Month: October 2022


The Seasons

One of the tools that TS Eliot wields most powerfully throughout ‘The Waste Land’ to cast the dereliction and darkness of his presentation of the world is his portrayal of – and play with – the seasons and the imagery associated therewith. First, it is crucial to note that his representations of the seasons, though in several distinct clusters, is not in anyway stand-alone or confined to a specific section. Rather, its elegance rests in the way that Eliot manages to keep the meanings of his allusions constantly oscillating and thus very much part of the same labyrinthine structure that the rest of the poem forms.

The basic connotations of Eliot’s seasons are introduced in the very first verse paragraph of ‘The Burial of the Dead’. The first two lines are ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land’. Immediately, Eliot’s literary references kick off: he is alluding to Chaucer’s lines ‘when that April with his showers sweet,/ The drought of March hath pierced to the root’. As soon as he begins, Eliot already subverts, contrasting his ‘cruellest month’ with the ‘sweet showers’. Eliot’s April, nevertheless, acts to bring life to the ‘dead land’. Thus, spring is still fulfilling its expected duty of renewal and rebirth. Therefore: we must ask – wherein lies the ‘cruel[ty]’? Perhaps the act of bringing back life in a place of such desolate death is itself an act of cruelty. Eliot has now set the stage, and begun painting the place where hope never comes, that comes to all. ‘Winter’ is the next season to be addressed. Unlike Spring, it is rather more clearly – at least in reason – subverted: ‘Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow’. Winter is seen as some sustainer of life – a pivot from its usual position as life’s destroyer. Its snow, notably, is ‘forgetful’. Perhaps this means that it wipes the earth clean of the memory of the past, and so also brings about a physical – as opposed to solely a biological – renewal. Then, if this is linked to Eliot’s previous notion of hopelessness, perhaps forgetfulness is the only bliss that can still be attained in this world. Finally, Summer is described, with the most detailed description thus far, full of allusion: ‘Summer surprised us,/ coming over the Starnbergsee/ With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,/ And went on in sunlight into the Hofgarten’. These are references to the works of Brookes and Marie Larisch, both of whom wrote at their experiences at the Lake Starnbergsee. It is rather ironic that – although we have just gone through the ‘forgetful snow’ of winter – we are now in the nostalgic genre of memoir. Brookes, the Englishman, and Larisch, the Austrian, are both nostalgic for the same places – and the ‘summer[s]’ that they spent their. In the final line of the verse paragraph, Eliot expresses a desire to ‘go south in the winter’. These words are very similar to those used by Larisch in her yearnings for summers at Starnbergsee, which she also describes as ‘perfectly impossible’. Therefore, with all initial evidence presented, let us try to piece together how Eliot might see the seasons in this part of the poem, allowing us to judge how their representation changes as he continues. Summer perhaps is the nostalgic, yearned-for pre-War idyll, where Austrian and Englishman can live together in an Eden-esque world. Winter is ‘forgetful’ and also that from which one cannot escape back to the places of summer (it is ‘perfectly impossible’), so perhaps it is the post-War state obscuring everything that came before. Finally, Spring, the season that follows Winter, is the false renewal that seemed to come but was indeed merely the ‘cruellest’ thing so far.

