The Waste Land

The Waste Land Themes


Two of the poem’s sections -- “The Burial of the Dead” and “Death by Water” --refer specifically to this theme. What complicates matters is that death can mean life; in other words, by dying, a being can pave the way for new lives. Eliot asks his friend Stetson: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” Similarly, Christ, by “dying,” redeemed humanity and thereby gave new life. The ambiguous passage between life and death finds an echo in the frequent allusions to Dante, particularly in the Limbo-like vision of the men flowing across London Bridge and through the modern city.


The Christ images in the poem, along with the many other religious metaphors, posit rebirth and resurrection as central themes. The Waste Land lies fallow and the Fisher King is impotent; what is needed is a new beginning. Water, for one, can bring about that rebirth, but it can also destroy. What the poet must finally turn to is Heaven, in the climactic exchange with the skies: “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” Eliot’s vision is essentially of a world that is neither dying nor living; to break the spell, a profound change, perhaps an ineffable one, is required. Hence the prevalence of Grail imagery in the poem; that holy chalice can restore life and wipe the slate clean; likewise, Eliot refers frequently to baptisms and to rivers – both “life-givers,” in either spiritual or physical ways.

The Seasons

"The Waste Land" opens with an invocation of April, “the cruellest month.” That spring be depicted as cruel is a curious choice on Eliot’s part, but as a paradox it informs the rest of the poem to a great degree. What brings life brings also death; the seasons fluctuate, spinning from one state to another, but, like history, they maintain some sort of stasis; not everything changes. In the end, Eliot’s “waste land” is almost seasonless: devoid of rain, of propagation, of real change. The world hangs in a perpetual limbo, awaiting the dawn of a new season.


Perhaps the most famous episode in "The Waste Land" involves a female typist’s liaison with a “carbuncular” man. Eliot depicts the scene as something akin to a rape. This chance sexual encounter carries with it mythological baggage – the violated Philomela, the blind Tiresias who lived for a time as a woman. Sexuality runs through "The Waste Land," taking center stage as a cause of calamity in “The Fire Sermon.” Nonetheless, Eliot defends “a moment’s surrender” as a part of existence in “What the Thunder Said.” Lust may be a sin, and sex may be too easy and too rampant in Eliot’s London, but action is still preferable to inaction. What is needed is sex that produces life, that rejuvenates, that restores – sex, in other words, that is not “sterile.”


The references to Tristan und Isolde in “The Burial of the Dead,” to Cleopatra in “A Game of Chess,” and to the story of Tereus and Philomela suggest that love, in "The Waste Land," is often destructive. Tristan and Cleopatra die, while Tereus rapes Philomela, and even the love for the hyacinth girl leads the poet to see and know “nothing."


"The Waste Land" lacks water; water promises rebirth. At the same time, however, water can bring about death. Eliot sees the card of the drowned Phoenician sailor and later titles the fourth section of his poem after Madame Sosostris’ mandate that he fear “death by water.” When the rain finally arrives at the close of the poem, it does suggest the cleansing of sins, the washing away of misdeeds, and the start of a new future; however, with it comes thunder, and therefore perhaps lightning. The latter may portend fire; thus, “The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said” are not so far removed in imagery, linked by the potentially harmful forces of nature.


History, Eliot suggests, is a repeating cycle. When he calls to Stetson, the Punic War stands in for World War I; this substitution is crucial because it is shocking. At the time Eliot wrote "The Waste Land," the First World War was definitively a first - the "Great War" for those who had witnessed it. There had been none to compare with it in history. The predominant sensibility was one of profound change; the world had been turned upside down and now, with the rapid progress of technology, the movements of societies, and the radical upheavals in the arts, sciences, and philosophy, the history of mankind had reached a turning point.

Eliot revises this thesis, arguing that the more things change the more they stay the same. He links a sordid affair between a typist and a young man to Sophocles via the figure of Tiresias; he replaces a line from Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” with “the sound of horns and motors”; he invokes Dante upon the modern-day London Bridge, bustling with commuter traffic; he notices the Ionian columns of a bar on Lower Thames Street teeming with fishermen. The ancient nestles against the medieval, rubs shoulders with the Renaissance, and crosses paths with the centuries to follow. History becomes a blur. Eliot’s poem is like a street in Rome or Athens; one layer of history upon another upon another.