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Post Summary of Eliot's "The Wasteland" (for general study)

Section I: "The Burial of the Dead"
The first section of The Waste Land takes its title from a line in the Anglican burial service. It is made up of four vignettes, each seemingly from the perspective of a different speaker. The first is an autobiographical snippet from the childhood of an aristocratic woman, in which she recalls sledding and claims that she is German, not Russian (this would be important if the woman is meant to be a member of the recently defeated Austrian imperial family). The woman mixes a meditation on the seasons with remarks on the barren state of her current existence ("I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter"). The second section is a prophetic, apocalyptic invitation to journey into a desert waste, where the speaker will show the reader "something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; / [He] will show you fear in a handful of dust" (Evelyn Waugh took the title for one of his best-known novels from these lines). The almost threatening prophetic tone is mixed with childhood reminiscences about a "hyacinth girl" and a nihilistic epiphany the speaker has after an encounter with her. These recollections are filtered through quotations from Wagner's operatic version of Tristan und Isolde, an Arthurian tale of adultery and loss. The third episode in this section describes an imaginative tarot reading, in which some of the cards Eliot includes in the reading are not part of an actual tarot deck. The final episode of the section is the most surreal. The speaker walks through a London populated by ghosts of the dead. He confronts a figure with whom he once fought in a battle that seems to conflate the clashes of World War I with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (both futile and excessively destructive wars). The speaker asks the ghostly figure, Stetson, about the fate of a corpse planted in his garden. The episode concludes with a famous line from the preface to Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal (an important collection of Symbolist poetry), accusing the reader of sharing in the poet's sins.

Section II: "A Game of Chess"
This section takes its title from two plays by the early 17th-century playwright Thomas Middleton, in one of which the moves in a game of chess denote stages in a seduction. This section focuses on two opposing scenes, one of high society and one of the lower classes. The first half of the section portrays a wealthy, highly groomed woman surrounded by exquisite furnishings. As she waits for a lover, her neurotic thoughts become frantic, meaningless cries. Her day culminates with plans for an excursion and a game of chess. The second part of this section shifts to a London barroom, where two women discuss a third woman. Between the bartender's repeated calls of "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME" (the bar is closing for the night) one of the women recounts a conversation with their friend Lil, whose husband has just been discharged from the army. She has chided Lil over her failure to get herself some false teeth, telling her that her husband will seek out the company of other women if she doesn't improve her appearance. Lil claims that the cause of her ravaged looks is the medication she took to induce an abortion; having nearly died giving birth to her fifth child, she had refused to have another, but her husband "won't leave [her] alone." The women leave the bar to a chorus of "good night(s)" reminiscent of Ophelia's farewell speech in Hamlet.

Section III: "The Fire Sermon"
The title of this, the longest section of The Waste Land, is taken from a sermon given by Buddha in which he encourages his followers to give up earthly passion (symbolized by fire) and seek freedom from earthly things. A turn away from the earthly does indeed take place in this section, as a series of increasingly debased sexual encounters concludes with a river-song and a religious incantation. The section opens with a desolate riverside scene: Rats and garbage surround the speaker, who is fishing and "musing on the king my brother's wreck." The river-song begins in this section, with the refrain from Spenser's Prothalamion: "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song." A snippet from a vulgar soldier's ballad follows, then a reference back to Philomela (see the previous section). The speaker is then propositioned by Mr. Eugenides, the one-eyed merchant of Madame Sosostris's tarot pack. Eugenides invites the speaker to go with him to a hotel known as a meeting place for homosexual trysts.

The speaker then proclaims himself to be Tiresias, a figure from classical mythology who has both male and female features ("Old man with wrinkled female breasts") and is blind but can "see" into the future. Tiresias/the speaker observes a young typist, at home for tea, who awaits her lover, a dull and slightly arrogant clerk. The woman allows the clerk to have his way with her, and he leaves victorious. Tiresias, who has "foresuffered all," watches the whole thing. After her lover's departure, the typist thinks only that she's glad the encounter is done and over.

