Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website













first published in 1922 in The Criterion

Language & Form

Modernist poetry. Irregular verse, at times free, at times reminiscent of the blank verse of Eliot’s plays; English original with passages in other languages; at Ezra Pound's suggestion, the poem was reduced to half the length of earlier drafts (the poem bears a dedication acknowledging Pound as il miglior fabbro, “the better craftsman”); Eliot included complex scholarly annotations to explain the many quotations and obscure allusions of the poem; special credit is given to the work of the anthropologist James Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890-1918) and Jessie Weston’s treatment of the Grail legends, From Ritual to Romance (1920); the poem is divided into five sections and features multiple voices and a deliberate attempt at creating a sense of fragmentation, discontinuity, and decay.


Five sections: “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Water,” and “What the Thunder Said.” Meditation on the state of Western civilization, especially regarding the sense of depression, waste, and futility of the post-World War I era; the poem mixes descriptions of contemporary life with literary allusions and quotations, religious symbolism, and references to ancient and medieval cultures and mythologies, vegetation and fertility rites, as well as Eastern religions and philosophies; the poem emphasizes themes of barrenness and desolation and portrays a dying society, but the ending suggests hope of redemption through concepts and images grounded on the synthesis of Christian and Eastern (Hindu/Buddhist) spirituality.

Main Issues

Principle of “rhetorical discontinuity”; emphasis on the representation and experience of fragmentation and disconnection which Eliot saw as the essence of 20th century urban life.

Commentary on problem of modern society as lacking a sense of community and spiritual axis.

The" waste land" in the poem as modern culture having drifted away from its spiritual roots; trope of destructive repetition controlling human history; loss of touch with cycles of life and nature.

Images of desolation, sterility, dryness, waste (as a byproduct of utilitarian attitudes and capitalistic and mercantile forms of production and exchange); image of a society that feeds upon itself and also lies mired in its own waste.

Ancient and medieval legends (e.g.Holy Grail, classical mythology); symbolic representation of cycles of life and death; theme of sick "Fisher King" and loss of fertility which produces a corresponding drought; replenishment of land and healing of Fisher King by re-discovery of truth encoded in the images of ancient myths and rituals.

Hint at possibility of production of new life and redemption of humanity from the by-products of decay; construction of truth from the nearly lost fragments of ancient thought and the wisdom of various cultures.

Truth encoded in both the imagery of Christianity and the sacred words of ancient Eastern religions and philosophies; religious syncretism implicit in the poem.

Study Questions

What does the opening quotation, from the Satyricon of Petronius, imply about Eliot’s thematic intentions? How does this function as a preface to the poem? Who is the Sibyl? What does she represent? Why is she all shriveled up? Is there any relation between poets (like Eliot) and prophets (like the Sibyl)? What is their function? How is their work affected by the condition and directions of the modern world? What has shrunken to almost non-existence in that world? What are the implications of a world without prophets (or poets)?

What is implied in the burial motif in the first section of the poem? Why is April “the cruellest month?” Does that fit in with traditional perceptions of April? What is the reason for such a statement? What has happened in a world where springtime is cruel and painful? How does that fit in with the cycles of nature? Why would the rebirth of nature be associated with cruelty? How do “memory and desire” fit in with those ideas? Is there any relation to historical events and developments? What begins again in this cruel spring?

What is implied by the tale of "Marie" and her cousin, the archduke? Why the image of sledding down the mountain? Is the downward motion significant? Does this relate at all to the historical context? Why does Marie feel free in the mountains? Why does she “read, much of the night and go south in the winter”? What might she be reflecting on?

What is the “heap of broken images?” What is implied by the redness of the rock? The shadow? Why is it “your” shadow? Why does it stride “behind you” in the morning and rise “to meet you” in the evening? What kind of "fear" is Eliot referring to “in a handful of dust?”

