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The Waste Land

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The Waste Land is a 434-line Modernist poem by T. S. Eliot published in 1922. It has been called "one of the most important poems of the 20th century." Despite the poem's obscurity—its shifts between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures—the poem has become a familiar touchstone of modern literature. Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month" (its first line); "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and (its last line) the mantra in the Sanskrit language " Shantih shantih shantih."

Composition history


Eliot probably worked on what was to become The Waste Land for several years preceding its first publication in 1922. In a letter to New York lawyer and patron of modernism John Quinn dated 9 May 1921, Eliot wrote that he had "a long poem in mind and partly on paper which I am wishful to finish."

Richard Aldington, in his memoirs, relates that "a year or so" before Eliot read him the manuscript draft of The Waste Land in London, Eliot visited him in the country. While walking through a graveyard, they started discussing Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Aldington writes: "I was surprised to find that Eliot admired something so popular, and then went on to say that if a contemporary poet, conscious of his limitations as Gray evidently was, would concentrate all his gifts on one such poem he might achieve a similar success."

Eliot, having been diagnosed with some form of nervous disorder, had been recommended rest, and applied for three months' leave from the bank where he was employed; the reason stated on his staff card was " nervous breakdown". He and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, travelled to the coastal resort of Margate for a period of convalescence. While there, Eliot worked on the poem, and possibly showed an early version to Ezra Pound when, after a brief return to London, the Eliots travelled to Paris in November 1921 and were guests of Pound. Eliot was en route to Lausanne, Switzerland, for treatment by Doctor Roger Vittoz, who had been recommended to him by Ottoline Morrell; Vivien was to stay at a sanatorium just outside Paris. In Lausanne, Eliot produced a 19-page version of the poem. He returned from Lausanne in early January 1922. Pound then made detailed editorial comments and significant cuts to the manuscript. Eliot would later dedicate the poem to Pound.

Manuscript drafts

Eliot sent the manuscript drafts of the poem to John Quinn in October 1922; they reached Quinn in New York in January 1923. Upon Quinn's death they were inherited by his sister, Julia Anderson. Years later, in the early 1950s, Mrs Anderson's daughter, Mary Conroy, found the documents in storage. In 1958 she sold them privately to the New York Public Library.

It was not until April 1968 that the existence and whereabouts of the manuscript drafts were made known to Valerie Eliot, the poet's second wife and widow. In 1971, Faber and Faber published a "facsimile and transcript" of the original drafts, edited and annotated by Valerie Eliot. The full poem prior to the Pound editorial changes is contained in the facsimile.


The drafts of the poem reveal that it originally contained almost twice as much material as the final published version. The significant cuts are in part due to Ezra Pound's suggested changes, although Eliot himself is also responsible for removing large sections.

The now famous opening lines of the poem—'April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, ...'—did not appear until the top of the second page of the typescript. The first page of the typescript contained 54 lines in the sort of street voice that we hear again at the end of the second section, A Game of Chess. This page appears to have been lightly crossed out in pencil by Eliot himself.

Although there are several signs of similar adjustments made by Eliot, and a number of significant comments by Vivien, the most significant editorial input is clearly that of Pound, who recommended many cuts to the poem.

'The typist home at teatime' section was originally in entirely regular stanzas of iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of abab—the same form as Gray's Elegy, which was in Eliot's thoughts around this time. Pound's note against this section of the draft is "verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it". In the end, the regularity of the four-line stanzas was abandoned.

At the beginning of 'The Fire Sermon' in one version, there was a lengthy section in heroic couplets, in imitation of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. It described one lady Fresca (who appeared in the earlier poem "Gerontion"). As Richard Ellmann describes it, "Instead of making her toilet like Pope's Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce's Bloom." The lines read:

Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .

Ellmann notes "Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defecation, there was no point in another round."

Pound also excised some shorter poems that Eliot wanted to insert between the five sections. One of these, that Eliot had entitled 'Dirge', begins

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves' Disease in a dead Jew's eyes!
Where the crabs have eat the lids
. . .

At the request of Eliot's wife, Vivien, a line in the A Game of Chess section was removed from the poem: "And we shall play a game of chess/The ivory men make company between us / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door". This section is apparently based on their marital life, and she may have felt these lines too revealing. However, the "ivory men" line may have meant something to Eliot: in 1960, thirteen years after Vivien's death, he inserted the line in a copy made for sale to aid the London Library.

In a late December 1921 letter to Eliot to celebrate the "birth" of the poem, Pound wrote a bawdy poem of 48 lines titled "Sage Homme" in which he identified Eliot as the mother of the poem but compared himself to the midwife. Some of the verses are:

E. P. hopeless and unhelped
Enthroned in the marmorean skies
His verse omits realities,
Angelic hands with mother of pearl
Retouch the strapping servant girl,
Balls and balls and balls again
Can not touch his fellow men.
His foaming and abundant cream
Has coated his world. The coat of a dream;
Or say that the upjut of sperm
Has rendered his sense pachyderm.

