Eliot's The Wasteland

Where to begin? I’ve always had problems with this poem. Here’s a link to a heavily and usefully annotated version.

The Wasteland is a difficult poem in structure, language(s), and density of allusion. Before the poem even begins we are given, from Petronius’s Satyricon, an epigraph which is a mixture of Latin and Greek. The dedication to Ezra Pound alludes to Dante. And in the first four lines of the poem itself

we apparently have references to both Walt Whitman and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Add to this the story that Eliot wrote the thing while hospitalized during a nervous breakdown. It was originally 1000 lines, but while still in hospital he asked his good friend Ezra Pound to help revise it. Pound apparently cut the poem to 434 lines (more on this).

Where am I going with all this? I’m not sure – that’s the point. I would like to engage in discussion with others about the poem itself, and about the annotations by Eliot as well as the added notes in the link I provided. As the poem is in 5 parts, I would like to see the discussion move in somewhat orderly fashion through those parts. I do realize that the density and complexity of the poem may make that impossible. If so, c’est la vie (as Chuck Berry was wont to sing) – we’ll find another way through it.

Being somewhat of a fanatic on matters poetical, it annoys me that I don’t have a better grasp on The Wasteland. And therefore, on where it belongs in my personal canon.

So let’s have your insights and thoughts, folks. It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve even read the poem before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it 100 times before. It doesn’t matter if you like poetry, or don’t like poetry. It’s your fine minds I want to pick.

I’m sorry – I have read The Wasteland many times, and like it, although I’m sure I’m missing most of the references – but the first thing I thought of when I saw this thread title was a two-page spread in National Lampoon several years ago. It had a Disneyland-style park called “Wasteland”. There was a Tilt-a Whirl-type ride called The Scuttling Claws. There was a ride for women only – A conveyor belt/People Mover took them in a door marked “Come”, past a replica of Michaelangelo’s “David”, and out a door marked “Go”. And there was a Refreshment stand that sold Peaches.

No apology necessary, Cal. That’s absolutely hilarious. I wish I’d seen it.

I’d say National Lampoon kind of cheated, though – all the references you mention them making are from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, not The Wasteland. Which makes sense I suppose, as Prufrock is probably both a more widely and a more easily read poem.

You say you like The Wasteland. What is your take on it as a whole poem? Does it hang together for you? What do you find satisfying in it? …These are some of the questions about it that I’ve always struggled with.

Ha–I just re-read The Wasteland via the link, and there are several bits that reminded me strongly of Prufrock this time through. (Examples: the brown/yellow fog and the mermaids/water maidens singing.)

Eliot seems to be trying to say something with all them foreign phrases (that he doesn’t bother to translate–what does it mean to leave them untranslated? surely not that the reader should abandon the poem to go look up an obscure late Latin poet? surely he’s not just being a snob?–is the editor wrong to give the translation?) and allusions. (I do not believe that I have ever seen a poem as densely annotated as the linked version. It gave me a headache.) Eliot gives us a paragraph-long footnote on one of the birds from a field guide but he doesn’t translate the Hindu. I am generally in favor of reading and responding directly to a poem as a whole, without the distracting apparatus of notes and commentary (at least at first), but is it even possible to try this with The Wasteland? Eliot’s notes are part of the poem. This might tie in to the HURRY UP PLEASE IT’s TIME and the Hawaiian song chorus and the drip/drop and jug jug stuff–all contrasting slang or sound words which are language and “references” we may not be able to understand in straight, proper English. What is that point? I don’t know. Incidentally, even with the extensive editorial cross-references in addition to Eliot’s own, there are many others that could have been made (“Sweet Thames,” for instance, sounds like the “Sweet Afton” from the song, and also looks like sweet thyme and “take your sweet time”–maybe these are just obvious and don’t need notes).

Of course the last line is in French in the original, and I have stuck in the editor’s translation. What corpse are we talking about (we are being accused of a covered-up criminal act), and why is the accusation in French (the language of the great writers on the human condition like Montaigne and LaRochefoucauld?) What will it sprout?

Man, this poem is cool, but of all of Eliot’s stuff, I think it is the least accessible and one that is really hard to love.

Sorry if this is too much of a hijack, but I want to mention that the Lampoon also did a fabulous parody of Prufrock itself in their 1972 Politics issue: “The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover.” “Did someone dare to say ‘impeach’?”

