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T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) was written in the wake of World War I, supposedly the "war to end all wars." But what Eliot saw in the peace that followed was pain and disunity, fragmentation and false hope. He presented the world as "a heap of broken images." Critic Edmund Wilson, perhaps the first critic to unravel the complexity of the poet's intent, said, "The terrible dreariness of the great modern cities is the atmosphere in which "The Waste Land" takes place. V.S. Pritchett said Eliot was "ushering us to our seats in hell."
The title of the poem is complex in and of itself. It alludes to spiritual dryness and the quest for the elusive Holy Grail. The quotation beneath the title is in Latin and Greek, and comes from The Satyricon by Petronious: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die." The title, subject, and blending of languages on the first page hints at the complexity that will follow. (The dedication is to fellow poet Ezra Pound, is in Latin, "il miglor fabbro," means "to the better craftsman," words used by the poet Dante Allegheri).
The poem is a dramatic monologue and is segmented into five parts:
I. Burial of the Dead II. A Game of Chess III. The Fire Sermon IV. Death by Water V. What the Thunder Said
I. Burial of the Dead: Finds the speaker in the land of the physically dead, but also the spiritually and emotionally dead, those alive but moving through life as shades:
Unreal City, 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, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
II. A Game of Chess: In part, considers the way people forget their own history:
'What is that noise?' The wind under the door. 'What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?' Nothing again nothing.
'Do 'You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember 'Nothing?"
III. The Fire Sermon: Many allusions to the great figures of the past, including Tiresias, Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Philomel, and Dante. These great writers and their characters were no more able to figure out the complexities of pain and suffering than anyone has ever been.
She turns and looks a moment in the glass, Hardly aware of her departed lover; Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass 'Well now that's done; and I'm glad it's over."
Lesson? It is never over.
IV. Death by Water: A reminder of the temporal nature of life:
O you who turn the wheel and look windward Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
V. Death by Thunder: Finds humanity in the trap of its own device.
I have heard the key Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
The poem is followed by dozens of notes by Eliot on how to read certain lines. He also recommends that one read Jessie L. Weston's work From Ritual to Romance to better understand his intent.