The Anglo-American modernist poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was arguably the most influential poet of the twentieth century, and his 1922 poem The Waste Land is regarded variously as the greatest modernist poem, one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, and a powerful depiction of post-war despair and disillusionment.
But trying to figure out the meaning of The Waste Land – or, perhaps more accurately, meanings – is a tricky task. Below, we introduce and gloss some of the most important quotations from The Waste Land, an endlessly quotable poem.
This article is by Dr Oliver Tearle, author of The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem (Bloomsbury).
‘April is the cruellest month’.
Let’s begin with perhaps the best-known line from Eliot’s best-known poem – although it isn’t technically the opening line of the poem. Well … not quite, anyway. These five words begin Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem The Waste Land, but the full first line of the poem’s opening section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, continues beyond the word ‘month’ with the word ‘breeding’ (after a comma).
This five-word statement immediately cuts across a whole tradition of Romantic poetry (and even pre-Romantic: the opening words of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales have also been detected behind this line) which sees April and springtime as a beneficent and positive time of year. Instead, April is cruel (for the speaker) because it leads to rebirth amidst the ‘dead land’, which, among other things, summons the waste ground housing the dead of the First World War (which concluded just four years earlier).
We have analysed the meaning of this opening quotation in more detail here – and discussed why it is not the opening line of the poem.
‘A heap of broken images’.
Occurring later in the poem’s opening part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘a heap of broken images’ is another key quotation from The Waste Land which strikes us as self-referential. The quotation refers to the state of modern civilisation, with its architecture and empires falling into decay and ruin after the First World War.
But the quotation also captures Eliot’s own modernist technique, which involves fragmentation (we move from Marie the arch-duke’s relative sledding to the deserts of the Old Testament here; later on in this part of the poem, we will be with a modern-day clairvoyant or Tarot-reader telling us our fortune) and ambiguous imagery. The old idols and icons are broken, like a shattered stained-glass window, embodying the fragmented state of modern civilisation.
‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’.
This is another famous line from Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem full of memorable lines (both Eliot’s and other people’s, which his poem quotes from). This line hints at the idea of death which pervades the poem, especially as it immediately follows some sinister lines about our ‘shadow’ rising to meet us. And this in a section of the poem whose title, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, summons the famous words of the Anglican burial service: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
However, this line may be even more unsettling than saying, ‘I will show you your own mortality.’ Perhaps we should go back to the epigraph to The Waste Land, provided by Petronius’ scurrilous Roman novel, Satyricon. The speaker sees the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage or bottle, and when he asks her what she wants, the Sibyl replies, ‘I want to die.’ She wants to die because, according to the myth, she asked the gods for eternal life or, more accurately, to be able to live for as many years as she had grains of sand in her hand. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth, with the result that the Sibyl was destined to live effectively forever, but to grow older and frailer and weaker, a decaying shadow of her former self.
So, for ‘handful of dust’ read ‘handful of sand’? The Sibyl had managed to evade the usual short human lifespan, but at what cost? Her ‘handful of dust’ or sand had robbed her of any meaning to her life. Eternal life which is effectively a sort of living death is in stark contrast to the eternal life which Eliot’s Old Testament God figure promises. This theme of ‘death in life’ and the blurring of the boundaries between the living and dead pervades The Waste Land: see the quotation below derived from Dante.
‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’.
A quotation from the ‘Full Fathom Five’ song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, this line denotes the drowned Phoenician sailor who is among the symbols in the Tarot cards dealt by Madame Sosostris, the clairvoyant or fortune-teller.
This drowned sailor will resurface (as it were) in the fourth part of The Waste Land, ‘Death by Water’. Why Phoenician sailors? One possible explanation is that this is another oblique reference to the First World War: the Carthaginians (who were Phoenicians) fought the Romans in a series of Punic Wars over 2,000 years ago. These wars were between mighty trading empires, and the First World War has been analysed as a trade war between empires (Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, British, etc.).
Eliot even refers to one of the battles from the Punic Wars, the Battle of Mylae, in the ‘Stetson’ section towards the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’. Is he suggesting that such wars are nothing new, and have been a continual feature of all empires and all civilisations?
‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.
A reference to the crowd of commuters walking across London Bridge at dawn, on their way to their office jobs, this quotation suggests the emotional and psychological scars left by the First World War. All of this death has ‘undone’ the living. Why? One answer is survivor’s guilt: many of the young and middle-aged men travelling to their jobs as clerks in 1922 would have been veterans of the war, who would have seen many of their comrades killed in action in northern France. Compare this section of the poem with the man from ‘A Game of Chess’, the poem’s second part, who talks of still being ‘in rats’ alley’ among the bones of ‘the dead men’.
Eliot’s inspiration for these lines from a passage from the Inferno, a poem by the medieval Italian poet Dante (part of his three-part Divine Comedy):
e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.
This refers to the souls of the damned in hell, and can be translated as ‘And after there was so long a train of people, that I never would have believed that Death so many had undone.’ Eliot’s clerks and bankers, by comparison, are inhabiting 1920s post-war London: a living hell?
‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’.
Perhaps one of the most opaque and obscure quotations in the whole of The Waste Land – and there’s no shortage of those.
The context of the line is the coming of the thunderclap in ‘What the Thunder Said’, the final part of The Waste Land. This first ‘DA’ is interpreted by those listening to it as ‘Datta’, a Sanskrit word often translated as meaning ‘give’. This prompts the speaker (or collective speakers?) of this section of Eliot’s poem to ask what they have given. The ‘awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ is the response; no amount of prudence or caution afterwards will ‘retract’ or undo that moment of surrender. But surrender of what, to what?
One possible interpretation is provided by the reference that follows: by this moment of surrender, and this only, ‘we have existed’. And how do ‘we’ come to exist? Because of the word in the very first line of The Waste Land: ‘breeding’, sex, procreation. Is this a reference to the daring of surrendering oneself to the sexual impulse and conceiving a new life? Perhaps – but like so many lines in Eliot’s poem, there are other ways of interpreting this quotation.
‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’.
Another famous line from Eliot’s The Waste Land, this time from the closing section of the poem. The line embodies the fragmentary style of Eliot’s poem as a whole, and much modernist art: civilisation appears to be in ruins, and all the artist can do is shore up the remains and try to find something vaguely cohesive.
The fragments are the fragments of European civilisation, repeated and quoted in Eliot’s poem in an attempt to shore them up and preserve them. For all of its radical stylistic approach to form and layout (although, we I remarked earlier, this aspect of the poem can also be overstated), the final vision of The Waste Land is conservative: a (perhaps futile) attempt to preserve or conserve culture from permanent decline and dissolution.