The first section of The Waste Land takes its title from a line in the Anglican burial service. It is made up of four vignettes, each seemingly from the perspective of a different speaker. The first is an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, in which she recalls sledding and claims that she is German, not Russian (this would be important if the woman is meant to be a member of the recently defeated Austrian imperial family). The woman mixes a meditation on the seasons with remarks on the barren state of her current existence (“I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”). The second section is a prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, where the speaker will show the reader “something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / [He] will show you fear in a handful of dust” (Evelyn Waugh took the title for one of his best-known novels from these lines). The almost threatening prophetic tone is mixed with childhood reminiscences about a “hyacinth girl” and a nihilistic epiphany the speaker has after an encounter with her. These recollections are filtered through quotations from Wagner’s operatic version of Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss. The third episode in this section describes an imaginative tarot reading, in which some of the cards Eliot includes in the reading are not part of an actual tarot deck. The final episode of the section is the most surreal. The speaker walks through a London populated by ghosts of the dead. He confronts a figure with whom he once fought in a battle that seems to conflate the clashes of World War I with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (both futile and excessively destructive wars). The speaker asks the ghostly figure, Stetson, about the fate of a corpse planted in his garden. The episode concludes with a famous line from the preface to Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (an important collection of Symbolist poetry), accusing the reader of sharing in the poet’s sins.
Like “Prufrock,” this section of The Waste Land can be seen as a modified dramatic monologue. The four speakers in this section are frantic in their need to speak, to find an audience, but they find themselves surrounded by dead people and thwarted by outside circumstances, like wars. Because the sections are so short and the situations so confusing, the effect is not one of an overwhelming impression of a single character; instead, the reader is left with the feeling of being trapped in a crowd, unable to find a familiar face.
Also like “Prufrock,” The Waste Land employs only partial rhyme schemes and short bursts of structure. These are meant to reference—but also rework— the literary past, achieving simultaneously a stabilizing and a defamiliarizing effect. The world of The Waste Land has some parallels to an earlier time, but it cannot be approached in the same way. The inclusion of fragments in languages other than English further complicates matters. The reader is not expected to be able to translate these immediately; rather, they are reminders of the cosmopolitan nature of twentieth-century Europe and of mankind’s fate after the Tower of Babel: We will never be able to perfectly comprehend one another.
Not only is The Waste Land Eliot’s greatest work, but it may be—along with Joyce’s Ulysses—the greatest work of all modernist literature. Most of the poem was written in 1921, and it first appeared in print in 1922. As the poem’s dedication indicates, Eliot received a great deal of guidance from Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to cut large sections of the planned work and to break up the rhyme scheme. Recent scholarship suggests that Eliot’s wife, Vivien, also had a significant role in the poem’s final form. A long work divided into five sections, The Waste Land takes on the degraded mess that Eliot considered modern culture to constitute, particularly after the first World War had ravaged Europe. A sign of the pessimism with which Eliot approaches his subject is the poem’s epigraph, taken from the Satyricon, in which the Sibyl (a woman with prophetic powers who ages but never dies) looks at the future and proclaims that she only wants to die. 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. Thus, the underlying plot of The Waste Land, inasmuch as it can be said to have one, revolves around Eliot’s reading of two extraordinarily influential contemporary cultural/anthropological texts, Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough. Both of these works focus on the persistence of ancient fertility rituals in modern thought and religion; of particular interest to both authors is the story of the Fisher King, who has been wounded in the genitals and whose lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a desiccated “waste land.” Heal the Fisher King, the legend says, and the land will regain its fertility. According to Weston and Frazier, healing the Fisher King has been the subject of mythic tales from ancient Egypt to Arthurian England. Eliot picks up on the figure of the Fisher King legend’s wasteland as an appropriate description of the state of modern society. The important difference, of course, is that in Eliot’s world there is no way to heal the Fisher King; perhaps there is no Fisher King at all. The legend’s imperfect integration into a modern meditation highlights the lack of a unifying narrative (like religion or mythology) in the modern world.
Eliot’s poem, like the anthropological texts that inspired it, draws on a vast range of sources. Eliot provided copious footnotes with the publication of The Waste Land in book form; these are an excellent source for tracking down the origins of a reference. Many of the references are from the Bible: at the time of the poem’s writing Eliot was just beginning to develop an interest in Christianity that would reach its apex in the Four Quartets. The overall range of allusions in The Waste Land, though, suggests no overarching paradigm but rather a grab bag of broken fragments that must somehow be pieced together to form a coherent whole. While Eliot employs a deliberately difficult style and seems often to find the most obscure reference possible, he means to do more than just frustrate his reader and display his own intelligence: He intends to provide a mimetic account of life in the confusing world of the twentieth century.
The Waste Land opens with a reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In this case, though, April is not the happy month of pilgrimages and storytelling. It is instead the time when the land should be regenerating after a long winter. Regeneration, though, is painful, for it brings back reminders of a more fertile and happier past. In the modern world, winter, the time of forgetfulness and numbness, is indeed preferable. Marie’s childhood recollections are also painful: the simple world of cousins, sledding, and coffee in the park has been replaced by a complex set of emotional and political consequences resulting from the war. The topic of memory, particularly when it involves remembering the dead, is of critical importance in The Waste Land. Memory creates a confrontation of the past with the present, a juxtaposition that points out just how badly things have decayed. Marie reads for most of the night: ostracized by politics, she is unable to do much else. To read is also to remember a better past, which could produce a coherent literary culture.