‘The Waste Land’, a Century On

Thomas Stearns Eliot was one of those creative artists who were born at precisely the right time and place, in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. And, we might add, in propitious familial circumstances. The timing was right, because it meant that he came to manhood in the very period that the Romantic movement, in its later Victorian manifestations and in the works of the so-called Decadents of the 1890s, was in its decline, its final collapse occurring as a result of the Great War. It was difficult to believe in Romantic representations of life, in any art form, after the horrors of that cataclysm.

The American birthplace was fortunate, too, as Eliot, travelling, initially, to study in France and, later, Germany and then to settle in England at the outbreak of the war in 1914, brought the freshness of a New World outsider’s perspective to the European-based culture which he was to embrace, and critique, and to which he was to make such a revolutionary, significant and—as it has turned out—enduring contribution.

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The family were of well-heeled Bostonian “Brahmin” Unitarian heritage, the poet’s grandfather having come south to the frontier (as it then was) in St Louis, to establish the Unitarian Church of the Messiah and to play a prominent part in setting up Washington University there. Eliot was given the best education, going north to Massachusetts to Milton Academy, and then to Harvard, where his studies seemed to be leading him to an academic career in philosophy.

It was during his time at Harvard that Eliot spent the academic year 1910-11 in Paris, supposedly furthering his philosophical work, but encountering, for the first time, the innovative poetry of the French Symbolistes and Imagistes. Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire, for example, revealed to the young man the possibilities for poetic representation of the debased urban environment of modernity—the antithesis of the Romantic worldview and the customary settings of its poetry. It was in these very years that Eliot wrote his now-famous earliest works, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, introducing a striking new voice for the new century, with un-Romantic, anti-heroic figures, such as the middle-aged, loveless subject of that ironically-entitled dramatic monologue, eking out their existence in the oppressive settings of metropolitan life.

Once published, in his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1915), Eliot’s poems astonished the reading public and appalled numerous critics, as well as poets of the Georgian school of the time, the last gasp of the Romantic movement in verse. He was provocatively initiating, in poetry, what was being explored also in prose (by such as James Joyce), in music (by Igor Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring, for example) and in art (where the Post-Impressionist movement caused a so-called “culture quake” in that domain). This new phenomenon came to be known, collectively, as Modernism, and cosmopolitanism was a prominent component of its character, as Eliot revealed in surveying his formative years, from:

the point of view of an American who wasn’t an American, because he was born in the South and went to school in New England as a small boy, but who wasn’t a southerner in the South because his people were northerners in a border state and looked down on all southerners and Virginians, and who so was never anything anywhere and who therefore felt himself to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a Frenchman and yet felt that the U.S.A. up to a hundred years ago was a family extension.

In 1915, by which time Eliot had settled in London and had put any ideas of a philosophical career in America decisively behind him, to his family’s displeasure, the poet married his first wife, the Englishwoman Vivien Haigh-Wood, an arrangement that seems to have been doomed to fail from the beginning, the couple being so ill-matched (as numerous observers, such as Bertrand Russell, noted). The marriage was, much later, to become the subject of the play and film Tom and Viv (1994).

The combination of the disturbing experience of living in London during the Great War, the ramifying problems of his domestic life and the ongoing struggle to establish his standing as a poet and literary critic (a kindred literary role in which he was, again, both innovative and very influential as the twentieth century proceeded), provided the negative circumstances which, ironically, positively nourished his creativity and, more generally, informed Eliot’s largely despairing interpretation of contemporary life.

This resonated powerfully with the growing sense of cultural dissolution (“the breaking of nations”) and disillusionment, the decline of the West, as Oswald Spengler described it in his book of 1918, in the wake of the Great War. Eliot’s greatest poem—and arguably the greatest poem of the twentieth century—spoke powerfully to these issues: The Waste Land was published in 1922. The first publisher was Boni & Liveright in New York. The following year, Virginia and Leonard Woolf produced their friend’s work in London, through their Hogarth Press. Remembering the appearance of The Waste Land, in his autobiography written during the Cold War, the American poet and physician William Carlos Williams compared it to a nuclear holocaust: “All our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped on it.”

