Month: October 2021


Geography: n. the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

Etymology: geo- “earth” + -graphia “description, writing” 


Key Terms and Concepts


Physical geography: 

  • earth (ground, roots, cover, sprout, dead, desert), water (rivers, sailing, fishing, drowning, pearls (tempest decay), specific rivers, soda water) fire (flames, burning, infernal, smoke, light or dark, fire as heat, unlit), air (wind, fog, sighs, exhaling, odours, synthetic perfumes, enclosure, interior space, home), urban landscape (crowds, sound of horns and motors, human artifacts littered)

Metaphorical geography: 

  • the interplay between human, nature, urbanity, and modernity; linguistic space within the poetic form


When a person says “geography,” most people just imagine various landscapes, topography, and physical features. In its definition and in the root of “geography” itself, it’s really the documentation of the physical, the intricacies and elements of a landscape, and human interaction in the natural world that describe the heart of its meaning. Under this widely scoped definition, we want to acknowledge that our evidence and analysis is in no way comprehensive of all geographical motifs within The Waste Land, but only represents a selection of what might entail geography in the text. Thus, we primarily focused on the four main natural elements that constitute the earthly geography – Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, how they interact with each other, and how humans and nature interact.




The first section of TWL, Burial of the Dead, explicitly evokes the motif of earth as a site of burial and rebirth. These images reverberate throughout the later sections. We could categorize these images pertaining to earth into two archetypes:


  1. Barren, arid land of dust or rock lacking water:
  • “Stony rubbish,” “shadow under this red rock”
  • “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water”
  • “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”
  • Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks / The Lady of situations
  • “Yet there the nightingale / filled all the desert with inviolable voice”


In the first section, images of earth lacking water, a sign of fertility, were evoked repeatedly.


  1. Damp or wet land with presences of water
  • “Breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / memory and desire, stirring / dull roots with spring rain”, “covering / Earth in forgetful snow”
  • “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
  • “Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet”
  • “The wet bank”, “the brown land”
  • “A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank”
  • White bodies naked on the low damp ground


In this series of images, there is an implicit interplay between water and the earthly landscape. Whether it was the gardenic images or the swampy scenes, the consistently bleak and sometimes ironic outlook of Eliot’s vindicates water’s failure to fertilize, but instead almost in a sense that the land was violated by water. When crept on by traces of water, land seems to be further cursed rather than fertilized, for example, in the gardens, where its symbolism of life was subverted under an overwhelming presence of death; and at the river banks, or moss-laden land, where water infiltrates earth with an undesirable condition of life that desires death as a promising end.

Phlebas the Pheonician and his bones were also a thread that connected the water and the earth imagery. From “I think we are rats’ alley / where the dead men lost their bones,” “bones cast in a little low dry garrett, / Rattled by the rat’s foot only,” to finally “A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers,” Phlebas first surrenders his bones from his body to the land, yet it was finally in the waters where the current helps him recollect the scattered bones. 




The Fire Sermon is named after the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon Discourse” which preaches that salvation is only accessible to those who disconnect themselves from the senses and human emotions. In TWL, the beginning of the section is characterized by a contradictory lack of warmth: “by the waters of Leman I sat down and wept” (182), “Sweet Thames” (176) and “cold blast” (185). Fire is absent in the first stanza, and even in the rape scene near the end of the section, the typist is cold and unmoved. Only the clerk appears to be animated with the “burning” mundane emotions that, according to the Discourse, clouds humans’ perception of reality and prevents one from achieving “liberation from suffering.” In TWL the clerk is, in some manner, “blinded” by his passions — in this sense, he is Tiresias’s foil because the blind Tiresias, who is quite literally detached from his senses, is able to see the “true” events that will occur in the future. At the same time, Tiresias wished to die, contradicting the Buddha’s sermon that “liberation from suffering” means detachment from the mundane senses. In TWL, “liberation from suffering” means death, and fire in this context is a motif for life — simultaneously as a punishment, distortion of reality, and self-destruction.



Eliot leaves no rock unturned exploring the multi-faceted (and often contradictory) nature of water: it can have a positive connotation as a symbol of revival (April’s spring rains in the opening lines and the dryness of death,) or, more commonly with Eliot (though Keeliah notes this is typically untraditional), Eliot portrays water in scenes of destruction and suicide to subvert reader expectations in a Modernist fashion. Be it drowning or drought, water appears primarily with a negative connotation: (“And the dry stone no sound of water.” (24), “Fear death by water,” (50), From Ritual to Romance drought/infertility catalyzing a wasteland, “Oed’ und leer das Meer,” (42) empty and desolate as the sea (Tristan and Isolde), the drowned Phoeneician Sailor transforming from person to cadaver with pearls, Baudelaire “A headless cadaver pours out, like a river,”Laertes from Hamlet reflecting on Ophelia’s suicide by drowning “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, /And therefore I forbid my tears”). Even Eliot himself acknowledges that these references can all serve as one and start to blend together (see his note on line 218), but his use of water shows more than just blunt devastation: “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . . / Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long,” (175). At the beginning of the fire section, the river permeates through multiple stanzas and here, water appears not only as a theme, but guides the repetitive structure of the lines in the same way a river rushes over a brook. 