T S Eliot and The Waste Land

Let us, therefore, continue to follow the yarn that Ariadne has left for us in this labyrinth, and see whether it might lead somewhere – or not. In almost cyclical structure, the seasons are returned to at the very end of the ‘Burial of the Dead’. Here is ‘the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ [under which] A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many’. This is a Dante-esque deathscape, as, indeed, the final two lines are an almost direct quotation from ‘Inferno’. The ‘fog’ makes it especially eerie and carries some of the force of Baudelaire’s encounter with the spectral Seven Old Men (‘where the fog magnified / The houses either side of that sad street’). Our focus, however, is on ‘a winter dawn’. ‘Dawn’ carries the connotations of renewal and rebirth that Spring had carried. However, by the stark juxtaposition with ‘winter’, this effect is immediately truncated. This is a dawn of death, and it is the dead who walk under it. And – what is worse – this is ‘a’ dawn, the indefinite article highlighting that this is now the norm for this post-War world. The poetic voice soon stops one of the people in this crowd of the dead, and demands of the person: ‘“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/ Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’. If before winter had been some strange ‘forgetful’ refuge which fed perhaps a little life, it is not that which stops anything from sprouting, reversing back to the conventional associations of the season. This ‘corpse’ is a dead thing that would somehow be brought back to life – and it is a corpse, so this would of course not be any real sort of ‘living’ – but it is left dead by the winter. Eliot leads us in circles and we end where we started. This, maybe, mimics the little hope for progress that he holds for the world. Furthermore: the allusion made here is to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, notably the conversation between Ariel and Prospero. Prospero orders Ariel ‘to run upon the sharp wind of the north,/ to do me business in the veins o’ the earth/ when it is baked with frost’. The most important way for Ariel to prove her true allegiance to Prospero is by working in the hardest of conditions: those ‘baked with frost’ (the phrase itself a stunningly beautiful oxymoron yet further exploring representations and misrepresentations of weather). The ‘veins o’ the earth’ are also remarkable as they almost bring the Earth herself to life, as well as being somewhat reminiscent of Milton’s ‘Or do him mightier service as his thralls/ By right of Warr, what e’re his business be/ Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire’, hence bringing in again the idea of Hell. Prospero also threatens to ‘rend an oak/ and peg thee in his knotty entrails till/ thou howl’d away twelve winters’. Hence: ‘winter’ is by no means still life-giving. It has become the agent of punishment. Thus, our Eliotian seasons now are: Summer – an impossibility – Spring – giving cruel life to that which would rather be dead – and Winter – the one post-War hope, now completely lost. Autumn is not even touched upon.

It is not until ‘The Fire Sermon’ that Eliot returns to the idea of the seasons again. All three references in this section are relatively minor, and work mostly to reinforce the previously given impressions. The first two references are in connection with the ‘canal’ of the River Thames. The River is devoid of any trash – ‘empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes [&c.]/ Or other testimony of summer nights’. If, as we have agreed previously, ‘summer’ is the idyll that is lost, it may at first seem strange for it to be associated with such trash. However, such is not the case, as the presence of this trash would have been a reassurance – it would have shown that life still continues as it used to be. It is not so, however, normal life is gone – and with it the hope of a summery idyll. The final two references are to a ‘winter evening’ of fishing and ‘the brown fog of a winter noon’, the latter a distinct reference to the ‘winter dawn’. These phrases act to do two things. The first is to fully conclude that we are indeed stuck in the season of ‘winter’ – the hopeless post-War reality. All the references to the other seasons have been theoretical, but all the references to ‘winter’ have been real. The second aim is to complete the day: we now have the winter ‘dawn’, ‘noon’ and ‘evening’. This winter of our discontent now has overtaken the whole (or thereabouts) 24-hour day: we are stuck in this endless cycle and will not be able to escape.

Wastelands Atlas' – 2019


Yet besides life, weather can also imply drought. Eliot also utilizes droughts, or the dearth of life, throughout his poem to great effect. Indeed, what is a wasteland but a lack of life and the weather patterns that sustain it? Eliot plays with this duality of weather insinuating life and death throughout his seminal work, cleverly maintaining a delicate balance between the contrasting definitions.

This contrast is especially obvious, given the name of the poem’s final part, “What the Thunder Said.” One can view thunder and the possibility of rain as the antithesis of a wasteland. Eliot, simply by capitalizing the T in “Thunder” gives power to the possibility of rain and life. Cycles of rain and water are prominent throughout the poem as cycles of redemption and vitality, but are especially noticeable through the poem’s end. Thus, The Wasteland finishes full cycle, with its final images of water, evoking and possibly giving the reader an understanding of the famous opening line: “April is the cruellest month.”

Other notes on weather, as seen through various sources:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Dido and Aeneas; Tiresias)
No reference to weather in D/A.
Regarding Tiresias’s change of gender: ‘Seven autumns passed and still that change held fast’ → presentation of autumn as the season of change, inverted here in T’s case. Note: look thru Eliot Tiresias section and look for refs to autumn.

