The Waste Land

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The Waste Land is a 433-line poem by T. S. Eliot. The title is often mistaken to be The Wasteland.

Eliot, along with James Joyce and Ezra Pound, was one of the figureheads of early modernist writing. The Waste Land is one of the most famous and most written-about poems of the 20th century, dealing with the decline of civilization and the impossibility of recovering meaning in life. Despite the alleged obscurity of the poem — its slippage between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures — the poem has nonetheless become a familiar touchstone of modern literature. Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month" (its first line); "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih" (its last line.)


The Poem

Read the complete annotated poem on (

Publishing history

The poem was first published, without the author's notes, in the first (October 1922) issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine started and edited by Eliot. The first appearance of the poem in the U.S. was in the November 1922 issue of The Dial magazine (actually published in late October.) In December 1922 The Waste Land was published in the U.S. in book form by Boni and Liveright, the first publication to print the notes. In September 1923, the Hogarth Press, run by Eliot's friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf, published the first U.K. book edition of The Waste Land.


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The epigraph and dedication to The Waste Land.

The poem is preceded by a Latin and Greek epigraph from the Satyricon of Petronius. In English it reads: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her cage, and when the boys said, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die." (Petronius cast the question and answer in Greek).

Following the epigraph is a dedication (added in a 1925 republication) that reads "For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro" (the better craftsman).

The sections of The Waste Land are:

  1. The Burial of the Dead
  2. A Game of Chess
  3. The Fire Sermon
  4. Death by Water
  5. What the Thunder Said

The first four sections of the poem correspond to the Greek classical elements of Earth (burial), Air (voices -- the draft title for this section was 'In the Cage', an image of hanging in air), Fire (passion), and Water (the draft of the poem had additional water imagery in a fishing voyage.)

The text of the poem is followed by several pages of notes associated with individual lines or sections of the text, purporting to explain his metaphors, references, and allusions. Some of these notes are helpful in interpreting the poem, but some are arguably even more puzzling, and many of the most opaque passages are left unremarked-on. It is known that the notes were added after Eliot's publisher requested something longer to justify printing 'The Waste Land' in a separate book; and so many scholars think the notes are peppered with red herrings.


Sources from which Eliot quotes or to which he alludes include the works of Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Gérard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Oliver Goldsmith, Hermann Hesse, Paul Verlaine and Aldous Huxley. He also makes extensive use of Scriptural writings including the Bible, the Hindu Brihad-Aranyaka-Upanishad, and the Buddha's Fire Sermon, and of cultural and anthropological studies such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough and Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance.

Critical reception

The poem's reception was originally mixed; though many hailed the poem for its portrayal of universal despair and ingenious technique, others, including F.L. Lucas, detested the poem from the first. Edmund Wilson’s influential piece for the New Republic, “The Poetry of Drought,” which many critics have noted is unusually generous in arguing that the poem has an effective cohesive structure, emphasizes autobiographical and emotional elements:

"Not only is life sterile and futile, but men have tasted its sterility and futility a thousand times before. T. S. Eliot, walking the desert of London, feels profoundly that the desert has always been there. Like Tiresias, he has sat below the wall of Thebes; like Buddha, he has seen the world as an arid conflagration; like the Sibyl, he has known everything and known everything in vain."

Critic Harold Bloom has observed that "The major paradigm for The Waste Land is Walt Whitman's majestic elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," though most of Eliot's critics fail to see this." The major images of Eliot's poem are found in Whitman's Ode: the lilacs that begin Eliot's poem, the "unreal city," the duplication of the self, the "dear brother," the "murmur of maternal lamentation," the image of faces peering at us, and the hermit thrush's song.

Composition history


(To be added)


When Eliot first wrote the poem, he called it He Do the Police in Different Voices. This is a reference to Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend, in which a widow Betty Higden, says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy: "You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices." Early manuscripts of the poem were uncovered in 1968 and reveal that it originally contained almost twice as much material as the final published version. This is in part due to the fact that Eliot allowed his friend and contemporary Ezra Pound to edit the poem, although Eliot himself is responsible for striking large sections of it.

For example, there was a lengthy imitation of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of the Fire Sermon section. It described one lady Fresca (who appeared in the earlier poem "Gerontion"). As Richard Ellmann describes it, "Instead of making her toilet like Pope's Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce's Bloom. The lines read:

Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . ."

Ellman notes "Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defecation, there was no point in another round."

Pound also excised some shorter poems that Eliot wanted to insert between the five sections, such as this one:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves' Disease in a dead jew's eyes!
Where the crabs have eat the lids . . .
That is lace that was his nose
Roll him gently side to side,
See the lips unfold unfold
From the teeth, gold in gold....

At the request of Eliot's wife a line in The Game of Chess section was removed from the poem: "And we shall play a game of chess;/ The ivory men make company between us/ Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door". This section is apparently based on their marital life, and she may have felt these lines too revealing. The "ivory men" line must have meant something to Eliot though; in 1960, after his wife's death, he inserted the line in a fair copy made for sale to aid the London Library.

Pound wrote a bawdy poem in a letter to Eliot to celebrate the "birth" of the poem:

E. P. hopeless and unhelped
Enthroned in the marmorean skies
His verse omits realities,
Angelic hands with mother of pearl
Retouch the strapping servant girl,


Balls and balls and balls again
Can not touch his fellow men.
His foaming and abundant cream
Has coated his world. The coat of a dream;
Or say that the upjut of sperm
Has rendered his sense pachyderm.


  • Collected Poems: 1909-1962 by T.S. Eliot
  • The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound by T.S. Eliot, annotated and edited by Valerie Eliot
  • A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot by B. C. Southam
  • The Waste Land edited by Michael North

Further Reading

  • T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land by James E. Miller Jr.
  • The Waste Land: A Student's Companion to the Poem by Nancy Gish (the title of the British edition is The Waste Land: A Poem of Memory and Desire)
  • T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land by Gareth Reeves (concentrates on the poetry)

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