A Summary of The Waste Land by T.S Eliot

A Summary of The Waste Land by T.S Eliot


The Waste Land is a poem of breakdown –
psychological breakdowns, a breakdown of marriages and relationships, of poetry
and language, the breakdown even of an entire world. The carnage of the First
World War had laid waste to Europe and made a mockery of the idea of
civilization. After the war, Eliot’s poem seems to ask, how can poetry respond to
the mess the world has become? First published in 1922 The Waste Land is full
of people sleepwalking through their daily lives
the commuters travelling to work over London Bridge put the poem’s speaker in
mind of the swarms of tormented souls in hell. Once the young typist has finished her
unsatisfactory encounter with her acne face lover she simply smooths hair back
and puts a record on – nothing to see here nothing gained, nothing. Life has become mechanical emptied of
meaning, the epigraph from the Roman satirist Petronius which opens the poem
tells of the Sybil from ancient Greek mythology who was doomed to eternal life
but not eternal youth – trapped in her cage she prefigures all of the
metaphorical prisoners of Eliot’s poem when asked what she wants, the Sybil replies
I want to die. Elliot’s poem is full of cultural
references to other now long dead civilizations and their works of
literature there are nods to ancient Greek myth to the age of Shakespeare in
amongst the depictions of the modern world. At one point we find ourselves in
London’s East End in a pub where a woman is talking to a friend about a marriage
and then suddenly we’re back to Shakespeare again as the women are leaving the pub
their speech merges with the words of Ophelia, that doomed Shakespearean heroin who
went mad and drowned herself perhaps Eliot’s poem seems to be saying
death is the only real escape from the Waste Land. The Waste Land presents a highly eloquent
account of despair, its powerful vision of urban alienation spoke to a
generation of young post-war readers and in doing so, it changed poetry forever. Eliot
found a whole new language of poetry in the everyday world of motorcars and
tinned food, jazz records, pub conversations, he complained that one of
the first reviewers of the poem had over understood it, but really we’re
still seeking to understand it, we probably always will be. But then that’s
often the mark of a great work of literature. Like the characters in
Eliot’s poem, we can never truly leave the waste land behind.

34 thoughts on “A Summary of The Waste Land by T.S Eliot

  1. I like the imagery most of all. I also love alienation – the shallow pointless life which so reminds me of the UK with its grey skies, rain, grotty little streets and grubby women. This poem would never work in Provence, Tuscany or Catalonia. It is fixed in place if not in time. Eliot was an American who wrote a superb British winge.

  2. Okay…

    But what about the "roaring 20s"? What about HG Wells' quixotic and obviously false idea, which nonetheless gained some popularity around 1914, that the "Great War" was literally the "war to end wars", and that in exchange for tuition paid in the form of a great many lives, mankind had learned to transcend its baser tendency towards barbarism? That "good had finally triumphed over evil", and that civilization was at the brink of a millenarian age? Can't it be said that the theme of transformation and rebirth in the poem (and particularly the allusions in the final part) reflect these more life-affirming ideas?

    Or would it be more accurate to say that by the time TWL was finished in 1922, that when such ideas were discussed in literature it was primarily with a hint of sour irony?

  3. I have never heard of this man or this poem, but last night I dreamt I was walking across a rocky landscape, it looked like the site of a meteor crash or a crater that was slowly getting bigger, as I walked through the rocks and rubble I found a very old worn out key, and on the key was Inscribed 'TS ELIOT'. In my dream I knew it was a precious key and would help me.

  4. Thanks for this brief and lucid summary. Have always liked Eliot, but have a slight problem with his often highbrow tone – the "erudition", which always seems to me to exclude the wider reading public with no degree in English under its belt. This has helped me, cheers πŸ™‚ – especially so after just reading Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth", which really brings home the effect WW1 had on society in general. By the way, have you made a similar video summarizing "Four Quartets"? I'd welcome that, on the strength of this video.

  5. In Hamlet, it is uncertain whether Ophelia intentionally commits suicide. There is ambiguity surrounding her death.

  6. Dr. Tearle – you said more in three and a half minutes than others can say in a half hour. Amazingly precise, succinct, and relevant. Thank you.

  7. T.S. Eliot is somehow talking about the month of April. Many churches are burning around the world and it is getting worse: there is a fungus that may be in the act of killing a tenth of the population of the world.

  8. After reading the first part of Eliot's poem, I found myself completely lost. This video was incredibly helpful, and presented in a very engaging and artful way. Thank you for this.

  9. Can anyone answer me!
    What is the exact number of languages that Eliot used in the
    " wasteland ". Does it two, four, six or eight?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *