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Uluru Rock in Northern Territory, Australia


To analyze stone effectively, it is first necessary to realize what stone is; in this thread, one may think of stone to be a broader umbrella surrounding both metal and glass, and from which the two materials are derived. Metal is extracted from stone, at least for human use, if one imagines metal ore to be a stone. Glass is formed when sand, or “powdered stone,” is heated and cooled rapidly. In this way, stone is an inutile ancestor—it is a product from which useful elements, metal and glass, are taken, but is not itself used in human industry.

This is relevant because industrialization is a recurring theme of Eliot’s poetry. In TWL, industrialization represents death [referring to a crowd of businessmen over London Bridge: “I had not thought death had undone so many” (63)]. On the other hand, nature is the conglomeration of life. Industry, during Eliot’s time, is dominated by metal and glass structures; on the other hand, stone is naturally occurring—that is to say that one does not have to extract or manipulate another substance to derive stone, as one does with metal and glass. This contrast holds tremendous relevance in Eliot’s references.

So, stone can be established as a symbol that is “natural” but by itself “inutile.” Stone has no intrinsic value; the value of stone only comes from what stone turns into. In other words, one has to manipulate stone in order for it to have utility. This manipulation is prominent throughout Eliot’s Biblical references. For instance, in Matthew 4:3,

“… when the tempter came to [Jesus], he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” [Matthew 4:3 ~ HW 18].

The idea of stone turning into bread represents the temptation for something as worthless as stone to be manipulated to satisfy hunger. However, later on in Matthew, Jesus challenges this manipulation:

“Jesus answered, ‘It is written’: “Man does not live on bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God”’” (Matthew 4:1-11).

The turning of stone into bread represents the satisfaction of a temporal desire, hunger. This can be extended to sin as satisfying the temporal desires of human beings. In that thread, the manipulation of naturally-occurring stone for one’s profane satisfaction represents the manipulation of divinity, or purity, for the temporary gratification of sin. One can then use this to further analyze Eliot’s themes on industrialization. If industrialization is the manipulation of naturally-occurring materials to construct a landscape for man-made gratification, that is precisely the destruction of nature—what God created, and what is therefore divine—for something worldly, or sinful. This is supported by another Biblical verse in Ecclesiastes, which refers to dust—the erosion of stone.

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12).

It requires the preservation of the stone, however useless it may seem, to remain pure or holy.

Lent’s Temptations — Clever Devil turns Stones into Bread



                In a time of overwhelming poverty rates in the “Unreal City,” luxury metals—“gold” and “copper”—in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land enriches the subplot of wealth disparities in its post-Great War world, whilst portraying the fall of societal hierarchies, as it crumbles under mass suffering and strife. As he dimensionalized themes of poverty and monetary deprivation, Eliot’s  representation of wealth expands on description of luxury and ease, only being referred to in the subplots of the wealthy within his poems, while also hollowing the wealthy experience into a emotionless and isolating state, thus emphasizing hidden similarities between the two groups.

             In the second poem, A Game of Chess, Eliot explores the significance sex and sensuality, with the inspiration Tom Middleton’s satirical play, A Game at Chess, which humorizes and portrays seductive relationships in an allegory for the English and Spanish royal court of the 16th century. Among the “sad light” of empty luxury, both the play and Eliot’s reprisal wraps the respective narratives in a neurotic and false decadence: 

           “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne/Glowed on the marble, where the glass/Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines/From which a golden Cupidon peeped out/(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)…”  [II. A Game of Chess, 73-81]

            The “golden Cupidon, [hiding] his eyes behind his wing” in a shameful manner, represents an unnecessary and futile extravagance for the sake of love and sex, whilst  “fore[telling]” a failure and negative result in her empty efforts for a connection with her lover. Regardless of her wealth, she still struggles to attain emotional and mental fulfillment, her spiritual storyline painstakingly similar to those without her monetary privilege. 

