© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot moved to England in 1914 at the age of twenty-five and lived there until his death in 1965. Eliot became a a British citizen in 1927. By that time, he had become a prominent figure on the British cultural scene and one of the central figures in British modernism. A staunch conservative, Eliot believed strongly in upholding social and cultural traditions, something he felt that the modern world, racing headlong toward technological modernization and putting more and more emphasis on capitalist efficiency, had failed to do, leaving the modern world adrift, with no moral compass. This left Eliot with a dilemma: he was a great admirer of much of the culture of the past (though his tastes could be outside the mainstream, as when he preferred the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century to the Romantics), but he also felt that most older culture had been rendered somewhat irrelevant by the sweeping changes that the world had undergone in recent years. He responded by producing some of the most formally innovative and influential poetry of the twentieth century, though his poetry looked thematically to the past, decrying the modern world as dehumanizing and bereft of true meaning. Together with his friend and ally Ezra Pound, another expatriate American poet living in Europe to help shape the modernist movement, among other things using his position as an editor at Faber and Faber Publishers (where he worked from 1925 until his death) to help other aspiring poets—including W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Ted Hughes—publish their work with the press.

Many of Eliot’s own poems are among the most important works of literary modernism, but two stand at the very center of the modernist movement. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in 1915, was the poem that put Eliot on the map, announcing the arrival of a major new talent—and of a major new mode of poetic expression. This poem, with its unconventional meter and clever allusions to previous works of literary, already shows the development of some of Eliot’s key poetic strategies, while its central (and decidedly modernist) theme of the alienated state of individuals in a modern world devoid of traditional social structures would remain crucial to his work throughout the rest of his career. Then, in 1922, Eliot would publish a longer, more complex, and more sophisticated poem that would become very possibly the most important single poem in the entire modernist movement. One might argue, in fact, that The Waste Land was the most important poem of the twentieth century.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot’s first professionally published poem, appeared in 1915, five years after Eliot began writing it—and only then at the instigation of Ezra Pound, who was much impressed by this new poetic voice. The poem perplexed many readers when it was first published, but it is now considered a classic of modernist irony, beginning with its title: Prufrock neither gives nor receives love in the poem, and his life is devoid of the music of romance. It is also a poem that is entirely contained within an urban space, as is much modernist literature. The nature that was so dear to the Romantic poets has been entirely effaced from the world of the poem, leaving only dirty and hostile city streets, though vague echoes of a longing for nature remain. And yet, the interiors of the city offer no sanctuary from these streets. They are merely rooms inhabited by strangers, barren and empty, no matter how filled with meaningless trinkets. The poem is thus also a classic modernist expression of the experience of alienation, of the feeling of never being at home anywhere in the world, never truly communicating with any of the other people one encounters in that world, always suspecting that somehow those people are less lost than you are.

The poem is rhetorically vague. Is Prufrock merely thinking to himself? Is he talking to someone else? A mixture of the two? Despite such confusion, despite the Italian epigraph, despite the literary allusions, despite the sometimes vague and abstract phrasing, “Prufrock” seems a relatively straightforward poem. And, on one level, it is. Prufrock is a lonely, alienated, middle-aged man looking for love but not expecting to find it. But this simplest level of the poem has, for some readers pointed toward higher levels in which Prufrock conducts a critique of Edwardian society or attempts to solve important philosophical questions. Indeed, various interpreters have found many different things in the poem in the more than a century since it was first published. Close readings of Eliot’s grammar and syntax are legion, as are explications of the poem’s numerous allusions, from the obvious to the obscure. William Malcuit, for example, sees it as a rather political poem that represents a rejection of individualist liberalism—and especially of liberalism as expressed in the American poetic tradition represented by Walt Whitman. For Malcuit this rejection essentially clears the ideological decks for the young Eliot (who was only twenty-two when he started writing the poem), opening the way for his move to a more right-wing position later in his career. David Trotter sees “Prufrock” as a poem largely about technology—as driven partly by Eliot’s rejection of the new medium of cinema, whose technological basis he found dehumanizing. On the other hand, Trotter sees The Waste Land as a sign of Eliot’s growing acceptance of the new medium.

But let’s do a more straightforward, basic reading of the poem, section by section. It begins in a way that immediately suggests Eliot’s concern that, as the levels of education among the lower classes were rising, so too were the levels of education among more sophisticated modern readers falling. Further, he felt that, in order to appeal to the vast new readership made available by rising literacy levels, literature was all too often lowering its standards in order to be accessible to these new readers. Eliot’s response was to refuse to compromise and to refuse to lower his own level of discourse to that of the new literary marketplace. In a famous essay on the metaphysical poets, Eliot himself explained the difficulty and complexity of his poetry in terms of the complexities of modern life:

Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. (Eliot 65)  

In this mode, Eliot thus begins “Prufrock” (in a mode that some might find pretentious and elitist) with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXVII, lines 61–66), unapologetically left in the original medieval Italian, which (as Eliot was of course well aware) few of the poem’s modern readers could actually understand.[1] That, of course, was partly the point:

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

The presence of these lines makes an important statement, even if one has no idea where the lines come from or what they mean. Moreover, recognizing that the lines come from Dante, a key forerunner of the Italian Renaissance, makes it clear that they look back to a time when Western culture, in the view of Eliot (and many others) was about to experience a period of explosive growth into one of its richest periods—as opposed to the early twentieth century, when Eliot felt that most people were no longer equipped to appreciate the glories of the Renaissance and the period that followed it. (This of course ignores the fact that most people during the Renaissance and after were also not really equipped to appreciate the glories of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and the like, either.) In any case, the actual content of the epigraph illuminates the following poem quite usefully, providing a suggestion of just how much one might miss by forgetting the classics. In English, this epigraph can be translated as follows:

If I but thought that I were responding

To one who might someday return to the world,

This flaming tongue would cease to flicker.

