seem to be fake and to be wearing a mask of artificiality to compensate for their state of despondency. But shifting the focus to the beginning of the section, the speaker states that spring, and in turn rebirth, is cruel, because birth is just a faithful reminder of death. As depicted, “Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow”, it seems to suggest that spring, the season of life and nutriment, did not sustain the speaker; rather, winter, the season of coldness and bleakness, was the vital factor in survival; winter being another representation of disingenuousness. Alternatively to accepting the dejection life brings, the speaker finds it better to reject their natural feelings and to armor themselves with the “forgetful snow”. It is important to regard the structure of this passage; there are four main suggested speakers each describing a situation in some disarray, which leaves the reader in somewhat of a state of confusion. So, instead of the reader being able to clearly identify a character, they are left with this overwhelming sense of a crowd or a bunch of individuals without a face, providing more evidence for this theme of disillusionment and internal disorientation.

            In section two, “A Game of Chess”, there is a struggle between sex and love. There are at least seven different voices in this segment that is somewhat divided into two scenes, the first portraying a wealthier society and the second portraying an impoverished class. The first woman seems to be a lascivious misanthrope whose pathetic histrionics which are due to her loneliness are leading her down a path of demise. She is compared in detail to Philomena from Metamorphoses by Ovid, a character who is raped and then has her tongue cut out to remain silent; she then seeks revenge by murdering her abuser’s son and feeding the body to him. This relation suggests that Eliot’s character is unable to lucidly connect and disclose herself to the world. Though the woman is described to be beautiful and surrounded by splendor, those are merely materialistic things that have no substance or meaning. The woman, in turn, has no depth or value; she lives in a world of shallow nonsense. The second half switches to the story of a married couple in a bar, the husband having recently arrived back home from war. The wife, Lil, has aged and is physically “antique” looking, which she accredits to the abortion medication she has been taking. Sex has ultimately been reduced down to a job, a loveless exchange of meaningless nothing; it bears no happiness nor growth/rebirth (or children). In both cases, the women’s sexuality is predicated upon this sterile and desolate despair, and culture is merely reduced to common clichés. Eliot, remarkably, intertwines the structure with the stories to create a parallel. The first part of the section is mainly composed of descriptive imagery and unrhymed iambic pentameter lines; however, the meter becomes increasingly erratic as the lines progress which aligns with the neurotic behavior of the character whose beautifully materialistic life is now in disarray. The second part of the section, on the other hand, uses more of a brash and simplistic language to represent a lower class.

            “The Fire Sermon”, section three, is the longest passage in the poem. Many of the references come from Buddha’s “Fire Sermon” in which he preached that the detachment of worldly possessions is the only and ultimate process of achieving internal satisfaction and indemnification through spiritual fulfillment; conversely, Eliot also refers to St. Augustine. Despite the allusions being of contrasting doctrines, Western and Eastern, their general theme is analogous: the temptations and pitfalls of lust. And, to be licentious is to reject spiritual atonement and placidity. Sex is merely reduced to meaningless, physical contact that has somehow surpassed, in importance, an emotion bond, as exemplified by the typist’s sexual excursions. Interestingly, the woman in this section seems to experience rape suggested by the line, “he assaults at once,” but yet the encounter is somehow made tender by the wording “caresses” and “lover”. The scene is definitely more than a bit obscure maybe to imply, again, uncertainty and confusion in finding fulfillment in sexual exploitations as demonstrated by the modern world. The structure of this piece seems to contrast more so than the others; it rhymes at random and follows a musical flow, referencing and quoting numerous songs and ballads throughout.

            Relatively short in length, section four, “Death by Water” illustrates the death of a man, Phlebas, as prophesized from the clairvoyant, Madame Sosostris,Fear death by water,” in “The Burial of the Dead”. It is apparent that the theme of this passage is death, but more importantly, there are these underlying tones of nihilism. Despite the continuous exertions and tribulations life demands, there is no point; it is nothing but a vicious and tedious cycle. There is “profit and loss” and the passing of “the stages of his age and youth” is inevitable. The statement, “Entering the whirlpool/Gentile or Jew”, suggests that regardless of religion or the life he lived, Phlebas is dead and is nothing more than a decaying corpse at the bottom of the ocean. Then again, it can be inferred that Phlebas lived for worldly materialism instead of finding spiritual growth and substance which the lack thereof ultimately lead to his demise. In terms of form, it is a ten-line stanza that uses four pairs of rhyming couplets followed by the usage of alliterations.

