"For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a jar at Cumae, and when the boys said to her,
'Sibyl, what do you want?' she replied, ' I want to die.'"

For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro.


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,
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.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?

'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
-Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
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. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many ,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
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.
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?
'O 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 frere!'

(turn the page)

--T.S. Eliot--


First publication date 1922.
Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

CST Approved.

Eliot's Endnotes
The Waste Land

For the sake of completeness--and because Eliot believed that the endnotes were as much a part of his poem as the rest of it--I present Eliot's original endnotes to the 1922 edition of The Waste Land, along with my own notes, in italics.

Eliot originally balked at the idea of including endnotes explaining his poem--ever the elitist. So, the notes themselves stand as obscure as the rest of the poem, and are now an integral part of the poem.

First, an introduction. Eliot's poem is, like "The Hollow Men," a reaction to post-war Europe. World War I was unlike any war the world had ever seen, and Europe was utterly devastated. It had become--of course--a waste land. Not a physical waste land (except on the Western Front), but a spiritual waste land, one of hopelessness and despair, of having seen the enlightened cultures of Vienna, London, Paris, self-destruct in an incredibly horrible, violent way.

A popular book in those days was Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance, which sought to apply Frazer's anthropological theories on Near East religions to the Celtic story of the Holy Grail. The effect is only somewhat successful (there is too much reliance on Eastern religion and the corn king, and not enough on the actual Celtic origins of the story itself; plus other oddities which make more sense when you realize that Weston was running with the Golded Dawn crowd).

Eliot, like many Modernists, was influenced by this and other works studying mythology (Eliot went with the Grail; Joyce with the Greeks, and so on), as well as psychology. He applied the concept of the Waste Land--a theme from grail myth, wherein the Fisher King is wounded in the "thigh," thus leaving the land infertile. (The land and the king are one.) At the same time, however, he is sustained by this miraculous piece of crockery (cup, dish, bowl), which can magically produce any food or drink the king desires. It is only in the Waste Land that the life-giving Grail can be found.

And so, an outsider who is also an insider (Perceval--raised alone in the woods and thus ignorant, while at the same time the nephew of the Fisher King) is the only one who can ask the question which will heal the King and the Land. However, according to Chretien de Troyes' romance (which is unfinished), Perceval fails on his first trip to the castle--just as Europe failed to prevent this devastation. (There are even some versions of the grail myth in which Perceval's failure to ask the question causes the devastation.)

Part of the key to understanding the poem is knowing the original title: He do the Police in Different Voices, which is a line in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. Mrs. Betty Higden is describing how Sloppy reads the paper aloud; we are then to read the poem as different voices--different perspectives, each calling to our attention. A similar technique is employed in James Joyce's Ulysses, also released in 1922. Eliot had brought the poem to his and Joyce's mutual friend Ezra Pound, who found the poem too unwieldy, cutting out huge sections of the text and telling Eliot to rename it. This is also the reason for Eliot's dedication, calling Pound "the better craftsman."

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble. To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.

Adonis Attis Osiris is the collective name of volumes four and five of the twelve volume unabridged version of The Golden Bough

The title of a section in the Anglican burial service

Line 1-4: "April...rain": a negative allusion to the openning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;

Line 8. Starnbergersee: a lake south of Munich. It is significant that this is where "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria was drowned. Ludwig was the patron of Richard Wagner, who wrote Parsifal for the eccentric king; Eliot sets him up as a sort of Fisher King. This is the first instance of death by water, a recurring theme in the poem--which would be an ironic way to go, given that the usual result of the success of the Grail quest is "the freeing of the waters"--but then, we are in a world where the old order no longer works, and now water will not save the Waste Land.

12. "I'm not Russian; I come from Lithuania, a true German."

13-15. "arch-duke... Marie" Marie is thought to be Marie, Countess Larisch, cousin to Archduke Rudolph, who was found dead in a hunting lodge in 1889, in what became the Mayerling Affair. His death lead to the Francis Ferdinand becoming archduke, whose assassination was the direct trigger of World War I. Eliot claimed to have met Marie.

Line 20 Cf. Ezekiel 2:7. "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee."

23. Cf. Ecclesiastes 12:5. "the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail."

24-25: Isaiah 32: 2. "And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land." This refers to the coming of the Messiah, the King of Righteousness. What is interesting is that this messiah is "a covert from the tempest"--the play The Tempest being prominent in this poem.

31. V. Tristan und Isolde, i, verses 5–8. Sung by a sailor thinking of his lover "Fresh blows the wind to the homeland, my Irish child, where do you tarry?"

42. Id. iii, verse 24. Sung by a shepherd looking to sea for Isolde's ship, as Tristan waits, dying. "Empty and waste is the sea."

43. Madame Sosostris: a character from Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow--a fortune teller "Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana" who dresses like a stereotypical Gypsie.

46. I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later; also the 'crowds of people', and Death by Water is executed in Part IV. The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.

