20th C Poetry / Books and Stuff / Lit Crit / Poetry / Twentieth Century

‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ : The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is similar to many great poems in that I read it once at university and then shoved it hastily back on the shelf and decided to find something else to use for my essay. However, I was browsing my bookshelf the other day and, after amusing myself by reading through Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, I decided to give The Waste Land another go.

Of course, I didn’t understand a word so I’m tackling it section by section to try and get to grips with this radical, fragmented poem.


T. S. Eliot

     I. The Burial Ground

The first out of the five sections sets the tone effectively. The phrase ‘The Burial Ground’ is a reference to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer one of many references to Christianity throughout the poem.

The poem starts in perfect iambic pentameter though this breaks down after the first couplet. The metre is compromised even in these first lines due to punctuation and enjambment.

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring          (1-3)

This opening couplet is pretty well-known and I liked the suggestion that it evokes and then overturns the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Chaucer describes the beauty of April bringing life to nature, whereas for Eliot the same is depressing. Perhaps the sight of new life is painful for those trying to forget.

In line 8 we get the first of many distinct voices. A woman called Marie (apparently a real historical person) is recalling her childhood in Munich.

In the next stanza Eliot describes a wasteland – it’s all rather negative but with pleasing imagery and, as the phrase ‘son of man’ suggests, Biblically inspired.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images              (19-22)

For some reason I love these lines.


Then we’ve got four lines in German taken from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. There are lots of these sudden changes in direction as straight after this we’re in the middle of a conversation (or recollection) between a girl and (perhaps?) her lover. The reader is brought into the poem and addressed, ‘You gave me hyacinths…’

Another break and then a conversational tone is struck and we are learning about a spiritual medium called Madame Sosostris. She is a character in a novel, published the year before Eliot’s poem, a fraudulent medium. She gives a tarot reading with a mixture of real and fake tarot cards all of which have negative significations. E.g. the man with the three staves is a real card representing famine and drought whereas Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks is Eliot’s creation linking the Church with a deadly poison. Though the Hanged Man isn’t seen this is not actually a good thing as this card symbolises spiritual rebirth.

The final stanza of this section begins with a view of London, ‘under the brown fog of a winter dawn’ (61). This section includes lines very closely related to Dante’s inferno – practically quotations – casting modern life as hell. London is seen as a city full of the dead. One analysis I read pointed out that there is a regular rhyming couplet here:

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street                (65-6)

The occasional use of classic form only serves to draw attention to the overall sense of fragmentation and disjointed-ness elsewhere.

The poem is post WWI which is important to understanding its attitude. In these last lines, ancient combat is linked with modern as the speaker sees an old comrade ‘Stetson’ whom he fought with ‘in the ships at Mylae’. Mylae dating their adventures to 260BC, Stetson rather more recent. I’d stopped trying to see why at this point, contenting myself with understand what is happening. What allusions are being made, what metaphors, what literary techniques.

The section ends with a subtle misquotation from Webster’s The White Devil. The speaker says, ‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men’, instead of, ‘Oh keep the wolf far hence, that’s foe to men’. Apparently such small changes – that may change the meaning of the original quotation – are common in the poem. Eliot draws on the literature of the polite culture of his youth and then shatters it. One commenter suggested this results in fragments of a culture than now longer has the power to unite people.

The section comes full circle with a gross image of a sprouting corpse recalling the lilacs growing in April at the beginning.

An article I read by Roz Kaveny highlights that even though The Waste Land has, by now, been assimilated fully into the canon we should not forget how radical it was. There is a reason it is difficult to understand and follow. Eliot was trying to do with poetry what Picasso did with cubism. That analogy is really helpful – it’s not supposed to be smooth and it’s not a case of ‘if you’re clever enough you’ll understand it straight away’. Kaveny tells of contemporary reviewers who had to read it a few times before they could even decide if it was a good poem.


Well done if you reached the end of this post! Even if you just scrolled to the end. I want to know if you have you ever studied The Waste Land, do you have any pearls of wisdom for the rest of us?


6 thoughts on “‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ : The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

  1. The Wasteland was a long, slow, arduous journey for me. At first I couldn’t understand it; then I hated it; then came begrudging acceptance; then genuine admiration. It’s an excellent poem, but one that needs to be listened to rather than read – only then can you really get a handle on the multiplicity of different voices.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: ‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head? : The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot | objectbale

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