How to read and understand “The Waste Land” by TS Eliot, 100 years later

TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ 100 Years Later

“April is the cruelest month.” Thus begins one of the most important poems in universal literature. the wasteland of T. S. Eliot, first published in December 1922, is a century old and hasn’t aged a second. April is the cruelest month, says the first line of the poem written in the northern hemisphere, April is spring and then? Is spring cruel? Nests, in the first line of this poem, the unease for what will come.

The poem the wasteland It is divided into five parts: “YO. The burial of the dead”, “II. A game of chess”, “III. The fire sermon”, “IV. Death by water”, “V. What the thunder said that make up a magisterial work, both popular and erudite. It is in all senses a modernist poem since, among other things, it does not exactly have a plot; but, in the way shakespeare (in so many ways), its division into five movements might remind us of the classic five-act division of almost all of the Bard’s work. All of us who read this poem can have a phrase that defines us, that identifies a state of mind, or that simply delights us because it captures the imagination. There is music in this poem that is linked to the rhythm of the heart. Reading it aloud buzzes in the ears, he feels in the stomach. As we move forward, it is nature, forceful, that imposes itself and waddles the reading.

One of the interpretations that have been made of this poem is that it refers to life in London after the First World War. It has also been said that it is a poem about the boredom of the modern human condition. T. S. Eliot assures in a conference that the wasteland it had been more of a grunt, a kind of personal complaint against life. We can also consider the possibility that this was a pose in the face of the immense critical response that his work received. We do not know how true those simplifications with which Eliot describes the writing of this manifesto poem of the 20th century are true, but certainly the images, the disruptive style and the infinite quotations that the poem has merit that mere humans seek in it that transcendence of the which Eliot denies.

Anglo-American poet and playwright TS Eliot at Love Beach, New Providence Island, in 1957 (Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images)
Anglo-American poet and playwright TS Eliot at Love Beach, New Providence Island, in 1957 (Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

In the wasteland Reference is made to myths and legends, allusions, symbols and quotes from other authors. Several languages ​​are also spoken. The poem is, in fact, a mixture of many styles such as narrative, dramatic, lyrical, and allusive. It usually happens that we read it and it flows and we feel immersed in memorable phrases and then a quote, and then another language, and beyond that a specific reference to a myth and the reading gets complicated. And all from the hand of Tiresias, one of the protagonists of the poem who acts as a witness to everything that takes place there. Tiresias knows everything since he belongs to both the past and the present. It is inevitable in front of these two words not to think about the four quatrains of T. S. Eliot where the past, the present and the future are contained and at the same time contain everything that was, what is and what will be. Great theme time in TS Eliot.

It’s so hard to tell what it’s about the wasteland because this narrative poem is made up of “a bunch of broken images.” In a clear intention to fragment the language, the five parts that make up the frieze are much more than the sum of its parts. “The burial of the dead” opens with one of the most poetic and contradictory phrases ever written: “April is the cruelest month” which raises something like that life imposes itself in an unwanted way and that the opportune thing is, in the manner of Richard III, “the winter of our discontent”. The narrative voice then goes on to have a name, Marie, who we know belongs to a large family and brings back memories of situations that occurred in Munich. We arrive, without much solution of continuity, to another voice, which enunciates one of the most beautiful passages of this poem. I choose in this article to quote each time a new and brilliant translation of our best literary translator, Paul Inbergwhich has just published a version annotated with erudition and a lot of heart in the publishing house El Cuenco de Plata.

"the wasteland"by TS Eliot, in its 100 years edition (Silver Bowl)
“The Waste Land”, by TS Eliot, in its 100-year edition (Silver Bowl)

What roots cling, what branches

Do they grow from this stony rubbish? Son of Man,

You cannot say or suppose it, because you only know

A beam of broken images, where the sun beats down,

And the dead tree gives no protection, no cricket consolation,

The dry stone no noise of water. Just,

There is shade here under this red rock

(I came in the shadow of this red rock)

And I’m going to show you something different

Of your shadow that at dawn chases you with strides

Or your shadow that at sunset goes up to meet you;

I’m going to show you fear in a handful of dust.