Brooke’s Letters from America
‘A cloud over the sun woke him to consciousness of his own thoughts’ → pathetic fallacy, but also a twist of irony in that the cloud uncovers his true thoughts rather than the opposite, as one would expect.

Memoirs of Countess Marie Larisch
The Countess and the Empress meet the Sibyl-like old woman due to an inclement change of weather, which – as tho sent by Fate – forces them into this situation: ‘we were overtaken by a storm, and in a few moments we were soaked to the skin by a down pour of tropical rain’. Weather almost as an agent in its own right, able to ‘make’ the future. As the old lady makes her prediction-like statements (“he has been lying in the lake for seven years”), it ‘seemed horrible to hear as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled around the cottage’. The atmosphere of the place is one of violent destruction (again pathetic fallacy etc etc etc etc) – mimicking atmosphere to an almost bathetic level.

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
‘When April with its sweet-smelling showers/ Has pierced the drought of March to the root’ → Spring/April as symbol of rebirth and nutrition – flipped in TWL. ‘The West Wind also with its sweet breath,/ In every wood and field has breathed life into/ The tender new leaves’ → the weather can be the very starting point of so much in nature, as it is what allows rebirth to occur. The Waste Land = all about the lack of rebirth – how is that highlighted by the references to the weather?
Faith in God should be unaltered and unalterable whatever the weather: ‘Remember now thy Creator […] while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain’.

Dante’s Third Canto of the Inferno
‘Lamentation/ Resounded through the starless air’ → starless = unnatural, different to the real world of the living – natural surroundings define reality.
‘Just as in autumn the leaves fall away,/ One, and then another, until the bough sees all its spoil upon the ground,/ so the wicked seed of Adam fling themselves/ one by one from shore, at his signal’ → autumn as a season of death and decay. [this is about the souls of the dead leaving the shore to get onto the ship]

Shakespeare’s The Tempest
The Tempest – already itself a symbol of weather – confusion, force, aggression etc
‘Jove’s lightnings, the precursors/ o’ the dreadful thunder-claps, more momentary/ and sight-outrunning were not’ → again: symbolism of lightning. This is when Ariel is describing their appearances before the shipwrecked crew. Comparison to pagan gods etc.
‘To run upon the sharp wind of the north,/ to do me business in the veins o’ the earth/ when it is baked with frost’ → connects to TWL ‘sudden frost’, the body buried in the ground (analogous to Ariel cloven into the tree – which again brings up winter: ‘i will rend an oak/ and peg thee in his knotty entrails till/ thou howl’d away twelve winters’), general duality of imagery of winter in TWL (cf ‘winter kept us warm), ‘veins o the earth’ → earth a living being, maybe even a ref to PL I.149-151.

de Nerval’s Dream/Life
‘I initially imagined that the people gathered in this garden all exercised some influence over the stars’ → not weather per se, but natural phenomenon: stars as symbols for Fates, cf star-crossed lovers etc etc

Baudelaire’s The Seven Old Men
The poetic voice runs into strange reincarnations of the same old man – some sort of deathly spectre. Dante-esque deathscape. Setting: ‘where the fog magnified / The houses either side of that sad street’ – very reminiscent of ‘under the brown fog of a winter dawn’ , 61 TWL; ‘a mist,/ unclean and yellow, inundated space’ – adds to previous sense of dereliction and perversion – something dirty and spoilt. Deathly? ‘yellow’=sickly? The man: ‘through snow and mud/ he walked with troubled and uncertain gait’ – mud= back to the brown fog, but reflected on ground; snow (contrasting to brown mud as snow is white) comes back to the haunting idea of the dualities of winter throughout TWL (also note that the cold of winter is what kills and creates wastelands, maybe?). Final two lines: ‘and my soul tossed, and tossed, an outworn wreck, mastless, upon a monstrous, shoreless sea’ → Tempestous weather, note the sibilance, repetition, short cola, etc all to create this effect of confusion and dissonance.