1922 was the annus mirabilis of literary High Modernism, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses being published in the same year. What Eliot said at the time of Ulysses is true of his poem too:

in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him … It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.

In The Waste Land, Eliot draws on an astonishing range of sources—classical, biblical, and from across several of the European literary traditions—and a variety of poetic modes of expression, to portray the decline and fall of Western civilisation.

With the difficulty for readers which is customarily associated with his verse (although this has been exaggerated), the poet has, as the introductory epigraph to the work, a quotation in Latin and Ancient Greek. It is from the Satyricon of Petronius and introduces one of the several kinds of death—in this case, of prophecy—that Eliot associates with a dying culture. In translation, it reads:

I saw with my own eyes the Sybil at Cumae hanging in a cage and when the boys asked her: “Sybil, what do you want?”; she replied: “I want to die”.

Accordingly, the ensuing first section of the five-section poem is entitled, “The Burial of the Dead”. This is from the liturgical order for burial in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and introduces, after the classical epigraph, the counter-balancing major Christian theme which recurs in the work: the quest for redemption from the apparently fatally-denuded environment (literally and metaphorically) that the poem describes and dramatises. The Waste Land (which is very much a dramatic work, with characters, speeches, dialogue, scene settings—looking forward to Eliot’s later excursions into drama-writing, in such as Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party) references the Passion of Christ, and his subsequent death and resurrection, as well as the associated myth of the Holy Grail. Essentially, it confronts us with the issue of whether a civilisation that has been intellectually, emotionally and spiritually corrupted is capable of redemption.

With the work’s much-quoted arresting opening: “April is the cruellest month”, the first corpse, as it were, is presented for burial. It is one of the oldest traditions of Western literature, the reverdie, or the celebration of the re-greening of nature in springtime (in April, in the northern hemisphere), as in the opening line of the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But here that rich tradition is overturned, even as it is recalled, and serves to introduce the motif of a wasted land, so different from the promise of the vita nuova of spring. Perversely, “winter kept us warm”, the speaker declares, as the opening verse paragraph moves from the demise of the reverdie, in poetry and life, to the next corpse, the death of Europe, as “Marie”, representative of the breaking-up of the antebellum aristocratic order, confusingly declares: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus Litauen, echt deutsch” (“I am not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, I am a real German”). She focuses her sense of loss of cultural identity in terms of a disordered and displaced personal life: “I read much of the night, and go south in the winter.”

Next, Eliot concentrates on his principal metaphor, a desert-like wasted land, which presents “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter”. All that can be revealed to the “Son of man” is “fear in a handful of dust”, that last phrase giving the title to Evelyn Waugh’s novel, published in 1934. Waugh was one of the numerous writers of the period influenced by the poem, as in Brideshead Revisited, where an extended passage from the third section of The Waste Land is recited by the Oxford aesthete Anthony Blanche.

As the corpses mount up, there is the death of passion:

… when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead.

It is a major theme in Eliot’s poetry—introduced, first, in “Prufrock”—of sexual impotence and the failure of romance. We discern, here and elsewhere in the poem, Eliot’s own experience in these years of his disintegrating marriage.

Then, in the portrayal of Madame Sosostris (the feminisation of the male Sosostris from Herodotus adds to the sense of sexual confusion and associated infertility which accumulates through the work), a “famous clairvoyante”, her shuffling of her Tarot pack disappointingly fails to “find / The Hanged Man”. This is the image of the Redeemer, absent from the wasted land. It will only be rejuvenated, according to the Grail legend, when the ailing Fisher King (conflated, in Eliot’s imagining, with Christ the King, sending forth his fishers of men) is healed, and the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus and his disciples drank at the Last Supper, is found. But Madame does have a disturbingly accurate Dantean vision of the modern Inferno: “I see crowds of people walking round in a ring”, which modulates to one of the most memorable sections of the poem, Eliot’s representation of the denizens of the mercantile City of London (the characteristic Modernist setting of the metropolis and its life-denying domain):

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.


