Introduction to The Waste Land Notes by Dr. Honora M. Finkelstein   (Many notes are synthesized from Martin S. Day, History of English Literature 1837 to the Present, and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 1979) T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is the most discussed poem of the 20th century. It was written post World War I as an indictment of the spiritual and sexual sterility Western culture was experiencing. Images of dryness and dessication run throughout, as does Eliot’s sense that Western paths to spirituality and love had lost vitality and meaning. 1. Theme. According to Day, "The Waste Land is a condemnation of the sterile futility of modern life." Its pattern is that of death and resurrection, but it asserts that the modern period is more willing to settle for death than to seek renewed vitality. 2. Underlying myth. Eliot took his central myth as well as the title of the poem from Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Weston sees the legend of the Holy Grail as resting on ancient myths of the vegetation and fertility cycle. The fundamental story, as presented in such myths as that of the Grail Knight Percival (Parsifal), concerns a Fisher King who through illness or wound is rendered sexually impotent. The land, therefore, is blighted, an arid land sorely in need of water. The curse may be removed, and both the king and the land restored to fertility, by a quester who endures hardships to seek and bring back a cup and spear (or sword). Most critics see these two implements as sexual symbols; in the Tarot cards, which derive from the Middle Ages and which figure prominently in Eliot’s poem, they represent the suits of cups and swords, and represent the feminine and masculine sides of each individual, as well as emotion and reason respectively. 3. Application of myth to the theme. The wound of the Fisher King is the modern weakness of Christianity, and indeed all religion; hence, the poem suggests that modern Westerners have lost their faith. Though it appears as a collage of many time frames, the poem corresponds to the period between Good Friday and Easter, a time when there seems to be no hope of resurrection. (Eliot’s assertion that "April is the cruelest month" calls up other Aprils and Easters from literature, such as the opening scene of Dante’s Commedia, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Goethe’s Faust..) 4. Technique. Day calls the poem a "ritual drama," employing a montage succession of images ranging through Western art, literature, and life to illuminate the theme. This sequencing is "more effective than a logical transition from one example of the theme to another." 5. Analysis. The Epigraph, from the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, is the first of several repeated instances of the degeneration of prophecy in the modern world. The Sibyl of Cumae, who led Aeneas on his journey to the underworld, for which he collected the Golden Bough, was the most famous prophetess of the ancient world. Beloved of Apollo, she was given anything she might desire. She asked for eternal life. Sadly, Apollo granted her wish, for she had forgotten to ask for eternal youth. Now dried, dessicated, and shrunken, she is carried in a cricket cage, and when the boys ask her what she desires, she says: "I want to die." Part I. The Burial of the Dead. In April the vegetation God of Christianity, Jesus the Christ, is crucified, and the postwar cafes of central Europe murmur with hopelessness, preferring the hibernation of winter to a renewed life in the spring. Angry denunciations of the prophet are followed by taunting pictures of modern sterility and of the oracle debased into a fortune-teller. A pedestrian on the London street is accosted with a question about whether the buried corpse of the Vegetation God in his back yard will arise to renew the land and the spirit. Part II. A Game of Chess. The futility of upper class life is demonstrated by a frustrated lady, a spiritual desert in the midst of sumptuous magnificance. The ancient and Renaissance past have become devalued and vulgarized. Futility in the lower classes is represented by a cockney girl who sits in a London pub near closing time, relating a sordid tale of sexual desire, abortion, and life denial. The title of this section comes from Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton, where a game of chess is a cover for a seduction. Part III. The Fire Sermon. Futility in the middle classes is represented by a series of fornications and perverse materialisms. From this inferno of unholy love come warnings from St. Augustine, Zechariah, and Buddha (whose Fire Sermon gives the section its title), calling for transcendence of the spirit over the flesh, and heavenly love instead of carnal lust. Part IV. Death by Water. Throughout the poem, water is a symbol of life and regeneration, but to many modern people, the womb of life has proved a tomb. Part V. What the Thunder Said. The betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus are the keynote for the depths of despondency and hallucination in the parched land. The quester, his mind almost broken from pain, comes to the Chapel Perilous, and the rains finally begin. From out of the thunder, God announces three disciplines: Datta (give), Dayadhvam (sympathize), Damyata (control). Although the path to a new life is offered, the closing lines recognize that the modern world is still in the waste land. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily