The poem begins with a section entitled "The Burial of the Dead." In it, the narrator -- perhaps a representation of Eliot himself -- describes the seasons. Spring brings "memory and desire," and so the narrator's memory drifts back to times in Munich, to childhood sled rides, and to a possible romance with a "hyacinth girl." The memories only go so far, however. The narrator is now surrounded by a desolate land full of "stony rubbish."
He remembers a fortune-teller named Madame Sosostris who said he was "the drowned Phoenician Sailor" and that he should "fear death by water." Next he finds himself on London Bridge, surrounded by a crowd of people. He spots a friend of his from wartime, and calls out to him.
The next section, "A Game of Chess," transports the reader abruptly from the streets of London to a gilded drawing room, in which sits a rich, jewel-bedecked lady who complains about her nerves and wonders what to do. The poem drifts again, this time to a pub at closing time in which two Cockney women gossip. Within a few stanzas, we have moved from the upper crust of society to London's low-life.
"The Fire Sermon" opens with an image of a river. The narrator sits on the banks and muses on the deplorable state of the world. As Tiresias, he sees a young "carbuncular" man hop into bed with a lonely female typist, only to aggressively make love to her and then leave without hesitation. The poem returns to the river, where maidens sing a song of lament, one of them crying over her loss of innocence to a similarly lustful man.
"Death by Water," the fourth section of the poem, describes a dead Phoenician lying in the water -- perhaps the same drowned sailor of whom Madame Sosostris spoke. "What the Thunder Said" shifts locales from the sea to rocks and mountains. The narrator cries for rain, and it finally comes. The thunder that accompanies it ushers in the three-pronged dictum sprung from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: "Datta, dayadhvam, damyata": to give, to sympathize, to control. With these commandments, benediction is possible, despite the collapse of civilization that is under way -- "London bridge is falling down falling down falling down."