Publishing history

Before the editing had even begun Eliot found a publisher. Horace Liveright of the New York publishing firm of Boni and Liveright was in Paris for a number of meetings with Ezra Pound. At a dinner on 3 January 1922, he made offers for works by Pound, James Joyce ( Ulysses) and Eliot. Eliot was to get a royalty of 15% for a book version of the poem planned for autumn publication.

To maximize his income and reach a broader audience, Eliot also sought a deal with magazines. Being the London correspondent for The Dial magazine and a college friend of its co-owner and co-editor, Scofield Thayer, the Dial was an ideal choice. Even though the Dial offered $150 (£34) for the poem (25% more than its standard rate) Eliot was offended that a year's work would be valued so low, especially since another contributor was found to have been given exceptional compensation for a short story. The deal with the Dial almost fell through (other magazines considered were the Little Review and Vanity Fair) but with Pound's efforts eventually a deal was worked out where, in addition to the $150, Eliot would be awarded the Dial magazine's second annual prize for outstanding service to letters. The prize carried an award of $2,000 (£450).

In New York in the late summer (with John Quinn, a lawyer and literary patron, representing Eliot's interests) Boni and Liveright made an agreement with The Dial where the magazine would be the first to publish the poem in the US by agreeing to purchase 350 copies of the book at discount from Boni and Liveright. Boni and Liveright would use the publicity of the award of the Dial's prize to Eliot to increase their initial sales.

The poem was first published in the UK, without the author's notes, in the first issue (October 1922) of The Criterion, a literary magazine started and edited by Eliot. The first appearance of the poem in the US was in the November 1922 issue of The Dial magazine (actually published in late October). In December 1922, the poem was published in the US in book form by Boni and Liveright, the first publication to print the notes. In September 1923, the Hogarth Press, a private press run by Eliot's friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf, published the first UK book edition of The Waste Land in an edition of about 450 copies, the type handset by Virginia Woolf.

The publication history of The Waste Land (as well as other pieces of Eliot's poetry and prose) has been documented by Donald Gallup.

Eliot, whose 1922 salary at Lloyds Bank was £500 ($2,215) made approximately £630 ($2,800) with the Dial, Boni and Liveright and Hogarth Press publications.


Eliot originally considered titling the poem He do the Police in Different Voices. In the version of the poem Eliot brought back from Switzerland, the first two sections of the poem—'The Burial of the Dead' and 'A Game of Chess'—appeared under this title. This strange phrase is taken from Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend, in which the widow Betty Higden, says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy: "You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices." This would help the reader to understand that, while there are many different voices (speakers) in the poem, some critics believe there is only one central consciousness. What was lost by the rejection of this title Eliot might have felt compelled to restore by commenting on the commonalities of his characters in his note about Tiresias.

In the end, the title Eliot chose was The Waste Land. In his first note to the poem he attributes the title to Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance. The allusion is to the wounding of the Fisher King and the subsequent sterility of his lands. To restore the King and make his lands fertile again the Grail questor must ask "What ails you?"

The poem's title is often mistakenly given as "Waste Land" (as used by Weston) or "Wasteland", omitting the definite article. However, in a letter to Ezra Pound, Eliot politely insisted that the title begin with "The".


The epigraph and dedication to The Waste Land showing some of the languages that Eliot used in the poem: Latin, Greek, English and Italian.

The poem is preceded by a Latin and Greek epigraph from The Satyricon of Petronius. In English, it reads: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die."

Following the epigraph is a dedication (added in a 1925 republication) that reads "For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro" Here Eliot is both quoting line 117 of Canto XXVI of Dante's Purgatorio, the second cantica of The Divine Comedy, where Dante defines the troubadour Arnaut Daniel as "the best smith of the mother tongue" and also Pound's title of chapter 2 of his The Spirit of Romance (1910) where he translated the phrase as "the better craftsman." This dedication was originally written in ink by Eliot in the 1922 Boni & Liveright paperback edition of the poem presented to Pound; it was subsequently included in future editions.

The five parts of The Waste Land are entitled:

  1. The Burial of the Dead
  2. A Game of Chess
  3. The Fire Sermon
  4. Death by Water
  5. What the Thunder Said

The text of the poem is followed by several pages of notes, purporting to explain his metaphors, references, and allusions. Some of these notes are helpful in interpreting the poem, but some are arguably even more puzzling, and many of the most opaque passages are left unannotated. The notes were added after Eliot's publisher requested something longer to justify printing The Waste Land in a separate book.

There is some question as to whether Eliot originally intended The Waste Land to be a collection of individual poems (additional poems were supplied to Pound for his comments on including them) or to be considered one poem with five sections.