Wind is a recurring motif in TWL, appearing first as a “noise… under the door” (lines 118-19) in A Game of Chess. In The Fire Sermon, the wind loses its voice, “crosses the brown land, unheard” (174). In Death by Water, the sailor looks “windward” (320) like Phlebas the Phoenician. The wind is personified as something whispering, giving direction. The wind seems to accompany the barrenness of the waste land.


  • Water as a destructive force and site of suicide
  • Huge sea-wood fed with copper / Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone, / In which sad light a carvéd dolphin swam.
  • “Oed’ und leer das Meer.” an open body of water
  • By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . . / Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
    • Rushing structure like a river, but also thematically related to water
  • “This music crept by me upon the waters” 257
  • Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, / The typist home at teatime 221-22 
    • **also segways nicely into air, can extend to human presence as well
  • “They wash their feet in soda water”
  • “sea-wood” and “dolphin,” she is “troubled, confused / And drowned”
  • “While I was fishing in the dull canal” 189
  • Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls / Of Magnus Martyr hold
  • The Grail
  • V. What the Thunder Said
  • Sibyl: enclosure
    • Interior space
  • Under the brown fog of a winter dawn..Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled —- “The wind / Crossed the brown land, unheard.”
  • Fresh the wind blows towards home: my Irish child, where are you now?
  • ‘What is that noise?’
  •                                 The wind under the door.
  • ‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’
  •                                  Nothing again nothing.
  • “Well, that Sunday Albert was home,” – the private v. public sphere
  • Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused / And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
    • Artificial quality of Phiolmela’s home (and so many others, e.g. Cleopatra) juxtaposed with the typist’s home
    • Female interior space 
  • Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,


Wind is a recurring motif in TWL, appearing first as a “noise… under the door” (lines 118-19) in A Game of Chess. In The Fire Sermon, the wind loses its voice, “crosses the brown land, unheard” (174). In Death by Water, the sailor looks “windward” (320) like Phlebas the Phoenician. The wind is personified as something whispering, giving direction. The wind seems to accompany the barrenness of the waste land 


The Urban Landscape and Human Presence in the Geography

While the wasteland is enhanced by and further degraded by natural elements, Eliot incorporates hints of how urbanity impacts the landscape through descriptions of industrialization, crowds, and human objects. 

Following the horrors of World War I, a developmental period of modern industrial societies and a rapid growth of cities likely influenced Eliot’s representation of human geography. Sound, often associated with machinery, appears in The Wasteland just twice: “But at my back from time to time I hear / The sound of horns and motors” (195-196) and later
“If there were the sound of water only” “But there is no water” (353, 359). This subtle influence of sound/industrialization hints at our displacement of natural resources, but the description of the Sweet Thames declares human presence in a way that almost imbues life (albeit perhaps a life of waste) into the water: “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. / The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights.” (175-178)

This human contribution to the river is juxtaposed when Eliot borrows Baudelaire’s descriptions of the woman’s possessions, sexual violence, and death, and makes an intratextual allusion to Madame Sosostris, Eliot describes “The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it, / From satin cases poured in rich profusion; / In vials of ivory and coloured glass / Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused / And drowned the sense in odours” (84-89) The wording of “lurked,” “synthetic,” “troubled, confused,” and “drowned” emphasize the underlying negative view of humans (and perhaps women in particular), portraying humans as the most contrived part of the wasteland, overstepping bounds into the natural world and thus bleeding into natural consequences.

The artificial human elements are juxtaposed with the natural, even to the point where Eliot calls into question the liveliness of the people he describes: the“Unreal,” and “Unreal City,” in particular is mentioned three times (60, 207, 377), filled with “crowds”: “I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring” (56) and the “crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (62). In Eliot’s note for line 46, he mentions “also the ‘crowds of people’, and Death by Water is executed in Part IV,” leaving readers wondering the timeframe of death for these humans and what really counts as being dead. Calling these people into question also made us wonder if Eliot would have viewed the woman described in A Game of Chess any more alive than the crowd flowing over the bridge.





