The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem was published in the December 1922 issue of Criterion, 100 years ago. There’s a lot in it, and people focus on different parts. The first few lines get a workout every April, when people try to make them mean that April weather is changeable, but if you read the first four lines, and even better seven, it’s clear that that’s not what they mean.

The rest of the poem is harder. It’s fragmented, and thus easy to pluck pieces out, which is what people do.

But perhaps Eliot and his famous editor, Ezra Pound, had a thought that unified the poem. Let’s look at the title: The Waste Land. We can see that theme throughout: the dry red rocks, the inability of people to connect, water and death, and finally, in line 424 of 437, we meet the Fisher King, who rules the Waste Land and who suffers a wound that will not heal.

Eliot says so himself at the beginning of the Notes on ‘The Waste Land.’

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 (Cambridge). 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.

The key is that the Fisher King and his troubles are a pagan story that the Christian Church appropriated for its own uses. In the pagan version, the Fisher King and his lands are cured by a show of compassion. The Church demands that everyone ride off in all directions to find a techno-religious symbol that magically cures the Fisher King.*

A frame of compassion holds the poem together. Again, from Eliot’s notes:

Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.

Tiresias has lived as both a woman and a man and therefore can provide compassion in a way none of the “characters” can.

Read the poem again, this time with compassion in mind. A good way to start the New Year.


* Please do not explain to me what the King Arthur tales are “really” about until you have read Weston. There are a couple of texts online. Or read Wolfram’s “Parzival” (I recommend the Hatto translation) and “The Quest for the Holy Grail” in close succession. Chances are that your understanding is from Mallory, who smooshed together a bunch of stuff two hundred years later, with special emphasis on heads being bashed by swords and brains spilling out. And not Wagner’s version either. He started from Wolfram and mixed in a lot of his own sexual fantasies along with the Church stuff.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money


  1. The Blog Fodder · 26 Days Ago

    Happy New Year, Cheryl.


  2. Philip N. Weems · 25 Days Ago

    Thank you- this made my day. Fifty years ago I came for Prufrock, but stayed for The Waste Land. I was studying in London, and purchased Miss Weston’s book at Foyles. It’s here somewhere- now I have to find it. “I had not thought death had undone so many.” – no, it’s not about the weather.


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