The Waste Land

by Pericles Lewis

“Eliot’s Waste Land is I think the justification of the ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment, since 1900,” wrote Ezra Pound shortly after the poem was published in 1922. T.S. Eliot’s poem describes a mood of deep disillusionment stemming both from the collective experience of the first world war and from Eliot’s personal travails. Born in St. Louis, Eliot had studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford before moving to London, where he completed his doctoral dissertation on the philosopher F. H. Bradley. Because of the war, he was unable to return to the United States to receive his degree. He taught grammar school briefly and then took a job at Lloyds Bank, where he worked for eight years. Unhappily married, he suffered writer’s block and then a breakdown soon after the war and wrote most of The Waste Land while recovering in a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the age of 33. Eliot later described the poem as “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” Yet the poem seemed to his contemporaries to transcend Eliot’s personal situation and represent a general crisis in western culture. One of its major themes is the barrenness of a post-war world in which human sexuality has been perverted from its normal course and the natural world too has become infertile. Eliot went on to convert to a High Church form of Anglicanism, become a naturalized British subject, and turn to conservative politics. In 1922, however, his anxieties about the modern world were still overwhelming.

The Waste Land was quickly recognized as a major statement of modernist poetics, both for its broad symbolic significance and for Eliot’s masterful use of formal techniques that earlier modernists had only begun to attempt. The critic I. A. Richards influentially praised Eliot for describing the shared post-war “sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavour, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed.” Eliot later complained that “approving critics” like Richards “said that I had expressed ‘the disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.” Nonetheless, it was as a representative of a postwar generation that Eliot became famous. To compare Eliot’s comments on the poem with the way it was received illustrates strikingly the fact that, as William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley put it, “The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public.” The Waste Land made use of allusion, quotation (in several languages), a variety of verse forms, and a collage of poetic fragments to create the sense of speaking for an entire culture in crisis; it was quickly accepted as the essential statement of that crisis and the epitome of a modernist poem.

Eliot’s age itself was symbolic of an entry into mid-life. It was at 33, “in the middle of our life’s way,” that Dante had the vision of heaven and hell recorded in his Divine Comedy. It was at the same age that Christ was crucified. His death and resurrection form a major symbolic framework for The Waste Land. Although its first lines suggest an aversion to “mixing / Memory with desire” and to “stirring / Dull roots with spring rain,” the poem’s success results largely from Eliot’s ability to mix modes and tones. The originality of The Waste Land, and its importance for most poetry in English since 1922, lies in Eliot’s ability to meld a deep awareness of literary tradition with the experimentalism of free verse, to fuse private and public meanings, and to combine moments of lyric intensity into a poem of epic scope.


Like many modernists, Eliot was highly self-conscious about his relationship to literary tradition. In a well-known essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot described how the modern poet, when truly original, enters into a dialogue with tradition. He claimed that a great poem makes it necessary to understand all earlier poetry of the same tradition in a new light.

A brief survey of the allusions in the first section of The Waste Land shows some of Eliot’s techniques for incorporating fragments of tradition into his own work. Aided by Eliot’s own notes and comments, scholars have identified allusions in this first section of 76 lines to: the Book of Common Prayer, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rupert Brooke, Walt Whitman, Théophile Gautier, Charles-Louis Philippe, James Thomson, Guillaume Apollinaire, Countess Marie Larisch, Wyndham Lewis, nine books of the Bible, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Richard Wagner, Sappho, Catullus, Lord Byron, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Frazer, Jessie L. Weston, W. B. Yeats, Shakespeare, Walter Pater, Charles Baudelaire, Dante, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and John Webster—about one allusion every two lines. These allusions are in fact heavily weighted towards the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Eliot’s immediate precursors, but they include several ancient, medieval, and Renaissance sources, thus establishing a retrospective tradition that seems to run, say, from Sappho down to Pound, Eliot’s friend and mentor, who himself drastically edited the manuscript of The Waste Land and arranged for its publication in The Dial. Eliot’s technique of allusion serves various functions: to give symbolic weight to the poem’s contemporary material, to encourage a sort of free association in the mind of the reader, and to establish a tone of pastiche, seeming to collect all the bric-a-brac of an exhausted civilization into one giant, foul rag and bone shop.