              Additionally, Eliot utilizes metals to dimensionalize “stone,” pairing the two as oppositional metaphors for agony, strife, and poverty and wealth, blissful ignorance, and societal liberty, thus toying with the scientific relationship between the two natural substances. Metal, a refined, sophisticated form of stone, is posited as belonging to the upper class, the sexually satisfied, and those societally undisturbed by the war:

            “Elizabeth and Leicester/Beating oars/The stern was formed/A gilded shell/Red and gold” [III. The Fire Sermon 281-283]

            Featured only thrice within The Waste Land, gold in its connection to “The Fire Sermon” accentuates the disparity between Queen Elizabeth I, her lover, First Earl of Leicester Robert Dudley, and the general English population, as the two exists in their realm of bliss of “red and gold,” ignoring the strife endured by their subjects. 

             Likewise, stone, in its primitive form, exhibits a roughness which is inherently difficult to navigate and manipulate for one’s own gain:

           “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish”? [I. The Burial of the Dead 19-20] 

           The mental image of “roots that clutch” highlight a struggle for growth, portraying how hardship thrives in “stony places,” obstructing the natural occurrences of flourishment. Furthermore, the excerpt implies a persistent life, threatening the narrator’s peace and sublimity and ensuring a never-ending fight to evade “death by water.” Such is regularly illustrated as Eliot immortalizes his opinions on war-time struggles, poverty, and unattainable fullfillment.  

Rough ride … Cecil Collins’ The Quest, in Journeys With The Waste Land. Photograph: Collins, Cecil/Tate Images


The role of glass in the structure of The Wasteland is one of deception, often performing as mirrors which refract both light and perspective back onto the viewer in alternate form. In A Game of Chess, the throne of the woman (the identity of whom is never truly identified) is illustrated through references to Antony and Cleopatra, in which the “barge” of the play is transformed into a “Chair” on which the woman sits. Within the stanza, the polished glass chair itself inherits the role of a mirror, which reflects “light upon the table” and “doubles” the flames of the candelabra. This image of a throne room is overwrought with reflection, refracted light, and heavy perfumes thus warping the perception of both those who smell it and those who view it. 

This reading continues into the segment of Antony and Cleopatra that Eliot references, which depicts Cleopatra’s first meeting with Mark Antony, on which she rides a barge “like a burnished throne” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii, l. 190) with a golden deck and silver oars, rendering the ship a reflective surface. Coupled with his reference to Dido, when he describes the candles which “flung their smoke into the laquearia”, which refers to the smoke of her burning body upon the pyre, the scent of the smoke is covered by heavy perfumes thus imbuing this hall of mirrors with a role of deception. Such a reading is further illustrated when one follows the pairs of desiccated lovers Eliot references, as each pair was blinded by lust or love in some aspect, leading to their demise.

Clothing/Makeup/Perfume in TWL

Throughout The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot utilises clothing, jewellery, and perfume as a catalyst to drive and connect moments of characterization, violence, and sense. Inherently, clothing, jewellery, and perfume all employ sense (visual or olfactory) to convey an identity associated with its beholder. T.S. Eliot applies clothing and jewellery (or the lack thereof) to communicate performance, disguise, and vanity. However, these points interconnect with the heavy theme of gender within the poem. When referencing clothing on men, T.S. Eliot portrays it as a disguise often used violently; a man dressed as a false prophetess and the man in a silk hat both end up assaulting women. When women wear clothing, it becomes a contradiction. Clothing acts as a barrier between the female body and the male gaze: a form of armour. However, more often than not, clothing and jewellery are used in excess to paint opulence and luxury. In this sense, vanity becomes seduction, a twisted invitation to the male assault. On the other end of the spectrum, women in the absence of clothing represent vulnerability. The woman becomes a prize to be hunted by the man, naked rather than nude. This nakedness also plays with Adam and Eve: the knowledge of sin. Perfume, similarly, has a role in both seduction and repulsion. The flower’s strength lies in its aroma, attracting insects to propagate. Similarly, perfume diffuses throughout the poem, representing a powerful stench that repels visitors or a welcoming smell that pulls men in. Perfume flirts with the theme of water within The Waste Land as well. Perfume, in its basic form, is also liquid. However, when released, smell assaults the nose. People “drown themselves in perfume.” While they may seem mundane on their own, clothing, jewellery, and perfume are important pieces in the larger scheme of the poem.