Land Animals

The land animals are mostly associated with the theme of decay, as they feed upon the physical and metaphorical dead bodies of men. Animals such as rats, dogs, snakes, and nymphs (mythological creatures associated with both land and water) first suffer from destructions brought by men in their natural habitats, and then in turn profit off of men’s deaths. As mentioned in Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance”, the quest for the Holy Grail aims to restore the land, for the “condition of the King is sympathetically reflected on the land, the loss of virility in the one brings about a suspension of the reproductive processes of Nature on the other” (Weston 4). The physical health of the man is inextricably linked to that of the land. Animals, on the other hand, habituated themselves to the conditions of the land on which they dwell on. During Eliot’s period, men corrupted the land with waste and chemicals in the age of industrialization, which is reflected in the behaviors and descriptions of the animals in The Waste Land

Rats and dogs are most evidently associated with death, both due to common conception of these animals and also references made in the poem. Rats thrive in dumping sites and the sewage system, which are characterized by their horrific stench and decomposition of materials. 

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.

rats in sewage systems

The imagery of the “white bodies naked on the low damp ground” suggest decomposition of the flesh that nourish the wetland, which in return provide the rats  habitable conditions and food either in the forms of decayed meat or bugs and worms. The ecosystem that arises in the low life of the bank by the canal is spurred by the dumping of dead bodies “by the rat’s foot only, year to year”. The vivid description of the rat “dragging its slimy belly on the bank” suggests a sense of vitality and prosperity within the community of the rats, where they thrive among the waste, trash, and deaths of the human community. There is another interpretation of the white bodies proposed by Lauren Sonneborn in her annotation, which states that the bodies are nymphs departing with their beauty and leaving their dead bodies on the shore due to industrialization and destruction of their water habitat. Even though this analysis strays away from the original intention to categorize land animals with the theme of decay, it provides insight into the possible connection between creatures or humans of femininity and their masculine perpetrators who strip them away of freedom and physicality. There will be another section on animals related to femininity, and the importance of animals that symbolize trapped women will be discussed. 


Dogs, on the other hand, dig up bones of corpses buried underneath the ground, as described in The Waste Land. The first mentioning of dogs is in this following section

“There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’

Eliot wrote in the footnotes that the line “Oh keep the Dog far hence” comes from The White Devil by John Webster, where he swapped the word “wolf” out of the original line in the Funeral Dirge for Marcello with “dog”, which is an animal more friendly in nature and docile to men. The dog that digs up the corpse “planted last year in the garden” interrupts the process of the body “sprout[ing] and bloom[ing]”, which reinforces the cyclical nature of death and life. The decomposed bodies provide necessary nutrients and restores the fertility of the land after the industrialized pollution. Supposedly friendly to men, the dog prevents the death of man to be useful to nature in any way, as it reverses the burial process for its own pleasure (it wants to be with its owner) or to merely consume (feed upon the bones). Again, the death of men benefits the land animals. Other mentionings of dogs in The White Devil also includes this following line:

Women are like cursed dogs: civility keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight; then they do most good, or most mischief. My lord, my lord!

The duality of femininity and animalistic nature illustrated in this quote demonstrates the disdain towards women and the land animal—both allegedly submissive towards men. Though the women and the dogs appear to be tamed during day time, they let loose of their wild nature and turn their backs on men. Here, the link between femininity and animals becomes clear, as they are both antagonistic and hostile towards men. 


The third mentioning of land animals is indirect, brought about by the story of Tiresias who stuck two snakes mating in the forest with his staff and suddenly found himself physically swapped to the other sex, changing from a man to a woman. However, there is no physical death that Tiresias has ever experienced, which deviates from the previous discussions about land animals and decay. The death, here, is then metaphorical, namely the death of masculinity. By killing the two snakes, Tiresias ends his own masculinity and transforms into the female who is often negatively characterized as mentioned in the analogy of dogs. 

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives          
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

Tiresias striking the two snakes as they mated

As a result, Tiresias oscillates between “two lives”, physically as an “old man with wrinkled female breasts”, which combines femininity with masculinity. Eliot also swapped the sex of another mythological character in the first section of his poem, specifically the “hyacinth girl” mentioned in lines 35-36. 

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’

The hyacinth “girl” is originally a boy named Hyacinthus, the lover of Apollo, who died when playing quoits with the god and was turned into the flower bearing his name by grieving Apollo. By changing his sex and calling him the “hyacinth girl” in The Waste Land, Eliot made clear that it was not about being a woman that brings immense pain and suffering, but about embodying femininity, which ties to other references in the poem related to feminine characters being treated as lesser by the men. 

Aerial Animals

It’s true she’s fair, but he is also spurred 
by venery, an inborn tribal urge. 
The vie inflaming him is both his own 
and the dark fire which burns in Thracian souls. 
His impulse was to buy his way to her…
Or else to ravish her, and then defend 
his rape by waging unrelenting war. (The Metamorphosis of Ovid

All is now askew. I am concubine and you’ve become a bigamist”  (Metamorphosis of Ovid) 

Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue…A lion now he stalks with fierie glare (Paradise Lost)

Philomela and Procne preparing to kill Itys

In The Metamorphosis of Ovid, Philomela reacts to her rape and mutilation with shame and anger. She swears to tell everyone about Tereus’ actions but he cuts her tongue off. He has the privilege of walking away from this crime. As a successful one, he says that even if she talked about what happened, he could deny it and remain just as successful. This unequal power dynamic expresses itself once they are all turned into nightingales. Even in nature, the male has the ability to sing, reflecting the platform given to rapists who speak over the voices of the victims. Even in mythology, female nightingales who sing are considered sorrowful. This puts Philomela and other women in a cycle of victimhood where there is no option for them to move on from the trauma they experienced. Eliot condemns this cycle of horrible acts. He does not reduce Philomela’s nightingale story to her victimhood, rather he denounces Tereus as barbarous and highlights that she was “rudely forced”. Philomela claims that Tereus has made her a concubine and when her sister finds her, she is full of shame. Eliot rewrites this shame to be her “inviolable voice” that contradicts the image of a weakened victim. There is no self blame or hatred in Eliot’s retelling, giving back dignity to Philomela’s story.

In both Philomela’s story and Paradise Lost, men have used their unequal power dynamics to take advantage of the women in their stories. When Tereus and Satan saw Philomela and Eve, they both were swayed by their beauty and determined to take what they wanted from the women. Tereus and Satan were predators of this story and initially experienced no consequence for their actions. Eliot has redecorated the women through his inclusion of Cleopatra. With the vivid and powerful imagery, Eliot takes away the narrative of power for these men. 


A Discussion Between Sources

Eliot’s The Waste Land creates a world of immortality for influential works of literature: his references praise their academic and intellectual value as standalone works while demanding further investigation. The poem contains an abundance of unusual comparisons and contradictions, placing each work in conversation with the others; essentially, Eliot creates a space for literature ranging from the time of Greek Mythology to the early 20th century to have a discussion. In this maze of allusions, each source calls out to the reader, provoking investigation and engagement with the original work, adding to the lifespan of the works, creating immortality in literature. Conversation within the poem causes internal conversation in the reader, forcing them to place together the puzzle of sources to extract fruitful dialogues between Eliot’s references. 

By associating sources with a recurring symbol, Eliot categorizes sources into groups. Examples include fire, water, sound and senses, and blood. Immediately, the image of blood evokes a semblance of World War I’s influence on The Waste Land and the excessive death of not only people but also of infrastructure and resources the violence caused. Both the story of the god Attis and Baudelaire in his poem “A Martyr” communicate the symbol of blood. In the story of the death of Attis, one variation describes him unmanning himself during the transition from fall to spring and eventually turning into a pine tree. His blood seeps into the land and results at the beginning of spring. Baudelaire depicts land as “Red, living blood, that the linen drinks up/ As greedily as a meadow”, emphasizing the land’s hunger for blood. Both sources view blood, a result of death, as a necessity to sustain land and further the cycles of seasons. 

The Egyptian god Attis

Although Eliot does not mention blood directly in his reference of the two sources, a deeper dive into their work yields the discovery of the strong connection between two seemingly different pieces of literature. Further, with this comparison, readers can return to the poem to see how this connection can have significance in the greater context of Eliot’s work. Bringing this connection back to The Waste Land uncovers the need for evil, the violence and death of WWI, for good, post-war boom of economies and growth in the land, to occur. 

By placing these sources in such close proximity, Eliot accepts the fact that the sources, especially those grounded in religion, are bound to contradict. This is highlighted through the heavy discussion of burial of bodies in The Waste Land and the inspiration Eliot draws from 

He creates a web of loose connections and contradictions with works from Ovid, Basevi, Pepler, Ezekiel, and Ecclesiastes, and Weston. Both Ovid and Weston discuss immortality, but Ovid highlights the curse of eternal life while Frazer romanticizes immortality through the Holy Grail. Further, these allusions all contain contradicting ideas on the afterlife: Christian sources preach burial as a way to free the soul, while texts grounded in mythology discuss rebirth. The cycle of life lies central to the message of The Waste Land, and Eliot both refers to corpses themselves as waste and shows human death nourishing the land, as exemplified above. 

Christian burial practices


By placing these sources in such close proximity, Eliot encourages readers to discern for themselves what they believe is real: he again starts a conversation between these sources outside the context of the poem. This external investigation only allows for deeper analysis when returned to The Waste Land.

Gaslighting The Reader

The conversation between Eliot and the reader in The Waste Land can be separated into multiple parts: first, when Eliot expresses his worldview; second, when Eliot discusses details of his own life through the poem; and third, when Eliot tries to directly connect with the reader, both within the text but also through his footnotes. Throughout all these forms, the main purpose of discourse between Eliot and the reader is his attempt to gaslight the reader, and convince them to adopt his belief, in a dogmatic fashion. 

Under the first type, Eliot attempts to show his unique worldview through description of the current events of his time such as post World War 1 London in Europe as a whole, but also his cumulation of ancient knowledge of anthropology, politics, and philosophy that amalgamate together to try to exert greater truths about human nature. The best example of his worldview can be found in his descriptions of London which he repeatedly refers to as an “Unreal City”. However, this positive term used to describe London is jarringly opposite to “The Waste Land”, which also describes London. (60) This type of antithetical description is actually a part of Eliot’s character, and is also reflected in his sources, notably Charles Baudelaire, a French writer, who similarly wrote about post-industrialization Paris and its glory, while simultaneously also condemning the monotonous life most working class citizens led. Eliot’s further descriptions of London continue to conflict with each other. 

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. (61-68)


O City city, I can sometimes hear

Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,                   

The pleasant whining of a mandoline

And a clatter and a chatter from within

Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls

Of Magnus Martyr hold

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold. (259-265)

In these two above excerpts, Eliot both depicts a monotonous working class life that he seems to hate, but also praises London’s lively sense of humanity and sheer beauty. As such, he does lend the reader a complicated message, but attempts to strike a conversation between these two polar types of description, leading the reader into making their own judgements on London. 

Second, though we could do more research, parts of TWL strike the reader as Eliot’s recounting of his own life, including his frustrations with London and his monotonous life, but also possibly his marital problems with his wife. Eliot in his younger years was a budding academic, but he eventually had to switch to teaching, and then banking, to better sustain himself and his career. He disliked the repetitive nature of banking, though, and that hate for a typical 9-5 is channeled through TWL. In part it can be read as a plea for the reader to take a different approach to life, and search for greater meaning, like he did, in his own writing. Another vein in which Eliot seems to take a personal interest is that of femininity and marriage, considering his own struggles with his wife and eventually divorce and remarriage. In II. Game of Chess, Eliot shows a conversation between Lil and a seemingly male friend, who asks,“Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said, What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (164) Eliot himself, though married twice and for long periods of time, did not ever have children, and possibly had doubts about the values of his own marriage. His first wife was basically estranged from him, eventually being placed in a mental hospital by her own relatives, and Eliot and her never really reconciled. In his letters, Eliot even writes that “To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” (Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1, 1898–1922. London: Faber and Faber. 1988. p. xvii.) As such, TWL was very much Eliot, oversharing his emotions with the reader, in a bit of a “trauma dump.” The reader has no way to consent to this knowledge, but Eliot, with the power as the author, is forcing the conversation. 