I debated with myself on whether or not to use that link, Humble Servant, because of its density, etc. But, as you say, Eliot’s notes, at least, seem almost part of the poem.

As to the untranslated bits – I wouldn’t put it past Eliot to have been simply being a snob (but that’s an entirely subjective call on my part – the kind of thing I’m trying to separate myself from for this thread), but Pound’s influence and editing can’t be dismissed in this question … the Cantos are full of untranslated quotes.

The HURRY UP PLEASE IT’s TIME … I’ve been told that the section it appears in is set in a pub, and that HURRY UP PLEASE IT’s TIME is, or was at the time the poem was written, the last call/closing time refrain of an English bartender. As I think about that, and about this:

and as I glance again quickly through the rest of the poem, I can’t help but wonder if the whole thing is an extended meditation and sequence of variations on the metaphor of the first four lines.

The lines you quoted immediately took back to the start.

And just before those lines is this:

Which without a bit of hesitation echo in my brain with these great lines from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad IX. On moonlit heath and lonesome bank:

And then there are these lines from Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Damn that’s good one, Biffy. It looks as if Eliot was just a well of great humour for NL.

So, we’ve managed to connect The Wasteland to Reading Gaol. Well, well, well. The world is a small and interconnected place.

And what will bloom from the corpse are the lilacs–though what bloomed from the corpse in the Lorca poem (the one you linked to in the favorite poems thread) was blood.

Here’s something that bugged me all last night:

Why is “Dog” capitalized? Does he mean a mythic dog, like Cerebus? Or maybe The Hound of Heaven? And why does he dig with “nails” instead of claws?

I like to think that Eliot is not just being a snob–he kinda makes fun of snobs, after all, in the second part of the poem:

Hmmm, HS, looks like it’s gonna be just me and you, kid, on this one. Ah well, I’ve always been more interested in quality than in quantity.

I found the “'O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men, / 'Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” reference.

As to why “Dog” is capitalized, I don’t know. Eliot playing the old word game of dog = god? Certainly the whole poem is rife with bibilical/theological/mystical/occult references.

The Hound of Heaven idea is interesting. And, of course, there are lines in it which could fit:

That’s the second time in my life that HoH has come up during a discussion of Eliot. A friend of mine, a big fan of TSE’s, introduced me to the Hound a few years ago after we’d spent an afternoon talking about TSE’s stuff.

Maybe The Wasteland is TSE as Librarian; it’s his goddamn card catalogue – every line leads you to another work. And every work that ever references his work in any way leads you back to the catalogue…

I don’t really think Eliot was trying to be a snob (I think that came naturally to him :D). I really think that he was constantly trying to do what perhaps we all try to do in our own ways – to fit together in some coherent fashion everything he’d ever read … the idea of language – not any particular language, but Language – as an organizing principle. But that’s probably just me being flaky. It’s certainly me hijacking my own thread.

To get back to the topic: specifically to the theological, etc., elements of the poem. At line 35 this passage begins:

Once again, this passage connects to the poem’s first lines. The notes tell us that the hyacinth is the flower of grief and mourning and that it is named for Hyacinthas, a favourite youth of Apollo’s whom Apollo accidentally killed with a discus. The hyacinth “with every returning spring revives the memory of his fate.” Yep, “April is the cruelest month”. And not only for its lilacs.

The lines following the hyacinth reference are quite mystic in tone, describing an indeterminate state between existence and non-existence; the mystery surrounding what follows death, the sea of emptiness which neither our eyes nor our minds can fathom. And yet the next passage begins with a “clairvoyante” reading TSE’s version of the Tarot, an attempt to bypass our normal means of seeing/knowing and leads us into the “'O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men, / 'Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!” bit discussed above.

Unbelievable (about “the wolf is no friend of men” line–great job)–do we have to go google every bleedin’ line of the poem?

In the Webster, the wolf is NOT a friend of men because he digs up the body; Eliot has flipped it–the Dog that digs up the body is the friend of men. Like a “clairvoyant,” dogs can see and hear things people can’t?

So, there’s a lot in the poem about memory, death, abandoned desires, hope renewed. It’s all very interesting, but what is the answer, the point? Some works may not have “points,” intending instead to convey an image or chaos only, but I don’t think this is one. Either the point is too obscure for me or it got lost somewhere on the way to the bank for the day shift.

