T. S. Eliot’s lengthy poem “The Waste Land” is considered a modernist masterpiece of the 20th century. The poem was written after World War I. This period was full of war, increasing urbanization leading to modern life. Hence people were isolated and alone in this era. The poem portrays the terror, hopelessness, and alienation of modern life. This is a dramatic monologue with changing speakers, locations, and times throughout. The poem is fragmented into five parts entitled: 1) The burial of the Dead; 2) A Game of Chess; 3) The fire Sermon; 4) Death by Water; 5) What the Thunder Said. Here we are discussing the first part “The Burial of the Dead”.
The poem starts with an ironic line, “April is the cruellest month”. Though April is the month of “spring of awakening” and the month of hope and optimism, the poet considers this month as the nastiest. He says in this month lilacs bloom out of the lifeless soil of wasteland. Thus, there is a paradox here. The memory of a better time mixes with the desire for something better. Spring rain stirs up the dull root. Here, the poet means to say that in the present, the wasteland that we live in, all roots are dull and all land is dead. Nothing can grow from it. There are no prospects of re-birth any longer. This shows the absence of humanity, the purpose of living, and religious meaning. Modern life does not show the real meaning of life and humanity.So, spring rain also cannot do anything to awaken things. In the next line, paradox continues and the poet says winter brings warmth, snow covers the earth. Spring is cruel and winter can numb and paralyzes any feeling of memories and desire. Spring strips away these numbing agents and exposes the wasteland with no prospects of growth.
Next, there is a voice shift and the speaker now is a lady, named Marie. She is might be sharing the experience and memory of pre-war when there was no chaos and there was a presence of innocence. She narrates summer came suddenly, crossing Lake Starnbergersee with rain. Marie and her company stopped by, enjoyed the sunlight in the park, and chit chat for an hour over coffee. In earlier times, people were innocent and lived with joy. They used to interact with each other. They were not living a meaningless life. The next line is in German which means “I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a real German”. Marie continues her story and says when we were children; I was staying with my cousin. He took me sledding. I was so scared. He said to me Marie hold on tight and we went down the hill. She says you feel a sense of freedom in the mountains. In her memories, she was not alone. At that time people used to comfort each other. From her next line, it seems in the present day she is alone with no sleep. She says she reads the whole night and travels to the south when winter comes.
In the second stanza, the poet asks questions. Can any roots or branches grow out of this stony and dead land? The poet says as a human being one cannot tell or guess. One only knows the heap of broken images of modern life. The life on wasteland is where the sun savage and dead trees do not provide shelter. This land has no sound of water and no sound of singing crickets. It’s a complete stone land. But there is a shade under the red rock. Poet asks to come under the shadow of red rock. In the next line, the poet says that he would show us something different, something other than the morning shadows cast behind us which represent the past, and the evening shadows cast in front of us which represent the future. He would show fear of the shadow of death that defines present fear. The next line is an interrupting voice in German which means “Fresh blows the wind to the homeland; my Irish sweetheart, where are you?” Then again there is a new voice of a lady comes. She says that her lover gave her hyacinths a year ago to express his love and since then people called her the “hyacinth girl”. And when they returned late from the hyacinth garden his lover arms were full of flowers and his hair was wet. She could not see him and was speechless. She felt blank and empty without knowing anything. She was neither alive nor dead. The next line is in German which means “Desolate and empty is the sea”.
In the third stanza, the poet brings a new character named Madame Sosostris. She is a famous fortune-teller. She is having a bad cold like any other ordinary person but she is still known as the wisest woman in Europe. She is having an evil deck of tarot cards. She speaks to a merchant; here is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor. She takes out another card and says here is Belladonna, the beautiful lady of rocks and situation. She carries on and pulls a card of a man with three staffs, a Wheel of fortune, a one-eyed merchant, and a blank card which represents the burden of past which the merchant carries. Madame Sosostris is not allowed to see those past burdens of consciousness. She does not find the card of the Hanged Man. She warns the merchant that he should be afraid of death by water. She sees a crowd of people walking around in circles. Now her reading is over, and she says, “thank you”. At last, she asks the merchant to inform Mrs. Equitone that she will bring Mrs. Equitone’s horoscope by herself because one should be careful these days. Means in this modern era people are not innocent and trustworthy.
In the last stanza, the poet refers the London as an unreal city. He says the city is covered from winter morning brown fog. The crowd streams across the London Bridge. So many people are living death without any purpose. That means these people are half-dead. They just sign frequently and fixed their eyes down their own feet. This means, men are marching asleep. They are in a crowd but still, they are alone. They walk up the hill and down King William Street. At the end of King William Street, there is the Church Saint Mary Woolnoth. Here the clock bells at nine o’clock. The poet says the bell sound is a dead sound. So, in the wasteland, with a strike of dead sound, people march like they are at a funeral. In the next line, the poet says, in the crowd, he recognizes someone and calls him. His name is Stetson. The poet says he and Stetson fought the battle of Mylae together. He asks Stetson whether the sprouts or plant is growing in the garden where he buried the dead body. The poet suggests his friend keep the dog away as they are human’s friend. They might dig back the garden. And in the last line, the poet uses the phrase of another poet Baudelaire which means “You! —yes, you, hypocritical reader—my likeness, my twin—my brother!”
T. S. Eliot’s poem symbolizes the spiritual and emotional sterility of the modern world. The poem shows intense knowledge of the poet as he uses several quotations in other languages like French, German, and Sanskrit. The poem is a kind of collage having different fragmented scenes and characters. The highly complex, erudite, and allusive style of the poem is commendable. In “The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot incorporated past historical, mythological, and literary ideas in a new form.