“But at my back from time to time I hear / The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.” (196-198).

The quote from line 197 makes a direct reference to The Parliament of Bees by John Day. Eliot writes “the sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring,” a variation of Day’s “A noise of Hornes, and hunting, which shall bring Actaeon to Diana in the spring.” In this quote, Day is referencing the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where Actaeon, a man, comes across Diana, a goddess, bathing.  Diana is so enraged that she turns him into a deer to be killed by his own hounds so that he may never tell what he saw. Some argue that because Actaeon did not intend to violate her privacy, her punishment was unjust. However, Day highlights that the action of hunting is what “brought” Actaeon upon her, speaking to the intersection of sexual violence and the act of hunting. The mere act of seeing a woman naked, without her consent, is thus compared to the act of killing. When considering killing as taking away the body from the soul, rape and sexual violence have the same effect. Thus, the clothes can be thought of as armor for women against this violence. The line from The Parliament of Bees is followed by the line “Where we all shall see her naked body.” Using the word “we”, John Day includes any reader of his text in this violation of Diana’s body. No longer is Actaeon the only one seeing her, it is everyone. 

The title of the section from The Waste Land in which the Parliament of Bees reference is found references the Buddhist “Fire Sermon”, where the individual is encouraged to end their suffering through detachment from the conscious mind. The action of stripping back one’s senses and emotions, or in the words of the text, “creating an aversion” to all the extra feelings that come with being a human, brings the mind to enlightenment, and raises it above the limitations of the material world. It is interesting that this process is thought of as “stripping” the mind of consciousness, and that Eliot references nakedness in this passage, as if the way clothes function for the body is the same as how consciousness functions for the mind. When considering how women use clothes as protection from the male gaze, and that without male violence, such protection would not be necessary, men are associated with the material world, and women (especially their body) with divinity and enlightenment.


Portrait of John Donne writing.

Several moments in the “The Fire Sermon” present instances in which clothing has been denied. Eliot describes “White bodies naked on the low damp ground”; moreover, the act of sexual violence enacted against the typist depends fundamentally upon her nakedness. Though not explicitly referenced in Eliot’s poem, John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed” also describes an erotic scene that approaches something coercive and nonconsensual. In his attempt to seduce his mistress and convince her to undress, the speaker uses vaguely pious sophistries. He compares women to “mystic books” to advance his affected piety, suggesting that a divine truth, normally obscured by the presence of dress, is revealed by her nakedness. In fact, only “busy fools” occupy themselves solely with a woman’s external appearance. Describing her “girdle”, a form-fitting undergarment worn by women, as “heaven’s Zone glistering”, the man “dresses” his sexual desire in the language of cosmology, elevating the baseness of his instincts into something more dignified. Much like how clothing functions as a kind of trickery, Eliot’s obscurity also disguises his underlying sermon, making his indictments of society more palatable to a wider audience. 

There are more direct parallels between Donne’s elegy and The Waste Land.  Eliot’s assaulter “[explores] hands [that] encounter no defence”, while the man in “Mistress Going to Bed” asks the women to “Licence my roving hands, and let them go, Before, behind, between, above, below.” While the latter quotation seems to serve as an appeal for permission — the speaker requests authorisation to use his hands for licentious purposes — the former quotation eschews this formality. In doing so, the assaulter makes no pretence of courtesy, but acts directly in alignment with his intention; though both men share similar sexual desire, only one announces his willingness to breach consent—Eliot’s line, in other words, is the “undressed” version of Donne’s. 

