The Waste Land

The Waste Land

The Waste Land[A] is a 434-line[B] modernist poem by T. S. Eliot published in 1922. It has been called "one of the most important poems of the 20th century."[1] Despite the poem's obscurity[2]—its shifts 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 become a familiar touchstone of modern literature.[3] Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month" (its first line); "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and (its last line) the mantra in the Sanskrit language "Shantih shantih shantih."[C]


Composition history


Eliot probably worked on what was to become The Waste Land for several years preceding its first publication in 1922. In a letter to New York lawyer and patron of modernism John Quinn dated 9 May 1921, Eliot wrote that he had "a long poem in mind and partly on paper which I am wishful to finish."[4]

Richard Aldington, in his memoirs, relates that "a year or so" before Eliot read him the manuscript draft of The Waste Land in London, Eliot visited him in the country. While walking through a graveyard, they started discussing Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Aldington writes: "I was surprised to find that Eliot admired something so popular, and then went on to say that if a contemporary poet, conscious of his limitations as Gray evidently was, would concentrate all his gifts on one such poem he might achieve a similar success."[5]

Eliot, having been diagnosed with some form of nervous disorder, had been recommended rest, and applied for three months' leave from the bank where he was employed; the reason stated on his staff card was "nervous breakdown". He and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, travelled to the coastal resort of Margate for a period of convalescence. While there, Eliot worked on the poem, and possibly showed an early version to Ezra Pound when, after a brief return to London, the Eliots travelled to Paris in November 1921 and were guests of Pound. Eliot was en route to Lausanne, Switzerland, for treatment by Doctor Roger Vittoz, who had been recommended to him by Ottoline Morrell; Vivien was to stay at a sanatorium just outside Paris. In Lausanne, Eliot produced a 19-page version of the poem.[6] He returned from Lausanne in early January 1922. Pound then made detailed editorial comments and significant cuts to the manuscript. Eliot would later dedicate the poem to Pound.

Manuscript drafts

Eliot sent the manuscript drafts of the poem to John Quinn in October 1922; they reached Quinn in New York in January 1923.[D] Upon Quinn's death they were inherited by his sister, Julia Anderson. Years later, in the early 1950s, Mrs Anderson's daughter, Mary Conroy, found the documents in storage. In 1958 she sold them privately to the New York Public Library.

It was not until April 1968 that the existence and whereabouts of the manuscript drafts were made known to Valerie Eliot, the poet's second wife and widow.[7] In 1971, Faber and Faber published a "facsimile and transcript" of the original drafts, edited and annotated by Valerie Eliot. The full poem prior to the Pound editorial changes is contained in the facsimile.


The drafts of the poem reveal that it originally contained almost twice as much material as the final published version. The significant cuts are in part due to Ezra Pound's suggested changes, although Eliot himself is also responsible for removing large sections.

The now famous opening lines of the poem—'April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, ...'—did not appear until the top of the second page of the typescript. The first page of the typescript contained 54 lines in the sort of street voice that we hear again at the end of the second section, A Game of Chess. This page appears to have been lightly crossed out in pencil by Eliot himself.

Although there are several signs of similar adjustments made by Eliot, and a number of significant comments by Vivien, the most significant editorial input is clearly that of Pound, who recommended many cuts to the poem.

'The typist home at teatime' section was originally in entirely regular stanzas of iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of abab—the same form as Gray's Elegy, which was in Eliot's thoughts around this time. Pound's note against this section of the draft is "verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it". In the end, the regularity of the four-line stanzas was abandoned.

At the beginning of 'The Fire Sermon' in one version, there was a lengthy section in heroic couplets, in imitation of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. 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 . . .

Ellmann 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. One of these, that Eliot had entitled 'Dirge', begins

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies[I]
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves' Disease in a dead Jew's eyes!
Where the crabs have eat the lids
. . .

At the request of Eliot's wife, Vivien, a line in the A 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. However, the "ivory men" line may have meant something to Eliot: in 1960, thirteen years after Vivien's death, he inserted the line in a copy made for sale to aid the London Library, of which he was President at the time; it fetched £2,800[citation needed]. Rupert Hart-Davis had requested the original manuscript for the auction, but Eliot had lost it long ago (though it was found in America years later).[8]

In a late December 1921 letter to Eliot to celebrate the "birth" of the poem, Pound wrote a bawdy poem of 48 lines titled "Sage Homme" in which he identified Eliot as the mother of the poem but compared himself to the midwife.[9] Some of the verses are:

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.