The first lines of the poem position it as a monument in a specifically English tradition by alluding to Geoffrey Chaucer, the first major poet of the English language, whom Dryden called “the Father of English Poetry.” Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins with a description of April’s “sweet showers,” which cause the flowers of spring to grow. The natural cycle of death and rebirth traditionally associated with the month of April appears tragic to Eliot’s speaker:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

For Eliot’s speaker, April’s showers are cruel, not sweet. The “us” in line 5—“Winter kept us warm”—seems to link the poet himself to the earth that is covered with snow. These opening lines, then, pose the question of the poet’s originality in relation to a tradition that seems barely capable of nourishing the “dull roots” of the modern poet’s sensibility. The poet lives in a modern waste land, in the aftermath of a great war, in an industrialized society that lacks traditional structures of authority and belief, in soil that may not be conducive to new growth. Even if he could become inspired, however, the poet would have no original materials to work with. His imagination consists only of “a heap of broken images,” in the words of line 22, the images he inherits from literary ancestors going back to the Bible. The modernist comes to write poetry after a great tradition of poetry has been all but tapped out. Despite this bleakness, however, the poem does present a rebirth of sorts, and the rebirth, while signifying the recovery of European society after the war, also symbolizes the renewal of poetic tradition in modernism, accomplished in part by the mixing of high and low culture and the improvisational quality of the poem as a whole.

The poet’s struggle to make a new poem out of the inherited language of tradition seems to be mirrored in the unevenness of the poem’s language and form. The opening lines vary between five and nine syllables each. Five of the seven lines end with a single verb in participial form, following a comma (which marks a caesura, or pause, in the poem’s rhythm). These lines seem uneven—as if the poet had started to write iambic pentameter but not completed the lines or as if he had intended to write shorter lines with three or four beats each but felt compelled to add the words that appear after the commas. Each of the participles introduces an enjambment—in which a unit of meaning carries beyond a line-ending into the next line. The poem makes sparing use of end-rhyme, which is associated with completion and closure. Yet the participial verb forms that end five of the first seven lines perform something like the function of rhyme, linking together the various underground motions of winter and spring: breeding, mixing, stirring, covering, feeding: indeed, “breeding” and “feeding” do rhyme. Eliot also makes use of alliteration—the repetition of consonants—in phrases such as “lilacs out of the dead land,” “mixing / Memory,” “Winter kept us warm,” and “a little life.” Alliteration is an older poetic technique than rhyme and typical of Old English poetry, which, like these lines, was heavily accented. Eliot adopted these Old English poetic techniques from Pound, who had translated the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer” into alliterative modern English. They suggest that Eliot is drawing on resources even older than Chaucer’s Middle English. Even as he describes the decay of modern civilization, he seeks power in the primitive resources of the English language. The caesuras and enjambment give the verse a ritual air, as if we were witnessing a “rite of spring,” such as Stravinsky celebrated before the war. The title of this first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” from the funeral service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, reinforces this ritual quality. The participial phrases emphasize the continual activity that underlies the winter’s “forgetful snow” and the spring’s “dead land”: life is breeding and stirring; dry roots are soaking up water; the emotions of the past and the future, memory and desire, are mixing in the rebirth of spring. Something is germinating.

For Eliot’s speaker, this rebirth is cruel, because any birth reminds him of death. The soil out of which the spring plants grow is composed of the decayed leaves of earlier plants. April is the month of Easter, and Eliot is invoking here both the Christian story of the young god who dies in order to give new life to the rest of us and the many other versions of this myth chronicled by Sir James Frazer in his anthropological work The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston in her From Ritual to Romance. Frazer and Weston explored the links among the mythology of the ancient near east, the Christ story, fertility rites, folk customs like May Day, and degenerate modern forms of magic such as the Tarot deck. What made Frazer’s and Weston’s discoveries shocking to some of their first readers was the evidence that many Christian myths and rituals had their origins in ancient, pagan forms of magic. Eliot was particularly interested in the myth of the Fisher King, most famously embodied in the Arthurian story of the quest for the holy grail. The Fisher King is impotent, his lands infertile and drought-stricken; one cause of this infertility is a crime, the rape of some maidens in the King’s court. Only the arrival of a pure-hearted stranger (Perceval, Gawain, or Galahad in different versions of the Arthurian tales) permits the land to become fertile again. Weston emphasized the sexual symbolism of the story, notably the grail (a cup said to have been used at the last supper) and the lance (said to have pierced Christ’s side), which can be interpreted as symbols of the female and male genitalia. This suggests ancient practices of imitative magic, including ritual marriages intended to encourage the plants to grow; Frazer thought that the tradition of the May Queen and King derived from such rites. Much of the symbolism of The Waste Land suggests these ancient fertility rites, but always gone awry, particularly in such modern instances as the fortune-teller Madame Sosostris, whom Eliot drew from Crome Yellow (1921), a satirical novel by the young Aldous Huxley.

Many myths attribute the death of winter and the rebirth of spring to the death and rebirth of a god with human attributes, who in some ancient practices is a man ritually murdered and in others an effigy buried or thrown into the sea to guarantee fertility or to bring rain. In The Waste Land, however, the god himself is conspicuously absent, except in debased forms like the (missing) Hanged Man in the Tarot pack or the drowned Phoenician Sailor, who returns as “Phlebas the Phoenician” in the fourth section, “Death by Water.” Other, more modern versions of the Christ story find a place in the poem. The Waste Land echoes Whitman’s “When Lilacs last in the Door-Yard Bloomed” (1865), in which Whitman makes use of a similar mythology to commemorate Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated at the end of the American civil war on Good Friday, 1865. Eliot probably also had Rupert Brooke’s poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” (1912), in mind; it begins, “Just now the lilac is in bloom.” Brooke himself combined the roles of poet and martyr when he was transformed into a mythical figure of the English "poet-soldier" after his death. In the more immediate past, W. B. Yeats had recently published “Easter, 1916,” celebrating the martyrs of the Easter rebellion. Chaucer drew on this same mythological structure in the Canterbury Tales: his pilgrims are headed to Canterbury, “the holy, blissful martyr for to seek, / He who hath helped them when they were sick.” Eliot would later write a play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), about the death of Thomas à Becket, Chaucer’s “holy, blissful martyr.” Spring, the season of rebirth, is also a season for celebrating martyrs, and Eliot’s speaker seems to align himself with such martyrs as Christ, Becket, Lincoln, Brooke, and the war dead.

The poem ultimately does promise a new beginning, but Eliot’s speaker appears, perversely, to prefer winter to spring, and thus to deny the joy and beauty associated with rebirth. He emphasizes the role of death and decay in the process of growth, most memorably in the conversation between two veterans who meet near London bridge after the war: “‘Stetson! / ‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! / ‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / ‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? / ‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’” The war is the essential background to the poem, but instead of referring to it directly, Eliot alludes to the battle of Mylae in the Punic Wars of the third century B.C.E., suggesting that all wars are in reality one war. The fact that the first world war was fought not primarily on ships but in trenches is expressed only indirectly through the idea of the sprouting corpse, which seems a grotesque parody of Brooke’s image of the foreign burial plot (in "The Soldier") as “forever England." Similarly, the poem’s “rats’ alley” owes something to the rats that appear in poetry about trench warfare by such soldier-poets as Siegfried Sassoon. Later, Eliot casually introduces the minor character Albert, Lil’s husband, a demobilized soldier. History enters the poem not as a subject for direct treatment but through snatches of overheard dialogue.

In the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot adapts some of the crucial imagery of the poem—the rocky, deserted land, the absence of life-giving water, the dead or dying vegetation—from the Biblical books of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes. Other quotations or translations come from writers of near-sacred status: Shakespeare (“Those are pearls that were his eyes,” line 48) and Dante (“I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled,” lines 63-4). Eliot helpfully, if somewhat pedantically, included a set of notes on the poem that allowed even his early readers to identify the sources of these allusions, although he later ridiculed his own notes as “a remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship.” The notes themselves are an indication of what is new about the poem. Previous poets would have assumed that their readers shared a common culture with themselves and would probably have alluded only to materials from that common culture. Eliot inherits from the symbolists a concern with private, esoteric meanings, but he adds a structure of notes in order to make some of those meanings accessible to his readers. The Bible, Shakespeare, and Dante obviously provide historical and aesthetic ballast for Eliot’s apparently chaotic modern poem, but other types of allusion seem more bizarre. Many of the quotations appear in foreign languages, such as the lines from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (1857-59), a legendary story of adultery which helps Eliot to establish the theme of frustrated or misdirected sexuality. While occasionally quoting his favorite modern French poets, including Baudelaire, he also includes passages of everyday conversation, such as the snippets in lines 8 to 16 from the reminiscences of Countess Marie Larisch, the niece of the former Empress of Austria and a fashionable contemporary of Eliot.

