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Literature / The Waste Land

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April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

The Waste Land is T. S. Eliot's most famous poem, as well as the most famous Modernist poem. It is mainly about how the world is hopelessly lost and how life cannot be regenerated. It is also incredibly confusing. Full text here

Not to be confused with The Waste Lands, the third book in Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. (Though the book makes open references to the poem.)

This work contains examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: Eliot's annotations. Except that they just raise further questions.
  • The Annotated Edition: Provided by Eliot himself.
    • You can also get a Facsimile Edition of the poem, incorporating photographic images of the entire manuscript, including everything that was cut before publication, and with further notes.
  • Arc Words: "Unreal City," "fear death by water," and "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME," to name but a few.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Two of the lines from The Waste Land make an allusion to the Bible. The annotations show that line 20 alludes to Ezekiel 2:1, while line 23 alludes to Ecclesiastes 12:5.
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  • Badass Boast: I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
  • Bilingual Bonus: There are some lines that are in German, French, and Italian, and some Sanskrit words.
    • The Latin epigraph translates to: Once with my own eye I saw the Sybil of Cumae, hanging in a jar, and the boys were saying to her: "What is it you desire?" She responded, "I wish to die."
      • Oh, and the dialogue there is in Greek.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The narrator in the first "Unreal City" section talking to Stetson. "That corpse you planted last year in your garden..."
    • Perhaps not as squicky as it first appears; "That Corpse" might refer to the Corpse Flower, whose fragrance resembles rotting meat.
    • Though, considering that he just mentioned the battle of Mylae...
    • The narrator of the first section of A Game Of Chess suggests this agenda: "The hot water at ten. / And if it rains, a closed car at four. / And we shall play a game of chess, / pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: When he calls out to the "hypocrite reader".
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  • Casanova Wannabe: The house agent's clerk in The Fire Sermon.
  • Catchphrase: HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.
  • City Noir: Unreal City.
  • Chess with Death: at minimum nodded to by the section A Game Of Chess, with the conversation drifting heavily to suggestions of a Living Memory style vision forged from a painful memory.
  • Crapsack World: It is The Waste Land after all.
  • Dead Person Conversation: With Stetson. Tiresias also mentions doing this during his career as a Hellenic mystic.
  • Dying Dream: One interpretation is that the second-person protagonist is hallucinating the scenes as they wander lost and dying of thirst in the desert.
  • Emotionless Girl: The typist home at teatime.
  • Expy: In his annotations, Eliot mentions the three Thames-daughters, who are expies of the Rhine-maidens from the Götterdämmerung.
  • Fan Disservice: There's a really unflattering sex scene, possibly a rape scene.
  • Gratuitous French, Gratuitous German, Gratuitous Italian, and gratuitous Sanskrit.
  • Hermaphrodite: Tiresias.
  • Heroic BSoD: A possible interpretation of the typist in The Fire Sermon: "Endeavours to engage her in caresses / Which still are unreproved, if undesired. / Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; / Exploring hands encounter no defence; / His vanity requires no response, / And makes a welcome of indifference."
  • Historical Domain Character: Marie, Countess Larisch from the beginning of The Burial of the Dead.
    • She had become notorious a couple of decades earlier as the go-between for Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Marie Vetsera. After the Mayerling incident, she was essentially frozen out of Vienna society and went into self-imposed exile. She met Eliot in 1911 (or 1914 according to some sources) and the lines in Burial of the Dead are said to be taken nearly verbatim from her remarks during their conversation.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Phlebas the Phoenician and Mr. Eugenides, sort of.
  • Ironic Echo: Some of the allusions, like all that nightingale business. Also some internal examples, like "death by water" and the "pearls that were his eyes".
    • The Burial of the Dead's "know[ing] nothing" is echoed in A Game of Chess.
  • Lampshade Hanging: "The fragments I have shored against my ruins," at the end of the poem; referring to fragmented sentences he put before this line. Also, the second part of The Burial of the Dead mentions "a heap of broken images"— like the poem itself.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Lill from the end of A Game of Chess.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Parts three and five are allusions to Buddhist works, and part one to the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Mandatory Motherhood: "What you get married for if you don't want children?"
  • Mind Screw: the poem never makes clear what exactly is going on, following a dream-like progression between scenes and a chaotic blending of allusion, memory, and ambiguous present-tense events.
  • Public Domain Character: Tiresias and the Fisher King.
  • Rule of Three: The three of staves is one of the tarot cards drawn, the Fisher King appears three times in the poem, there are the three Thames-daughters, the thunder strikes three times.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Way towards the cynical end.
    • Though it can be argued that the cynicism is moderated, to an extent, by the ending stanzas of the last canto, What The Thunder Said, in which Eliot proposes three virtues (using one of the most famous sections of the Upanishads) — charity, mercy and self-control — as means of escaping the sterile Waste Land of modern civilization.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: All these different linguistic registers in one poem. It's what grabbed people's attention back in 1922, and it still has the power to do so.
  • Shout-Out: It even ends with a massive list of all of its allusions, including The Bible, John Webster, Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire.
  • Tarot Motifs: Specifically in the third vignette of part one. (Though some of the cards it mentions aren't actually in the Arcana. Eliot acknowledges this in the annotations, of course.)
  • Thirsty Desert: serves as both metaphor for spiritual and emotional death in modern society, and as the literal threat of death from thirst and exposure in the wastes.
  • The Ingenue: The hyacinth girl, at first.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: It pays you the compliment of assuming you know what it's talking about. See "Shout-Out".
  • Written Sound Effect: A few times, Eliot writes out birdsong with nonsense words — "jug jug," "twit twit twit," "co co rico," etc. The penultimate line of the poem is "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata," words which are both the sound of thunder and a meditative mantra in Sanskrit.