Publishing history

Before the editing had even begun Eliot found a publisher.[E] Horace Liveright of the New York publishing firm of Boni and Liveright was in Paris for a number of meetings with Ezra Pound. At a dinner on 3 January 1922 (see 1922 in poetry), he made offers for works by Pound, James Joyce (Ulysses) and Eliot. Eliot was to get a royalty of 15% for a book version of the poem planned for autumn publication.[10]

To maximize his income and reach a broader audience, Eliot also sought a deal with magazines. Being the London correspondent for The Dial magazine[11] and a college friend of its co-owner and co-editor, Scofield Thayer, the Dial was an ideal choice. Even though the Dial offered $150 (£34)[12] for the poem (25% more than its standard rate) Eliot was offended that a year's work would be valued so low, especially since another contributor was found to have been given exceptional compensation for a short story.[13] The deal with the Dial almost fell through (other magazines considered were the Little Review and Vanity Fair) but with Pound's efforts eventually a deal was worked out where, in addition to the $150, Eliot would be awarded the Dial magazine's second annual prize for outstanding service to letters. The prize carried an award of $2,000 (£450).[14]

In New York in the late summer (with John Quinn, a lawyer and literary patron, representing Eliot's interests) Boni and Liveright made an agreement with The Dial where the magazine would be the first to publish the poem in the US by agreeing to purchase 350 copies of the book at discount from Boni and Liveright.[15] Boni and Liveright would use the publicity of the award of the Dial's prize to Eliot to increase their initial sales.

The poem was first published in the UK, without the author's notes, in the first issue (October 1922) of The Criterion, a literary magazine started and edited by Eliot. The first appearance of the poem in the US was in the November 1922 issue of The Dial magazine (actually published in late October). In December 1922, the poem was published in the US in book form by Boni and Liveright, the first publication to print the notes. In September 1923, the Hogarth Press, a private press run by Eliot's friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf, published the first UK book edition of The Waste Land in an edition of about 450 copies, the type handset by Virginia Woolf.

The publication history of The Waste Land (as well as other pieces of Eliot's poetry and prose) has been documented by Donald Gallup.[16]

Eliot, whose 1922 salary at Lloyds Bank was £500 ($2,215)[17] made approximately £630 ($2,800) with the Dial, Boni and Liveright and Hogarth Press publications.[18][F]


Eliot originally considered titling the poem He do the Police in Different Voices.[19] In the version of the poem Eliot brought back from Switzerland, the first two sections of the poem—'The Burial of the Dead' and 'A Game of Chess'—appeared under this title. This strange phrase is taken from Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend, in which the 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." This would help the reader to understand that, while there are many different voices (speakers) in the poem, some critics believe there is only one central consciousness. What was lost by the rejection of this title Eliot might have felt compelled to restore by commenting on the commonalities of his characters in his note about Tiresias.

In the end, the title Eliot chose was The Waste Land. In his first note to the poem he attributes the title to Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance. The allusion is to the wounding of the Fisher King and the subsequent sterility of his lands. To restore the King and make his lands fertile again the Grail questor must ask "What ails you?" A poem strikingly similar in theme and language called Waste Land, written by Madison Cawein, was published in 1913.[20]

The poem's title is often mistakenly given as "Waste Land" (as used by Weston) or "Wasteland", omitting the definite article. However, in a letter to Ezra Pound, Eliot politely insisted that the title begin with "The".[21]


The epigraph and dedication to The Waste Land showing some of the languages that Eliot used in the poem: Latin, Greek, English and Italian.

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 of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die."

Following the epigraph is a dedication (added in a 1925 republication) that reads "For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro" Here Eliot is both quoting line 117 of Canto XXVI of Dante's Purgatorio, the second cantica of The Divine Comedy, where Dante defines the troubadour Arnaut Daniel as "the best smith of the mother tongue" and also Pound's title of chapter 2 of his The Spirit of Romance (1910) where he translated the phrase as "the better craftsman."[22] This dedication was originally written in ink by Eliot in the 1922 Boni & Liveright paperback edition of the poem presented to Pound; it was subsequently included in future editions.[23]

The five parts of The Waste Land are titled:

  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 text of the poem is followed by several pages of notes, 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 unannotated. The notes were added after Eliot's publisher requested something longer to justify printing The Waste Land in a separate book.[G]

There is some question as to whether Eliot originally intended The Waste Land to be a collection of individual poems (additional poems were supplied to Pound for his comments on including them) or to be considered one poem with five sections.