Eliot’s use of allusion and quotation seems in part a response to the dilemma of coming at the end of a great tradition. The poet seeks to address modern problems—the war, industrialization, abortion, urban life—and at the same time to participate in a literary tradition. His own imagination resembles the decaying land that is the subject of the poem: nothing seems to take root among the stony rubbish left behind by old poems and scraps of popular culture. The method of assembling “fragments” or “broken images” from the past into a sort of mosaic allows him at once to suggest parallels between contemporary problems and earlier historical situations and to disorient the reader, turning the reading process into a model of modern, urban confusion. It parallels the cubist use of collage, calling attention to the linguistic texture of the poem itself and to the materials—literary and popular—out of which it is constructed. Eliot’s allusive method is a distinctive feature of his poetry, but he developed it in part on the model of some of Pound’s earlier poems, and Pound’s editing of The Waste Land greatly increased its fragmentation. An even more important influence was Joyce. Eliot read the early episodes of Ulyssesthat appeared in the Little Review; as assistant editor at The Egoist, he read the original drafts of five episodes that were published there in 1919. He also read other parts of the novel in manuscript and corresponded with Joyce about it. He later confessed to having felt that Joyce’s Ulysses did “superbly” what Eliot himself was “tentatively attempting to do, with the usual false starts and despairs.” Allusion would become a favorite modernist technique for reconciling formal experiment with an awareness of literary tradition.


Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land was “He do the Police in Different Voices.” The line, another quotation, comes from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and describes the foundling Sloppy’s skills as a reader of the newspaper—imitating the voices of the police in the crime reports. The Waste Land is composed of many voices, not always distinguishable from one another. The second section, “A Game of Chess,” contains a medley of voices. The opening passage draws on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to describe a richly furnished room, in which a depiction of Ovid’s story of the rape of Philomela and her transformation into a nightingale is displayed above the mantel. The “inviolable voice” of the painted or sculpted nightingale also enters the poem inarticulately through a conventional representation of birdsong from Renaissance poetry: “Jug jug” (103). The following passage relates a conversation between a neurotic woman and a laconic man. The woman’s remarks appear in quotation marks: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.” These comments alternate with lines, not in quotation marks, that may be spoken or thought by her male companion: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.” The ominous tone of these replies suggests, however, that the words may issue from some supernatural source. A moment of ragtime music breaks in before the neurotic woman threatens to rush out into the street. (Eliot’s friends thought that the woman in this passage was very closely based on his first wife, who was later institutionalized). The section ends with an overheard monologue, this one drawn from a story told by the Eliots’ maid concerning Albert, the demobilized soldier, and Lil, his wife, who has bad teeth and has taken some pills to induce an abortion. The maid relates her own conversation with Lil. Another ominous voice (or the same one?) interrupts the monologue, announcing with increasing frequency “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,” the standard warning that closing time is approaching in a pub. Here, the words have a sinister quality, suggesting that “time” means death, or apocalypse. The final words of the section recall Ophelia’s last scene before her suicide in Hamlet. The section makes use of at least seven voices: the initial narrator, the nightingale, the neurotic woman, her companion, the gramophone, the maid, and the barkeeper.

Among the mix of voices are those of popular culture. The influential critic Clive Bell, brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf, described Eliot’s poetry as largely “a product of the Jazz movement,” and saw The Waste Land as part of a “ragtime literature which flouts traditional rhythms and sequences and grammar and logic.” Eliot riffs on a ragtime song (“The Shakespearean Rag”): “O o o o that Shakespeherian rag, / It’s so elegant, so intelligent.” The critic Michael North has shown that many of Eliot’s first reviewers associated his modernism with the Jazz Age. The poem’s syncopated rhythms might seem, to a conservative critic, to bring all of literary tradition down to the level of jazz, but they can just as plausibly be seen as including popular culture in a new canon that erases the boundaries between high and low.

