Published in 1922 and widely regarded as one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, “The Waste Land,” by Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot, is the quintessential Modern poem. The poem is composed of a chain of monologues, given by various characters, who are occasionally interrupted by multiple narrators. 

The poem is also made up of 434 lines and is divided into five parts, and within those parts and lines the reader hears voices ranging from Countess Marie Larisch Von Moennich, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a fortune teller, a woman gossiping in a lowly bar, and the ‘Fisher King’. Eliot’s poem is often compared to the debris and rubble made of so many homes and churches during the first World War. 

What once had order was now fragmented and scattered; and “The Waste Land,” with its soundbites, repetitions and quotations is thereby a poem of fragments. I have highlighted a fragment from each of the poem’s five parts below. 


To show Eliot’s ability to change voices, in the opening passage of Part I, “The Burial of the Dead,” the narrator, alluding to Chaucer from lines 1-4, gives a dramatic description of flowers in early spring. However, from lines 5-17, the poem is interrupted by a new narrator: Countess Marie Larisch von Moennich telling the story of her cousin taking her out on a sled. Finally, in line 18, either a new narrator or a continuation of Countess Marie’s monologue, says, “I read much of the night and go south in the winter,” a line which, for all intents and purposes, is completely random and does not proceed logically from any lines that have come before (Eliot, 18). 

Lines like these go on to support Eliot when he said that “In ‘The Waste Land’ I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying” (Ellman and O’Clair, 458). This opening passage introduces a theme that recurs throughout the poem which is water or rain bringing vitality to the land; however, most of the poem takes place when the land is without water, and therefore without life.


One of the most beautiful qualities of this poem is Eliot’s ability to give colloquial, everyday language a musical quality. Eliot does this particularly well in one section of Part II, “A Game of Chess,” from lines 139-172, where a woman gossips to her friend about a woman named “Lil,” whose husband, Albert, has just been discharged (“demobbed”) from the army (Eliot, 139). The unnamed woman tells her friend how she told Lil that she should get a new set of teeth because Albert is coming back and she ought to look more attractive. 

The speaker then goes on to tell Lil that she has aged poorly for being, “only thirty-one” (Eliot, 157); however, Lil says that she has aged so poorly only because of pills that she was prescribed by her druggist after her abortion (Eliot, 157;159). The speaker finally concludes her story by asking Lil, “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (Eliot, 164).


One of the narrators in Part III, “The Fire Sermon,” from lines 215-256, is Tiresias, the transgender prophet from Greek mythology who was turned into a woman after striking his staff between two serpents mating in the woods and was turned back into a man again, eight years later, in the same way. In Tiresias’ monologue he, being a prophet, foretells of a woman being sexually assaulted by an “undesired” lover (Eliot, 238). This passage is striking, not only due to its actions but also because of Tiresias’ voice and tone, both of which are traumatized by prophetic knowledge and personal experience. 

Tiresias knows that this event will take place since he has the power of foreknowledge and he knows how that woman will feel because he too has, “foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed” (Eliot, 243-244). Prophecy in “The Waste Land,” is a curse: all you will see in the future are repetitions. 


Part IV, “Death By Water,” being only nine lines long, is the shortest section of the poem but it is crucial to the poem’s narrative structure and the themes of sacrifice and resurrection. Though Phlebas, “the drowned Phoenician sailor,” is referred to by Madame Sosostris, a fortune teller we meet in Part I, and is reminiscent of Mr. Eugenides in Part III, his importance is in his placement in the narrative as it brings a loose anthropological or mythological structure to the poem (Eliot, 55). Phlebas’ death is archetypal of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and of every hero’s sacrifice which is preceded by salvation.


Finally, in Part V, “What the Thunder Said,” the thunder, which signals the coming of rain, and of life, is represented by the syllable, “DA,” (Eliot, 401; 411; 418). Following all three strikes of thunder are the Sanskrit words: “Dattta” which means ‘give,’ “Dayadhvam” which means ‘sympathize’ or ‘mercy’ and “Damyata” which means ‘self-control’ or ‘restraint’ (Eliot, 402;412;419). Eliot is alluding, in this section, to a story from the Upanisads, a Hindu text dating from the ninth century BCE. 

The story Eliot alludes to is called the “Brihadaranyaka Upanisad,” which tells of Prajāpati and the three kinds of children he had, “gods, humans and demons”. All three groups of his children were also his students, and when their education had been completed, each group asked Prajāpati, “Sir, say something to us” (Upanisads, 73). To each group Prajāpati replied, “Da.” Prajāpati then asked each group whether or not they had understood what he meant; each group replied, “Yes, we understood” (Upanisads, 73). And each group, “gods, humans, and demons,” then went on to say that they heard something entirely different from the other groups. The gods heard “dāmyata;” men heard “datta;” and the demons heard, “dayadhvam” (Upanisads, 73). And to every group, Prajāpati, upon hearing the different answers, replied, “Yes, … you have understood” (Upanisads, 73). 

Through this allusion, Eliot turns his poem into a work of universal theology where the three principal virtues are “datta,” “dayadhvam,” and “damyata”; Give, Sympathize, Self-Control (Eliot, 470). Eliot, in the final line, goes on to surprise the reader, further, by quoting a Vedic mantra, “Shantih shantih shantih” (Eliot, 434). As Eliot points out in his footnotes to the poem, this Sanskrit word does not have an English equivalent, but can roughly be translated as ‘incomprehensible peace’ (Ellman and O’Clair, 470).

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S.. “The Waste Land.” The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair, W. W. Norton, 1973, pp. 457-471.

Upanisads. Translated by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 2008.

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