Nine o’clock in the morning was the time for the wastelanders to begin work; it was the time of executions in British prisons, and it was the time of the archetypal execution, at the hour of the morning sacrifice, of Christ.

The societal and personal demise of the modern world in terms of three social classes—aristocratic, middle and working—is the subject of the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess”. In addition to referencing Thomas Middleton’s play, A Game at Chess, the allusion to the game itself summons the discouraging idea, with regard to the longed-for revival of the Fisher King in the Grail legend, that the king is the weakest piece. The opening lines are splendid, recalling Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra (in Shakespeare’s play):

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Glowed on the marble …

But the sumptuous linguistic beauty quickly declines into an Elizabethan obscenity for sexual intercourse: “‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears”.

Then, a couple fight it out in the triviality, but mounting brutality, of domestic disharmony:

“What is that noise?”

The wind under the door.

“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”

Nothing again nothing.

“Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing?

Do you remember ‘Nothing’?”

I remember

Those are pearls that were his eyes …

This neurotic interchange, fizzling out in a reference to a rag-time song, in the wake of that beautiful phrase from The Tempest: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— / It’s so elegant / So intelligent”, matches the decline from the tragic magnificence of the Queen of Egypt, to a tawdry world of petty nastiness and cultural tastelessness. Some readers discern, again, a portrayal here of Tom and Viv themselves, in their fragmenting marriage and her increasing mental instability: “I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street / With my hair down, so.”

Third, the setting is a Cockney pub at closing time, with the publican’s phrase, “Hurry up please it’s time”, punctuating the lines. Women are gossiping and while fertility, for a change, is acknowledged: “if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said, / What you get married for if you don’t want children?” his un-Prufrockian potency is devoid of love and issues in a home abortion: “It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said … / The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same”. So, it is another life-denying situation, culminating in the remembrance of suicidal Ophelia, where the addressed “ladies” and their alluded-to sweetness resonate with a bitter irony: “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night”.

Eliot remarks, in the “Notes on the Waste Land” appended to the text, that “what Tiresias sees”, in its third part, “The Fire Sermon”, is “the substance of the poem”. So we pay particular attention to what this spectator, “the most important personage in the poem”, observes. It is a mechanical seduction, by “the young man carbuncular” of a typist. The classical Tiresias came upon two serpents copulating; now, we have two modern serpents from the Jazz Age in loveless intercourse, its degradation mocked in a sustained passage of iambic pentameter, alternately rhymed, with an elevated vocabulary juxtaposed with the low occasion:

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired,

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,

And makes a welcome of indifference.

The denouement of the event consummates its sordid meaninglessness:

Bestows one final patronising kiss,

And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit …

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again alone,

She smooths her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.

Seemingly contrasting with this, and just possibly offering hope in the midst of hopelessness, is the ensuing experience of the poem’s speaker of the beauty of the interior of one of the famed City churches of London, to which Eliot was particularly devoted:

                where the walls

Of Magnus Martyr hold

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

St Magnus the Martyr at London Bridge is the fishermen’s church, but the word that dominates this apparently uplifting epiphany in the midst of the wasted land is “inexplicable”. White and gold, referring to the classical columns inside the church, are also the liturgical colours of Easter, of resurrection—an incomprehensible experience, so it seems, in this personal and cultural desert.