The structure of the poem is also meant to loosely follow the vegetation myth and Holy Grail folklore surrounding the Fisher King story as outlined by Jessie Weston in her book From Ritual to Romance (1920). Weston's book was so central to the structure of the poem that it was the first text that Eliot cited in his "Notes on the Waste Land."


The style of the work in part grows out of Eliot's interest in exploring the possibilities of dramatic monologue. This interest dates back at least as far as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Of course, "The Waste Land" is not a single monologue like "Prufrock." Instead, it is made up of a wild variety of voices (sometimes in monologue, dialogue, or with more than two characters speaking).

The style of the poem overall is marked by the hundreds of allusions and quotations from other texts (classic and obscure; "high-brow" and "low-brow") that Eliot peppered throughout the poem. In addition to the many "high-brow" references and/or quotes from poets like Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Ovid, and Homer, Eliot also included a couple of references to "low-brow" genres. A good example of this is Eliot's quote from the 1912 popular song "The Shakespearian Rag" by lyricists Herman Ruby and Gene Buck.[24] There were also a number of low-brow references in the opening section of Eliot's original manuscript (when the poem was entitled "He Do The Policeman in Different Voices"), but they were removed from the final draft after Eliot cut this original opening section.[25]

"The Waste Land" is notable for its seemingly disjointed structure, indicative of the Modernist style of James Joyce's Ulysses (which Eliot cited as an influence and which he read the same year that he was writing "The Waste Land").[26] In the Modernist style, Eliot jumps from one voice or image to another without clearly delineating these shifts for the reader. He also includes phrases from multiple foreign languages (Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French and Sanskrit), indicative of Pound's influence.


Sources from which Eliot quotes or to which he alludes include the works of: Homer, Sophocles, Petronius, Virgil, Ovid,[27] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Gérard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Joseph Conrad, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Oliver Goldsmith, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paul Verlaine, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker. Eliot also makes extensive use of Scriptural writings including the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Hindu Brihadaranyaka 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 (particularly its study of the Wasteland motif in Celtic mythology). Eliot wrote in the original head note that "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"[H], but - thirty years later - recanted the generous nod to Weston in the poem's notes, expressing his regret at "having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase.".[28] The symbols Eliot employed, in addition to the Waste Land, include the Fisher King, the Tarot Deck, the Perilous Chapel, and the Grail Quest.

See also



  1. ^ The title is sometimes mistakenly written as The Wasteland.
  2. ^ Due to a line counting error Eliot footnoted some of the last lines incorrectly (with the last line being given as 433). The error was never corrected and a line count of 433 is often cited.
  3. ^ Eliot's note for this line reads: "Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. 'The Peace which passeth understanding' is our equivalent to this word."
  4. ^ For a short account of the Eliot/Quinn correspondence about The Waste Land and the history of the drafts see Eliot 1971 pp. xxii-xxix.
  5. ^ For an account of the poem's publication and the politics involved see Lawrenre Rainey's "The Price of Modernism: Publishing The Waste Land." The latest (and cited) version can be found in: Rainey 2005 pp. 71–101. Other versions can be found in: Bush 1991 pp. 91–111 and Eliot 2001 pp. 89–111
  6. ^ Unskilled labor worth $2,800 in 1922 would cost about $125,300 in 2006.[29]
  7. ^ Eliot discussing his notes: "[W]hen it came time to print The Waste Land as a little book--for the poem on its first appearance in The Dial and in The Criterion had no notes whatever--it was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short, so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter, with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day."[30]
  8. ^ This headnote can be found in most critical editions that include Eliot's own notes.
  9. ^ Compare Eliot's 1920 poem Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar.