And then another abrupt change: we hear a dubious clairvoyant, Madame Sosostris, throwing someone a fortune with a deck of tarot cards; and then another “I” remembers again having crossed the London Bridge, an “unreal city” the idea of ​​the unreal city is repeated like clockwork throughout the poem and marks the decline of large cities and the idea that everything falls apart That lyrical self bumps into an old acquaintance, and asking in a seemingly deranged way about some strange gardening: “That corpse you planted in your garden last year / Has it started to sprout? Will it bloom this year? and then this poetic self warns him to keep away the dog that is a close friend of man and that he will dig to get to that corpse, and then he treats us readers as hypocrites and brothers, in French. And in this turbulence of images in which April is the cruelest month and in which we wonder if the corpses buried in our gardens will flourish, he closes the first part of this magnificent poem.

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In the second part, II. a game of chess, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra meets, who talks to a man, her husband? that she doesn’t answer him, that she doesn’t understand her questions. And then a woman in London tells the story of her friend her Lil, and her husband Albert’s coming home. It all happens in a pub, at closing time and it’s all precarious, Lil’s teeth fall out, and she has spent the money her husband gave her to change them. and she closes with Ofelia, “good night, ladies, good night, good ladies, good night, good night.” The second part is deranged women, alone, crazy.

T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

In the third part, The Fire Sermon is a tribute to the Thames, to London. Eliot walks through the ballad, through the sonnet, through modern French verse, and it is also a tribute to literature. They meet, ominously, Spenser, Marvell Y shakespeare. And the eternal flow of the Thames, “Oil and tar” like the shining river of the reign of Elizabeth I. And after this cryptic third part, heart of the poem, the fourth part, death by waterreminds us that we are all going to die. A certain Flebas, a sailor from Phoenicia, whose corpse has undone after a fortnight in the ocean. Be careful, the poem tells us, be careful “gentile or Jew” that we were all Flebas and sooner or later we will end up like him.

Already part V, what the thunder said, receives us with the voice of a traveler, whose trip is mysteriously pursued by a figure who is not known for sure. Europe is in ruins; and the image of an abandoned chapel, whose door swings in the dry wind, appears as if from another world.

In one of the most emblematic passages of the poem, we arrive at the barren land:

“Here there is no water but rock

Rock and no water, the sandy path

Winding road up between mountains

What are mountains of rock without water?

If there was water we could stop to drink

between the rock it is not possible to stop or think

The sweat is dry and the feet are in the sand

If there were only water between the rock

Dead mountain mouth that can’t spit with decayed teeth

Here it is not possible to stand or lie down or sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

but barren dry thunder without rain

There is not even loneliness in the mountains”

And suddenly, the unreal cities that are unreal because they no longer exist:

what city is that in the mountains

it cracks and rebuilds and bursts into violent air

falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


"Reading this wonderful poem by TS Eliot is an invitation to navigate the perfection of which language is capable in the hands of a poet." (Photo:
“Reading this wonderful poem by TS Eliot is an invitation to navigate the perfection that language is capable of in the hands of a poet” (Photo:

At this point, the thunder announces the fertilizing rain with its appearance and speaks in Sanskrit, like a religious incantation, like an invoking mantra. and repeat three times “Da”. The first Da means Datta (to give).: something like giving yourself to a full cause, with meaning. The second Da means Dayadhvam (sympathizing): looking at others and striving for the common good. The third Da means Damyata (self-control): here Eliot’s spirituality at its best, from the Catholic, from the Buddhist, from the Thames and from the Ganges, and the madness of the wasteland and the impossibility of life and the bridge of London that falls and “Shanti Shanti Shanti”. Peace, peace, peace.

And the end.

Reading this wonderful poem by TS Eliot is an invitation to navigate the perfection that language is capable of in the hands of a poet, with all the difficulty and pleasure that this entails. Eliot in the wasteland His Excellency gives us the gift and invites us as in another of his beautiful poems the love song of Alfred Prüfockthat Paul Ingberg also translates in his edition of the wasteland and that I quote here:

Come on then, you and me

when the little night spread across the sky

Like an anesthetized patient on a table

Let’s go, through some streets not very crowded,

whispering lairs

Of bad nights in scabbed hotels

And restaurants with sawdust and oyster shells:

Streets that follow what tedious discussion

of insidious intent

Until leading you to an overwhelming question…

Ah, don’t ask “Which is it?”

Let’s make our visit at once.

Don’t ask for the reason, visit the wasteland once and it will remain forever in your thoughts and feelings. The wasteland, in which April is the cruelest month (September?) and the unbearable lightness of being harasses, and the question about time and existence overflow the anguish of existence, the answers are in this land that, deserted, invites pilgrimage, to go out, to search for water and the fertility of peace.

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How to read and understand “The Waste Land” by TS Eliot, 100 years later