Donne’s elegy also contains hints of androgyny that recall the figure Tiresias from The Waste Land. The man’s statement that “until in labour, I in labour lie” betrays an effeminacy. The word “labour” is used to exaggerate the toil suffered by the speaker; it also imagines the man engaged in some sort of act of parturition. Effectively, he co-opts the experience of motherhood for rhetorical purposes, as a means of establishing the magnanimity of his endeavour. He also implies that until his sexual demands are obliged, he is forced to tolerate privation. The obvious irony here is that only the mistress, following their liaison, is vulnerable to the experience of labour/childbirth. The poem continues to develop this conceit: the man implores the woman to expose her nakedness to him “As liberally, as to a Midwife”, once again exploiting female experiences to service himself. There is something quite frank, even vulgar, about these explicit references to giving birth — not because he refuses to sentimentalise it, but because he is overtly defiant of social mores that served to protect women, for whom the consequences of unmarried sex were much more serious. The narrative of Tiresias is also inseparable from the assumption that women are inherently sexual creatures — hence why Juno curses him. Eliot, however, does not grant Tiresias the same impunity that Donne’s speaker receives. Tiresias himself admits the duality of his androgyny: he too, like the typist, “foresuffered all Enacted on this same divan or bed”. 

Despite describing “white robes”, evoking associations of virginity and chastity, Donne’s speaker ultimately perceives clothing as a veil for the authentic spirituality that lies underneath; simultaneously, his rhetorical appeal is likewise duplicitous, purporting pious values for the sake of disguising the obscenity of his underlying desire. Ultimately, Eliot does not glorify the naked body, but presents it as a discarded thing, diminished from its once great stature in our aboriginal imagination. 


Perfume, as a sensual experience, acts as a source of disruption and conflict within TWL. Straying away from the foreseeable cycle of life and death and the details of a mundane human nature in “The Burial of the Dead,”  In this quote, Eliot literally moves from water (drowning) to smell (odors). While perfume typically has a good aroma, “odour” connotes something pungent, as if the unknown “she” that is acting in this stanza is concocting something that releases powerful scents.” Eliot heavily parallels his descriptions with those by Charles Baudelaire’s, “A Martyred Woman.” “In the midst of perfume flasks, of sequined fabrics … of marble statues … and wearing precious jewels,” writes Baudelaire. These images clearly align with the “glitter of her jewels” and “strange synthetic perfumes” that Eliot describes. This parallel is testament to the equally sensual experience created by perfume in Baudelaire and Eliot’s respective works. The opening images of his poem seem to be dominated by the “perfume” which parallels the “synthetic perfume” and “odors” in TWL. What connects these to aromatic images is the presence of power. The “burnished throne” is a kin to some position of superiority or reason for praise which is a central theme in Baudelaire’s “A Martyred Women.” The difference lies in the fact that in TWL the dominance/presence of this power is “drown[ing]” the sense in odurs’ ‘ as if there is an excess of power. In Baudelaire’s focus on dead women, Eliot’s allusion to his work seems to be suggesting that there is an overbearing/whelming stench or. “odour” (in both a literal and metaphorical sense) of death. 

“Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,

Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused

And drowned the sense in odours” – TWL

In the midst of perfume flasks, of sequined fabrics/ And voluptuous furniture/
Of marble statues, pictures, and perfumed dresses/ That trail in sumptuous folds” – Baudelaire, “A Martyred Women”

     In Act II, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes Cleopatra’s royal barge as a “burnished throne”.

“You must not think I am so simple but I know the

devil himself will not eat a woman: I know that a

woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her

not.” – Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra






Corpses & Bones

A Food Chain of Corpses

The Waste Land deals with numerous motifs all at once. From the cyclical routine of nature and the Great War’s effects on humanity to another significant conflict – the battle of the sexes, these matters seem disconnected at first glance. However, with further investigation and references to the sources that influenced Eliot’s writing, these themes are in fact connected through the subjects of this page – corpses and bones. 

Eliot references Baudelaire’s “The Martyred Woman” towards the outset of II. A Game of Chess. Particularly through creating an ambience in this section of TWL similar to that of Baudelaire’s poem, one is prompted to analyze the beautified death scene where “A headless cadaver”, who is the eponymous martyred woman, lays (Baudelaire). The fact that this female corpse is “headless” alludes to the lost of the most identifiable aspect of any human, the face, proceeding the exploitation of her body for men’s sexual desires; her identity is not spared even after her life has already ended, proving the significant stripping of humanity of indecent sex. Baudelaire continues, 

“Had her exasperated soul / And her senses gnawed by ennui / Thrown open their gates to the thirsty pack / Of lost and wandering desires?… Did he use your inert, complacent flesh to fill /The immensity of his lust?” (Baudelaire). 

Incorporating the action “gnawed by” alludes to the female corpse being a mere feed for “the thirsty pack”. The corpse’s “inert, complacent flesh” merely exists as a prey to quench such predating men’s sexual thirst. With corporeal flesh comes bones, and bones first appear in TWL when Eliot writes, “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones” (115-116). This scene occurs only numerous lines after the reference to “The Martyred Woman”, deeming the transition from a female corpse to “dead men” significant. Here, as opposed to Baudelaire’s woman who lost her flesh to figuratively feed men, “dead men lost their bones” to a currently unknown source. The essence of losing bones hints at such men’s loss of a stable structure. Evidently, when men are guided only by lust, their upstanding propriety dies, resulting in the metaphorical death of masculine morality, deeming them “dead men”. 

Yet, of course, corpses exist beyond this battle of the sexes; a larger phenomenon gives rise for greater casualties and death – WWI. Whitman’s depictions of “battle-corpses, myriads of them, / And the white skeletons of young men” further convey men’s subjectivity to battle casualties, as they were the prominent gender who engaged in this war (Whitman 6). Their “white skeletons” exposed on the battlefield similarly depict the scene where “dead men lost their bones”, painting the Great War as a more powerful source of predator than men are to women. However, even war isn’t the most powerful of them all; the inevitable nature of death. Female corpses that are supposedly prominent with “beauty” are merely “formless, shapeless, and without glory,” as Pepler put it, when “laid in the graves” (The Burial of the Dead 14). He also notes that “man is but naked bones, corruption, and food for worms”; their corpses, stripped of uprightness and  corrupted with lust, merely act as prey to the most trivial animals after death, which contributes to the cycle of nature through a food chain sequence (The Burial of the Dead 20).



Dwight Longenecker, T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, Reconsidered in the Pandemic (2020)

The Bones of Ezekiel

“And He said unto me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.'” (Ezekiel 37:3)

Of the many Biblical references in The Waste Land none contribute quite as much to the structure and symbolism of the poem as the Book of Ezekiel, which is first introduced in line twenty and makes numerous reappearances throughout the poem. One of the most notable sections of Ezekiel, the Valley of Dry Bones, is a prophecy that God reveals to Ezekiel of how he will redeem the Israelites, raising the dead. The chapter opens, “the hand of the LORD… set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones… and there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry” (Ezekiel 37:1-2). 

The Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones by Gustave Doré

Of the numerous times bones and corpses appear in the appear in The Waste Land, only once are they ‘dry:’

“Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home 

It has no windows, and the door swings, 

Dry bones can harm no one.” (388-391)

Bones here become the seeds of the prophecy, but, when God raises them into an army of the dead, in Ezekiel, “So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and they stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (Ezekiel 37:10). Here, in The Waste Land, the “dry bones,” the dead of the House of Israel [Israelites], “can harm no one” (Eliot 391). The theme of prophecy is not new to The Waste Land, but the connection to bones appears only here, suggesting something unique about how the Biblical vision lines up with the previous examples (Huxley, Petronius, etc.). 

The “empty chapel” in this stanza is the Chapel Perilous of Arthurian legend, where the hero must enter and defeat the cursed and murderous spirit within (Weston 1-3). The connection here is not directly with Ezekiel, but with bones themselves. The story of this chapel is that every day a knight, thinking they are virtuous and strong enough, will enter, and be slain by the “Black Hand” (Weston 2). This, in effect, is an army similar to that of the reanimated dead that Ezekiel sees, slain by their own ‘sins’ and awaiting deliverance (from Gawain). The ‘dryness’ here is more than just a reference to Ezekiel, but an actual trait, the languishing in sin and idolatry that God instructed Ezekiel to deliver the Israelites from. This is clarified in a line from Ezekiel itself, as the reanimated corpses speak, “Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: We are cut off for our parts” (Ezekiel 37:11). Here the status of ‘dried’ is directly connected with the conditions/actions of the bones; this must also be applied to The Waste Land.


