A reading of the first part of The Waste Land – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Burial of the Dead’ is the first of five sections that make up The Waste Land (1922), T. S. Eliot’s landmark modernist poem. What follows is a short analysis of this opening section, with the most curious and interesting aspects of Eliot’s poem highlighted. You can read ‘The Burial of the Dead’ here. What we intend to do is provide a brief summary of what happens in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, but we’ll stop and analyse those features which are especially significant as we go, and point out the meaning of the most important allusions.
‘The Burial of the Dead’: summary
In summary, Eliot’s poem opens, famously, with a declaration that ‘April is the cruellest month’. This is because, we are told, flowers and plants grow – as you’d expect from springtime – but they grow ‘out of the dead land’. Few people would probably name April as the cruellest of the twelve months, so immediately Eliot’s poem, possibly recalling, and overturning, the opening line of Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ to The Canterbury Tales, is out to surprise us with the unexpected. The opening lines of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales depict the joyous abundance of fertility and new life at springtime, where Eliot seems to take the opposite view:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne …
‘The Ram’ is Aries, the star sign, but also a reference to the frolicking farm animals during mating season. We have analysed the opening line of Eliot’s poem in more detail here.
This surprise continues when we are told that it was winter, rather than spring or summer, that kept the speaker warm, because it covered up the dead land in snow, which made him (assuming rather tenuously that the speaker is male) forget the fact that it is a dead land – a waste land.
Then we find ourselves faced with several German references: mention of the Hofgarten (literally, ‘Court Garden’), the garden in the centre of Munich, and then a speaker who announces, in German, ‘No, I am not Russian, I am Lithuanian, a proper German.’ Then we have a countess, Marie, recalling how she used to stay at her cousin’s the archduke’s, and they went sledding. Winter is mentioned once again.
Next follows a section which returns us to the ‘waste land’ of the poem’s title. What grows out of this dead land? Here that surprising opening line begins to make even more sense: there is a sense of fear and uncertainty regarding the future, about what is going to grow out of the blasted land. This can be taken metaphorically as a reference to the devastation caused by the First World War: with so many people dead in just a few years (not just the millions of casualties in the war itself, but also the many millions of people who succumbed to Spanish Flu, in 1918-19; Eliot and his first wife Vivienne were both laid up by the influenza), what will the future bring? How can a civilisation rebuild itself in the face of such drastic devastation?
This spring will not be like others, ‘The Burial of the Dead’ seems to say. So many dead have been buried so quickly, through war or illness.
This may explain the reference to ‘fear in a handful of dust’: the title of this section of Eliot’s poem, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, is a reference to the Anglican Prayer Book, and its prayer for the burial of the dead: ‘Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.’ We are all dust, in the end.
We then get some more German, courtesy of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde: ‘Fresh the wind blows / Towards home: / My Irish child / Where are you now?’ Tristan and Isolde were a doomed romantic couple who fell in love, though Isolde was betrothed to the King. What relevance this has to the rest of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ is troubling, and shows how many parts of The Waste Land don’t seem to fit with each other, with sudden gear-changes and changes of setting, speaker, and subject.
We then have a woman speaking to us, addressing her (presumed) lover, recalling how her lover gave her hyacinths. The lover replies that when they returned from the hyacinth garden, he experienced a sense of emptiness which could either be ecstatic euphoria or deadened numbness: he says he was neither living nor dead, though, suggesting that the strange feeling he experienced lay somewhere in between these two. The experience was, like many in The Waste Land, difficult for the speaker to analyse or put into words. We then have another quotation from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: ‘Waste and empty is the sea’ – the sea separating Tristan from his lover, that is.
Another change of setting next: we find ourselves in the company of Madame Sosostris, a Tarot reader, who uses Tarot cards to try to predict the future – something that links her to the Sibyl from the epigraph to The Waste Land (Sibyls were classical female figures who could prophesy the future). We are told to ‘Fear death by water’ and there is a reference to Ferdinand’s drowned father from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’).
We leave this scene and find ourselves recognisably in London for the first time, and are told that the speaker witnessed a crowd of people flowing over London Bridge, whom death has undone. Are these the dead? Or the living dead, whose lives have been undone by the deaths of other people – loved ones during the war, for instance? The lines are ambiguous, but it’s worth noting that Eliot is loosely translating a line from medieval Italian poet Dante’s Inferno here: ‘behind it came so long a train of folk, that I could never have believed death had undone so many.’ Everyone shuffles forward, sleepwalking through their own lives, as if they’re already dead inside.
The speaker then encounters a man he knew, named Stetson. He shouts out to him, and claims they both fought at Mylae – which is quite a feat, given that this battle took place in 260 BC during the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Eliot seems to be anachronistically mixing up the modern (the name Stetson, WWI) and the classical or ancient (Mylae, part of another war of empires fought over two millennia ago), perhaps to suggest that nothing much changes. War continues to be a part of life.
The speaker then asks Stetson if the corpse he planted in his garden has begun to sprout. Once again we have a perverted or unusual idea of new birth or things growing out of the land, where the living and the dead are curiously intertwined.
We then get an allusion to Jacobean playwright John Webster’s play The White Devil (1612): ‘But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, / For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.’ As with many of Eliot’s allusions, he subtly alters the original wording so that ‘wolf’ in Webster’s original is domesticated to ‘dog’, and ‘foe’ therefore becomes ‘friend’ (dogs are man’s best friend, after all).
Webster’s original lines are uttered about a man who is refused a proper burial in the churchyard, so his lines, too, refer to an unusual burial and the prospect of the dead being disturbed in their graves (by the wolf). Eliot then changes again in the last line of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, quoting from French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67): ‘You, hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother!’
‘The Burial of the Dead’: analysis
‘The Burial of the Dead’ establishes some of the core themes of The Waste Land: death, burial, rebirth. It also hints at the impact of the First World War on the people of Europe. T. S. Eliot said that his research into vegetation rituals and ceremonies fed into The Waste Land, and this analysis of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ highlights all of the curious ways in which things which are dead won’t lie down, but get up and walk again. In the second section of the poem, ‘A Game of Chess’, things take an even more sinister turn.
However, it is worth observing that it’s dangerous to attempt to pin down Eliot’s poem to one monolithic meaning which purports to explain the whole work. Even the interpretation that the poem is about drought and sterility (as opposed to abundance and fertility) runs into problems when we consider the fact that the word ‘breeding’ is in the very first line of the poem: the problem is precisely that things are growing, but that they are growing out of a ‘dead land’.
Similarly, the land is full of the dead, as Stetson’s corpse attests, but there’s something almost Gothically unnerving about the offhand question the speaker asks him, about whether the corpse he ‘planted’ has begun to sprout, as if he’s chatting about his turnips or potatoes (to go back to those ‘dried tubers’ from earlier in the poem).
In the last analysis, then, ‘The Burial of the Dead’ is an elusive and densely packed section of the poem because there is an uncertainty over what is ‘dead’ and what is alive: the dead, perhaps, won’t stay dead. The living, too, have been ‘undone’ by ‘death’: so many of them, flowing over London Bridge on the way to their jobs, seem unmade by the death that surrounds them in this post-war world.
The best student edition of Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which comes with a very helpful introduction, as well as contextual information and major critical responses to The Waste Land.
About T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.
Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.
Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.
He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Photogravure by Donald Macleish from Wonderful London by St John Adcock, 1927 (picture credit: Simon K on Flickr).