            The final chapter of “The Waste Land”, “What the Thunder Said”, attempts to surround itself in this apocalyptic setting in which birth and regeneration has been destroyed and all that is left in this “sterile” and decaying society is death. Eliot consistently makes allusions throughout the section to the Bible and Christ along with Hindu fables. For instance, Eliot describes Christ’s crucifixion, and then goes on to state, “He who was living is now dead”, again to reinforce the idea that resurrection and revival is insurmountable and that cities like “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London” can never recover from the cultural and emotional carnage and bleakness brought on from war. This particular passage is constructed to be somewhat of a lyrical epic. Eliot manipulates and plays with varying structures including random rhymed couplets, categories, repetition, and alliterations; he also toys with and juxtaposes conflicting ideas of religion and philosophy.

          “The Waste Land” is truly remarkable in its composition with its numerous allusions and symbols and metaphors and alternating form. Context to the era in which Eliot inhabited at the time is beyond necessary in order understand the themes, motifs, and connotations of the poem. And, though each section does seem to have its own subject matter, collectively, they support the fundamental idea that the Western world is a devastated heap of apathetic, mindless and vain people obsessed with a momentary pleasure, usually satisfied with some kind of materialistic or sexual act, in which principled and traditional values have become dilapidated and completely unable to be liberated from this perverse wasteland mentality.

View hopelessly-candid's Full Portfolio
j-c4113d's picture

Excellent essay

I spent two of my four years at college in a deep, intense (and mostly undirected) study of T. S. Eliot.  I think he would applaud your final paragraph and your powers of poetic discernment.  Have you seen the Fascimile and Transcript of the original manuscript before Pound hacked it apart?  If you have not, I strongly recommend it.  I first read it in the summer of 1977, after my first readings of Eliot's poems in the prior nine months. 


hopelessly-candid's picture

Wow, thank you so much! I

Wow, thank you so much! I very much appreciate it! I have not read the original, but I definitely mean to. My teacher is always raving on about how much he adores the pre - Pound write. ^_^ I'm actually starting college this fall, and I am most excited about delving into Eliot's works. He is such a literary genius! Thank you again for your kind comments!

j-c4113d's picture

You are welcome

You will find that the original manuscript is really much more nightmarish than the version Eliot published after Pound went to work on it.  What Pound failed to see---in the same way that he failed to see so much that was not derived from his own opinions---was that the poem was intended to be an extended nightmare, because that's what Eliot's life was.  The notes Eliot composed for the end of the poem were, by his own admission, created to throw a false lead to curious readers.  He did not say what he was actually trying to point them away from, but I think, somewhere in his own mind, he knew Pound's edition was false, and so the false notes were appropriate.  My favorite section in the original describes a ship in the Arctic waters being driven relentless by a wind until it is smashed against an ice floe.  You hear the voices of the sailors---"Where's the cocktail shaker, here's plenty of cracked ice." and then, more chillingly, "My god, there's bears on it."  and then the final voice, drowning in the ice water, saying that all he knows is there is no more pain now.  Although it was back in 1977, my first experience of the original manuscript is still vivid in my memory to this day.  By that time, I knew the "official" version backwards and forwards.  The original showed me how much I really did not know.


allets's picture


Love to see you tackle Prufrock - Lady A
."impactful poems'" is awkward, a better way to say impactful is needed to be balanced with the clarity of language throughout. The body does not address impact on modern lit much, I know big topic. Some ref to impact (barring use of allusions and the "voices") would seem to follow. Or slight alteration of theme sentence (combined to 2nd sentence or discard 1st one altogether). Just bein' Lady A
I once read a portion of a paper tracing all the references in wasteland. Not a scholar of lit - but you rock.



hopelessly-candid's picture

yaaa I see you what mean....

yaaa I see you what mean.... I'll have to fix that... I always appreciate your comments... thank you, Lady A :)

allets's picture

I shall Now

go pull out t.s. - the collected works and sit it beside Wallace Stevens and Tom Clancy (who died, but has a new title out - YES, a Jack Ryan!) I grow old, I grow old...I shall wear midi-skirts woven with threads of gold. :D ~allets~