April 07, 2023

#08-299: The Waste Land

Percival is greeted by the Fisher King, in a story that helped inspire The Waste Land(Wikimedia)

Note: This modernist poem about the effects of the First World War has its roots in the magnificent medieval story of Parzival (Perceval) and the Fisher King.

Get Ready: In what ways do modern literature and art differ from that of previous eras?

American/British author T. S. Eliot's important poem The Waste Land is considered a central work of modernist poetry. Modernism represented a break with the formal style of Victorian poetry, and featured allusions, fragments, mixed styles and languages, and so on. The Waste Land utilizes all of these features.

The poem's subject is ostensibly life in London in the aftermath of World War I, but it shifts scenes often to the desert and the sea, among other landscapes.

Based in large part on stories of the Grail Romance and the Fisher King (about whom we learned in "Parzival"--see Lesson #08-151), it draws on standard European works like the Bible, Shakespeare, Dante, French poetry, and Wagnerian opera, as well as the sacred texts of Hinduism and Buddhism. It also references modern innovations like jazz music, record players, and automobiles.

The Waste Land is composed in five sections, each seeming almost to be a poem unto itself.

Section I: "The Burial of the Dead," is composed of four vignettes, each from a different point of view. There is a woman aristocrat who emphasizes that she is German, not Russian, and speaks extensively of the four seasons; the second speaker takes us on a spiritual journey into a desert waste, quoting from Wagner's version of the Arthurian story of the adultery of Tristan and Isolde; the third is a highly imaginative reading of the tarot cards (some described by Eliot don't even exist!); and the fourth tells of a walk through a London populated by ghosts, one of whom seems to have experienced ancient wars long before World War I.


This gives you a flavor of the poem. The other four sections are:

  • Section II: "A Game of Chess": the title is a metaphor for sexual seduction, divided into two scenes, one set among the upper class and one among the lower;
  • Section III: "The Fire Sermon": This is the longest section of The Waste Land; the title comes from a Buddhist text, but it is in fact a surreal encounter along a desolate riverside;
  • Section IV: "Death by Water": This is the poem's shortest section, and contains the story of a drowned man and the effects of his mortality; and
  • Section V: "What the Thunder Said": Told in two parts, the last section shows first the apocalyptic destruction, rebuilding, and destruction again of world cities like Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, and London; the scene then shifts to the Ganges River in India and a meditation on the powers of thunder, before dissolving into a series of fragments and ending with the repetition of Shanti, a Hindu word for "peace."

The overall effect of this pessimistic kaleidoscope of characters, settings, and events, is one of brokenness and loss, the inevitable result of the world's first truly global war.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. allusions
  2. apocalyptic
  3. desolate
  4. dissolving
  5. fragments
  6. inevitable
  7. kaleidoscope
  8. ostensibly
  9. surreal
  10. vignettes

  1. deserted; lonely
  2. dreamlike; fantastic
  3. unavoidable; certain to happen
  4. references; mentions
  5. coming apart; fading away
  6. a varied, continually shifting series of scenes
  7. featuring widespread or total destruction, like the end of the world
  8. pieces; incomplete parts
  9. supposedly; allegedly
  10. short scenes; brief descriptions

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for April 7, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. g; 3. a; 4. e; 5. h; 6. c; 7. f; 8. i; 9. b; 10. j