The Waste Land Summary

T. S. Eliot

The Waste Land

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The Waste Land Summary

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Widely considered to be one of the most significant poems of the twentieth century, The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot explores themes of death, rebirth, and history as a cycle through a fragmented dramatic monologue comprised of five sections.

The first section, “The Burial of the Dead,”is made up of four short passages. Against the conventions of the dramatic monologue, each is delivered by a different narrator. The first passage is delivered by a highborn woman. She describes her life, painting a bleak picture of monotony and repetition, structured by discussion of the seasons, in which even spring is made sinister and where, famously, “April is the cruelest month.”The second passage describes a more literal waste land of “stony rubbish,” and “broken images” in which the narrator cannot find any sign of life or hope of relief. This bleak land is juxtaposed with memories from childhood about a “hyacinth girl” and with extracts of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The third passage describes a clairvoyant reading from a deck of cards that largely contains invented, non-tarot cards. The narrator of the forth passage describes moving through a London that has become an “unreal city” populated by ghosts. Among them, the narrator recognizes someone he knew from the devastating Battle of Mylae during the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage (used here to echo the devastation of the First World War). The narrator asks him if the corpse he planted in his garden has begun to sprout and bloom, but no response is given.

The second section, “A Game of Chess,” begins with a description of another highborn woman, seated on a throne-like chair in a lavish room. Among the furnishings is a tapestry showing a scene from a Greek myth in which Philomela is raped by King Tereus. The passage describes this briefly before returning to the seated woman.A brief exchange follows, possibly between the woman and the narrator, in which the woman complains of bad nerves and panics about sounds, ceaselessly asking the narrator anxious questions. In contrast to the woman’s decadent room, the second part of the section takes place in a London bar, with a repeated refrain from the landlord telling customers to hurry up because the bar is about to close. In it, a working-class Londoner explains how she told her friend to make an effort with her appearance now that her husband has returned from the war. The woman blamed her appearance on the pills she took to bring about an abortion that she had to get because her husband insists on sex, but she does not want another child. The section ends with the narrator wishing people good night which then becomes Ophelia’s final “good night” lines from Hamlet.

The third section, “The Fire Sermon,” begins beside a river and is laden with images of lifelessness and decay. There are allusions to the litter of modern life and a rat drags itself along the riverbank. The narrator fishes in the river while thinking of “the king my brother” and “the king my father,” alluding to the Holy Grail myth of the Fisher King, an allusion that crops up throughout the poem. There are more descriptions of a waste land, this time filled with naked dead bodies and scattered bones disturbed by rats. The myth of Philomela is alluded to again and the “unreal city” of London returns as a place where the narrator is propositioned, probably sexually, by a merchant named Mr. Eugenides. The narrator then takes on the role of another figure from Greek mythology: Tiresias, a blind prophet with prescient vision who has lived as both male and female. In this role, the narrator watches a young typist visited by her lover, an arrogant and unpleasant clerk, who has sex with her and leaves, while she remains thinking only that she is glad that it is over. The theme of the river then returns, and there are descriptions of a London bar frequented by fishermen,a beautiful London church that stands beside the Thames, which is clogged with modern pollutants and detritus. There are brief allusions to Queen Elizabeth I’s voyage on the river with her suitor the Earl of Leicester, and awoman speaks of her regret at her loss of innocence. Finally, the section closes with allusions to Buddha’s Fire Sermon and St. Augustine’s Confession,both of which are concerned with the supposed risks of earthly pleasures.

The shortest section, “Death by Water” briefly describes “Phlebas the Phoenician” who floats dead in the water, recalling the “drowned Phoenician Sailor” found on an invented tarot card in the first section. Phlebas is described as having lost the worries of the living and the reader is invited to think on their own mortality and inevitable death.

The closing section, “What the Thunder Said,” picks up the themes of the earlier sections. In the first two stanzas, there are “stony places,” and lands with no water and no respite where people suffer in agony and in silence, unable to even think because of their thirst and their suffering. Hostile red faces watch the narrator, and “hooded hordes” join in the endless desperate trudge across the waste land as wells dry up, towers crumble, and “unreal” cities fall.

Finally, with the crowing of a cockerel and a flash of lightening, rain falls and the poem moves suddenly to the river Ganges in India. Here, the thunder speaks as it does in Hindu legends, possibly even forming a spiritual link between the solid, troubled earth and the spiritual world above. At this point, there is, perhaps, the promise of respite, as the narrator sits fishing on the shore with the waste land behind him, but still the old children’s song reminds the reader that “London Bridge is falling down.” Other fragments follow, from Dante and other sources, and the poem ends finally with the Sanskritmantra “Shantih, shantih, shantih,” taken from a Hindu prayer for peace.