The use of so many voices in this kind of collage allows the poet to distance himself from any single statement. As the critic Louis Menand has put it, “nothing in [the poem] can be said to point to the poet, since none of its stylistic features is continuous, and it has no phrases or images that cannot be suspected of—where they are not in fact identified as—belonging to someone else….. Eliot appears nowhere, but his fingerprints are on everything.” Menand’s comment recalls Flaubert’s idea of the godlike author who is “present everywhere and visible nowhere,” and the demand of the prosecuting attorney in the Madame Bovary trial: “Would you condemn her in the name of the author’s conscience? I do not know what the author’s conscience thinks." Indeed, some of Eliot’s most important influences were the post-Flaubertian novelists Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce. Is the poet himself speaking the lines describing the room, or is this merely a pastiche of Renaissance drama? Who is issuing the warnings about closing time? Although The Waste Land is, by Eliot’s own admission, a highly personal document, it also aspires to a certain kind of impersonality.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot wrote of the mind of the poet as a catalyst:

When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

This doctrine of impersonality was closely linked to Eliot’s claim that his poetry was “classical” and not “romantic,” by which he meant in part that it was more concerned with form and balance than with the expression of emotion. Impersonality did not mean his poetry avoided emotion. However, the emotions are assumed in something like the way an actor takes on a role—Eliot, in The Waste Land, “does” a variety of different characters in different voices. Paradoxically, by trying several personae on, and not identifying himself with any one persona, Eliot manages to achieve a kind of impersonality. Like Pound, Eliot drew for his conception of impersonality on Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, in which he took on the roles of such figures as the Duke who casually tells the story of how he put a stop to his first wife’s suspected adultery (“My Last Duchess,” 1842) or the Renaissance professor who devotes his whole life to the smallest aspects of Greek grammar (“A Grammarian’s Funeral,” 1855).

In a note to the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot wrote:

Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.

Eliot thus suggests that all the many voices in the poem may be aspects of two voices, those of one man and one woman, or indeed of a single voice, that of Tiresias, the man who was changed into a woman and back into a man, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who foresaw the destruction of Thebes, according to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, and who was visited by Odysseus in the underworld in book eleven of the Odyssey. The background suggests one undercurrent of the dialogue between men and women in The Waste Land. The title “A Game of Chess,” drawn from a Renaissance play about a seduction, and the chess imagery of this section, point to an understanding of marriage and sexuality debased into a game of strategy in which men and women battle over sex. Instead of a life-giving act of love, sex occurs in the poem as seduction or rape, leading to abortion. Eliot’s note also suggests that the entire poem can be understood as a vision of a possible destruction, and near the end of the poem such a catastrophe seems to be envisioned in the words of the nursery rhyme, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down.” From the point of view of impersonality, the central role of Tiresias suggests that the various voices of the poem can be understood as a sort of chorus, with each part being spoken by representatives of one sex or the other. The distance from such earlier poems as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) or even from Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is apparent; the lyric “I” and the concentration on a single speaker’s or character’s experience has given way to a sort of dream vision, in which many voices speak at once. The resulting cacophony suggests the impossibility of a truly unified understanding of the poem, even if Eliot hoped that all the voices could be subsumed in that of Tiresias.

Words at Liberty

The Waste Land could not have been written without the assault on the English poetic tradition undertaken by Ezra Pound and the imagists. The most obvious way in which The Waste Land differs from most of the poetry of the nineteenth century, and from more recent poets like Kipling or even Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, is in its play with and partial rejection of traditional meter, rhyme, and stanza form. Parts of the poem are written in free verse. Eliot himself did not much like free verse in general and even insisted that it did not exist. Using the French term for free verse (vers libre), Eliot wrote that “no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” In particular, although he was happy to do away with standard rhyme schemes, Eliot claimed in an essay of 1917 that all verse (perhaps all language) made use of some kind of meter; what was distinctive about his work was the complexity of his use of meter: “the most interesting verse…has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.” In this regard, Eliot’s rhetoric clashed with that of Pound, but both men claimed to be experimenting with very difficult techniques for recording the rhythms of actual speech. Indeed, their views had converged in the years immediately preceding The Waste Land, with Pound experimenting more with traditional meters and Eliot using some aspects of free verse. Eliot’s divergences from traditional meters, then, were meant to achieve particular poetic effects rather than simply to shock.
At first glance, The Waste Land may appear to follow no set metrical pattern. Yet, just as the opening lines of the poem subtly introduce a form of rhyme, Eliot frequently draws on regular meters. Eliot makes use of many fragmentary lines like those of the nightingale’s song in the “Fire Sermon” section:

