The Waste Land by Thomas Stearns Eliot
It seems to be generally accepted that modernist poetry is difficult to understand; in many cases that may very well be so. However, “understanding” poetry is not always the point. A poem will speak not only to your intellect, but also to your emotions and imagination. So a poem may still be beautiful and evocative even if you don’t “understand” it. Many modernist poems fall into that category; and for many readers "The Waste Land" by T S Eliot is most likely one of them.
Thomas Stearns Eliot
Eliot was born in the USA in 1888. He was an extraordinarily bright boy, and received his first education at Harvard. He later studied and taught at universities in Paris and Oxford. His main interests were philosophy, religion, metaphysics and Renaissance literature. During his stay in England, he married an English woman in 1915 and some years later he got a British citizenship. His first collection of poems was published in 1917. Eliot’s writing is in general clearly influenced by the modernist tradition, and much of his poetry is hard to come to grips with. Critics have claimed that Eliot’s imagery and poetic technique is “unnecessarily obscure”, but even so most critics and theorists agree that T. S. Eliot is one of the most remarkable and influential writers of the 20th century. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948; he died in 1965.
The Waste Land
Possibly equaled by James Joyce’s Ulysses, "The Waste Land" is said to be one of the most important works of modern English literature. It is not always fair to compare different genres or works of art and thereby set the standards by which such rankings are done. But the rich imagery and the many allusions and references to classic mythology and writing certainly put the poem in a league of its own. The poem was published in 1922, and as the title indicates, it is a pessimistic observation of Western civilization – a land laid waste after World War I, and inhabited by depraved people with no sense of good and evil; half dead or half living. T. S. Eliot’s writing, and this poem in particular, became a standard for other modernist poets, among them Bob Dylan, who in his early career was influenced by Eliot’s imagery and poetic style. T. S. Eliot has dedicated his poem to his friend and colleague, the American poet Ezra Pound.
"The Waste Land" is a long poem consisting of five parts, out of which the two first ones are presented here. Even if you don’t “understand” it all – try and focus on the big picture as you let the mood, the images, and the poetic language rise into an entity. After each stanza, you will find some notes that may be helpful for a better understanding of the poem.
"The Waste Land" (Part One and Two)