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, 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 edition of the poem presented to Pound; it was subsequently included in future editions.
The five parts of The Waste Land are entitled:
- The Burial of the Dead
- A Game of Chess
- The Fire Sermon
- Death by Water
- 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.[H] Thirty years after publishing the poem with these notes, Eliot expressed his regret at "having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail".
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 structure of the poem is also meant to loosely follow the vegetation myth and Holy Grail folklore surrounding the Fisher King story as outlined by Jessie Weston in her book From Ritual to Romance (1920). Weston's book was so central to the structure of the poem that it was the first text that Eliot cited in his "Notes on the Waste Land".