“The Chapel Perilous” by Thomas Mackenzie

The ‘harmlessness’ of these ‘dry bones’ is less easy to interpret. Much more explicit than the commentary and satire of prophets from Madame Sosostris and Sybil (in the foreword), this passage directly contradicts the Ezekiel vision of redemption and resurrection. By associating with the Chapel Perilous, which is cited as containing the bones of all who fell to it in its mausoleum in From Ritual to Romance, the nature of this is made clear. Bones are the enduring legacy of the people they belonged to, and their attributes are somewhat permanent—only an act of God can raise the ‘dry,’ idolatrous bones of the House of Israel. Only with the presence of an Ezekiel/Gawain-type character—the pure prophet/quester—can these bones even be raised, and, as “only the wind’s home,” there is no one left to fulfill the prophecy and redeem the bones, which here make up not the House of Israel, but the ‘House of Britain.’ To Eliot, bones serve much of the same purpose, a reminder of the shortcomings he sees in modern British life, the ‘dry bones’ of the Chapel Perilous exhumed in the City of London.

The Apocalyptic Vision of T. S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' - The Atlantic

Daniele Castellano, T.S. Eliot Saw All This Coming (2022)

Implicit Bones

In “The Fire Sermon,” an arbitrary corpse is brought to life by the presence of rats and animal slaughter. Eliot writes, 

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

A rat crept softly through the vegetation

Dragging its slimy belly on the bank (185-188). 

From “rattle” to “rat,” Eliot’s pun draws emphasis to the omnipresence of the pests throughout TWL. Interestingly, “rat,” the first three letters in the spelling of “rattle,” implicates these very animals in the creation of said “bones”—in other words, in the very process of reading or writing about the “rattle” of death, the reader/writer finds “rats” to be tethered, perhaps criminally, to the dead body. Furthermore, the “rattle of bones,” creating not a visual but rather audio confirmation of the body parts of the deceased, contrasts with the hyper-visual and hyper-realistic descriptions of the animal’s “slimy belly.” This motif of the “belly” is also curiously present in Trimalchio’s dinner party, wherein his dissatisfaction at the ungutted pig leads to the chef’s humiliating punishment:

The chef recovered his shirt, took up a knife and with a nervous hand cut open the pig’s belly left and right. Suddenly, as the slits widened with the pressure, out poured sausages and blood-puddings (Petronius 7).

Here, the “pig’s belly” is perverted by the cut of the “knife,” and the pig is killed in a gruesome manner not unlike the rat that “drags[s] its slimy belly on the banks,” prolonging its grimy legacy. Additionally, the imagery communicated through the sliced “belly” resonates with the backstory of Tiresias, who Eliot cites as “yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” When examining the blind prophet’s cause of death, one finds that “[h]e at last died, after drinking the waters of a cold fountain, which froze his blood” (Lempriere 2). The liquid “sausages and blood-puddings” from the slaughtered pig essentially becomes “froze[n]” here, mimicking the process of human decomposition. Upon an animal or a person’s slaughter, an outpour of blood ensues, akin to the aftermath of the “slit” made by Trimalchio’s chef. However, with time, the cadaver stiffens without life, and the once-liquid blood is rendered frozen, as in Tiresia’s case. This frozen quality brings the analysis back in a full circle, for in the above-mentioned line of TWL, “at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of bones.” Tiresias senses a corpse, cold and lifeless, before proceeding to hint at death through rats. Perhaps this also explains why there are also “bones cast in a little low dry garret” (194). Namely, not only are rats commonly found within the attic (“garret”) or other infrequently visited localities, but these places are described as “dry,” without liquid, and thus potentially storing a long-expired frozen corpse. As such, TWL begins with the “Burial of the Dead,” a fresh corpse, with “The Fire Sermon” and the subsequent sections accounting for its inevitable decay.


Wikipedia, Coues’s Rice Rat (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.


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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