What is Madame Sosostris foretelling? Is she a legitimate prophet? What are tarot cards and what do they mean in the poem? How does she represent the debased condition of the modern world? How is what she sees both true and false? Who is the drowned Phoenician Sailor? Who were the Phoenicians? How is this card connected to Phlebas the Phoenician in Section IV “Death by Water”? How about the “lady of situations”? The man with three staves? The Wheel? Who is the one-eyed merchant and why did Eliot create this card? Why does he have only one eye? How are merchants significant to Eliot’s theory of the decay of the modern world? What is he carrying on his back that Madame Sosostris is forbidden to see? Why can’t she find the Hanged Man? What does it represent?

What is the “Unreal City?” What city might Eliot be referring to? What is going on in the city? Why is the crowd crossing London Bridge? Is it significant that they are headed for the financial district of London? Is it significant that there is a church in the middle of it? Who does the narrator see in downtown London? Why the allusions to the ancient commercial wars between Rome and Carthage? Is there any relation between those wars and the conflicts of the 20th century? Why does the narrator ask whether a corpse will sprout? Is this question ironic? How is this related to the cruel spring of the beginning of the poem? What is meant by Eliot’s quotation of a line from Charles Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur” (“To the reader”), “You! Hypocrite lecteur!-mon semblable,-mon frere!” (“You! Hypocritical reader!-my likeness-my brother!”) ?

What is the significance of the game of chess in the second section of the poem? What is chess? What does it represent? Can it be linked to the historical context and way of life of the time period addressed by Eliot? What kind of an environment is described at the beginning of the section? What is Eliot criticizing in the characters and lifestyle described here? Why the reference to the rape of Philomel? Who are the speakers and players of the game of chess? Who is speaking? Any relationship to Eliot’s personal life?

What are the issues in the situation of Lil and her husband? What did she do with the money intended for her false teeth? How does this fit in with the broader themes of the poem?

What is the “fire sermon” referred to in the third section of the poem? How does the polluted Thames River fit in with the ideas of the sermon? What role does Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant play here? What is he proposing to the speaker? Why the continued references to the rape of Philomel and the “Unreal City”? How about the story of the typist and her visitor? Is this a love story? What kinds of feelings are involved? Any thematic connection to the story of Lil? What about the story of the canoe ride down the Thames? How are love and sexuality treated in these situations? How do people feel about each other? Why is Carthage brought up again? Why is everything said to be burning?

What happens in the fourth section, “Death by Water”? Does this tie into the prophecy of Madame Sosostris? Why is water involved? Any relation to biblical imagery? Who was Phlebas? Is it significant that he was a Phoenician? Is it important that the Phoenicians were an ancient race of merchants? Is it significant that the Phoenicians invented, for commercial record keeping, the alphabet which we now use? What are the ideas and ironies of those facts? What happened to Phlebas? Why is it said that he forgot “the profit and loss”? What warnings are implicit in those images and ideas?

What is the meaning of the imagery and events of Section 5, “What the Thunder Said”? How do things begin? How does the weather change? What is implied or suggested in that change? What is the meaning of the transition from absolute dryness to the “thunder without rain” and then the raindrops at the end of the poem? Why does the scene shift to the river Ganges and the Himalayas? Is there special significance to those places?

Who is the third person “always beside you”? What is implied by the crowing of the cock and the subsequent coming of the rain? What does the cock symbolize? What biblical stories are alluded to in these passages? How are the religious traditions of the east and west brought together in this section of the poem?

What is the meaning of the image of the fisherman? Why is he considering putting his “lands in order”? Why is London Bridge said to be falling down? What is the meaning of the phrase “these fragments I have shored against my ruins”? Why the reference to madness immediately before the final words of the poem? Who is the madman here? Does the whole poem sound like the ravings of a lunatic? Is there sense or method to this madness? Any connections to representations of madness in other literature?

What does the thunder say? What are Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata? What do each of those words mean? What is shantih? What is the connection between the meaning of the words of the thunder, the coming of rain, and the idea of shantih? What is happening to the waste land?


to come


Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Matthew Peckham in the creation of this page


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