But from these depths, no one has yet

To return alive, so, if this is true,

I can answer without fear of suffering shame.

These lines suggest the reticence with which Prufrock, the speaker in the poem itself, is about to share his inner feelings with us. One of the most striking exemplars of the central modernist theme of alienation, Prufrock is extremely hesitant to reach out to others, feeling that there is little chance he will be able to make himself understood, both because of what he regards as his unique individual peculiarities and because of the inherent limitations in language itself. The poem proper then begins with what seems like a conventionally poetic Romantic invitation, perhaps issued to a lover:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

It then proceeds with a sudden shift that undermines this poetic beginning and yanks us forcefully back into a tawdry modern world in which there is no place for the poetry of past eras. Indeed, the poet John Berryman has stated that modern poetry begins with the third line of “Prufrock.” Of course, sudden changes of tone often occur in “Prufrock,” a poem that, as Anne Stillman notes, often “hovers between the whimsical and the menacing” (49). Prufrock at several points in the coming poem will gesture toward a conventional form, as when he occasional experiments with rhyme. But it never sticks. This world is fallen, dystopian. It is not an exciting, hustling, bustling modern world, but an old, tired, broken modern world. It is also clearly urban, making its setting a typical one for modernist literature:

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

Meanwhile, Prufrock imagines a group of women in a room, chatting pretentiously of a Renaissance artist of whose works they likely have little or no real understanding or appreciation. These women will reappear many times, images of a feminine threat that is often found in Eliot’s poetry, reminders here of Prufrock’s infelicity in dealing with his women and of the status of women in his mind as mysterious, foreign, and inscrutable:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

Prufrock then makes another gesture toward a conventional poetic mode, personifying the “yellow fog” (suggesting that the air in the city is polluted)[2] as a sort of cat-like animal—anticipating the fact that cats would often recur in Eliot’s poetry[3]:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

Unfortunately, the modern world cannot sustain such poetic flights, and Prufrock immediately slips back into a mode of hesitation and anxiety, worrying about preparing a face to present as he goes out into a world of strangers, a process that acquires a dark tint due to the mention of murder:

And indeed there will be time[4]

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days[5] of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Prufrock then slips back into the second person mode with which he began the poem, as if he is addressing someone he knows, but remaining in a mode of radical indecision as he anticipates a simple moment like tea time as a momentous event that must be extensively planned and thought out:

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

All the while, those mysterious women are still trying to impress each other with their knowledge of Renaissance art:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

Then, Prufrock seems to be anticipating a potential romantic encounter, though—feeling inadequate and terrified of rejection—he anticipates the encounter with little relish, feeling that his balding head and unimpressive physique might expose him to rejection and scorn. So he wonders if he dares make an overture, as if to do so would be a momentous undertaking that might disturb the universe. Surely, though, he here speaks with self-deprecating irony: he knows that his social interactions are of little concern to the universe and mocks himself for fretting so extensively over a potential event that is of no true import in the larger scheme of things:

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Try as he might to heroize his efforts, Prufrock feels that he is a prosaic figure in a prosaic world. He is not a conquering knight, but an ordinary man who lives in a routinized world where life is measured out as if in coffee spoons:

For I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

               So how should I presume?

Still contemplating his potential social encounter, Prufrock is obviously terrified of the scrutiny to which he might be exposed, self-consciously imagining all those eyes that might be looking at him like an entomological specimen pinned to a wall. It is, after all, scientific observation that has tamed the world and stripped it of magic, making human subjects like himself into objects. But he is also afraid of all those “I’s”—all those other subjects that might, being so different from himself (especially if they are women), also objectify him:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

               And how should I presume?

Here, Prufrock inserts what might be taken as a bit of a boast—he has actually had his share of experience with women, or so he claims, but it never really amounted to much (perhaps because he seems to objectify women into collections of body parts and bits of clothing and jewelry):

And I have known the arms already, known them all—

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

               And should I then presume?

               And how should I begin?

He then proposes an alternative formulation, envisioning his past romantic adventures in the most mundane way possible, stripping them of all romance:

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

Finally, in exasperation, Prufrock concludes that he might have been better off to be some primitive sea creature living on the floor of the ocean (and thus free of all the social games and maneuvers that, for him, make up human interactions:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Having reached a seeming low point, Prufrock returns to his theme of anticipating a possible upcoming encounter, wondering if he will have the courage to go through with making a romantic advance (or if it even matters). Far from being a mythical hero, he is somehow so unimportant that his adventures can hardly constitute more than a joke on the cosmic scale of things:

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a


I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

Moreover, continues Prufrock, again poking a bit of fun at his tendency to make mountains out of social molehills, would it really be worth risking the embarrassment of making an overture, only to have his courageous gesture rebuffed as a mere miscalculation:

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball[6]

To roll it towards some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

If one, settling a pillow by her head

               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

               That is not it, at all.”

