The Waste Land, a long poem by the American writer T S Eliot, is one of the most famous works of literary modernism.
Across the poem’s five sections – ‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, ‘Death by Water’ and ‘What the Thunder Said’ – Eliot presents a bleak picture of the landscape of the contemporary world and its history; ‘the most important personage’, as he put it, is ‘the old man with wrinkled dugs’ Tiresias, a hermaphroditic character from Greek mythology who is blind, but can see into the future.
Rather than a single dramatic monologue, like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), woven throughout The Waste Land is a rich array of voices. This includes numerous literary and cultural references from sources as diverse as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, Conrad, ancient Sanskrit, and First World War trench slang. In addition, the poem contains a variety of musical references: Wagner, music hall, ragtime and nursery rhyme; and these sit alongside the sounds of children sledging, horns and motor cars, pub chatter and the rattle of bones.
Eliot had the idea for the poem in 1914, but a breakdown brought on by his father’s death in 1919 precipitated its completion, and it has largely been read as a comment on the bleakness of post-war European history. The pervasive metaphor of dryness is generally read as expressive of spiritual emptiness.
The poem itself was heavily edited by Ezra Pound, another American expatriate poet living in London at this time. Eliot gave Pound a copy of the 1922 edition with a handwritten dedication to ‘il miglior fabbro’ – Italian for ‘the better craftsman’ – and added it to the 1925 printed edition in his Poems 1909–1925.
Yet looking back, Eliot felt it ended up overshadowing his other work, and described it not so much as ‘an important bit of social criticism’, but as ‘the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’. These rhythms are indeed intensely of the time, and include hints of jazz and popular song.
The Waste Land was first published in 1922 in Criterion, a magazine edited by Eliot, then a few days later in the magazine The Dial, and later that year, as a book by Boni & Liveright in New York. This latter edition included ‘Notes’ explaining some of the vast range of references contained in the poem, and its particular basis on the legend of the Holy Grail, and the vegetation ceremonies in The Golden Bough (1890; expanded 1906–1915), a comparative study of world mythology by J G Frazer. However, in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, in 1956, Eliot described these notes as ‘a remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship’, which he had only written to make the text long enough for book publication.