Traditionally, the Hanged Man--the twelfth card of the major arcana--in the Tarot symbolizes sacrifice which leads to rebirth. Eliot is not alone in associating the Hanged Man with the Hanged God in Frazier. Moreover, there is the case of the Gaulic god Esus, whose devotees were hung on a tree and flayed. Odin hung himself on Yggdrasil and gained the knowledge of the runes. And the hooded figure on the road to Emmaus? Well, that's Jesus, the most famous of the sacrificial gods.

The Three of Staves (or Wands) in the Rider-Waite deck shows a man looking away from us out over a landscape. He is defined as being someone with foresight, looking at the big picture. The "Wheel" card is the Wheel of Fortune, the tenth card in the major arcanum, whose meaning is fairly straightforward--you're dealing with fortune, good or bad.

The other cards are not in the deck, but are Eliot's own invention. "Belladonna" means "beautiful woman" but is also the plant deadly nightshade--highly poisonous, thought to have been used in witchcraft, as it is hallucinogenic and causes one to believe she is flying.

Weston's book talks a good deal about Tarot, deciding that it was brought back from the East by the Knights Templar, and kept by the Gypsies, as a secret gnostic bible. She also draws parallels between the major arcana and the Grail quest, following W. B. Yeats' connection between the magic weapons of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the four suits:

Tarot Sword = Sword of Nuada
Tarot Cup = Cauldron of the Dagda
Tarot Stave = Spear of Lugh
Tarot Pentacle = Liath Fail

48. Those are pearls that were his eyes: from The Tempest I, ii, 398:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Ariel the sprite, under the control of Prospero, sings this song to Prince Ferdinand (ah! Archduke Francis Ferdinand?), trying to convince him of his father's death, so as to lure the young man to Prospero, who seeks revenge.

60. Cf. Baudelaire:
Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant.

"Swarming city, city full of dreams,
Where the specter in broad daylight accosts the passerby."

63. Cf. Inferno, iii. 55–7:

                      si lunga tratta 
di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto 
  che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.

"so long a train of people, that I would never have believed death had undone so many."

64. Cf. Inferno, iv. 25–27:
Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,
non avea pianto, ma' che di sospiri,
che l'aura eterna facevan tremare.

"Here, to my hearing, there was no weeping, but sighs which caused the eternal air to tremble."

68. A phenomenon which I have often noticed.

74. Cf. the Dirge in Webster's White Devil.
"But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to man,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again."

76. V. Baudelaire, Preface to Fleurs du Mal.
"Hypocrite reader!--my likeness--my brother!"

(turn the page)

Some Disassembly Required
Fragmentation and recollection in the Waste Land

A reader tasked with 'deciphering' T.S. Eliot's Modernist epic might be forgiven for throwing his hands up in frustration. Hunting down every allusion requires a trek across three millennia and seven languages. Even with decades' worth of scholarly trailblazing to ease the journey, unpacking the poem involves an alarming amount of legwork.

But one does not need a map of every landmark to navigate The Waste Land. Eliot's montage of images portraying empty, absurd desire in a modern world has haunted the minds of readers for generations, even those who did not catch a single literary reference. While The Waste Land deepens through familiarity with the extensive background material that informed the poem's composition, its fundamental impact arises independently of any external source. The Waste Land is not a cipher, but a collection. Eliot unravels the ties binding his literary allusions to the works they reference, much as a collector appropriates her specimens. By means including juxtaposition with the banal and condensation to the limits of recognition, he fragments his sources and reorganizes them within the confines of the poem, giving them a novel collective context.

In order to knock his allusions from the lofty heights of literature to the streetscapes of The Waste Land, Eliot often gives them a jolt. By setting his fragments of 'high culture' against the banal, he destabilizes their significance. Only the surrounding verse can resolve the confusion of meaning that results. This approach marks the concluding stanza of the passage describing a typist and her 'young man carbuncular.' "When young woman stoops to folly and / Paces about her room again, alone / She smooths her hair with automatic hand / And puts a record on the gramophone" (353-255). The phrase "when young woman stoops to folly" is the first line of "a little melancholy air" from the 18th century novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Transplanted to the Waste Land, its refined metaphor stands awkward against, "Paces about her room again, alone." A reader is apt to stumble over the change in style, as though Eliot had forgotten to edit out a scrap of an earlier draft.

Yet the line fits the rigid rhyme scheme of the stanza as a whole, suggesting conscious intent. Eliot mocks romantic visions of love betrayed by leading readers on with the build-up to an elegant ballad, then abandoning them to the underwhelming truth: the typist responds to her rape with apathy and retreat into routine. Knowledge of the fragment's origins sharpens the contrast between expectation and reality, but Eliot's precision use of context gives the parody its real bite.