Prufrock continues his attempt to explain his predicament and why he is so worried about his upcoming encounter but finds that language simply does not serve him. He ends up simply repeating his concern that he has perhaps misread the situation:

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the


And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

               ”That is not it at all,

               That is not what I meant, at all.”

Prufrock now turns to literary allusions to produce another self-deprecating suggesting that he is no one special. He is no protagonist of a grand drama, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Were he in a play, he would merely be a member of the supporting cast. Perhaps he would be an advisor, but possibly such a bad one that he would border on being the king’s fool:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;[7]

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Alas, concludes Prufrock, he is growing old. If he has achieved nothing special at this point, he is not likely to do so. It is perhaps time for him to stop even fantasizing about doing great things. Perhaps eating a peach is about as big a challenge as he is likely to overcome. No romance will be coming his way; no mermaids, those images of exotic romance, will be singing to him:

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

The Waste Land

“Prufrock” has become accepted as a masterpiece, as one of the most important milestones on the road to modernism. But The Waste Land, published a mere seven years later, is perhaps the most important work of modernist poetry fully achieved. It is again a work filled with irony, in this case largely because it is a truly great poem one of whose major themes is the impossibility of producing great poetry in a fallen modern world. It deals with many of the same issues as “Prufrock,” but it is far more complex and difficult, far nastier and more bitter about the state of the world. Yet it retains an occasional twinkle of humor. Indeed, some of the poem’s initial readers were so baffled by it that they thought the whole poem must be some sort of elaborate joke.

Like “Prufrock,” The Waste Land begins with an epigraph from a literary classic. In this case, however, Eliot goes the earlier poem one better by quoting a passage that is in both Latin and Greek, making it seem even more pretentious to some modern readers, but also providing a baseline against which to compare modern culture. Perhaps, he seems to be saying, the Renaissance did represent an attempt to return to the heights of classical civilization, but by now this attempt has failed miserably. In this case, the quote is from the Satyricon, a late first century forerunner of the modern novel, written by Petronius (27–66), now commonly identified by scholars as an example of Menippean satire. Menippean satire is an unstructured, unruly form—named for the third-century BC poet Menippus, none of whose writings survive, but who is remembered in the writings of his follower, the poet Lucian (125–180). This form of satire, which has received new critical attention in recent decades—largely due to its exploration by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) in his analysis of the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881)—employs a wide range of styles and registers, ranging from the supernatural to the profane. Menippean satire, in fact, has much in common with The Waste Land itself. Indeed, Max Nänny invokes Bakhtin’s work to argue that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land can be located within the tradition of Menippean satire or, more generally, within the tradition of carnival (534).  Indeed, Nänny sees the trend toward carnivalization, led by Joyce and Eliot, to be one of the major aspects of the entire modernist movement:

The chief modernist works, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Pound’s Cantos as well as so much post-modern writing may hence be seen as literary expressions of a pervasive carnivalization of 20th century consciousness and culture, expressions whose strongly ludic character demands an active participation in their carnivalesque games.  (534-5)

However, whereas Bakhtin associates Menippean satire with the rollicking, bawdy, life-affirming energies of the carnivalesque[8], The Waste Land generally has a more somber, even elegiac tone. Thus, Calvin Bedient argues that The Waste Land is not carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense, but actually anti-carnivalesque:

The Waste Land is never really, and is finally far from being, carnivalesque; instead, it arranges the appearance of a riot of tones and images and languages with the cold cunning of a Hieronymo and with no less an intention than to silence the pretensions of language and literature once and for all. (8)

“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi

in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβνλλα τί ϴέλεις; respondebat illa: άπο ϴανεΐν ϴέλω.”

The content of this epigraph is also extremely relevant to the poem that follows. It translates as “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.” As related in the Satyricon, the Sibyl at Cumae was a prophetess so beautiful that the god Apollo offered to grant her any wish if she would only become his lover. She responding by asking to live for as many years as there were grains in a handful of dust (i.e., virtually forever). Apollo granted her wish, but still she refused to become his lover. Later, she discovered that, while Apollo had given her great longevity he had not given her eternal youth. Each year she grew older, more shrunken frail, and decrepit. After hundreds of years, her only wish was to die, but she could not. She can thus be taken as a symbol of the decaying condition of modern culture, living on in what essentially amounts to a state of living death. Hugh Kenner has noted that this epigraph is also appropriate given that the Sibyl was renowned for the obscure and fragmentary nature of her prophecies, which required considerable decoding, much like The Waste Land itself (Invisible 159).

The poem then moves to a dedication to Ezra Pound (the Italian translates to “the better craftsman”), which both acknowledges Pound’s own gifts as a poet and thanks him for his editing suggestions during the composition of The Waste Land, which in fact went through an elaborate process of revision before publication. One of the things with which Eliot asked Pound’s advice was in helping him avoid being too derivative of Joyce’s Ulysses, some of the chapters of which were appearing in serial form Eliot was so impressed by Joyce’s novel (which he saw as similar in spirit and technique to The Waste Land) that he was afraid he would be excessively influenced by it.[9] Pound did, in fact, suggest several changes to make the poem less like certain passages in Ulysses.


il miglior fabbro

The Waste Land itself has five titled sections, labeled with Roman numerals, which gives it a seemingly formal structure that is ironically opposed to the chaos of much of the poem itself. It is as if Eliot is dramatizing his attempt to impose order, an attempt that he knows is doomed given the state of the modern world. It should also be noted that, in addition to these sections, Eliot also supplied a number of footnotes to the text, presumably to aid readers in understanding the poem, though some have wondered if these footnotes are actually intended as a joke, as a parody of the kind of annotations that scholars often supply for poems—and that I am supplying here for The Waste Land. Indeed, the footnotes are suspiciously unhelpful in many ways, though Eliot’s opening note, providing a sort of general gloss on the poem, does seem useful, even if the ending seems a bit tongue-in-cheek:

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie. L Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble. To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.

