The Waste Land

The Waste Land Study Guide

"The Waste Land" caused a sensation when it was published in 1922. It is today the most widely translated and studied English-language poem of the twentieth century. This is perhaps surprising given the poem's length and its difficulty, but Eliot's vision of modern life as plagued by sordid impulses, widespread apathy, and pervasive soullessness packed a punch when readers first encountered it.

Of course, "The Waste Land" is not quite the poem Eliot originally drafted. Eliot's close friend and colleague, Ezra Pound, significantly revised the poem, suggesting major cuts and compressions. Thanks to Pound's heavy editing, as well as suggestions (specifically about scenes relevant to their stormy, hostile marriage) from Haigh-Wood, "The Waste Land" defined Modernist poetry and became possibly the most influential poem of the century. Devoid of a single speaker's voice, the poem ceaselessly shifts its tone and form, instead grafting together numerous allusive voices from Eliot's substantial poetic repertoire; Dante shares the stage with nonsense sounds (a technique that also showcases Eliot's dry wit). Believing this style best represented the fragmentation of the modern world, Eliot focused on the sterility of modern culture and its lack of tradition and ritual. Despite this pessimistic viewpoint, many find its mythical, religious ending hopeful about humanity's chance for renewal.

Pound's influence on the final version of "The Waste Land" is significant. At the time of the poem's composition, Eliot was ill, struggling to recover from his nervous breakdown and languishing through an unhappy marriage. Pound offered him support and friendship; his belief in and admiration for Eliot were enormous. In turn, however, he radically trimmed Eliot's long first draft (nineteen pages, by some accounts), bringing the poem closer to its current version. This is not to say Eliot would not have revised the poem on his own in similar ways; rather, the two men seemed to have genuinely collaborated on molding what was already a loose and at times free-flowing work. Pound, like Eliot a crucible of modernism, called for compression, ellipsis, reduction. The poem grew yet more cryptic; references that were previously clear now became more obscure. Explanations were out the window. The result was a more difficult work -- but arguably a richer one.

Eliot did not take all of Pound's notes, but he did follow his friend's advice enough to turn his sprawling work into a tight, elliptical, and fragmented piece. Once the poem was completed, Pound lobbied on its behalf, convincing others of its importance. He believed in Eliot's genius, and in the impact "The Waste Land" would have on the literature of its day. That impact ultimately stretched beyond poetry, to novels, painting, music, and all the other arts. John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer owes a significant debt to "The Waste Land," for example. Eliot's take on the modern world profoundly shaped future schools of thought and literature, and his 1922 poem remains a touchstone of the English-language canon.