There is almost a critical consensus that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land exhibits the sordid reality of the crisis of western civilization in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), which was the most destructive war in human history to that point. Many people saw the poem as an indictment of the postwar European culture and as an expression of disillusionment with contemporary society, which Eliot believed was culturally barren.
The theme of the poem is the spiritual and emotional sterility of the modern world. Man has lost his passion, i.e. his faith in God and religion, his passion to participate in religion; and this decay of faith has resulted in the loss of vitality, both spiritual and emotional. Consequently, the life in the modern wasteland is a life-in-death, a living death, like that of the Sibyl at Cumae. Modern man has lost his sense of good and evil, and this keeps him away from being alive, from acting.
In the modern desolate world, there is a life-in-death, a life of complete inactivity, listlessness and apathy. That is why winter is welcome to them, and April is the cruelest months, for it reminds them of the stirrings of life and, "They dislike to be roused from their death-in-life."
In “The Burial of the Dead” T. S. Eliot begins with the contrasting notion of “April”. He alludes to Geoffrey Chacer’s Canterbury Tales, where “April” is not the sweet and joyous time of the year but the cruelest. The first stanza is filled with similar ironies and juxtapositions. After the descriptions of the seasons, the reader meets with someone named Marie. Marie is alleged to be Countess Marie Larisch von Moennich, whom Eliot happened to meet with while he was in America. Lines 9-18 are supposedly part of her autobiography “My Past”. In the next stanza we are taken to another completely different setting, where it seems to be quite barren, dried, and deserted. Here Eliot alludes to the book of Ezekiel from the Bible which implies a sort of prophecy being spoken. He also alludes to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and quotes a few lines in German. What happens in the second stanza is quite abstract, because we have settings at a barren place, at sea and at a Hyacinth garden. In the third stanza we first meet a clairvoyant who might be an allusion to Madame Blavatsky and have tarot cards being read. Most of the cards are real but some of them are made up by Eliot. Lastly, we are transported to a city-like setting, no more abstract places. In this last stanza, Eliot alludes to many poets like Baudelaire, Dante, and Webster. He ends the chapter with the last line in Baudelaire’s “To the Reader”, indicating that the author is directly speaking to the readers.
“A Game of Chess”, begins and ends with fragments from Shakespeare’s plays. The next fragment is an abrupt switch to the story of Philomel, who was raped by a “barbarous king”. Then it switches to a story of a woman with bad nerves. It is obvious that she is waiting for something. Now the verse switches to a scene in a bar where Lil and a friend are talking about Albert who was just released from the army. Albert had given Lil, some money for new teeth; however, Lil spent the money on pills that would induce miscarriages. Lil took five of these pills indicating she had five miscarriages. A side effect of these pills was that they added thirty years to Lil’s looks.
The beginning verse of “The Fire Sermon” is indicating a change. The nymphs of old are departed, nobody believes in them anymore. The Thames is not the same. It is now polluted, losing its sense of serenity. Then it switches to another reference to the rape of Philomel before changing to the scenes with Tiresias. Teresias, who is a blind prophet, has been both male and female. He tells a story of more devalued sexual relations about a liaison with a typist. The typist, who is supposed to appear as an erotic object, is someone without any erotic appeal. Her surroundings are very uninviting. Her “stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays” are piled on the divan! There is no excitement, no energy. After this scene Eliot switched back to fragmentary writing. Within these fragments there are some echoes of the typist and then the verse ends with one word, “burning” standing all alone on the page.
In "Death by Water,” the way of escape from the degradation of society is revealed. The protagonist tells us of Phlebas the Phoenician, who experienced death by water, which can be seen as a representation of baptism, the shedding of the sinful nature, and the acceptance of the "Living Water" (KJV Bible, John 7:38) of Christ. Phlebas is now dead to the world. He has forgotten "the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell / and the profit and the loss" (IV, 313-314). He is no longer affected by the sin of modern society but lives separate from it. The narrator then addresses the reader: "Gentile or Jew / 0 you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you" (IV, 319-321). With this address, the
narrator reminds us that we are as mortal as Phlebas, and we also require this "Living Water.” This passage is a direct contrast to "The Fire Sermon” quenching the fires of lust with the "Living Water" that provides spiritual cleansing. To truly experience life, our sinful nature must die.
The last section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said” reveals four scenes. The first is that of Gethsemane when Jesus Christ was captured in the dead of night. This shifts into a barren landscape filled with rocks, but no water. Merging into it is a scene similar to the search for the Holy Grail, with vile, haunting images of towers and broken cities. The voice of the thunder speaks three words, Datta, Dayadhvum and Damyata, which speak words of wisdom and understanding, which fall upon deaf ears. The Fisher King has no hope of resurrecting his kingdom, and is left with crumbling means through which only himself will emerge alive.The Waste Land is recognized as a major statement of modernist poetics, both for its broad symbolic significance and for Eliot’s masterful use of formal techniques.
Like many modernists, Eliot was highly self-conscious about his relationship to literary tradition. In a well-known essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot described how the modern poet, when truly original, enters into a dialogue with tradition. He claimed that a great poem makes it necessary to understand all earlier poetry of the same tradition in a new light. There are hundreds of allusions in this poem. Eliot incorporates fragments of tradition into his own work. The first lines of the poem position it as a monument in a specifically English tradition by alluding to Geoffrey Chaucer, the first major poet of the English language. The natural cycle of death and rebirth traditionally associated with the month of April appears tragic to Eliot’s speaker. For Eliot’s speaker, April’s showers are cruel, not sweet. These opening lines, then, pose the question of the poet’s originality in relation to a tradition that seems barely capable of nourishing the “dull roots” of the modern poet’s sensibility. The poet lives in a modern waste land, in the aftermath of a great war, in an industrialized society that lacks traditional structures of authority and belief, in soil that may not be conducive to new growth. Even if he could become inspired, however, the poet would have no original materials to work with. His imagination consists only of “a heap of broken images,” in the words of line 22, the images he inherits from literary ancestors going back to the Bible. The modernist comes to write poetry after a great tradition of poetry has been all but tapped out. Despite this bleakness, however, the poem does present a rebirth of sorts, and the rebirth, while signifying the recovery of European society after the war, also symbolizes the renewal of poetic tradition in modernism, accomplished in part by the mixing of high and low culture and the improvisational quality of the poem as a whole.