Written by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941), The Golden Bough was initially published in a two-volume edition in 1890, then as three volumes in 1900. It appeared as a massive twelve-volume edition over the period 1906–1915, then as an abridged edition in 1922 (one that omitted Frazer’s discussion of Christianity as simply one among many other magical religions). It was indeed a landmark work, widely influential on many writers and thinkers. In the book, Frazer compiles information about various religions through history and concludes that religions in general originated as fertility cults that centered on the worship of a sacred king, who was often ultimately sacrificed for the good of the community. A typical sacred king might be sacrificed in the autumn and then reborn in the spring. For Frazer, the history of religious thought involves a gradual evolution from such magical beginnings toward an ultimate rejection of magic in favor of scientific rationality. Perhaps the most important of these scared king myths for Eliot was the Fisher King myth, as described by Weston. The Fisher King is typically wounded and crippled, and the lands he rules are generally blighted in parallel with his wounded condition. In later Christianized versions of the myth, the king is healed by various techniques involving the power of Christ. Many have seen The Waste Land as a sort of vague retelling of the Fisher King myth.

The first section of the poem itself is entitled “The Burial of the Dead,” after the Anglican burial service, a title that sets the mood of the poem going forward. It then begins very much like “Prufrock,” by feinting toward a conventional poetic beginning, then quickly undermining any notions that this will be a conventional work of poetry. The first lines directly recall the beginning of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales—and thus point virtually back to the beginnings of English poetry. However, whereas Chaucer’s lines set the tone for a whole poetic tradition in which April is envisioned as a glorious month of renewal and rebirth via the coming of spring, Eliot presents a sour reversal of this notion, suggesting that April simply brings false hopes that life is about to get better, hopes that soon will be dashed. Meanwhile, in its first stanza, The Waste Land already descends into chaos (echoing Eliot’s view of the state of the modern world) by introducing obscure fragments from modern life that seem to have little to do with the first few lines. In any case, this first stanza already serves as a warning of the fact that, as Lawrence Rainey notes, we should not attempt “to endow the poem with the kinds of coherence we expect from more ordinary texts” (72–73).


Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

I. The Burial of the Dead

   April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.[10]

We already seem to have multiple, seemingly disembodied, voices sounding in this first stanza, leaping into the text as if from nowhere. It might help us to understand this technique to know that Eliot originally intended (but was talked out of it by Pound) to call the poem “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” after a character in Charles Dickens’ last novel Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865) who likes to read aloud from the newspaper, imitating the voices of various individuals as he does so. “Sloppy is a beautiful reader of the newspaper,” says the widow Higden. “He do the police in different voices.”

The next stanza then largely functions to set up the wasteland motif by describing a rocky, barren landscape, devoid of water, the sun beating down brutally. Mixing these images with references to love and romance suggests the sterility of sexual passion in the modern world. Moreover, its evocation of a “heap of broken images” suggests Eliot’s vision of the fragmented and fallen nature of Western culture in the early twentieth century:[11]

   What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,[12]

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,[13]

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.[14]

                      Frisch weht der Wind

                      Der Heimat zu

                      Mein Irisch Kind,

                      Wo weilest du?[15]

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

“They called me the hyacinth girl.”

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.[16]

Eliot now begins a new stanza with one of the sudden shifts that are typical of The Waste Land, moving from an opera about a legendary passion to the debased realm of a hack fortune teller. Faint echoes of Shakespeare punctuate her reading of a pack of Tarot cards, suggesting the vestiges of a once-great culture that still linger but that no longer have the stature they once had, just as Madame Sosostris herself represents what we have left of magic in a modern routinized world:

    Madame Sosostris,[17] famous clairvoyante,

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)[18]

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,

And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,

Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,

Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find

The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.

Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,

Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:

One must be so careful these days.[19]

Eliot next turns to perhaps the most famous of his many evocations of urban settings, this time picturing London as a ghostly city peopled by the walking dead, suggesting the way in which the spiritual poverty of modern life has reduced the citizenry to an army of zombies. Of course, as the stanza proceeds it wanders from its initial fantasmagoric image to more prosaic ones and then to macabre images of a buried corpse in danger of being dug up by a dog. It then ends with a sudden return to Baudelaire:

  Unreal City,[20]

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.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!

“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”[21]

Eliot now shifts registers once again as he begins the second section of the poem in a modern setting in which a women sits at her dressing table surrounded by makeup and perfume. It’s a rather misogynistic passage that seems hostile to women and the tricks they use to present a false image of themselves to the world. Eliot’s notes suggest that the beginning of this section echoes a description of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Cleopatra has often been used in Western culture as a key (Orientalist) figure of the mysterious sexual wiles of the exotic Eastern woman. The second half of the first stanza then suddenly turns to the story (related most famously in Ovid’s Metamorphosis) of Philomela, a princess in Greek myth who was raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus of Thrace, who then cut out her tongue so that she could not report the deed. The story gets darker from there, but a crucial part is that Philomela was ultimately transformed into a nightingale, whose song compensated for her lack of speech as a human.