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d

Here, the first two lines seem to be made up entirely of stressed syllables, although they tend to fall into groups of three. The third and fourth lines, however, are composed of iambs. The iamb is the dominant “foot,” or metrical unit, of English poetry, consisting of two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed.

Often, as Theodore Roethke observes, “free verse is a denial in terms...[because] invariably, there is the ghost of some other form, often blank verse, behind what is written.” Blank verse is the English name for iambic pentameter (lines of five iambs) without rhymes, the verse form of Shakespeare’s plays and of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Wordsworth’s Prelude. Many verses of The Waste Land are composed in iambic pentameter, and others closely resemble that meter. Eliot’s frequent adaptation of lines from other poets, such as Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Webster, and Andrew Marvell, often reinforces this tendency to revert to the standard meter of English long poems, for example in the opening lines of the second section, “A Game of Chess.” Indeed Pound criticized these passages as “too penty,” that is, too close to iambic pentameter, or as Pound also put it, “too tum-pum at a stretch.” In addition to the many lines clearly written in blank verse, Eliot uses various rhyme schemes, often to comic effect. For example, in “The Fire Sermon,” one of the unwholesome couplings is introduced by a rhyming couplet: “The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.” In another part of “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot relates the unsatisfactory tryst between the typist and the young man carbuncular from the perspective of Tiresias, who, according to one version of the myth, was blinded by the goddess Juno for his claim that women enjoyed sex more than men. In the encounter related in the poem, neither participant seems to experience much pleasure. Eliot uses quatrains (rhyming units of four lines) to describe the tryst. Eliot’s slightly forced rhymes call attention to the coercive nature of the sexual encounter between the “young man carbuncular” and the typist. When he has left,

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 double or feminine rhymes (rhyming the last two syllables of each line) have a darkly comic effect. The traditional meter and rhyme in such passages sets them off from the free verse of the rest of the poem, but often Eliot seems to be using the meter to call attention to a disjuncture between his low subject matter and the formal style with which he describes it. In fact, often the formality of the language is inversely related to the seriousness of the material Eliot is describing. Frequently, the lower-class material in the poem is treated satirically, in contrast with the work of Joyce, who showed a great fondness for the lower middle-class milieu of Ulysses.

Eliot also makes use of a number of the patterns and systems for making meaning available to free verse, some of which have been summarized by the critic Paul Fussell. They include the use of enumeration or cataloguing. Lists are one of the most ancient poetic forms, visible in the catalogues of ships in Homer’s Iliad or in the “begats” of the Bible. A brief list appears at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon”: “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed” (177-179). In this case, Eliot begins in iambic hexameter (six feet), but allows the meter to break down in the third quoted line. Eliot also makes use of another typical device of free verse, the repetition of phrases or syntactical forms, like the refrain “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” in the passage about Albert and Lil.

Another method of structuring free verse, seldom used by Eliot, is to write very long lines, each of which contains a full syntactic unit, as Whitman often does, thus creating the effect of a formal speech and sometimes even a Biblical tone. Conversely, writers of free verse may run a series of very short lines together, dividing a syntactical unit into as many as four or eight lines, as in William Carlos Williams’s “This is just to say” (1934) :

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Eliot sometimes combines the techniques of Whitman and Williams, by writing a long line that introduces a set of variations on a theme; the line then re-appears but broken up by enjambment as if the speaker were mulling over his thought, unable to phrase it adequately. Thus the line, “If there were only water amongst the rock,” forms the basis for the fugal sequence:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

The Waste Land
thus makes use of a wide range of metrical patterns and rhyme schemes, as well as techniques for structuring free verse. Although the effect appeared chaotic to some of Eliot’s first readers, the poem fulfills Pound’s dictum that “Rhythm must have meaning” (1915). Later poetic practice was largely shaped by Pound’s advocacy of free verse and Eliot’s example. 


