"The relief of a personal...grouse against life" (Eliot)

* A satiric critique of the post war (1914-18) scene

* Written 1921-22 from seven+ years of fragments.

* Spiritual journey from sin to salvation

* Revelation and its aftermath - strain of a man living between two worlds. For Eliot there is no blinding revelation, but a long period of doubt and struggle. Poised to act, but lacking stamina to do so. Did not achieve personal salvation till 1927, with conversion to Christianity.

* Self-examination of personal spiritual health & progress possibly American trait (Puritan inheritance?) cf.. Puritan New England journals of visions & journeys towards grace.

* The desert/hermit/Narcissus themes recall the solitary penitent, withdrawn from 'wordly' life. Grail legends have knightly quest traversing a waste land in search of grace. Also perhaps parallels with Exodus & Jewish migration/Covenant.

* Urban motif linked to poetry of Baudelaire, Laforgue, etc. mindless workers/sin/wretchedness/stupidity/sterility.

* Sexual guilt and lust - woman as temptress/seductress and victim. Rejection of flesh as catharsis/initiation/purification prior to salvation.

* Man & woman in Pt. 2 (cf. Eliot & VHW) bound together but longing for escape. Trivial and barren existence. Escape for man means death (psychological) for mate

* Sexual guilt precedes religious fervour (pt. 3) Refining fire is cure for lust (in Dante's Purgatorio) also ref. to Buddha's fire sermon and St. Augustine's temptations in Carthage. Followers progress to holy life through cultivation of aversion to all impressions of the senses.

* Eliot's faith devouring, passionate and mystical

* Waste Land does not criticise actual world, but creates a phantasmal world of lust, boredom, cowardice and malice. The Waste Land is a psychological hell in which the protagonist is quite alone. There is a central meditative voice throughout - visited by others at times, but essentially solitary.

* In the 'lives' Eliot invokes - Dante, Augustine, Buddha, the Grail Knight, Ezekiel and Christ (indirectly) - there is always a dark period of trial followed by initiation, conversion or the divine light itself.


The Sybil - "nam sybillam quidem Cumis.." translates roughly as follows: "I saw the sybil of Cumae hanging in a cage and the boys asked her "What do you want?" She said, "I want to die."

This epigraph (short quotation prefacing a work) is taken from the Roman author Petronius (1st century AD.) The God Apollo granted the Sybil (seer or prophetess) as many years of life as she had grains of sand in her hand. She became weary of living and was bored by the tedium of existence. Boys teased her with questions.

The two main sources of the legend/myth background of Waste Land are the works of J.G. Frazer "The Golden Bough", and Jessie Weston "From Ritual to Romance".

In "The Golden Bough", Frazer examines the links and relationships between various world-wide cults, rituals and magical rites. Eliot was especially interested in the myths of Osiris, Attis and Adonis - god-kings who die and are resurrected, bringing back fertility to wasted lands. Water is an important part of all these rituals and the gods are all vegetal, as are their rites. There are obvious parallels to the Christian story, in all three of the legends, and the second source book; Weston's "From Ritual to Romance" examines these links; the Christian Grail legend in particular.

The search for the Grail and Lance (used to pierce Christ's side on the cross) are central motifs in many medieval literary works. The Grail search symbolises man's eternal quest for truth. The quest undertaken by the knight involves asking questions about the Grail and the Lance (which may also be seen as sexually symbolic) and journeying across a desert to find the chapel perilous, guarded by demons. The knight is an emissary from the Fisher King - impotent and sterile as a punishment, as is his kingdom. The Grail will restore fertility and abundance to the land. The fish is also a symbol of Christ and water - redemption and life.



Two movements in European literature in the second half of the 19th century. Realism was more confined to the works of novelists and dramatists and aimed to reproduce directness and simplicity of form. Social situations were accurately represented and the purpose of much of the writing was to initiate social reform and change.Subject matter often concentrated on sordid, nasty topics, hoping to persuade people to change society. The writing was often rather unimaginative, since everything was spelled out quite clearly, but it must be said that much of this type of work was quite influential. Poets would be familiar with the work of realist writers, although the style was not really suitable for a poetic approach.

Symbolism, on the other hand, was indirect, allusive and obscure. Ideal for poets! Early symbolists were the French poets, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue and Mallarme. They wrote very complex, concentrated poetry - introspective and obscure. There is an atmosphere of disappointment, pain, guilt and loneliness in their work. They, like the English metaphysical poets of the 17th century, use complex cross-references and allusions to entice the reader's investigation. Laforgue and Baudelaire in particular use a mordant humour in their work, which appealed to Eliot, and both influenced him. The sordid images of the city are present in Baudelaire, and both he and Laforgue present the idea of the poet as a sensitive artist in the midst of a vulgar society. Eliot discovered the work of the Symbolists around 1908.



One of the leaders of this group of artists was the |American poet Ezra Pound. Eliot met him in England in 1914. The Imagists aimed to shake English poetry out of the rut of 19th century rigidity of form, metre & rhyme, as it had become sterile and unimaginative. They urged the need for freedom of subject matter and originality of image. Their verse was experimental and often shocking in its form, style and content. Eliot was never a member of the group, but shared many of the group's opinions about poetry. He and Pound were friends and Pound edited the Waste Land cutting it considerably from its original form. The dedication to Pound "the greater craftsman" appears at the beginning of the poem.



This was a wider manifestation which spread throughout Europe in the early part of the 20th century,in music, dance, literature and art. It was characterised by a desire to throw off all artistic forms. In art there was the advent of Cubism; in music and ballet, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", which caused riots in theatres when it was performed. The mainstream regarded Modernism as outrageous, degenerate and shocking, but it heralded the beginning of a new age of intellectual thought and development. Predominant throughout is the sense of paradox - harmony/discord; civilisation/primitivism; order/disorder; harmony/chaos; real/unreal.

Eliot was impressed by the sense of continuity in man's search for significance - cf. Frazer's assertion that no human practice is unique, but is a form of response to shared situations. The idea of setting the myth in the context of modern civilisation was appealing to the modernists, and Eliot adopted it in Waste Land. He was influenced also by contemporary authors like James Joyce, whose novel "Ulysses" used the same approach. (The life of the central character, Bloom, is paralleled against the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey)

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope