Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis where Eliot's
The Waste Land originally appeared.. He is director of book
publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin
Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions.
An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book,
Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published
by TAN Books.
Waste Land by T.S. Eliot is probably the most influential
poem of the twentieth century and one of the least understood.
Published in 1922, it was perceived at the time as being a
jarring and iconoclastic modernist attack on tradition. One
reviewer described it as a “mad medley” and “so
much waste paper.” Another thought it depicted “a
world, or a mind, in disaster and mocking its despair,”
adding that it expressed “the toppling of aspirations,
the swift disintegration of accepted stability, the crash
of an ideal.”
cultural impact was certainly very divisive. The modernist
avant-garde gazed in awe at its many layers of allusive meaning;
the old guard claimed that the layers were not so much allusive
as an illusion, suspecting that the emperor had no clothes.
The pessimism of its language and the libertine nature of
its form accentuated the polarized reaction.
detractors included poetic traditionalists, such as G.K. Chesterton,
C.S. Lewis, and Alfred Noyes, none of whom were aware of Eliot’s
own deep traditionalism, which would only become apparent
a few years later with his embrace of Anglo-Catholicism and
his description of himself as being a Catholic, a royalist
and a classicist.
was not until his death more than forty years later that a
more balanced perspective would emerge of the cultural impact
which the misreading of The Waste Land had caused.
The obituary to Eliot in The Times conveys such a
presentation of disillusionment and the disintegration
of values, catching the mood of the time, made it the
poetic gospel of the post-war intelligentsia; at the time,
however, few either of its detractors or its admirers
saw through the surface innovations and the language of
despair to the deep respect for tradition and the keen
moral sense which underlay them.
is ironic that the key that unlocks The Waste Land
is Eliot’s great admiration for Dante. “You cannot
. . . understand the Inferno,” Eliot had written, “without
the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.” The “disgust”
that Dante shows in the Inferno “is completed
and explained only by the last canto of the Paradiso
. . . The contemplation of the horrid or sordid or disgusting,
by an artist, is the necessary and negative aspect of the
impulse toward the pursuit of beauty.” It is, therefore,
in the light of the peace and resurrection at the end of The
Waste Land that the earlier infernal and purgatorial
aspects of the poem are to be seen.
epigraph at the beginning of the poem sets the scene and the
prophetic tone with its reference to the Cumaean Sibyl, the
most famous of the ancient prophetesses whom the Greeks and
Romans consulted about the future. She is described at length
in Virgil’s Aeneid, in which she shows Aeneas
how to enter the underworld, and she is featured in Virgil’s
Fourth Eclogue, in which she delivers a prophecy
which theologians would later interpret as a foreshadowing
of the birth of Christ. The Cumaean Sibyl, in this sense,
can be seen as a figure of John the Baptist, as one who cries
in the wilderness, in the wasteland, prophesying the coming
The poem itself is divided into five parts. Part One, “The
Burial of the Dead,” begins with an allusion to Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales which sets the scene of pilgrimage.
There then follow a heap of biblical allusions from the Old
Testament: references to Job, Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah,
which provide the penitential atmosphere:
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….
these few lines, echoing intertextually with cautionary verses
from Scripture, the image of the wasteland of modernity is
laid out before us. The “stony rubbish” of modern
culture enables no roots of tradition to clutch and, therefore,
no beautiful cultural fruits can be found on branches that
cannot grow. Instead, we are left with nothing but incohesive
and incoherent fragments, a heap of broken images. The poem’s
fragmented form is itself a reflection of the fragmented formlessness
of the modernity it satirizes and reproaches. As for its moral
purpose, it is to show us something beyond our narcissistic
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.
The Waste Land is, therefore, a memento mori, a reminder
of death—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—and the
Four Last Things to which such a reminder points: death, judgment,
Heaven, and Hell.
final section of part one introduces a new motif of the “unreal
city,” an image of modernity severed from reality by
accretions of artificiality or what we might now call virtual
reality. Part one ends with the poet pointing the finger at
the reader in its quoting of the final line of Baudelaire’s
famous poem “To the Reader”: “You! Hypocrite
lecteur! —mon semblable, —mon frère!”
(You! Hypocrite reader! —my semblance, —my brother!)
What we are reading is aimed at us. It’s personal. We
are hypocrites who need to look at the plank in our own eye.
two and three present tableaux of the lust and decadence of
rich and poor alike, including intertextual allusions to Shakespeare’s
Cleopatra; to Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester; to a
middle-class typist and the “young man carbuncular”
to whom she sacrifices her virginity, after which he bestows
“one final patronizing kiss” before taking his
leave; and to working class people in a pub who discuss sex
within the context of abortion and other manifestations of
the culture of death.
three ends the section on decadence and lust with a reference
to St. Augustine’s Confessions (O Lord Thou
pluckest me out), signifying and prophesying the turning point
of the poem from the inferno of modern fatuity and vacuity
to the purgatorial cleansing of the passions.
four is entitled “Death by Water,” offering a
further memento mori but, beyond that, a promise of the death
and resurrection wrought by baptism.
five begins with the barren and arid image of the desert and
the thirst for water it induces. There then follows an allusion
to Christ on the road to Emmaus and a listing of the “falling
towers” of the Cities of Man:
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
the major centers of civilization, which have been pivotal
to human history, are listed as fallen and unreal, except
for Rome, which is omitted ostentatiously. Only the Eternal
City remains. Rome has not fallen, nor is it unreal.
poem culminates and climaxes in the coming of the much-needed
and much-desired rain, a symbol of grace, and “the awful
daring of a moment’s surrender” which is the acceptance
of faith. As the thunder proclaims the need for sacrifice,
compassion, and self-control, the poet ends with gratitude
for the peace that passeth all understanding.