  1. ^ Bennett, Alan (12 July 2009). "Margate's shrine to Eliot's muse". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 September 2009. 
  2. ^ Forster, pp. 89-96
  3. ^ Low, Valentine (9 October 2009). "Out of the waste land: TS Eliot becomes nation's favourite poet". Timesonline. Retrieved 6 June 2011. 
  4. ^ Eliot 1988, p. 451
  5. ^ Aldington p. 261
  6. ^ Eliot 1971 p. xxii
  7. ^ Eliot 1971 p. xxix
  8. ^ Hart-Davis, Rupert (1998) [First ed. published]. Halfway to Heaven: Concluding memoirs of a literary life. Stroud Gloucestershire: Sutton. pp. 54–55. ISBN 0-7509-1837-3. 
  9. ^ Eliot 1988 pp. 498-9
  10. ^ Book royalty deal: Rainey, p. 77
  11. ^ T. S. Eliot's "London Letters" to The Dial, viewed 28 February 2008.
  12. ^ 1922 US dollars per British pound exchange rate: Officer
  13. ^ Dial's initial offer: Rainey, p. 78.
  14. ^ The Dial magazine's announcement of award to Eliot, viewed 28 February 2008
  15. ^ Dial purchasing books: Rainey, p. 86. Rainey adds that this increased the cost to the Dial by $315.
  16. ^ Gallup 1969 pp. 29-31, 208
  17. ^ Eliot's 1922 salary: Gordon 2000 p. 165
  18. ^ Total income from poem: Rainey, p. 100
  19. ^ Eliot 1971 p. 4
  20. ^
  21. ^ Eliot 1988 p. 567.
  22. ^ Pound 2005 p. 33
  23. ^ Wilhelm 1990 p. 309
  24. ^ North, Michael. The Waste Land: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001, p. 51.
  25. ^ Eliot, T. S. (1971) The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound Edited and with an Introduction by Valerie Eliot, Harcourt Brace & Company, ISBN 0-15-694870-2
  26. ^ MacCabe, Colin. T. S. Eliot. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2006.
  27. ^ Dirk Weidmann: And I Tiresias have foresuffered all.... In: LITERATURA 51 (3), 2009, S. 98-108.
  28. ^ Wild goose chase: Eliot 1961
  29. ^ Williamson 2007
  30. ^ Eliot 1986 pp. 109-10

Cited works

  • Aldington, Richard (1941). Life for Life's Sake. The Viking Press. 
  • Bush, Ronald (1991). T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521390745. 
  • Eliot, T.S. (1961) "The Frontiers of Criticism" in On Poetry and Poets. New York: Noonday Press.
  • Eliot, T. S. (1971) The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound Edited and with an Introduction by Valerie Eliot, Harcourt Brace & Company, ISBN 0-15-694870-2
  • Eliot, T. S. (1988) The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich
  • Eliot, T. S. (1986) "The Frontiers of Criticism" in On Poetry and Poets London: Faber and Faber Ltd., London ISBN 0-571-08983-6
  • Eliot, T.S. (2001). The Waste Land. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393974995. 
  • Forster, E.M. (1964). Abinger Harvest. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc..,%20T.S.%20Eliot.pdf. 
  • Gallup, Donald (1969). T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 
  • Gordon, Lyndall (2000). T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393320936. 
  • Officer, Lawrence H. (2008) "Dollar-Pound Exchange Rate From 1791",
  • Pound, Ezra (2005). The Spirit of Romance. New Directions. ISBN 0811216462. 
  • Rainey, Lawrence (2005). Revisiting the Waste Land. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300107072. 
  • Wilhelm, James J. (1990). Ezra Pound in London and Paris, 1908-1925. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 027100682X. 
  • Weidmann, Dirk. And I Tiresias have foresuffered all: More Than Allusions to Ovid in T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land?. In: LITERATURA 51 (3), 2009, pp. 98–108.
  • Williamson, Samuel H. (2007) "Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1790 - 2006," MeasuringWorth.Com

Primary sources

  • Eliot, T. S. (1963). Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. ISBN 0151189781. 
  • 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. (Faber and Faber, 1971) ISBN 0-571-09635-2 (Paberback ISBN 0-571-11503-9)

Secondary sources

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1984). T. S. Eliot. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0241113490. 
  • Bedient, Calvin (1986). He Do the Police in Different Voices. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226041417. 
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). Genius: a Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. New York: Warner Books. ISBN 0446691291. 
  • Brooker, Jewel; Joseph Bentley (1990). Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0870238035. 
  • Drew, Elizabeth (1949). T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 
  • Gish, Nancy (1988). The Waste Land: A Student's Companion to the Poem. Boston: Twayne. ISBN 0805780238. 
  • Miller, James (1977). T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0271012374. 
  • Moody, A. David (1994). The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521421276. 
  • North, Michael (2000). The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions). W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393974995. 
  • Reeves, Gareth (1994). T. S. Eliot's the Waste Land. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. ISBN 0745007384. 
  • Southam, B. C. (1996). A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. ISBN 0156002612. 

External links

Poem itself
Annotated versions

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