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Literary Text

The Waste Land (Part One and Two)

The Waste Land by Thomas Stearns Eliot

For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro1


In Italian this means "the better craftsman".

1 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 1
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in the sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch. 2
And when we were children staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 3
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.

  1. Eliot spent much time in Germany.
  2. Many Germans had migrated to Lithuania after WW1.
  3. Eliot said that "all women are one woman", and Marie or Mary is the archetypical woman in this context.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man 1
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, 2
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), 3
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. 4


These are all references to the Bible.

  1. In the Old Testament the coming Messiah is referred to as "son of man", in the New Testament Jesus also called himself "son of man".
  2. In Ecclesiastes the preacher describes a desolate and waste land crushed by sin where "the grasshopper shall be a burden".
  3. Isaiah predicted the coming of a Messiah who "shall be as the shadow of a rock in a weary land".

Frisch weht der Wind 1
Der Heimat zu,
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?

  1. These lines are from Richard Wagners opera, Tristan and Isolde, and refer to Tristan's unhappy love for Isolde while he is waiting for her return from Ireland.

You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
- Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden, 1
Your arms full, and your hear wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer. 2

  1. This refers to a Greek May festival celebrating Hyacinthus, a legendary figure from Greek mythology.
  2. From Tristan and Isolde again, Tristan is waiting for Isolde, but "desolate and deserted the sea".

Madame Sosostris, 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, 1
I your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!) 2
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks, 3
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.

  1. The wicked pack of cards is the Tarot pack where The Hanged Man is one of the cards symbolising death.
  2. This line is from Shakespeare's The Tempest where a drowned person goes through what is called a "Sea Change". The line reappears in part two. See also Ernest Hemingway's short story The Sea Change.
  3. Belladonna is a deadly plant, it means "the beautiful lady". The lady is here a foreshadowing of the vulgar lady of intrigues, "the lady of situations" in part two.

Unreal City, 1
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, 2
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. 3
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: Stetson!
“You who were with med in the ships at Mylae! 4
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! 5
You hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère!” 6

  1. The opening line from a poem by Ch. Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal. Here - the unreal city in a waste land. Baudelaire meant Paris, here it is London.
  2. This is a reference to Dante's "The Divine Comedy", Inferno - where the heathens who never heard the gospel are doomed to Limbo - lost between condemnation and salvation.
  3. Eliot had noticed that The Saint Mary Woolnuth Church in London had a bell that had a dead ninth stroke, which he found remarkable. In the Bible (St Matthew) it was in the ninth hour that Jesus cried out from his cross: "My God, why hast thou forsaken me? The number nine (the ninth month) also indicates fertility.
  4. The Battle of Mylae was a naval battle in the Punic war (266 BC) whereas Stetson obviouisly has fought in WW1. Hence - all wars are one war.
  5. The reference here is to a John Webster play (The White Devil, 1608) where a demented mother sings to her son who is burying the brother he slew. Eliot has changed "foe" to "friend" and "wolf" to "Dog" - here capitalized since it also means Sirius - the "Dog Star" which follows his slain master Orion across the heavens. Sirius was also believed to be responsible for the annual rise of the waters of the Nile, an event associated with fertility and resurrection.
  6. Another reference to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, meaning "You hypocrite reader, my double, my brother."

II A Game of Chess

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, 1
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid her 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, powered, 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 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 carved 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 2
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. 3
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.

  1. In this part of the poem Eliot elaborates on the emptiness and loveless life of people of all classes, both the wealthy snobs ("burnished throne") and later the vulgarity of the common pub culture in London.
  2. The reference here is a classic text by Ovid: King Tereus raped Philomela, his wife's sister, and cut her tongue out to silence her. Procne, for revenge, killed Tereus' son and served his heart for the King to eat. The gods, to save the sisters, turned them into birds - Procne became the swallow and Philomela the nightingale.
  3. A vulgarized (Elizabethan) version of the nightingale's song for "dirty ears".

My nerves are bad to-night. 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.”

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 Shakespearian Rag – 1
It’s so elegant,
So intelligent
What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
“I shall rush out as I am, and walk in the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
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. 2
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

  1. Jazz and ragtime music was popular in the 1920s. Here the implication is that beauty and culture have become meaningless and without significance; Shakespeare and pop music - it is all the same in the waste land.
  2. In a play by Thomas Middleton (1657) there is a scene where a mother is engaged in a game of chess while her daughter-in-law is being seduced in the next room, visible for the audience. As indicated in the title of this part of the poem, people are distracted by games and entertainment while serious things go on around them.

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said – 1
I didn’t mince up my words, I said to her myself, 2
Hurry up please it’s time 3
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.
Hurry up, please it’s time
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 had five already, and nearly died of young, George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I have never been the
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?
Hurry up please it’s time
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot –
Hurry up please it’s time
Hurry up please it’s time
Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight May. Goonight. 4
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good

  1. British slang for demobilized. The following conversation between two cockney women in a London pub is how Eliot seeks to demonstrate the emptiness and vulgarity of common people (see also note at the introduction of this part of the poem).
  2. To "mince up one's words" is cockney for speaking pretentiously. In other words she told the other lady straight to her face without "mincing up her words".
  3. The barmaid's repeated call reminds the pub guests that it is closing time. But this takes on a general meaning since the sense of urgency is a theme expressed in various ways throughout the poem. ("Waiting for a knock upon the door") This is called a "motif" (a recurring element of a poem or a text).
  4. The insane Ophelia's last words (Hamlet) are "good night" before she kills herself after the killing of her father and the rejection by Hamlet. Here we get all variants of saying good night (ta ta, goonight) indicating that there is no difference between people, they are all the same, high or low, princess or cockney - they are all empty, loveless and waste.

Suggested Further Activities

The Waste Land - Looking for a Meaning

The Waste Land

Last updated 01/11/2018
Written by: Jan-Louis Nagel

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Literature after 1900

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External resources

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