The Waste Land is also characteristic of modernist poetry in that it contains both lyric and epic elements. Modernism continued the tendency, begun in romanticism, to prize lyric highly, but many modernist poets also sought to write in the traditionally highest form, epic. Eliot defined the lyric as “the voice of the poet talking to himself, or to nobody,” and if we accept his description of The Waste Land as a “piece of rhythmical grumbling,” it may seem to belong to the lyric tradition. Yet its broader ambitions are obvious. "Eliot came back from his Lausanne specialist looking OK; and with a damn good poem (19 pages) in his suitcase,” wrote Pound after reading the manuscript of the poem. “About enough, Eliot’s poem, to make the rest of us shut up shop.” Pound defined an epic as a “poem including history.” Although much shorter than Homer’s Iliador Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Waste Land does contain history—both contemporary history and the history of the world understood in mythological terms. One of the factors that helped to create “high modernism” was the attempt of poets, after the war, to extend the techniques of the pre-war avant-gardes to address broad, historical questions, the sorts of questions normally addressed by epic. They remained suspicious, however, of attempts to tell the history of the world from a single, unified perspective—the “Arms and the man I sing” of the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which both the poet (“I”) and his hero (“the man”) are singular. Instead, their epics tended to treat historical experience as fragmentary, and often it is difficult to say whether their long poems are epics or merely collections of lyrics. Instead of granting perspective on history, they struggle to contain it in their irregular forms. In the first draft of his own fragmentary epic, The Cantos, in 1917, Pound had written that “the modern world / Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thoughts in.” The modernist epic would have to be a rag-bag.

Perhaps the most famous of modernist rag-bags is the concluding section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said.” Eliot wrote this section in a flash of inspiration and published it virtually unedited. Eliot invokes three ancient Sanskrit words from the Upanishads, ancient Hindu scriptures: Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata, each announced by the single syllable “DA,” representing a clap of thunder. The return of the waters suggests the possibility of a different type of sexual relation from those seen in the poem so far: “The sea was calm, your heart would have responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.” However, the flood and the purifying fire arrive, and the last lines of the poem seem to announce destruction, in many languages, as partial quotations pile up and the speaker (perhaps at last representing the poet himself), announces: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” After the destruction, the poem ends on a note of peace, with the words “Shantih Shantih Shantih,” which, as Eliot informs us, mark “the formal ending to an Upanishad.”

Eliot’s intentions in making a miniature epic out of the various lyrical moments and borrowed fragments that make up The Waste Land can best be understood in terms of his own analysis of Joyce’s Ulysses, which served as perhaps the most important model for the poem. Eliot wrote that the parallels Joyce draws between his own characters and those of Homer’s Odyssey constitute a “mythical method,” which had “the importance of a scientific discovery.” He went so far as to compare Joyce to Einstein. The mythical method, according to Eliot, “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Many of Joyce’s readers have felt that Joyce himself did not necessarily aim for control and order, but most are in agreement that Eliot’s essay describes well the intention of The Waste Land, in which the many parallels that have been briefly discussed here help to convert chaos into a kind of order.

Like other modernist models of history—Yeats’s gyres, Pound’s vortex, Joyce’s Vichian cycles—Eliot emphasize the current moment as one of crisis, either preparing for or recovering from a radical break in history. This radical break certainly has something to do with the first world war, but it is also an aspect of the modernists’ eschatological view of the world, that is their fascination with the problem of destiny and the last judgment. It is for this reason that Kurtz’s famous last words (“The horror! The horror!”) in Heart of Darkness ring through so much of later modernism. Eliot originally intended to use them as the epigraph for The Waste Land. As Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, says, “he had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate.” The capacity to judge a civilization that teeters on the edge of chaos was highly prized by Eliot, as it was by Pound, Whose Cantos shares some of the features of The Waste Land, and by the other modernists who attempted their own epics.[1]

  1. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 129-151.