The Waste Land is arguably the most influential modernist poem of the 20th century. It was first published in October 1922 in the British journal The Criterion, then a month later in the American journal The Dial, before appearing in book form, firstly, in America by Boni and Liverlight in 1922, and then in 1923 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.
The poem is divided into five sections; ‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, ‘Death by Water’, and ‘What Thunder Said’. When the poem appeared in book form, Eliot included explanatory notes to the many religious, cultural, and literary allusions. Nevertheless the poem remains difficult and complex with references to Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Eliot also incorporates a number of different languages including, French, Italian, Greek, and German. Throughout the poem there are allusions to Shakespeare, Dante, Ovid, Milton, Baudelaire, Virgil, Spenser, and Homer among others. Juxtaposed to these highbrow references are colloquial passages of public house conversations, popular music hall song, and the Tarot.
For many commentators, The Waste Land expresses disillusionment with 20th century civilisation set against allusions to ancient myth, folklore and the Bible. In his notes, Eliot describes his indebtedness to Jessie L Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance on the legend of the Holy Grail, and it was this work Eliot cites for the plan and much of the symbolism found in the poem. The Waste Land was written in the aftermath of the First World War and has been interpreted as reflecting the plight of the generation left to confront a futile and confusing world. The majority of the poem was written at a time when Eliot was recovering from a nervous breakdown and was trapped in an unhappy marriage, leading some to consider the poem as autobiographical. Neither of these views were wholly accepted by Eliot who commented that some critics were perhaps projecting their own disillusionment on the poem.
The poem doesn't have a single voice but many voices, and it is the rhythm of these voices that is for many the appeal of the poem. Subject to varied interpretations over the years, it is perhaps this ability to regenerate itself that is the basis of The Waste Land’s greatness.
In 2015 Faber & Faber published a new edition of The Waste Land in the form and layout of the original Hogarth Press edition. For more T S Eliot content explore The Waste Land for iPad App and works published by Faber & Faber.