Eliot’s generous use of reference sources to write The Waste Land provides a wealth of information and context for the text, such that the connections between the sources are important to understanding the poem. Many of the sources deal with the concept of sensation, including the five senses, but also go beyond the physical to deal with the spiritual or intangible. The most important sense to appear in The Waste Land is sight, whether physical or spiritual. 

Sight is connected with desire: it allows us to see things, therefore giving us the ability to desire them. Sight also provides a medium to confirm reality, or conversely to dismiss reality that isn’t wanted or recognized. The sensation of sight is used to deeply express sexual or material desire, and conversely the choice of neutrality and apathy. Eliot’s inclusion of the story of Tiresias serves as an excellent departure point for further exploration of sight in the poem. 

Throughout many of the referenced texts, there is a clearly defined separation between the physical and spiritual body and senses, most clearly demonstrated in Eliot’s description of Tiresias: “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,/Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see.” (Eliot, line 218-219) There are multiple versions of Tiresias’ story; one involves his accidental viewing of Minerva at her bath, for which he is punished with blindness. The alternate version of the story is that Jove and Juno ask Tiresias to settle a disagreement about whether men or women experience more pleasure during sex; Tiresias agrees with Jove, saying that women have a more pleasurable experience, so is cursed with blindness by Juno. In both versions, Tiresias is simultaneously cursed with physical blindness but blessed with prophetic sight, establishing that the physical and spiritual self and senses are totally separate. 


Tiresias Strikes at the Snakes

Eliot builds upon the idea of a separate physical and spiritual body through his inclusion of Augustine’s Confessions and “The Sermon on the Mount” from the Gospel of Matthew. In his Confessions, Augustine writes “These seductions of the eyes I resist, lest my feet wherewith I walk upon Thy way be ensnared; and I lift up mine invisible eyes to Thee, that Thou wouldest pluck my feet out of the snare.” (Augustine, Confessions) The “snare” Augustine makes reference to is sin, and his “invisible eyes” seem to be a reference to his spiritual gaze. The argument here is that physical sight leads to sin, an argument which is built off of in “The Sermon on the Mount.” In the “Sermon,” the eyes are described as the cause for good or evil in a person: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matt., 6.22-23) In both of these sources, physical sight is presented as the cause for sinful behavior. The idea of sight as a precursor to sin is echoed in an entirely different religious tradition which Eliot also cites. In the Fire Sermon Discourse from the Pali Canon, the Buddha delivers a sort of sermon to a group of disciples, stating that 

“the learned and noble disciple conceives an aversion for the eye, conceived an aversion for forms, conceives an aversion for eye-consciousness, conceives an aversion for the impressions received by the eye; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, for that also he conceives an aversion.” (Warren, 352)


The choice of the word “aversion” illuminates the strength of physical sight: rather than working to develop an indifference or neutrality towards things perceived with the eye, a “learned and noble disciple” must develop an intense dislike towards the sight.


Buddha Delivers the Fire Sermon

Eliot seems to agree not only with the concept of separate physical and spiritual body, but also with the idea of sight leading to sin based upon some of the other stories he chooses to include. He references the story of Tereus and Philomena, in which Tereus is so filled with lust at seeing Philomena that he brutally rapes her; the story of Tristan and Isolde, often hailed as one of the greatest love stories ever, but which begins with Tristan’s deceiving Isolde into falling in love with him; the story of once beautiful Sybil, in which she is cursed to near eternal life for refusing Apollo’s lust. In each of these examples, a man’s sight leads him to desire, to lust, causing him to sin, irrecoverably altering a woman’s life.

Procne, Philomela, and Tereus

Tristan and Isolde

Apollo and Cumaen Sybil

Eliot’s explicit reference to the aforementioned sources establishes a connection between them; based upon the sources he presents, he seems to believe that the physical and spiritual body are separate, and that the physical sight can lead only to sin and harm, whereas the spiritual sight helps one to attain enlightenment. 

Tiresias and Sight:

The figure of Tiresias and his description within the poem uses sight, or the lack thereof, in a complex critique of human perception and apathy. Upon witnessing the scene in “The Fire Sermon,” Tiresias relates:

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see… I Tiresias, an old man with wrinkled dugs / Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—” …  Tiresias then watches the scene unfold, until finally, the man “bestows one final patronising kiss, / And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .” 

Despite Tiresias’s blindness, he is still forced to bear witness to the scene of the female typist in “The Fire Sermon.” Tiresias’s lack of sight is conjoined with his perception, to appeal to the reader’s perception of the scene equally. Tiresias sees everything, but on account of his blindness will say nothing, even as the woman in the poem refuses to react or protest: both are possibly used by Eliot as a commentary on human perception and indifference. Tiresias, with his foresight, should be most involved and passionate for the well being of others; instead, he is the embodiment of passivity and meaningless vision. The end of the scene appeals in a different way to the sensation of sight: the young man gropes his way in the darkness, “finding the stairs unlit.” These fleeting sentiments appeal beyond descriptive language to the sensation of blindness that can be imagined and shared by the reader beyond any eloquent description. Eliot opts to appeal to the common humanity of sight in his communication with the reader.



