"The Waste Land" begins with an excerpt from Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon, in Latin and Greek, which translates as: “For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered, ‘I want to die.’” The quotation is followed by a dedication to Ezra Pound, Eliot’s colleague and friend, who played a major role in shaping the final version of the poem.
The poem proper begins with a description of the seasons. April emerges as the “cruellest” month, passing over a desolate land to which winter is far kinder. Eliot shifts from this vague invocation of time and nature to what seem to be more specific memories: a rain shower by the Starnbergersee; a lake outside Munich; coffee in that city’s Hofgarten; sledding with a cousin in the days of childhood.
The second stanza returns to the tone of the opening lines, describing a land of “stony rubbish” – arid, sterile, devoid of life, quite simply the “waste land” of the poem’s title. Eliot quotes Ezekiel 2.1 and Ecclesiastes 12.5, using biblical language to construct a sort of dialogue between the narrator –- the “son of man” -– and a higher power. The former is desperately searching for some sign of life -– “roots that clutch,” branches that grow -- but all he can find are dry stones, dead trees, and “a heap of broken images.” We have here a forsaken plane that offers no relief from the beating sun, and no trace of water.
Suddenly Eliot switches to German, quoting directly from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The passage translates as: “Fresh blows the wind / To the homeland / My Irish child / Where do you wait?” In Wagner’s opera, Isolde, on her way to Ireland, overhears a sailor singing this song, which brings with it ruminations of love promised and of a future of possibilities. After this digression, Eliot offers the reader a snatch of speech, this time from the mouth of the “hyacinth girl.” This girl, perhaps one of the narrator's (or Eliot's) early loves, alludes to a time a year ago when the narrator presented her with hyacinths. The narrator, for his part, describes in another personal account –- distinct in tone, that is, from the more grandiloquent descriptions of the waste land, the seasons, and intimations of spirituality that have preceded it –- coming back late from a hyacinth garden and feeling struck by a sense of emptiness. Looking upon the beloved girl, he “knew nothing”; that is to say, faced with love, beauty, and “the heart of light,” he saw only “silence.” At this point, Eliot returns to Wagner, with the line “Oed’ und leer das Meer”: “Desolate and empty is the sea.” Also plucked from Tristan und Isolde, the line belongs to a watchman, who tells the dying Tristan that Isolde’s ship is nowhere to be seen on the horizon.
From here Eliot switches abruptly to a more prosaic mode, introducing Madame Sosostris, a “famous clairvoyante” alluded to in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow. This fortune-teller is known across Europe for her skills with Tarot cards. The narrator remembers meeting her when she had “a bad cold.” At that meeting she displayed to him the card of the drowned Phoenician Sailor: “Here, said she, is your card.” Next comes “Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,” and then “the man with three staves,” “the Wheel,” and “the one-eyed merchant.” It should be noted that only the man with three staves and the wheel are actual Tarot cards; Belladonna is often associated with da Vinci’s "Madonna of the Rocks," and the one-eyed merchant is, as far as we can tell, an invention of Eliot’s.
Finally, Sosostris encounters a blank card representing something the one-eyed merchant is carrying on his back – something she is apparently “forbidden to see.” She is likewise unable to find the Hanged Man among the cards she displays; from this she concludes that the narrator should “fear death by water.” Sosostris also sees a vision of a mass of people “walking round in a ring.” Her meeting with the narrator concludes with a hasty bit of business: she asks him to tell Mrs. Equitone, if he sees her, that Sosostris will bring the horoscope herself.
The final stanza of this first section of "The Waste Land" begins with the image of an “Unreal City” echoing Baudelaire’s “fourmillante cite,” in which a crowd of people –- perhaps the same crowd Sosostris witnessed –- flows over London Bridge while a “brown fog” hangs like a wintry cloud over the proceedings. Eliot twice quotes Dante in describing this phantasmagoric scene: “I had not thought death had undone so many” (from Canto 3 of the Inferno); “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled” (from Canto 4). The first quote refers to the area just inside the Gates of Hell; the second refers to Limbo, the first circle of Hell.
It seems that the denizens of modern London remind Eliot of those without any blame or praise who are relegated to the Gates of Hell, and those who where never baptized and who now dwell in Limbo, in Dante’s famous vision. Each member of the crowd keeps his eyes on his feet; the mass of men flow up a hill and down King William Street, in the financial district of London, winding up beside the Church of Saint Mary Woolnoth. The narrator sees a man he recognizes named Stetson. He cries out to him, and it appears that the two men fought together in a war. Logic would suggest World War I, but the narrator refers to Mylae, a battle that took place during the First Punic War. He then asks Stetson whether the corpse he planted last year in his garden has begun to sprout. Finally, Eliot quotes Webster and Baudelaire, back to back, ending the address to Stetson in French: “hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!”
Eliot’s opening quotation sets the tone for the poem as a whole. Sibyl is a mythological figure who asked Apollo “for as many years of life as there are grains in a handful of sand” (North, 3). Unfortunately, she did not think to ask for everlasting youth. As a result, she is doomed to decay for years and years, and preserves herself within a jar. Having asked for something akin to eternal life, she finds that what she most wants is death. Death alone offers escape; death alone promises the end, and therefore a new beginning.