II. A Game of Chess

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,[22]

Glowed on the marble, where the glass

Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines

From which a golden Cupidon peeped out

(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)

Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra

Reflecting light upon the table as

The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,

From satin cases poured in rich profusion;

In vials of ivory and coloured glass

Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,

Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused

And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air

That freshened from the window, these ascended

In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,

Flung their smoke into the laquearia,

Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.

Huge sea-wood fed with copper

Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,

In which sad light a carvéd dolphin swam.

Above the antique mantel was displayed

As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king[23]

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale

Filled all the desert with inviolable voice

And still she cried, and still the world pursues,

“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.[24]

And other withered stumps of time

Were told upon the walls; staring forms

Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair

Spread out in fiery points

Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

The poem then switches gears for another brief stanza, jumping from the world of myth back to a contemporary scene in which a woman apparently complains of the lack of communication between herself and someone, probably her husband:

   “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

   “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

Then an inserted two-line stanza, seems to float in from nowhere—or perhaps from the third part of the poem, to which Eliot’s note refers us. (The rat imagery, with its obvious abjec associations, recurs there.) More scattered images, often with resonances of death—including another reference to the drowning in The Tempest—follow. Then a sudden snippet from contemporary popular music drifts into the poem, contrasting the modern, cheap commercial appropriation of Shakespeare with the greatness of Shakespeare himself. The stanza then ends with what seems to be a scene in a bar between two women, one of whom has just induced an abortion via pills as she awaits the return of her husband Albert from military service. Marriage in The Waste Land is consistently portrayed as empty and sterile:

   I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.

 “What is that noise?”

                          The wind under the door.

“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”

                           Nothing again nothing.


“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember


       I remember

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”  


O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—[25]

It’s so elegant

So intelligent

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”

“I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street

“With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?

“What shall we ever do?”

                                               The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

  When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—

I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,


Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.

Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.

Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.


If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.

Others can pick and choose if you can’t.

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.

(And her only thirty-one.)

I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,

It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.

You are a proper fool, I said.

Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,

What you get married for if you don’t want children?


Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—



Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.

Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.[27]

Eliot now shifts gears once again as he moves into the third section of the poem, which takes its title from a sermon delivered by Buddha against the fires of lust and other destructive passions. This section continues to mix the high with the low, the sacred with the profane, the past with the present. It also becomes increasingly fragmented, as bits and pieces from earlier parts of the poem begin to reappear, out of nowhere. Meanwhile, an opening echo of Spenser’s Prothalamion contrasts what Eliot sees as the lost greatness of the Elizabethan era with a modern era in which the once-romantic Thames is now strewn with garbage:

III. The Fire Sermon

  The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.[28]

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear[29]

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

A rat crept softly through the vegetation

Dragging its slimy belly on the bank

While I was fishing in the dull canal

On a winter evening round behind the gashouse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck

And on the king my father’s death before him.[30]

White bodies naked on the low damp ground

And bones cast in a little low dry garret,

Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.

But at my back from time to time I hear[31]

The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring

Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water

Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

Twit twit twit

Jug jug jug jug jug jug

So rudely forc’d.


Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter noon

Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant

Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants

C.i.f. London: documents at sight,[32]

Asked me in demotic French

To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel[33]

Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.[34]

As the poem reaches its midpoint, Eliot introduces the figure of Tiresias, a blind seer who plays an important role in Greek mythology. Eliot introduces Tiresias with a footnote suggesting that he is a key figure in The Waste Land as well, calling him “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Eliot then cites a long passage from Ovid (in Latin, without translation) that supposedly makes clear the significance of Tiresias. Basically, the passage makes clear the breadth of Tiresias’s vision by noting that he is a man who once spent seven years magically transformed into a woman, giving him a view of life from both gender positions. He has also been given supernatural insights (including the ability to see the future) by the god Jove as compensation for having lost his normal sight via a curse issued by Jove’s wife, Juno. Sultan notes that the central position occupied by Tiresias in the poem is quite a literal one, given that he is first mentioned in line 218, the exact center of the poem. For Sultan this might have been by design, an example of Eliot’s playfulness in the poem (64).

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back

Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits

Like a taxi throbbing waiting,

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,

Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

Out of the window perilously spread

Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,

On the divan are piled (at night her bed)

Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs

Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—

I too awaited the expected guest.

He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,

A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,

One of the low on whom assurance sits

As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,[35]

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,

And makes a welcome of indifference.

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all

Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.)

Bestows one final patronising kiss,

And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

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.”[36]

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.

“This music crept by me upon the waters”

And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.

O City city, I can sometimes hear

Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,

The pleasant whining of a mandoline

And a clatter and a chatter from within

Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls

Of Magnus Martyr hold

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

               The river sweats[37]

               Oil and tar

               The barges drift

               With the turning tide

               Red sails


               To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.

               The barges wash

               Drifting logs

               Down Greenwich reach

               Past the Isle of Dogs.

                                 Weialala leia

                                 Wallala leialala

               Elizabeth and Leicester

               Beating oars

               The stern was formed

               A gilded shell

               Red and gold

               The brisk swell

               Rippled both shores

               Southwest wind

               Carried down stream

               The peal of bells

               White towers

                                Weialala leia

                                Wallala leialala

“Trams and dusty trees.

Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew

Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees

Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.”

“My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart

Under my feet. After the event

He wept. He promised a ‘new start.’

I made no comment. What should I resent?”

“On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect


                       la la

To Carthage then I came[38]

Burning burning burning burning[39]

O Lord Thou pluckest me out[40]

O Lord Thou pluckest


In keeping with his focus on contrasts in the poem, Eliot suddenly turns from fire to water in the fourth (and shortest) part of the poem—though images of drowning have circulated throughout the poem. Several critics have noted that there is a strong tradition of poetry about death by drowning, including Milton’s Lycidas (1638). And, of course, “Prufrock” ends with a reference to drowning.

IV. Death by Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.

                                   A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the whirlpool.

                                   Gentile or Jew

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

There has been much critical disagreement about what to make of the fifth and final book of The Waste Land. On the one hand, it seems to represent a turn toward a more positive and hopeful vision. On the other hand, it is not clear how much of this vision might be ironic. In the first parts of this section, much of the imagery of droughts and of nightmarish horror that have been sprinkled through the earlier parts of the poem reappears. Then a thunderstorm seems to bring rain and a promise of renewal.

V. What the Thunder Said

  After the torchlight red on sweaty faces

After the frosty silence in the gardens

After the agony in stony places

The shouting and the crying

Prison and palace and reverberation

Of thunder of spring over distant mountains

He who was living is now dead

We who were living are now dying

With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

The road winding above among the mountains

Which are mountains of rock without water

If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand

If there were only water amongst the rock

Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain

There is not even solitude in the mountains

But red sullen faces sneer and snarl

From doors of mudcracked houses

                                      If there were water

   And no rock

   If there were rock

   And also water

   And water

   A spring

   A pool among the rock

   If there were the sound of water only

   Not the cicada

   And dry grass singing

   But sound of water over a rock

   Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

   Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

   But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?[41]

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


A woman drew her long black hair out tight

And fiddled whisper music on those strings

And bats with baby faces in the violet light

Whistled, and beat their wings

And crawled head downward down a blackened wall

And upside down in air were towers

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

In this decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings,

Dry bones can harm no one.

Only a cock stood on the rooftree

Co co rico co co rico

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust

Bringing rain

Having already sprinkled his poem with Christian and Buddhist imagery, Eliot now invokes the River Ganges in India, sacred to the Hindu religion. He also refers to the Upanishads, a collection of philosophical statements that is central to Hinduism, though some of its concepts are shared with Buddhism as well.

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves

Waited for rain, while the black clouds

Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

Then spoke the thunder


Datta: what have we given?[42]

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed

Which is not to be found in our obituaries

Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider

Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor

In our empty rooms


Dayadhvam: 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

Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours

Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus


Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands

The poem seems to end on a hopeful note, but continuing images of destruction fragmentation, and ruin suggest that the problems identified earlier in the poem might not really have been solved.

                                    I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina[43]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[44]—O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you.[45] Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

                  Shantih     shantih     shantih

Eliot thus ends his poem with the thrice repeated “Shantih”—the peace which passeth understanding—which is repeated thusly to mark the formal end to an Upanishad (a Hindu philosophical text). It is by no means clear, however, that this peace has been achieved in the poem, so that this invocation might simply mean that Hinduism, like Christianity and Buddhism, is becoming irrelevant in a modern secular world.


[1] The full text of this poem will be included here for discussion purposes. The full, uninterrupted text can be found many places on-line. One of the most interesting ways to read the poem on-line is via the graphic novel version produced by Julian Peters. Available at

[2] London is a city famous for both its fog and its pollution. Thus, while the setting of this poem is obviously intended to be a sort of generalized modern city, these lines do suggest that London is the model.

[3] In 1939, Eliot published a book of light verse entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. This book eventually became the inspiration for the hit stage musical Cats, which premiered on London’s West End in 1981 and on Broadway in 1982.

[4] Time is a central concern of this poem, as it is of modernism in general. Prufrock mostly wastes time, almost as a sort of unconscious protest against the emphasis on efficient use of time in the modern world. Here, he would seem to be alluding to the line “Had we but world enough and time” from the poem “To His Coy Mistress,” written around 1650 by metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, one of Eliot’s favorites. In Marvell’s poem, the speaker protests the fact that his loved one is resisting his advances, thus wasting time. Here, though, it is the speaker Prufrock who is himself wasting time.

[5] Apparently a reference to a long poem entitled “Works and Days,” written by the ancient Green poet Hesiod around 700 BC. This time addresses a time of agrarian crisis in ancient Greece, when crop failures necessitated a series of colonial adventures in search of new farmlands. Here, there is a suggestion that, in the modern world, time has become a commodity, managed and controlled for maximum economic output.

[6] Reminiscent of Hamlet’s “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,” but perhaps more likely another reference to “To His Coy Mistress,” in which Marvell’s speaker says, “Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball.”

[7] Hamlet is perhaps the one literary character best known for hesitating. One might therefore think of him as a model for Prufrock, but Prufrock himself realizes that he is nothing like Hamlet, who hesitates before taking monumental actions, while Prufrock’s contemplated actions are trivial.

[8] Deriving the term from the sometimes raucous celebrations of the medieval carnival, Bakhtin uses “carnivalesque” to designate energies associated with a joyously comic acceptance of the physical aspects of the human body (sex, food, excrement), as opposed to the stern, humorless attempts of the medieval Catholic Church to repress the physical.

[9] Eliot, in particular, thought that he and Joyce were employing a similar “mythic method,” drawing upon myths and other ancient cultural texts to provide order and structure for new works produced amid the chaos of the modern world. Eliot outlined his view of Ulysses in his highly laudatory essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” where he makes clear his view that Joyce has used Homer’s Odyssey to provide a structural model for Ulysses, just as some have seen Eliot as using The Golden Bough in a similar way in The Waste Land. Eliot argues that Joyce’s use of Homer is “simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history (“Ulysses” 681). This may well describe Eliot’s own use of the mythic method. But see my own extensive reading of Joyce’s engagement with Homer, which argues that Joyce in fact uses Homer parodically and subversively, as a way of rejecting the authority of the past and arguing that ancient texts such as The Odyssey are of little direct relevance to the modern world (Joyce 17–43).

[10] Leavis argues that these first few lines suggest the remoteness of modern civilization from nature and natural rhythms (90).

[11] One might compare here Pound’s suggestion in his poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” that World War I had been fought in defense of cultures that were no longer worth fighting for. According to this poem, those who died in World War I lost their lives

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization.

For two gross of broken statues,

For a few thousand battered books.

We should not overestimate the extent to which the memory of World War I lingers over The Waste Land as well, accounting for some of its negative view of the state of modern civilization.

[12] Here Eliot supplies the note “Cf. Ezekial 2.7.” It is the first of several points in the poem at which Eliot identifies the source to which he is alluding but does not elaborate on the significance of the source. Cleanth Brooks, one of the leading New Critics, has noted that this allusion is important because this particular Biblical passage refers to a thoroughly secularized world that has lost all concern with God (62). The rebellious Israel of the passage is, of course, analogous to a modern world devoid of faith. The passage reads as follows:

  1. And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.
  2. And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me.
  3. And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day.

[13] Eliot’s notes here point us to Ecclesiastes 12:5 as a source. That verse and he ones that follow can be read in different ways, but one reading is that they describe a desiccated wasteland, which would make the reference highly appropriate. In addition, Stanley Sultan notes that Ecclesiastes 12:12 reads “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” He suggests that this verse can be taken as an ironic commentary on Eliot’s notes, one function of which is to parody “bogus scholarship” (53). If even Eliot’s Biblical references are playful and ironic (somewhat like the reference to Ecclesiastes 25:17 in the film Pulp Fiction), then the whole poem is potentially cast in a new light.

[14] The phrase “a handful of dust” has been attributed to a variety of sources, ranging from John Donne to Joseph Conrad. The exact reference is probably less important than the fact that, by now, readers are aware that many passages have sources in other works, literary or otherwise. Unger notes the multiple attributions of this line and suggests that his personal favorite is Conrad’s short story “The Return,” in which the husband in a failing marriage is described thusly: “He was afraid with that penetrating faltering fear that seems, in the very middle of a beat, to turn one’s heart into a handful of dust.” (1096).

[15] Eliot identifies these lines as coming from Tristan und Isolde, I, verses 5–8. This opera, written by Richard Wagner and premiering in 1865, is based on the story of Tristan and Iseult, a popular medieval romance derived from Celtic legend. It is a tragic tale of ill-fated, forbidden love. The German in these lines translates to “Fresh blows the wind to the homeland, my Irish child, where are you waiting?” This suggestion of a love that does not come to fruition thus reinforces the wasteland images that come directly before these lines.

[16] Another passage from Tristan und Isold: “Waste and empty is the sea.”

[17] Eliot apparently intended the name “Madame Sosostris” to sound Egyptian (and thus supposedly exotic)—but also fake. It was apparently suggested to him by “Sosostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana,” a false name assumed by a (male) character in Aldous Huxley’s then-recent novel Crome Yellow (1921).

[18] A reference to Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This song about drowning of the father of Price Ferdinand echoes throughout The Waste Land and is also alluded to early in Ulysses:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

            Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

            Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:

Hark! Now I hear them, —ding-dong bell.

[19] Eliot’s own rather dismissive footnote to this passage suggests that he sees fortune-telling via Tarot cards to be a somewhat debased modern practice, though the Tarot deck did originally have associations with the Grail legend, itself associated with the wounded king myths described by Frazer. Eliot: “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later; also the “crowds of people” and Death by Water is executed in Part IV. The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.”

[20] As Eliot himself suggests in his note to the first line, the “unreal city” image comes from the work of French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). Eliot’s note:

Cf. Baudelaire:

“Formillante cite, cite pleine de reves,

Ou le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant.”

Characteristically, Eliot does not bother to supply a translation from the French or even to identify the source, which is “Les Sept Vieillards” (“The Seven Old Men’), which is poem XCIII of Baudelaire’s masterwork, the 1857 volume Les Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”). The lines translate as “Swarming city, city full of of dreams, / Where the specter accosts the passerby in broad daylight.”

[21] Eliot now quotes from the preface to Les Fleurs du mal. The line is from the introductory poem “Au Lecteur” (“To the Reader”) in which humanity is described as sunken into stupidity, evil, and sin. Worst of all, the race is mired in boredom. The poem is clearly meant to shock and challenge readers, as is The Waste Land.