While jarring dissimilarity cues the presence of a juxtaposition in "The Fire Sermon," more descrete odd couples appear throughout the poem. In "The Burial of the Dead," Eliot sets Dante's purgatory against the drudgery of the London commute. The everyday and singular mingle as he follows the citation, "I had not thought death had undone so many," (63) with the personal remark, "... St. Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine" (67-68). The spiritual suffering of Dante's sinners and the grungy melancholy of London's citizens merge under poetic pressure. Eliot splices the hallowed voice of The Inferno into an eclectic, vibrant chorus laying bare the condition of modern England. The most famous lines of the Unreal City monologue are Dante's, but the frequency with which they are attributed to Eliot testifies to his success in appropriating them.

Similarly, the classical and colloquial speak as one in the final lines of "A Game of Chess." Finally heeding the closing-time call of the barkeep, someone bids farewell. "Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. / Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight," (169-171). The spelling reflects the spoken pronunciation of 'good night' in English, serving as the feeble climax to an inane conversation in Cockney dialect. But by a sleight of hand, these lower-class leave-takings become the final lines of Hamlet's much-celebrated character Ophelia. "Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night" (172). Recognizing the quote does not swell the conclusion of the passage with any newfound Shakespearean dignity. It merely amplifies the pathos already there. Within the world shaped by Eliot's techniques of collection, Shakespeare's dramatic persona and the anonymous voices of a seedy London burrough sing the same melody.

The force of juxtaposition works outward, overriding an allusion's ties to its external source through the impact of contrast. The force of condensation, however, works inward, obscuring an allusion as it crushes the quote or paraphrase to its bare essentials. Only the cardinal words withstand compression. Ambiguity marks the absence of the rest. The flexibility this affords Eliot allows him to slip allusion into even the most restricted portions of The Waste Land.

For example, the second stanza of the river maidens' hymn begins with "Elizabeth and Leicester" (279). At surface, the sounds of these three words harmonize with their surroundings. Delving deeper, reader versed in British history could identify 'Elizabeth' as Queen Elizabeth I, a figure as synonymous with England as the Thames river. But at the very limits of allusion, a meticulous reader would note that Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester were the subjects of annoyance for the Spanish ambassador Alvarez de Quadra in a letter to court complaining of the pair's flirtatious behavior. His discomfort reflected the unspoken truth that any true romance would snag both figures in an intricate and fatal web of politics, religion, and nationality. However much they skirted the edges of desire, fulfilling it was beyond reach for either Queen or Earl. In both image and metaphor, the story fits perfectly into the river song and the overarching themes of The Waste Land as a whole. Unfolding the three-word kernel strengthens the poem's aesthetic and thematic force, but leaving it be detracts nothing from the flow of the river song.

Though packing so much reference into so little space seems a feat insurpassable, three words are luxurious compared to the brevity of an allusion within the opening image of "A Game of Chess." "In fattening the prolonged candle-flames, / Flung their smoke into the laquearia" (31-32). Laquearia, meaning 'paneled-ceiling,' stands alone as a concise and graceful word supporting the throne room's description with its liquid vowels and exotic appearance, but Eliot's own notes reveal a nod to the Aeneid, where he stumbled upon the term amidst a passage describing the banquet of Queen Dido of Carthage. Any reader must consider the delicacy of a thread spanning the distance between one obscure word and precisely that passage, but there is a tempting satisfaction to the self-reference. Whether taken as signifier or left untouched, the word clearly contributes to the impact and cohesion of the surrounding verse.

It also introduces ambiguity to another condensed allusion in "The Fire Sermon," allowing Eliot to wring as much use from any one phrase as even a Modernist might hope for. "To Carthage then I came" (307) quotes the Confessions of St. Augustine, whose rejection of worldly wants represented by the city of Carthage mirrors the Buddha's Fire Sermon. But more than one famous traveler has come to the Tunisian kingdom. Aeneas also faced a test of desire there, consumed with love for Queen Dido--an association the extended image of "A Game of Chess" might prime. The considered economy of the allusion allows room for both interpretations, continued in the next lines "burning burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning" (308-310). The repetition of 'burning,' its use as bludgeon against the speaker's prayers, drives the passage to a frenzied climax. The quotations are so condensed as to be Eliot's own, their heft given them by him alone. Yet as allusions, they retain a hint of their origins, yielding a wealth of sources to affirm the terrible force of the plea, unanswered.

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (431), the simple image that closes The Waste Land, belies how monumental the challenge truly was. T.S. Eliot's ruins were the ruins of a nation ravaged by the First World War and a literary tradition whose breadth had grown beyond the ken of the average reader. No individual fragment could possibly support such a burden. Only in unison, as a collection, could they prevent the towering heap of fractured images, symbols, and narratives from collapsing into chaos. Juxtaposing his allusions with the banal or condensing them to the limits of recognition, Eliot removed the dependence of his quotes and paraphrases upon external sources and allowed them to develop a significance within The Waste Land supplemented by their fragmentary nature. Fulfilling Modernist prophecy, he shattered the stained-glass windows lining the citadel of literary tradition--not with the malice of a vandal, but with the reverence of an artist. From the remnants of the old, he 'made it new', gathering the scattered shards and piecing them together again into a breathtaking mosaic.

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