The Waste Land is one of the major poems of the twentieth century. Published in 1922, T. S. Eliot’s landmark work of modernism may ‘only’ be just over 430 lines or around 20 pages in length, but its scope and vision are epic in terms of historical and geographical range, spanning from modern-day London to the deserts of the Old Testament.
So The Waste Land can be a difficult poem to navigate. However, identifying some of the poem’s major themes can help a reader to get their bearings – especially as each of the poem’s major themes which we have listed below throws out some intriguing puzzles and questions.
Civilisation in decline.
The Waste Land is often interpreted as a bleak poem which sounds a note of despair about the state of the modern world. Certainly as the last dozen or so lines suggest, all that remains of civilisation is so many quotations and snippets from great works of literature: Dante, Thomas Kyd, Gerard de Nerval, the Upanishads.
Even nursery rhymes are included: ‘London Bridge is falling down’, though, also summons the idea of London itself collapsing, and, like Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, the notion that the sun is perhaps setting on the British Empire, just as it had previously set on other great centres of empire (Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna, etc.). People are trying to make sense of it all: Madame Sosostris the fortune-teller, Tiresias the blind prophet, and that collective voice which seeks to interpret the ‘DA’ sound of the thunderclap in ‘What the Thunder Said’.
Fragmentation is both a major theme of The Waste Land and a key feature of its style and layout, especially when we come to the final section, ‘What the Thunder Said’, which Eliot wrote in a trance (he later confessed that he wasn’t even bothering whether he understood what he was saying).
Note how all punctuation largely vanishes from this final part of the poem, as if mirroring the cracked voices and dry throats of those who are longing for rain.
The poem’s references to ‘a heap of broken images’ and ‘fragments’ that have been ‘shored against my ruins’ reinforce the notion that modern European civilisation has become fragmented and is breaking apart after the First World War.
Death in life/living death.
From the poem’s epigraph onwards, the idea of a living death is established as one of the key themes of The Waste Land. The epigraph is from 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.
From this point onwards, we encounter corpses that have been planted in the garden in the hope that they will begin to sprout (see the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’), the idea that ‘death’ has ‘undone so many’ of the living (see the lines shortly before the corpse-sprouting Stetson sequence, about the crowd of clerks flowing over London Bridge at dawn), and the idea that ‘we who were living are now dying’ (the opening of ‘What the Thunder Said’).
Women being ‘undone’
It’s not just those crowds of commuters travelling over London Bridge who have been ‘undone’. Women, too, are often on the receiving end of mistreatment or male violence: there is Lil, the poor working-class mother from ‘A Game of Chess’ whose friend gossips about her in an East End pub (even reporting that she told Lil, her supposed friend, that if Lil didn’t sleep with her husband Albert, she’d do the honours for her).
And then there are the references to the classical story of Philomela whose brother-in-law Tereus forced himself upon her, and there are the Thames-daughters who were undone in a canoe on the Thames (‘Richmond and Kew / Undid me’).
And in ‘The Fire Sermon’, too, there is the typist whose boyfriend, a spotty young house agent’s clerk, comes around to her flat to have mechanical, passionless sex with her before leaving straight afterwards. Even she is ‘glad it’s over’.
This encounter is followed by an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s song ‘When lovely woman stoops to folly’ (from his novel The Vicar of Wakefield), in which a woman’s reputation is ruined by her dalliance with a cad and womaniser. Women, married and single, ancient and modern, are fairly put-upon in The Waste Land, and this is a continual theme throughout the poem.
An important (if last-minute) unifying myth for The Waste Land is the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King: both this myth, and the very title of Eliot’s poem, were suggested to him by Jessie L. Weston’s 1920 book From Ritual to Romance. The Fisher King is impotent and his land, similarly, is sterile: nothing will grow. Only the arrival of a pure-hearted stranger, such as a knight from Arthur’s court, will be able to restore life to the land.
This myth is bound up with the Holy Grail legend from Arthurian myth, and the journey described in ‘What the Thunder Said’, the final part of The Waste Land, was partly inspired by Grail Quest stories.
There are plenty of other images suggesting sterility in Eliot’s poem: the desert landscape with the ‘red rock’ inspired by the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes (see ‘The Burial of the Dead’), and the ‘if there were water’ sections from the beginning of ‘What the Thunder Said’, before thunder arrives and rain finally falls again.
… and Fertility?
That’s all well and good, but does it tell the full story? The truth is that, cutting against this vision of sterility, drought, and barrenness are numerous references to the opposite: to fecundity, abundance, and, to quote from the poem’s full first line, ‘breeding’. (We’ve discussed the thorny nature of the poem’s opening line here.) So, fertility is actually another major theme of The Waste Land, as well as sterility.
Consider, for instance, that image (in the poem’s opening lines) of the lilacs being bred out of the dead land. The Waste Land offers a land that is not wholly waste: it is a land where things are growing, but they are growing amidst the waste and devastation caused by the war. Consider, too, the overly fertile Lil, the wife and mother from ‘A Game of Chess’, who has had five children already, and nearly died giving birth to her last. Lil is so fecund that she even took illegal pills to abort her latest child.