[22] Eliot’s note to this line refers us to the following lines from Antony and Cleopatra:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne

Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them …

[23] Brooks argues that Philomela is a key figure in the poem: “Lust drives forward urgently and scientifically to the immediate extirpation of the desire. Our contemporary waste land is in large part the result of our scientific attitude—of our complete secularization” (68). Note that the leading New Critics were largely conservative Southern Christians who were unremittingly hostile to science and to secularization.

[24] “Edmund Wilson has pointed out the rendition of the bird’s song here represents not merely the Elizabethans’ neutral notation of the bird’s song, but carries associations of the ugly and the coarse” (Brooks 68).

[25] “That Shakespearian Rag” was an actual popular song of 1912 (written by Herman Ruby and Gene Buck), here used to symbolize the tastelessness of modern popular culture. The chorus of the song goes as follows (the “Grizzly Bear” was a popular dance of the time):

That Shakespearian Rag, —

Most intelligent, very elegant,

That old classical drag,

Has the proper stuff, the line “Lay on Macduff,”

Desdemona was the colored pet,

Romeo loved his Juliet

And they were some lovers, you can bet, and yet,

I know if they were here today,

They’d Grizzly Bear in a diff’rent way,

And you’d hear old Hamlet say,

“To be or not to be,”

That Shakespearian Rag.

[26] The conventional call of the London barman as closing time approaches.

[27] The final drunken goodnight as the women leave the bar is here intermixed with the farewell of the mad Ophelia in Hamlet. Echoes of the cultural monuments of the past continue to appear within The Waste Land, but now in fallen contexts.

[28] Eliot’s note to this line points us to Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion (1596), an Elizabethan wedding poem. “In Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion’ the scene described is also a river scene at London, and it is dominated by nymphs and their paramours, and the nymphs are preparing for a wedding. The contrast between Spenser’s scene and its twentieth century equivalent is jarring” (71).

[29] Another echo of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

[30] Another reference to the drowning of Ferdinand’s father in The Tempest.

[31] Marvell again.

[32] C.I.F. is a common commercial term indicating that a price includes cost, insurance, and freight.

[33] The Cannon Street Hotel was located near the station that was the main departure point for travelers to the continent. It was thus a favorite meeting place for businessmen going abroad or coming from abroad.

[34] The Metropole: a luxury hotel in Brighton. Both it and the Cannon Street Hotel were luxury establishments, though both had reputations as popular sites for illicit sexual liaisons.

[35] Beginning at this point, Eliot slyly inserts two Shakespearean sonnets over the next twenty-eight lines. That they are virtually unrecognizable as such can be taken as a subtle suggestion of the way in which the works of the great artists of the past (such as Shakespeare) no longer function in a fallen modern world.

[36] In another sign of the dearth of true passion in the modern world, the woman is merely relieved that her just-completed sexual encounter is finally over. Sex in The Waste Land is never a source of fulfillment.

[37] Eliot suggests in his note to this song that it be compared to the song of the three Rhine-daughters in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods,” 1876). Wagner’s Rhine-daughters lament the fact that, with the gold of the Nibelung stolen, their river has lost its beauty. Eliot’s Thames-daughters present the Thames as a polluted symbol of filth and lust, especially when (again) compared with its better days in the Elizabethan era.

[38] The sacking of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC is, of course, one of Western history’s central images of cultural destruction.

[39] In his note to this line, Eliot refers to Buddha’s Fire Sermon and compares it in importance to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

[40] Eliot identifies this line as originating with St. Augustine’s Confessions, which indicates a disavowal of worldly temptation in a passage that states “I entangle myself with these outward beauties, but Thou pluckest me out, O Lord, Thou pluckest me out.”

[41] Eliot associates this line with accounts of an Antarctic expedition during which the members reported a consistent feeling that there was an extra person with them. Critics have most commonly associated it with the journey of Christ’s disciples to Emmaus, when Christ accompanied them but arranged that they would not actually see him.

[42] “Datta, dayadhvam, damyatta” (“Give, sympathize, control”) is derived from a myth in the Hindu Upanishads which ascribes this meaning to the sound of thunder. The thunderstorm is apparently now fully underway.

[43] As Eliot notes, the reference here is to Dante’s Purgatorio. He includes the full passage in his note:

“Ara vos prec per aquella valor

que vos condus al som de  l’escalina

‘sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor”

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina.

Translation of the first three lines (spoken to Dante by the poet Arnaut Daniel): “Now, I pray you, by that virtue which guides you to the summit of the stairway, be mindful in due time of my pain.” Dante then responds with the line quoted by Eliot: “He is himself in the fire which refines them.” This Purgatorial fire, in short, has a potentially purifying and renewing effect, as opposed to the destructive fires of hell.

[44] Eliot identifies this Latin phrase as coming from the Pervigilium Veneris, a Latin poem of uncertain date and authorship. It translates as “When shall I be as the swallow?” This poem ends with a sad recollection of the story of Philomela and thus links back to the earlier references to this myth in The Waste Land. In the myth, Philomela’s sister Procne is transformed into a swallow.

[45] Quoted from a speech by the character Hieronymo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (written between 1582 and 1592 and often seen as an important influence on Hamlet). Hieronyo loses his tongue in the course of the violent play, thus echoing Philomela.