T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Four Quartets

The Waste LandThe Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

The first clause of the 20th century’s most important poem is both unforgettable in itself and an echo of another unforgettable line, one from the dawn of English poetry: “When that April with his shoures soote…” Hearty Chaucer invokes the springtime preparatory to narrating a merry pilgrimage; even his satire is red-cheeked and high-spirited, forgiving of our frailty in the very lust with which he notices it. Eliot, by contrast, is neurasthenic, neurotic, hysterical. For him the springtime hurts, like the pins and needles of an awaking limb he might have preferred to keep numb. And his comedy—he can be very funny—is bitter and sardonic, as in the relish with which he might be said to leave a graffito on Chaucer’s monument.

The medieval and the modern poets differ even in the most odious trait they share, their anti-Semitism. Chaucer with whatever irony in “The Prioress’s Tale” retells a fable of the blood-libel more or less because it’s there, because, secure in his own poetic position, he will describe everything existing in his world with cheerful equanimity, even its most vicious hatreds. Eliot, on the other hand, resents the Bleisteins and Rabinovitches who stalk his poetry out of an anxious consciousness that his accusations against them—their insecure possession of European high culture, their embeddedness in flesh and commerce—redound upon himself and is in fact the source of his art, this emigrant from America, the rootless cosmopolitan at his desk in the bank, his hernia bound in a truss.

Is it all because of the 20th century? The radio and the motorcar and the city, Darwin and Nietzsche and Freud—above all, the butchery in the Great War trenches? I am wary of historicism, modernity’s faith in progressive time, the way we attribute all our faults and insights to the calendar year; but I can’t think any other way either, not really, which is itself a tribute to the idea that we are products of history. Eliot’s almost sarcastic echo of Chaucer—the poet’s inability, as time lengthens, to write a poem that is not composed entirely of other poems—testifies to the same inescapability of the past which produced our present. Then again Chaucer too is a tissue of borrowings, as I think I remember from the footnotes in my undergraduate Riverside edition; the medieval’s echoes, though, are without anguish. Between Chaucer and Eliot interposes the age of the individual—Protestantism, Romanticism, the “dissociation of sensibility” lamented in Eliot’s incipiently classicist, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic criticism—that makes the common doom of unoriginality feel like impotence. Or like subversion, a disclosure of the processes by which language and ideology spread like a mind virus.

In his introduction to a 2020 edition of The Essential T. S. Eliot, contemporary poet Vijay Seshadri argues that our wastelander’s true peers in “conceptual, deconstructionist irony” are not lyrical late-Romantic modernists like Valéry and Stevens but rather the acerbic proto-postmodern modernists Duchamp and Brecht. Yet what makes The Waste Land the 20th century’s best poem—here it is akin to its novelistic twin Ulysses, that other prodigy of 1922—is the way this conceptual investigation of inhuman social and institutional processes coexists seamlessly, as it does not in Duchamp’s urinal, with a human anxiety and plangency always grounding the poem’s tone.

The Waste Land pictures itself at its beginning and its end: “A heap of broken images,” “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” It’s very 1922, very much like turning a radio dial and hearing this voice and then that, stately Shakespearean pentameters giving way to jazz, Wagner, a couple quarreling, fragments of old poems, Latin, German, French, Sanskrit, the chaos of voices in a pub. McLuhan placed the origin of such poetics in the 19th century: not the radio but the telegraph-age newspaper. It’s just as similar to what we do today, with 50 tabs open in a laptop browser as we surf the algorithms of Twitter or TikTok on our phones. The keynote of modern media for almost two centuries has been the fragmentation and dispersal of attention, and The Waste Land would be immortal even if it were only—which it still is—the best poem in English to represent, embody, and comment on this experience.

But if Eliot were not able to convincingly inhabit the voices his antenna attracts, his poem would be no more than the verbal equivalent of Duchamp’s pissy geste, a cheap if consequential joke. Yet The Waste Land is more than this. The Waste Land is also a confession and an elegy and a cry to God. The fragmentation is not all in service to some cultural-studies thesis on modern media; the confusion is this peculiar man’s, but it might also be the way all of us feel at peculiar moments.

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land was from Dickens (He Do the Police in Different Voices) and his original epigraph from Conrad (“The horror! the horror!”). But he didn’t become the pope of English letters for 50 years by recommending the books already complacently sitting on his readers’ shelves. Like the most powerful writers, he invents a canon of his own, or, as he put it in his most influential essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919):

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

But this makes the process sound calmer, more “natural” and evolutionary than what Eliot actually does, which is to route around English modernity, knocking down familiar signposts on the way, to make himself the heir not of Conrad and Dickens, still less of Tennyson and Browning, but of the English Metaphysicals and the French Symbolists, the Troubadour poets and the Jacobean dramatists, and a classical tradition now oriented to the East, Sanskrit rather than Latin.