Gendered Voices in The Waste Land

Throughout TWL, gender remains an ambiguous subject— subverted, unassigned, indicated through merely behavior, and so forth. In the case of Madame Sosostris, though she’s clearly indicated as a woman, the most peculiar description of her— “Had a bad cold”— conjures the thought of a hoarse voice that follows a cold. Attributed to men normally, the implication that Madame Sosostris has a hoarse voice serves as another example of gender subversion and ambiguity in the poem. 

Relating the difference between the voice of men and women in TWL, the narratives of men are conveyed through metaphoric references and allusions to works of art/myth, while women are, in a way, confined to solely their own narrative. This contrast, between the manner in which men and women relay their stories, suggests that while the stories of men are universal, grand, and powerful, the stories of women are individual and reduced. 


The story of Marie corroborates this observation: “​​My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened. He said, Marie, / Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. / In the mountains, there you feel free. / I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” (14-19). Here, though, no pronouns are used to indicate Marie’s gender, her actions lead us to assume her gender as a woman. The recurring use of the personal pronoun “I” conveys her story in a personal tone. In contrast, “Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss./A current under sea/Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell,” the story of the sailor is relayed in an impersonal and more mythical tone that offers a sense of universality. In fact, Stephanie’s direct annotation to these lines highlight such theme: “Eliot drastically alters the tone of this section to be more finite and impersonal, emphasizing the state of death, rather than the brief flash of vitality at the point of death” ( 

Age, Music, and Voice 

Along with Marie’s gender, her young age is an important characteristic of hers within the poem.

He do the police in different voices: The Original Title of TWL



There are obvious allusions to voiceless characters throughout The Waste Land; most notably Philomela, whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from exposing her rape at the hands of Tereus. The other women present in the first stanza of “A Game of Chess” are similarly silent, almost decorative: “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne” is taken from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and “Flung their smoke into the laquearia” is from the story of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. The way these references fade into the rest of the stanza, which is mainly dedicated to sensory descriptions of a woman’s lavish surroundings, emphasizes these women’s lack of voice. Cleopatra and Dido, though referenced, become ornamental. However, the roles are reversed almost immediately after, in the conversation between an unnamed man and woman. The woman says, “‘’My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / ‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.’ / ‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?’ / ‘I never know what you are thinking. Think’” (111-114). The man is conspicuously silent, voiceless, almost dominated. His inability to speak is emasculating, a concept that comes up constantly throughout The Waste Land, from Tiresias’ transformation into a woman and the insinuation of erectile dysfunction in line 116, “Where the dead men lost their bones”, to the castration of the Fisher King inherent to the title. 

Reginald Arthur, The Death of Cleopatra (1892)

Reginald Arthur, The Death of Cleopatra (1892)

Another important aspect of voice throughout The Waste Land is language. Eliot borrows German from Wagner, French from Baudelaire and Verlaine. The presence of languages other than English add to the rich fabric of the poem, giving it a sense of depth and diversity. When Eliot uses these lines, he is, in essence, borrowing existing narrators, e.g. the sailor and the shepherd from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Interestingly, the lines “Oed’ und leer das meer” (42), “You–hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!” (76), and “O ces voix d’enfants chantant dans la coupole” (202) are all the last lines of their stanzas. In a way, it seems that Eliot is trying to leave the reader with a certain sense of mystery by using these strange, foreign lines. Also, in some cases, when he does choose to translate, the translations are not exact: Eliot turns Baudelaire’s “fourmillante cité” into an “Unreal city”.  In French, fourmillante means teeming, swarming, or infested, rather than unreal, which begs the question of why Eliot decided against borrowing Baudelaire’s words exactly (especially because he still chose to cite the lines). Certainly, the use of German and French into the composition of the poem add dimension and distinctiveness of voice.

Rogello de Egusquiza, Tristan and Isolt (1910)

The Voices of the Bartender and Lil

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave


To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

And no more can’t I…and think of poor Albert,

He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will… 

Oh is there
Something o’ that
Then I’ll know who to thank
If you don’t like it you can get on with it…Others can pick and choose if you can’t.

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

You ought to be ashamed…to look so antique.

I can’t help it…It’s them pills I took, to bring it off…The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been

        the same.

You are a proper fool…Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is…What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—




The Voice 

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