A longer time ago than I like to think about, when I was a junior in high school, my English class did a unit on T.S. Eliot. The teacher gave us all copies of The Waste Land that he’d printed out and added his own notes too. I adored it and years later still have that copy with so many of my owns notes added to it. Like any good piece of literature, every time you read it you get something new out of it. In high school, I focused on phrases I thought were pretty, highlighting them all. Later, I focused on references to mythology and ancient history. I’ve always appreciated how disjointed this poem is, but now I am able to connect the things I once focused on and fully understand the purpose of it being so disjointed.
Eliot wrote the poem after World War I, while dealing with what would probably be called depression today. He viewed the new world he was living in as being fragmented and this shows throughout the poem. There are five sections and in each are disjointed scenes that follow one another with seemingly no transitions. There is also a prevailing sense of desperation that comes out of this fragmentation, perhaps representing both post-WWI England and Eliot’s own psyche at the time. Eliot saw the post-war world as lacking in connections, particularly religious ones. There is a unifying theme throughout The Waste Land of mythology, as if this is what will bring the world together again. But even this attempt at unification seems desperate and disjointed. The final stanza is possibly the most disjointed of all, and can be read as a final, desperate attempt at creating something meaningful in a world that had just experienced WWI.
Eliot also viewed the modern world as infertile, incapable of creating something new. Fertility rituals are also a theme running throughout and we see the Fisher King a few times. The Fisher King is a character from Arthurian legend and is seen as an icon of fertility. (He can also be seen as symbolic of the waste land itself.) The Fisher King is seen in the very last stanza:
with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?”
In legends, the Fisher King was injured, and his land was cursed to be barren, a true waste land. Eliot’s version of the Fisher King has tried to set his lands right but has given up and instead turns towards the sea. If even this icon of fertility has given up, what hope does the modern world have to create something new?
There is a lot to unpack in The Waste Land, and I’m sure that the next time I read it, I’ll gain something new from it, which is one of the reasons it’s one of my favorite poems. But for now, because this poem can be kind of depressing, here’s a fun fact: the musical Cats is based off of a book of T.S. Eliot’s poems. My high school English teacher loved musicals. We obviously ended our Eliot unit by watching Cats.
Image Credit: an early version of the final page of the poem heavily edited by poet Ezra Pound and a page of my own well-loved version.