“The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot


April is the cruellest month, which is why I have so often found myself reading “The Waste Land” in April. I’ve lost track of how many times I have read Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, but I never tire of it. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest poems ever written.

One could certainly write a dissertation about this poem, but if I did, I doubt many people would spend the time reading it. So for this post, I will focus on the theme of death and rebirth.

In the notes to the poem, it is stated that Eliot was influenced heavily by Frazer’s The Golden Bough. While I have not read it in its entirety, I read enough to understand the concepts of rebirth that are explored in that work.

Eliot prefaces the poem with a quote from Petronius’ Satyricon, which Wikipedia translates as follows:

I saw with my own eyes the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.

So immediately, one gets the impression that the cycle of rebirth is not a blessing, but a curse. Eternal life is equated with eternal suffering. This sets the tone for the poem’s famous opening lines:

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.

Spring begins the cycle of life and death again. Flowers push up through the soil and bloom, only to wither and die again. There is also the impression that death, symbolized by winter, is desirable. It is associated with warmth, rest, and the bliss that comes with forgetfulness.

Next I’d like to look at line 30: I will show you fear in a handful of dust. This is the destiny that we all face. We will all turn to dust and once again become one with the dead land. But that will not be the end. We will return and face the same sad fate over and over again.

Near the end of the poem, the theme comes up again:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying

These lines are really interesting. The “He” is someone separate from the “We.” My guess is that He represents any one of the figures associated with the rebirth mythology: Christ, Osiris, Adonis, etc. So the god is dead, and we now follow in our own deaths. But like the god, we will be resurrected and and face another cycle in a world that is becoming more and more fragmented and chaotic. So we are like the Sybil, unable to find the true solace of death.

This poem is very deep and intense, and it is challenging to read, but that should not discourage anyone from reading it. No poem better captures the fragmented nature of modern society. Even if you have read it before (and if you are reading my blog, changes are you have), I encourage you to read it again. For those who need, click here to read it online.


Filed under Literature

8 responses to ““The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

  1. Reblogged this on umiaimen and commented:
    oh,my god ! words fall short for this legendary masterpiece

  2. Interesting essay. I read the Sybils comment differently tho.I think the Sybils pain actually came from preventing her undergoing the cycle of rebirth by extenuating her life essence in that bottle. If she’d been set free to properly die and be reborn then perhaps her pain would cease.

    • Stuff Jeff Reads

      Hey Reverend. Thanks for the thoughtful response!! I can definitely see your point. When I first read this poem, many years ago, I thought the Sybil wanted to dies because she was deeply saddened by the broken and decaying state of humanity. It’s amazing how as you move through life, your interpretations of a poem like this changes. Again, I appreciate you taking the time to read my post and respond. Cheers!!

  3. Pingback: April is the cruellest month… | Stuff Jeff Reads

  4. I was lucky enough to read it in high school, out loud, slowly, with a teacher from Britain who gave context to many of the lines (How would an 18 year old know that “Hurry up, please– it’s time” is last call in a pub? Or the five million allusions and references?).

    As for the notion of writing a dissertation on it, I imagine there are many just on a few portions of the poem. I learned today that there are podcast series that take an hour to talk about each MINUTE of a film,

    “When Adam Welch and Brad Kozlek started a podcast in 2012, they didn’t think anyone was going to tune in. But after a month of making “Gutterballs,” with each episode devoted to a single minute of “The Big Lebowski,” they discovered that one installment had been downloaded 10 times.”