In direct conversation with the reader, Eliot’s most direct interaction within the poem is in his exclamation of “​​’You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’” (75) Also taken from Baudelaire, Eliot plays with the reader in an ironic way – is he establishing that he himself is hypocritical, like all of mankind? Or that the conversation between author and reader right here is what makes both sides hypocritical. Eliot makes the reader question the very interaction of reading TWL, and if that puts Eliot and the reader on the same level of brotherhood AND humanity. 

Eliot’s footnotes are hard to decipher – while at face value they do seem to hold insights on his construction of the poem, he seems to be mockingly throwing in allusions and references to either confuse the reader, or even just overcomplicate things for the sake of it. His notes often use the pronoun “I” and hold his thoughts, in a type of communication with the reader. For example, Eliot recommends Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance to the reader, and mentions that “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards.” Later on, he is very blunt with his intention within the poem, writing that “In the first part of Part V three themes are employed: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous (see Miss Weston’s book) and the present decay of eastern Europe.” What would normally be found in a study guide is directly in the footnotes of TWL, interestingly. 

Dialogues Across Genders 

In The Waste Land, with the conversations between men and women, there is a clear imbalance in power, with the men often either providing direction or forcing some kind of sexual act. This is demonstrated first with Marie and the sled and then the story of Tereus and Philomela. Conversations between women have a similar tone. They speak with each other, but mostly about men, and through their words the power dynamic between the men they speak of and the women themselves is still apparent. 

Conversation Between Men and Women

The first significant moment of conversation between men and women occurs in The Burial of the Dead when Marie is reminiscing about her childhood days with her cousin, the archduke. She recalls:

He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.


Though there is no malintent in his words here, the archduke is still controlling the situation and commanding his young female cousin as he tells her to hold on. In a traditional sled, there is often some kind of steering device. Usually, the larger, older passenger will be the one controlling the sled. In this instance, the archduke is most likely controlling the sled— he provides the direction and the instruction, placing him in a position of power and control over Marie. This conversation is also very one-sided, given that only the archduke’s voice is recalled, alone without any response from his cousin. The second instance of a conversation between men and women comes up in The Game of Chess, when Eliot brings up the story of Philomela and Tereus. In this story, Philomela is temporarily placed under Tereus’ protection as he brings her to visit her sister (his wife). Instead, he takes her to a remote area and assaults her. When she reacts, he decides to cut out her tongue so that she couldn’t communicate what he had done. In the end, she gets a message to his sister by weaving it into a tapestry. They take revenge on Tereus by killing his son and serving it to him, and when this is revealed, the group are turned into birds (and Philomela, a nightingale in particular.) Though it may not appear to be a conversation, the calling of Philomela as a bird is her speaking after reclaiming her voice through transformation. She calls out with the repetition of “jug jug” proclaiming her revenge to Tereus. Eliot writes:

Above the antique mantel was displayed

As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale

Filled all the desert with inviolable voice

And still she cried, and still the world pursues,

‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.


Philomela-as-a-nightingale may seem to subvert the thesis of male dominance in conversation, and she certainly provides an interesting outlet for female response. However, the initial transformation is necessitated only by the brutality of Tereus, whose sexual assault and mutilation of Philomela takes away her ability to speak (and through her voice, provide her side of a conversation.) Even when she regains her voice, it is dehumanized and turned into animal vocalization rather than fluent language. This again leaves Tereus in the position of power.