A sermon from the Buddha and a parable from the Upanishads, each counseling detachment from desire, morally center The Waste Land. (Even after Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, his devotional monument Four Quartets reprises the Bhagavad-Gita almost more than it does the Gospels.) To Augustine’s problem of immoderate longing Eliot proposes the Buddhist and Hindu solutions of overcoming desire:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


In the poem’s most extraordinary structural coup—it should raise the gooseflesh along your forearms or prickle the hair at the nape of your neck or otherwise arouse whatever your seat of aesthetic appreciation may be—its long third section, “The Fire Sermon,” is succeeded by the brief and elegiac “Death by Water,” as if the poem’s gathered intelligence, febrile with passion, desperately douses the flame by hurling itself into the ocean. Pound, in his heroic editing job, struck out some anti-Semitic trash at this point in the poem and blessedly left us with the universal memento mori of the drowned sailor, Phlebas the Phoenician, the shipwrecked merchant who undergoes a sea-change and forgets the profit and the loss:

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

Death for Eliot is a real solution; this world is a real problem. Eliot theorized “the mythical method” on Joyce’s unasked behalf. The overt myth governing The Waste Land—the Grail quest with its Chapel Perilous and Fisher King—is less orthodox Christian theology than a gnostic attempt to refresh nature’s sterile ground by rejoining the world at its fecund female fount, symbolized by the vulvic object of the knightly search. As Eliot read in his source for the Grail legend, Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), this gnosticism (“a Creed which struck at the very roots and vitals of Christianity”) runs like a current of subversion under the west’s official religion from Celtic folk belief through Dante and the Troubadours and the Knights Templar to the medievalizing artists of the 19th century like Tennyson and Wagner. But older criticism that takes all this New Age lore with a straight face should be reminded that “Madame Sosostris…Had a bad cold”—that the religious Eliot, no less than the irreligious Joyce, was fascinated by occult conspiracies but also persistently ironic about them, and positively satiric about their modern devotees. We will not find salvation in any pack of cards or any lost chalice.

The real myth underlying The Waste Land, from which the vaguely theosophical Grail material is a misdirection, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the rape and mutilation of Philomel and her transfiguration to a nightingale:

Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
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.

Eliot modernizes the myth in the scene where Tiresias, the Theban seer who’d lived as both man and woman, witnesses a clerk date-rape a typist:

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.)

Here is the poem’s real heart of light and darkness, Eliot’s realest dilemma. In a modernity so degraded and transactional that all sex is tantamount to rape, the cosmopolitan poet is both thrusting arriviste and penetrated victim, no longer able to redeem immemorial suffering with “inviolable voice,” supplanted instead by the gramophone the typist puts on when the clerk leaves. Like the poet’s anti-Semitism, his seeming cultural elitism and misogyny are a projection onto others of his own frail flesh and its enmeshment in the world of desire.

In his half-hoaxing endnotes to The Waste Land, written to pad the text to book-length, Eliot proposes Tiresias as the speaker and governing consciousness of the entire poem. His identification with this passive androgynous visionary, as with the rape-victim-turned-nightingale now forced to sing in a world that can no longer hear her, emotionally ballasts a poem that might otherwise have lost itself in its own scattering and obscurity, or in the bitterness of its anti-modern resentment. And if this ode to a nightingale is more Romantic than the avowed classicist-royalist would have been willing to concede, his preferring the sea-change of death-to-this-world, the end of all desire, to the poet’s modern powerlessness was nevertheless authentic enough to lead to Eliot’s religious conversion in 1927.

The major poems after The Waste Land, the post-conversion lyrics “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and Four Quartets (1943), deserve their eminence as austere religious meditations, and some of their verbal effects equal anything in the early work (“the unstilled world still whirled”). Yet there is an insomniac perseveration in them that can be as trying as it is moving, a premonition of Ashbery without the camp. Still, their mystic devotion to the paradoxes of religious seeking is as rigorous as their source in Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna to do the world’s dirty work with a clean mind.

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

The distance between the relative obscurity of The Waste Land and the relative clarity of Four Quartets can be measured in the progress of Eliot’s criticism. In his epochal essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), he had declared,

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. 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.

Here is the dry voice of the skeptic and seeker. A decade and a religious conversion later, we find him in his 1929 essay on Dante praising allegory and a strong philosophical credo for their aesthetic potential: “for a competent poet, allegory means clear visual images” (there he also lauds the Bhagavad-Gita as “the next greatest philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy within my experience”). Among the most memorable passages of Four Quartets are the seeming confessions of this most impersonal poet, his doubts about his art and his declaration of an ars poetica all the same:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Four Quartets makes a satisfying conclusion to this troubled corpus, as the adoptive Englishman and Anglican discovers for himself a Christian nationalism not rooted in blood and soil and so in theory open to “Gentile or Jew.” English holy sites are no more or less than places “[w]here prayer has been valid.” As England is under bombardment, he laments Charles I and Milton together; quoting Julian of Norwich by way of Churchill, he transforms the nation from site of sectarian conflict to unified ground of worship:

These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.


And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

In the sequence’s final line, “the fire and the rose are one,” which is to say that, as in the Incarnation, time and eternity make one seamless whole, and alienating history—progressive history—is consequently vanquished at last. This impossible image of creation and destruction at once redeems the heap of broken images with which The Waste Land began. And yet, products of history as we are, can we moderns or postmoderns, we latest of the late Romantics, deny that we derived more pleasure from the fragments than from their final mystic union?



  1. I find that reading “The Waste Land” without being aware of all of its classical and literary allusions is preferable, at least the first time you encounter it, because the initial experience of the poem is a sufficient experience of decay, degeneration and civilizational weariness in its own right. You don’t need to know the various subtexts for it to have an impact on you.

    Same deal with “Ulysses.” I’ve had the thought: if Joyce hadn’t said that it was based on the “Odyssey,” would any reader have figured it out? I suppose some scholar who knew both works very well might have reached that conclusion in a Eureka moment; but “Ulysses” stands magnificently alone even without this knowledge.

    Since it’s 100 years since, are you going to review “Ulysses” next?

    • Yes, I definitely think a first reading of most difficult experimental texts should be relatively rapid and aimed at the big picture. Then if you like it you can get it into all the details. I will be writing about Ulysses and posting it on June 16!

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