The style of the work in part grows out of Eliot's interest in exploring the possibilities of dramatic monologue. This interest dates back at least as far as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Eliot also enjoyed the music hall, and something of the flavour of this popular form of entertainment gets into the poem, quoting the song The Shakespeherian Rag by Ziegfeld Follies composers Dave Stamper and Gene Buck. It follows the pattern of the musical fugue, in which many voices enter throughout the piece re-stating the themes.

Above all perhaps it is the disjointed nature of the poem, the way it jumps from one adopted manner to another, the way it moves between different voices and makes use of phrases in foreign languages, that is the most distinctive feature of the poem's style. Interestingly, at the same time as Eliot was writing The Waste Land, Robert Bridges was working on the first of his Neo-Miltonic Syllabics, a poem called ' Poor Poll', which also includes lines in several different languages.

Critical reception

The poem's initial reception was mixed; though many hailed its portrayal of universal despair and ingenious technique, others, such as F. L. Lucas, detested the poem from the first, while Charles Powell commented "so much waste paper".

Edmund Wilson's influential piece for The Dial in 1922, "The Poetry of Drouth," which many critics have noted is unusually generous in arguing that the poem has an effective cohesive structure, emphasizes autobiographical and emotional elements:

Not only is life sterile and futile, but men have tasted its sterility and futility a thousand times before. T. S. Eliot, walking the desert of London, feels profoundly that the desert has always been there. Like Tiresias, he has sat below the wall of Thebes; like Buddha, he has seen the world as an arid conflagration; like the Sibyl, he has known everything and known everything in vain.

Horror author H. P. Lovecraft, who despised Eliot, called the poem "a practically meaningless collection of phrases, learned allusions, quotations, slang, and scraps in general" and wrote a scathing parody called "Waste Paper: A Poem Of Profound Insignificance".

Critic Harold Bloom has observed that the forerunners for The Waste Land are Alfred Lord Tennyson's Maud: A Monodrama and particularly Walt Whitman's elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. The major images of Eliot's poem are found in Whitman's ode: the lilacs that begin Eliot's poem, the "unreal city," the duplication of the self, the "dear brother," the "murmur of maternal lamentation," the image of faces peering at us, and the hermit thrush's song.

One evening Eliot read from the poem to the Royal Family during WWII. Years later, the Queen Mother recalled the evening:

We had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem... I think it was called The Desert. And first the girls [Elizabeth and Margaret] got the giggles and then I did and then even the King.

Allusions in "The Burial of the Dead"

"The Burial of the Dead" serves as the title of Eliot's first section and is an allusion to The Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book of the Church of England (Anglican).

The second section of "The Burial of the Dead" shifts from the voice of the powerless Marie and becomes the voice of the narrator. The first twelve lines of this section include three Old Testament allusions, and the narrator finds himself in a summer drought that has transformed the land into a desert. He is referred to as the "Son of man," a title common in the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament), sometimes applied to denote any man—i.e. son of man = human, but sometimes also used to single out a specific man, for example Ezekiel, who was called upon by God to warn Israel to repent of their idolatry. It is also a title used in the New Testament, notably by Jesus when referring to himself, speaking of his coming death and apocalyptic return, or when making prophetic predictions of judgment to come (e.g. Mark 10:32-34, Matthew 20:17-19; Luke 18:31-34 and Mark 8:38-9:1, Matthew 16:27-28, Luke 9:26-27).

In Ezekiel, God finally tells the prophet that Israel will not change; therefore, their altars will be desolate, images broken, and their cities will lay in waste. In the book of Ecclesiastes, God warns the Jewish people that they should remember the days of their youth, for in their old age "fears shall be in the way" and "then shall the dust return to the earth as it was" (Authorized King James Version, Ezekiel 6:4, Ecclesiastes 12:5-7). Gish analyzes these allusions by writing, "Dead land, broken images, fear and dust, all take on the significance of human failure" (50). After such a depressing sequence of events, the narrator is offered shelter under a mysterious "red rock" which is an allusion to Isaiah's reference to the coming Messiah who will be "as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land" (Authorized Version, Isaiah 32:2).

It next quotes the verses 5–8 from the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

Frisch weht der Wind
der Heimat zu:
mein irisch Kind,
wo weilest du?

(Fresh blows the wind / towards home / my Irish child / where linger you?) It later quotes Act 3, verse 24, Oed' und leer das Meer (Desolate and empty [is] the sea).

The crowd marches in the "Unreal city" under the fog of a winter's dawn. There are so many people that the narrator exclaims, "I had not thought death had undone so many"(63). This verse is a direct allusion to Dante's Inferno and the people that he witnessed in the vestibule of Hell. Dante writes, "An interminable train of souls pressed on, so many that I wondered how death could have undone so many" (3.55-57). Dante, describing one in the crowd whom he recognizes, writes, "I saw the shade of the one who must have been the coward who made the great refusal" (3.59-60). The "great refusal" that Dante refers to is the lack of choosing either good or evil. They have died without ever living; furthermore, they may not enter either Hell or Heaven since they made no choice in life to be virtuous or to sin.

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