Eliot is good at catching the way that details can evoke longing–the white arms and downy hair from Prufrock are again similar. Eliot loved women, I think.

Now, then, what is with the structure of the poem? Why the “withered stump” of Section 4?

Literal Nails, p’raps?

In order to really understand the genesis of “The Waste Land” (not “The Wasteland”), you should buy the photocopy of the original manuscripts with Ezra Pound’s annotations and with a critical apparatus by Valerie Eliot, the poet’s widow (is she still alive?). When the manuscripts resurfaced in 1968, three years after Eliot’s death, they destroyed a lot of myths about the text.

While Eliot claimed that his text was inspired by Weston’s pseudo-scientific anthropology text From Ritual to Romance, and critics developed a complication Fisher King interpretation from that, Ezra Pound maintained that by 1925 or so Eliot still hadn’t read the book and thus could not have based his poem upon it. The lengthly notes to the poem, though the citations are useful, are essentially a red herring, and were written only so that the poem would be large enough to fill its own volume.

The manuscripts confirms this suppositions. What we see in the manuscript is not a complicated mythos drawn from a mixture of Arthurian myth with modernism, but rather a simple picture of a man going through mental breakdown and distressed at the rise of mass culture where the loserly pedestrians would sweep away the goodness of other, “legitimate” English literature.

Interestingly enough, however, it may be that Eliot’s despair did not come from his stressful marriage as long supposed. In the manuscripts, there are comments from Vivien Eliot which suggest that the two were getting along fine at the time of the poem’s composition.


I think the answer to this is “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” The or truncated life of the Phoenecian dedicated to the material things of the world corresponds with the truncated section of the poem.

The only point I’ve ever been able to find is the despair inherent in the title. For all the layers of allusion, and the metaphysical bits, TSE never seems to be able to get past the dry stone:

In all his reading he seems to have found nothing for lasting sustenance, nothing but “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” [the ruins being the modern world, I guess].

This morning I’m thinking that this poem seems like a lot of trouble to go to perhaps simply rephrase

Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu (‘The+Heights+of+Macchu+Picchu’&hl=en&ie=UTF-8) covers much the same ground without all the exhausting sideways and backwards looking. And it seems to come to a more upbeat conclusion… Not that I have anything against TSE’s conclusion – I may share it – it just seems like a lot of work to put the reader to. For contrast and to get the dust of Eliot out of my mouth I’ve had to read both the Neruda poem and Yeats’ The Second Coming this morning.

Ha, thanks UnuMondo, I didn’t even notice that I was doing that from the beginning. I do like my version of the title better than TSE’s.

And I gotta that say that, in light of your red herring comment on TSE’s notes (can you direct to something about that?), I’m liking the man and his paper tiger of a poem even less.

You are right about the official title being “The Waste Land,” UnuMondo. Do you think it is important? What could be more important, after all, than the title given a poem?

This is Eliot’s first note to the poem. Of course there is nothing overtly Arthurian in the poem at all, making the reference to the book almost ridiculous (even more so if Eliot never read it, which I would be willing to believe). Does this make the note a jab at people who “think … elucidation of the poem worth the trouble?” Do we lose the poem in the translation? Yes, I think the note is a red herring, but not just to fill up space–it’s like the field guide to birds note.

And the recommended cure is to read the photocopy of the original manuscripts! (I’m not belittling this, UnuMondo: I’m bemused by the whole state of affairs.)

Eliot mentions the Fisher King in yet another note (“quite arbitrarily,” of course). In the Grail legends, the Fisher King was the custodian of the grail, and he was usually very old and sometimes suffered from a magical injury. Eliot, to some extent, therefore encouraged at least some speculation about fish and the Fisher King in the poem.

hebes: Nails from the true cross, I suppose?

FF: Let’s throw in time and getting/being old (also in Prufrock–the trousers rolled part) as covered too–that ties to the merchant and Phlebas stuff you referenced.

I’m not ready to give up on the poem, but it is about dust and death and despair (must…stop…alliterating)–though I would say the despair is not about culture/literature. I think he’s fond of the lower class girlfriends and the way they talk (“it’s them pills I took, to bring it off”).