A brief interlude begins the river-song in earnest. First, a fisherman's bar is described, then a beautiful church interior, then the Thames itself. These are among the few moments of tranquility in the poem, and they seem to represent some sort of simpler alternative. The Thames-daughters, borrowed from Spenser's poem, chime in with a nonsense chorus ("Weialala leia / Wallala leialala"). The scene shifts again, to Queen Elizabeth I in an amorous encounter with the Earl of Leicester. The queen seems unmoved by her lover's declarations, and she thinks only of her "people humble people who expect / Nothing." The section then comes to an abrupt end with a few lines from St. Augustine's Confessions and a vague reference to the Buddha's Fire Sermon ("burning").

Section IV: "Death by Water"
The shortest section of the poem, "Death by Water" describes a man, Phlebas the Phoenician, who has died, apparently by drowning. In death he has forgotten his worldly cares as the creatures of the sea have picked his body apart. The narrator asks his reader to consider Phlebas and recall his or her own mortality.

Section V: "What the Thunder Said"
The final section of The Waste Land is dramatic in both its imagery and its events. The first half of the section builds to an apocalyptic climax, as suffering people become "hooded hordes swarming" and the "unreal" cities of Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. A decaying chapel is described, which suggests the chapel in the legend of the Holy Grail. Atop the chapel, a cock crows, and the rains come, relieving the drought and bringing life back to the land. Curiously, no heroic figure has appeared to claim the Grail; the renewal has come seemingly at random, gratuitously.

The scene then shifts to the Ganges, half a world away from Europe, where thunder rumbles. Eliot draws on the traditional interpretation of "what the thunder says," as taken from the Upanishads (Hindu fables). According to these fables, the thunder "gives," "sympathizes," and "controls" through its "speech"; Eliot launches into a meditation on each of these aspects of the thunder's power. The meditations seem to bring about some sort of reconciliation, as a Fisher King-type figure is shown sitting on the shore preparing to put his lands in order, a sign of his imminent death or at least abdication. The poem ends with a series of disparate fragments from a children's song, from Dante, and from Elizabethan drama, leading up to a final chant of "Shantih shantih shantih"--the traditional ending to an Upanishad. Eliot, in his notes to the poem, translates this chant as "the peace which passeth understanding," the expression of ultimate resignation.
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Default Waste Land

Waste Land

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) was written in the wake of World War I, supposedly the "war to end all wars." But what Eliot saw in the peace that followed was pain and disunity, fragmentation and false hope. He presented the world as "a heap of broken images." Critic Edmund Wilson, perhaps the first critic to unravel the complexity of the poet's intent, said, "The terrible dreariness of the great modern cities is the atmosphere in which "The Waste Land" takes place. V.S. Pritchett said Eliot was "ushering us to our seats in hell."

The title of the poem is complex in and of itself. It alludes to spiritual dryness and the quest for the elusive Holy Grail. The quotation beneath the title is in Latin and Greek, and comes from The Satyricon by Petronious: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die." The title, subject, and blending of languages on the first page hints at the complexity that will follow. (The dedication is to fellow poet Ezra Pound, is in Latin, "il miglor fabbro," means "to the better craftsman," words used by the poet Dante Allegheri).

The poem is a dramatic monologue and is segmented into five parts:

I. Burial of the Dead II. A Game of Chess III. The Fire Sermon IV. Death by Water V. What the Thunder Said

I. Burial of the Dead: Finds the speaker in the land of the physically dead, but also the spiritually and emotionally dead, those alive but moving through life as shades:

Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, 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.

II. A Game of Chess: In part, considers the way people forget their own history:

'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?"

III. The Fire Sermon: Many allusions to the great figures of the past, including Tiresias, Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Philomel, and Dante. These great writers and their characters were no more able to figure out the complexities of pain and suffering than anyone has ever been.

She turns and looks a moment in the glass, Hardly aware of her departed lover; Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass 'Well now that's done; and I'm glad it's over."

Lesson? It is never over.

IV. Death by Water: A reminder of the temporal nature of life:

O you who turn the wheel and look windward Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

V. Death by Thunder: Finds humanity in the trap of its own device.

I have heard the key Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

The poem is followed by dozens of notes by Eliot on how to read certain lines. He also recommends that one read Jessie L. Weston's work From Ritual to Romance to better understand his intent.
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