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Encyclopedia > The Wasteland

The Waste Land is a 433-line poem by T. S. Eliot. It was published in 1922.

Eliot, along with James Joyce and Ezra Pound, was one of the figureheads of early modernist writing. The Waste Land is one of the most famous and most written about poems of the 20th century, dealing with the decline of civilization and the impossibility of recovering meaning in life.

The sections of The Waste Land are:

  1. The Burial of the Dead
  2. A Game of Chess
  3. The Fire Sermon
  4. Death by Water
  5. What the Thunder Said

Critic Harold Bloom has observed that "The major paradigm for The Waste Land is Walt Whitman's majestic elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," though most of Eliot's critics fail to see this." The major images of Eliot's poem are found in Whitman's Ode: the lilacs that begin Eliot's poem, the "unreal city," the duplication of the self, the "dear brother," the "murmur of maternal lamentation," the image of faces peering at us, and the hermit thrush's song.

The poem's reception was originally mixed; though many hailed the poem for its portrayal of universal despair and ingenious technique, others, including F.L. Lucas, detested the poem from its first publication in the October issue of the poetry magazine Criterion.

When Eliot first wrote the poem, he called it He Do [sic] the Police in Different Voices. Early manuscripts of the poem were uncovered in 1968 and reveal that it originally contained almost twice as much material as the final published version. This is in part due to the fact that Eliot allowed his friend and contemporary Ezra Pound to edit the poem, although Eliot himself is responsible for striking large sections of the poem.

For example, there was a lengthy imitation of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of the Fire Sermon section. It described one lady Fresca (who appeared in the earlier poem "Gerontion"). As Richard Ellmann describes it, "Instead of making her toilet like Pope's Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce's Bloom. The lines read:

Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool, :Fresca slips softly to the needful stool, :Where the pathetic tale of Richardson :Eases her labour till the deed is done . . ."

Ellman notes "Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defecation, there was no point in another round."

Pound also excised some shorter poems that Eliot wanted to insert between the five sections, such as this one:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves' Disease in a dead jew's eyes!
Where the crabs have eat the lids . . .
That is lace that was his nose
Roll him gently side to side,
See the lips unfold unfold
From the teeth, gold in gold....

At the insistence of Eliot's wife some lines were removed from the poem: "And we shall play a game of chess;/ The ivory men make company between us/ Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door". The Game of Chess section is apparently based on their marital life, and she felt these lines too revealing. Eliot restored the lines in 1960, after his wife's death.

Sources from which Eliot quotes or to which he alludes include the works of Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Gérard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Oliver Goldsmith, Hermann Hesse, Paul Verlaine and Aldous Huxley. He also makes extensive use of Scriptural writings including the Bible, the Hindu Brihad-Aranyaka-Upanishad, and the Buddha's Fire Sermon, and of cultural and anthropological studies such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance.

The dedication reads "For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro" (the better craftsman). Pound wrote a bawdy poem in a letter to Eliot to celebrate the "birth" of the poem:

E. P. hopeless and unhelped
Enthroned in the marmorean skies
His verse omits realities,
Angelic hands with mother of pearl
Retouch the strapping servant girl,


Balls and balls and balls again
Can not touch his fellow men.
His foaming and abundant cream
Has coated his world. The coat of a dream;
Or say that the upjut of sperm
Has rendered his sense pachyderm.

The poem is preceded by an epigraph from the Satyricon of Petronius. In English it reads: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her cage, and when the boys said, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die." (Petronius cast the question and answer in Greek).

The text of the poem is followed by several pages of notes associated with individual lines or sections of the text, purporting to explain his metaphors, references, and allusions. Some of these notes are helpful in interpreting the poem, but some are arguably even more puzzling, and many of the most opaque passages are left unremarked-on. It is known that the notes were added after Eliot's publisher requested something longer to justify printing 'The Waste Land' in a separate book; and so many scholars think the notes are peppered with red herrings.

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