My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s for good reason that this is considered one of the greatest poems of the 20th century. Eliot’s vivid verse paints a bleak landscape in language of beauty not seen in the poem’s imagery. It will come as no surprise that this work was penned during a dark time in the poet’s life, but it wasn’t just Eliot’s personal dark hour; for many, the wounds of World War I hadn’t yet scarred over.
This poem is divided into five sections, each with an artful title. The five sections of The Waste Land are: “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, “The Fire Sermon”, “Death by Water”, and “What the Thunder Said.” Some consider The Waste Land to be a collection of five poems, but there is both language and theme that connects the various parts. For example, the following verse is contained in both the first and third chapter:
Under the brown fog…
The poem contains many complex references to Arthurian legends and to a broad swath of literary canon. You can learn about that from individuals more erudite than I. I will suggest a simpler theme, and that is death—not just death, but death as an eraser of legacies and influence. Eliot refers to bone almost as much as he does death, and by the time one’s body is reduced to bones one’s influence on the land of the living is minimal—even for giants among men. When he’s not speaking of bones, he’s speaking of death of masses, also a form of anonymous death.
I will pick a few lines from each of the five sections to illustrate my point.
From “The Burial of the Dead”:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many
From “A Game of Chess”:
I think we are in rat’s alley
Where the dead men lost their bones
From “The Fire Sermon”:
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
From “Death by Water”:
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers
From “What the Thunder Said”:
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is long dead
We who were living are now dying
With little patience
I’m not saying that Eliot’s views on death and dying are great from a philosophical or psychological perspective—on the contrary, but as a work of poetry these words should be read by all.
Neither the version linked to in GoodReads nor on Amazon is the version I read. As far as I could tell by way of a hasty search, the Kindle edition I read no longer exists.