That the notes are unreliable is mentioned in pretty much any guide to “The Waste Land” that takes into account the manuscript. I don’t have access to this portion of my home library ATM, but I think the matter is covered adequately in the most recent edition of A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. But really, if you really want to start understanding the poem, get the manuscript photocopy. It’s available at Amazon.com for example for a mere $15.

I don’t think T.S. Eliot’s early poems are all that hot. I’m a fan of his religious poetry made after his conversion in 1927, a series of staggeringly insightful writing that culminated in Four Quartets. Nonetheless, digging deeper into the writing of “The Waste Land” has not made the poem seem like “a paper tiger”. Quite the contrary, the way the poem reflects Eliot’s mental state at the time and his unique melding of a traditional education with a zest for modernism makes the poem all the more interesting. If “The Waste Land” was just a Fisher King myth like so many thought up to 1968, then I’d be very disappointed with it, but I feel it is something more.


Eliot’s sexuality has been debated, but what is certain is that he found female sexuality grotesque. I think this portion of “The Waste Land” is only a musing on the phenomenon of pregnancy and abortion, which the poet may have thought terrible as they are both aspects of the sexuality from which he tried to flee his entire life (only succeeding with his divorce from Vivien Eliot).


Personally, I think a poem lie this is better without all of the allusions explained. Nobody is going to catch all of the allusions, but that’s OK. Anyone who’s somewhat well-read is going to notice at least a few of them, and those few that you catch will be sort of “special” to you. Putting in annotations takes that away. Besides, even the allusions which you don’t understand add to the overall feel of depth of the poem.

Before re-reading The Waste Land for this thread, I would have said it was far inferior to Four Quartets, and we certainly haven’t been easy on The Waste Land here. Nevertheless, it has grown on me–here’s my reappraisal: while the density of the Waste land can be maddening, it has no wasted word, every line gives you something–as Chronos put it, it has depth in spades. Four Quartets is repetitive (the only part of the Waste Land that seems to match the pacing of Four Quartets is the part about the dry rock) and slow in comparison. If Pound as editor gave the Waste Land this quality of density, then bully for that collaboration.

My question about the puny stanza 4 actually relates to Four Quartets–each of the four “quartets” has five parts; the fourth part of each of the four is short and stumpy, just like the Waste Land’s part four. I’m sure some commentator has made much of this, but I haven’t read that theory.

Yes, I agree that Eliot’s notes are “unreliable,” in the sense that they are being provided by an “unreliable narrator.”

I think I disagree, UnuMondo that the “it’s them pills I took to bring it off” section is only a musing on abortion and pregnancy. That turn of phrase “she” uses is very neat–compact and pithy–and I think it’s in there more for what it says about language than sexuality.

Perhaps TSE’s Tarot research gave him a glimpse of Star Wars and he was saying in his own circuitous way “May the fours be with you.” (Yes, I know how bad that was.)

Anyway, today I’m just sort of meandering through the poem again seeing what I can see. I sure do love these lines:

And these, both from Part 3:

And this line from Part 5 is beautiful in meaning, rhythm and sound:

And this image:

Doesn’t it bypass reason altogether and take you to a place of wild sadness?

And all those mountains in Part 5; the dry stone … take me back to this memory in Part 1:

And to what follows that, the invitation to come into the shadow of the rock…

I don’t quite know why, but I’m feeling much more amenable about The Waste Land this morning. Perhaps it’s the weekend I had. My stepfather died in the warmest mid-October I’ve seen in years here on the east coast – so much like spring in the afternoons that I expected the lilacs to start blooming any second, yet the leaves are still turning colour inexorably as always; just more slowly, a drawn-out keen of green fading. And then yesterday, rain rain rain for the burial. And back to sunshine and strangely high temperatures today.

I do know that the poem is not the paper tiger I pronounced it to be in a moment of pique with TSE’s elliptical procession through it. It’s full of strange beauty. It is a great poem; it gives no quarter, yet it gives. Whether or not any part of it can ever be understood rationally (at least initially), it gets behind the eyes and ears and changes how we see and hear.

Here’s a companion/parallel quotation for the “rattle of bones” lines:

Isn’t that lonely? The “eternal footman” in Prufrock "snickers, " which sounds a lot like “chuckle spread from ear to ear.”

I am so sorry about your stepfather, Fatwater Fewl.