Conversation Between Women, About Men

Conversation between women in The Waste Land is very similar to that between men and women, in that the main subject of conversation for the women is the men and therefore the power that said men hold over them is again acknowledged. The first time a conversation between women occurs in the poem is when Madame Sosostris is first introduced and is reading a deck of tarot cards. She says:

Madame Sosostris…

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,

And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,

Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,

Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find

The Hanged Man…

Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,

Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:

One must be so careful these days.


 This conversation can be assumed to be between two women by the last three lines concerning a “dear Mrs. Equitone” (56). The familiarity with which she is mentioned as a friend denotes a casualness familiar amongst women friends. If Mrs. Equitone was Madame Sosostris’ client’s wife, she would have been described more directly as such, and given that she is not his wife and that close relationships between men and married women would have been disapproved of, she is most likely a mutual female friend. As for the content of the reading, regardless of the significance of individual cards (some of which are not present in real tarot decks), it is essential to note that nearly every card is male. The (male) drowned Phoenician sailor and the one-eyed merchant (and the reference to the Hanged Man) are who determine the fate of the subject of the reading. Though it is being relayed to her through a conversation with another woman, men are still symbolically controlling her fate. A similar dynamic is echoed in the conversation between Lil and her friend, who advises her to be more appealing to her husband, lest he leave her.

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, I said, 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, I said.

Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.

Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight



The line that mentions that Albert would seek out other women (“there’s others will”) is especially significant in that it reminds Lil of her place. Even in a conversation between two women, it is impossible to escape the power that Albert holds over her— if she doesn’t do as his wishes and try to be more attractive for him, he would seek out other women and betray their marriage (or even leave her altogether, which could be devastating if Lil had no other support.) She is under his control and influence even when he is away in the army, where even distance cannot stop society (or in this case, the speaker) from reminding her of her place beneath him. Even when women speak together, it is about men, and when it is, it is always about the power that men hold over the women. 

Through both the conversations between women and back to the conversations that they hold with men, women are constantly reminded of the power that men hold over them, whether physically or otherwise. Men determine their fate and make decisions for them, as in the case of the cards or the sled-riding. Conversation, an essential part of The Waste Land, is the main method of reminding women of this deeply ingrained and uneven power dynamic. 


Descending Into Silence

While dialogue appears throughout The Waste Land, it is silence that characterizes these conversations. The poem’s stifled voices and muffled undertones accompany the conversations, drawing the reader’s attention to voice by emphasizing the lack of it. Most obviously, Eliot alludes to the story of Philomela, in which her tongue is cut out by Tereus; she is physically silenced by her assaulter. While unable to talk, she turns to the written word, weaving her story instead of speaking it. In this case, the power of the written word is evident, as it can be used as a powerful tool for conversation—a tool that Eliot himself uses. 

Tereus, Philomela, and Procne

Throughout the rest of the poem, there are many more conversations, though they are often one-sided or involve silence. Interestingly, often the narrator is the mute conversationalist; Eliot silences his own voice in place of his characters or sources, using them to carry conversations. In “The Burial of the Dead,” there is dialogue from the point of view of the “hyacinth girl” (36). Following the speech of the unknown girl, Eliot writes “I could not Speak…looking into the heart of light, the silence” (38-41). Perhaps, it is the girl’s speech that makes the narrator speechless, breaking the peace and silence of the imagined space of the waste land. The possible comfort of silence is contradicted later in the poem, when an unknown voice questions ‘Why do you never speak. Speak” (112). Here, it is the voicelessness of the responder that is disquieting; is silence reassuring or disturbing? 

The very nature of the poem—and even of literature itself—seems to approach this question, as Eliot puts countless sources in conversation with each other and the reader, inviting expansive interpretation. While there may be connections between sources or analysis of Eliot’s words, the conversation in this case is stilted and sterile, as it is conducted across time and space, constructed of abstract theory rather than auditory voice. Eliot could be approaching silence in the text to stress conversation’s inherent inequality—it is bound to be one-sided in some way. The perpetually imbalanced nature of the relationships between author and reader, man and woman, and even sources prevent true conversation; rather than traditional dialogue, conversation in The Waste Land takes the form of an overwhelming cacophony of distinct voices, punctuated by profound silence.

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