Thus does Eliot begin his magisterial poem, labeling his first section “The Burial of the Dead,” a title pulled from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. He has been careful to lay out his central theme before the first stanza has even begun: death and life are easily blurred; from death can spring life, and life in turn necessitates death. Cleanth Brooks, Jr., in “The Waste Land: An Analysis,” sees the poem’s engine as a paradox: “Life devoid of meaning is death; sacrifice, even the sacrificial death, may be life-giving, an awaking to life.” Eliot’s vision is of a decrepit land inhabited by persons who languish in an in-between state, perhaps akin to that of Dante’s Limbo: they live, but insofar as they seem to feel nothing and aspire to nothing, they are dead. Eliot once articulated his philosophy concerning these matters in a piece of criticism on Baudelaire, one of his chief poetic influences: in it, Eliot intimated that it may be better to do evil than to do nothing at all -- that at least some form of action means that one exists.
This criterion for existence, perhaps an antecedent to Existentialism, holds action as inherently meaningful. Inaction is equated with waste. The key image in "The Waste Land" may then be Sosostris’s vision of “crowds of people, walking round in a ring.” They walk and walk, but go nowhere. Likewise, the inhabitants of modern London keep their eyes fixed to their feet; their destination matters little to them and they flow as an unthinking mass, bedecking the metropolis in apathy.
From this thicket of malaise, the narrator clings to memories that would seem to suggest life in all its vibrancy and wonder: summer rain in Munich, coffee in a German park, a girl wearing flowers. What is crucial to the poem’s sensibility, however, is the recognition that even these trips to the past, even these attempts to regain happiness, must end in failure or confusion. Identities are in flux. The Hofgarten memory precipitates a flurry of German: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Translated, this line reads roughly as: “I’m not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.” It is not clear who the speaker is, but whatever the case the line is nonsensical; three distinct regions of Europe are mentioned, though Lithuania arguably has far more to do with Russia than with Germany. The sentence itself depends on a non sequitur, anticipating by almost a century Europe’s current crisis of identity, with individual nations slowly losing ground to a collective union. In Eliot’s time, that continent was just emerging from the wreckage of World War I, a splintered entity teetering on chaos; Germany, in particular, suffered from a severe identity dilemma, with various factions competing for authority, classes that were distrustful of one another, and the old breed of military strong-men itching to renew itself for the blood-drenched decades to come.
The historical considerations will only go so far. Biographical interpretation is a slippery slope, but it should nonetheless be noted that Eliot was, at the time of the poem’s composition, suffering from acute nervous ailments, chief among them severe anxiety. It was during his time of recuperation that he was able to write much of "The Waste Land," but his conflicted feelings about his wife, Vivienne, did not much help his state of mind. The ambiguity of love, the potential of that emotion to cause both great joy and great sorrow, informs the passage involving the hyacinth girl – another failed memory, as it were. In this case, Eliot describes a vision of youthful beauty in a piece of writing that seems at first to stem more from English Romanticism than from the arid modern world of the rest of the poem: “Your arms full, and your hair wet.” Water, so cherished an element and so lacking in this desolate wasteland, here brings forth flowers and hyacinth girls, and the possibility of happiness, however fleeting. That very vision, however, causes Eliot’s eyes to fail, his speech to forsake him; love renders him impotent, and he is left “neither living nor dead” – much like the aforementioned residents of Limbo. The paradox is that such joy and human warmth might elicit such pain and coldness. Eliot sums it up with the line: “Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Using Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as a book-end device –- the first such quotation alluding to the beginnings of love, the second describing the tragedy of a love lost –- Eliot traces a swift passage from light to darkness, sound to silence, movement to stasis. (Tristan begins on a boat, with the wind freshly blowing, and ends on the shoreline, awaiting a boat that never comes.)
The same paradox is there at the very beginning of the poem: April is the cruelest month. Shouldn’t it be the kindest? The lovely image of lilacs in the spring is here associated with “the dead land.” Winter was better; then, at least, the suffering was obvious, and the “forgetful snow” covered over any memories. In spring, “memory and desire” mix; the poet becomes acutely aware of what he is missing, of what he has lost, of what has passed him by. Ignorance is bliss; the knowledge that better things are possible is perhaps the most painful thing of all. Eliot’s vision of modern life is therefore rooted in a conception of the lost ideal.
It is appropriate, then, that the narrator should turn next to a clairvoyant; after gazing upon the past, he now seeks to into the future. Water, giver of life, becomes a token of death: the narrator is none other than the drowned Phoenician Sailor, and he must “fear death by water.” This realization paves the way for the famous London Bridge image. Eliot does not even describe the water of the Thames; he saves his verse for the fog that floats overhead, for the quality of the dawn-lit sky, and for the faceless mass of men swarming through the dead city. Borrowing heavily from Baudelaire’s visions of Paris, Eliot paints a portrait of London as a haunted (or haunting) specter, where the only sound is “dead” and no man dares even look beyond the confines of his feet. When the narrator sees Stetson, we return to the prospect of history. World War I is replaced by the Punic War; with this odd choice, Eliot seems to be arguing that all wars are the same, just as he suggests that all men are the same in the stanza’s final line: “You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!”: “Hypocrite reader! – my likeness, – my brother!” We are all Stetson; Eliot is speaking directly to us. Individual faces blur into the ill-defined mass of humanity as the burial procession inexorably proceeds.