The briefest section, the fourth, is in the form of an epitaph, an inscription on a funerary monument. In this case, it is the death of commerce, personified by Phlebas the Phoenician, from that great trading nation of antiquity. In the tradition of such inscriptions, it closes with a monitory message to the reader, but specifically those (such as the City workers) bound on the wheel of profit and loss:

Gentile or Jew

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

The Waste Land closes with an extended postlude to the laying waste of the West. Appropriately, the preposition after (signalling a dispensation from which the future has absented itself) generates the haunting incantatory quality of the poetry, from the first line, as the Passion of the Lord at Gethsemane and Golgotha is obliquely summoned:

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces

After the frosty silence in the gardens

After the agony in stony places …

The possibility of resurrection and the revival of the wasted land are now explicitly denied:

He who was living is now dead

We who are living are now dying

With a little patience.

The two disciples’ experience of the presence of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus is recalled, but now denied in the repeated, unanswered question: “Who is the third who walks always beside you? … / who is that on the other side of you?” And the catalogue of decayed civilisations culminates in the present time and place:

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Finally, three commands are issued, in Sanskrit (recalling Eliot’s Harvard studies of Eastern philosophy): Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata: Give, sympathise, control. The wastelanders have failed the test of each of these: they have given in to such as lust; they have failed, like “a broken Coriolanus” to truly sympathise (“each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”) and, most tellingly, they have failed to take control of their personal lives and cultural circumstances. Three commands, and three denials, recalling Peter’s of Christ.

Nightmarishly, the nursery rhyme has come true: “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down”, and the poem concludes in a Babel-like confusion of tongues, fragments of the Western literary heritage meaninglessly shored against the ruins of a corrupted world, haunted by the repeated incantation of those Eastern commands and a formal ending to a Upanishad: “Shantih, shantih, shantih”. This is the peace that passes understanding, and which, fatally, is beyond the Western world to grasp.

What Douglas Murray has recently described as “the strange death of Europe”, was predicted, much earlier, by Eliot, in terms of Western civilisation on the brink of suicide. The combination, today, of a stupefied, soul-destroying bread-and-circuses popular culture and the zealous determination of the minority (but all-powerful) woke elites to deconstruct and cancel what remains of a once rich and glorious cultural heritage—especially in the study of the Humanities in schools and universities—means that the now century-old message of this great poem reads, if anything, more compellingly and urgently in 2022 than it did even in 1922.

Barry Spurr’s Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Cambridge, 2010) was written at the request of the poet’s widow, Valerie, and is acknowledged as the standard account of Eliot’s Christian faith and its influence on his life and work. Professor Spurr is the Literary Editor of Quadrant

7 thoughts on “‘The Waste Land’, a Century On

  • whitelaughter says:

    Essays like this are the jewels that keep me a subscriber to quadrant. I have nothing to add to the article, I’m here to learn not talk.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Barry, you’ve given a good view into the imaginative order of The Wasteland. I’ve always found it almost impenetrably obscure, but not quite so his Four Quartets, in fact I read somewhere that Eliot himself had some difficulty explaining The Wasteland in later life and it must have been even more difficult in it’s original length, before Pound shortened it. His prose and essays are much easier for me e.g. in “For Lancelot Andrewes”, in particular the one on F.H. Bradley. His short comment on the content of wisdom in that one has always stayed in my mind.

  • vickisanderson says:

    “This is the peace that passes understanding, and which, fatally, is beyond the Western world to grasp.”

    Thank you Barry Spurr for reminding us, at Easter, of the great danger facing the West today. Is Redemption possible at this late stage?

  • Sindri says:

    Thank you, Barry!

  • Tony Tea says:

    Enlightening articles like this always prompt me to wish I hadn’t wasted my education.

  • wdr says:

    An outstanding article- very illuminating.

  • christopher.coney says:

    This wonderful article brings to mind the Christian view that despair is a serious sin.
    I suppose the stark beauty of Eliot’s poetic creations itself is something that swims against the tide
    of modernist despair, or alternatively, that rises above the despair for the world that the poet felt.
    And perhaps this means that the world is redeemed in the poetry, and only in the poetry.

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