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The Waste Land (T. S. Eliot)

Published onFeb 23, 2024
The Waste Land (T. S. Eliot)

The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot


By Tyler Malone
Used by Permission of the Poetry Foundation

The initial declaration of The Waste Land—“April is the cruellest month”—is clear enough in meaning, even if it defies readers’ expectations. The opening is a subversion of the first lines of the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer paints April as a month of restorative power, when spring rain brings nature back to life: 

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour; 

It’s an image repeated to the point of cliché in subsequent centuries. But in the waste land of T.S. Eliot’s modern world, amid the ruins of World War I, the Chaucerian image of a fertile and resurrective April becomes suffused with cruelty. It is, ironically, winter that “kept us warm.” Soon after entering The Waste Land, we find ourselves unbalanced, at a disadvantage. “Summer surprised us” surprises us. A shift in tone has taken place. Could the same mouth that uttered the melancholic bitterness of “April is the cruellest month” turn so quickly to the social banality of “Summer surprised us”? This is followed by the matter-of-fact narration of a series of events: “we stopped in the colonnade, / And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, / And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.” The diction suddenly lacks mythic anxiety. Compare the images of consumption: “And drank coffee” is prosaic in both its unassuming delivery and ordinary meaning when set next to the festering “feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” This shift in tone—without even a stanza break to flag it—is emblematic of both the disjointed style and piecemeal structure of The Waste Land

But who is the “us” that winter kept warm and whom summer surprised? And, more important, who is the speaker (or speakers?) of these opening lines? By the time we reach the end of the first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” we have encountered many disparate voices. Who are all these people? Where is this waste land they inhabit? What is this chaos of impressions we are privy to? Wherefore such madness?

To borrow a phrase from Polonius in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t–,” a method that Eliot delineated in a piece he wrote for The Dial on James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Joyce’s use of Homer’s Odyssey as the novel’s foundation had, for Eliot, “the importance of a scientific discovery”:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. […] Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.

The poet formulated these thoughts on Ulysses and its “mythical method” as he was writing The Waste Land. We can see in his command for others to pursue this method a personal mandate to carry out “his own, independent, further investigations,” which The Waste Land represents.

In his poem, Eliot replaced the Homeric parallel of Ulysses with a correspondence to the Arthurian Grail quest of medieval legend, particularly through Jessie Watson’s From Ritual to Romance. Eliot’s approach is not purely imitative though—he pushes Joyce’s structural innovation into new territory by atomizing its method. Though he focused on praising the connection to The Odyssey in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” it seems likely that Eliot picked up on the multi-mythic quality of Joyce’s text. Yes, Bloom is Odysseus, but he is not Odysseus alone; he is also at various points associated with such figures as Jesus Christ and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. What Joyce noticed is that Homer’s epic and Shakespeare’s tragedy were, in the words of Hugh Kenner, “homeomorphs, one concentrating on the father, one on the son, but comparable in their structure of incidents.” Thus, the allusive tapestry of Ulysses is woven through with countless threads of myth and tradition in conversation with the more dominant Homeric parallel. Through homeomorphic plots and contorting personas, the mythical method was always about more than the overlay of a contemporary story on the structure of a single earlier narrative. Rather, it is interested in the ways the contemporary story can rhyme with an excess of antecedents.

Eliot’s “heap of broken images” is, on some level, an elaborate series of heists—a charge Eliot himself admitted to. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” he wrote in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in 1919, having already proven with his early poems to be a thief ransacking the temple of literary tradition. The cultural contraband Eliot hoards offers readers access to a collective consciousness through canonical reverberations, keying us into an emotional wavelength. This embodies Eliot’s concept of the objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Because a borrowed image, according to Eliot, is “only vigorous in relation to the feelings out of which it issues,” no image of his is merely decorative; each is enmeshed in the gossamer of history, myth, sensation. 

His version of the mythical method is not only more atomized than Joyce’s but also less rooted in his writerly present. Even though Ulysses evokes ancient images and emotions, Joyce kept the narrative grounded in a roughly contemporaneous time and place; the setting is Dublin on June 16, 1904. But the “heap of broken images” that is The Waste Land refuses such rooting; yes, at times we are in modern London, but we seem to drift through time and space, unmoored.

Fragmentation is not only a feature of the setting, plot, and theme of The Waste Land but also, crucially, its defining formal feature. We are accustomed to thinking of poems as lyrical utterances from a single speaker, but, as suggested by Eliot’s working title for the poem, “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” Eliot’s poem employs a multivocal approach that may set unsuspecting readers back on their heels. But is the poem merely a cacophony of voices or is there some guiding consciousness curating—or potentially enacting—these personages? Extrapoetically, the consciousness is Eliot himself, the poet arranging this collage of impressions. “The poet’s mind,” according to Eliot, “is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” But within the poem, what unites these particles?

How you read The Waste Land will determine your answers to that question. It is possible to read the poem as drama (in which the characters ostensibly exist without an overriding consciousness, speaking for themselves, interacting as if on a stage), as narrative (in which a single consciousness controls the proceedings but as a sort of narrator, giving voice to various characters), or as lyric (in which the entire poem becomes a sort of soliloquy of a single consciousness, and this central character dons the personas of these innumerable others, a “he” who “does the police in different voices”—fromCharles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend).

In the first stanza of the first section, we meet Marie (apparently Countess Marie Larisch, who played a pivotal role in the Mayerling Incident that set the stage for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, thus, World War I). Her voice is unadorned with the trimmings of poesy, at least in comparison to the voice of the opening lines, but she is not entirely devoid of grief, nostalgia, and restlessness. There is childish longing: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” Her memories are presented as precious, but their maudlin bankruptcy is not hard to detect.

As we wander further into the vignettes of the first section, we meet more characters, including the hyacinth girl (whom Hugh Kenner described as speaking “with urgent hurt simplicity, like the mad Ophelia”) and Madame Sosostris (who is reminiscent of Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana, the moniker Mr. Scogan uses when he masquerades as a fortune-teller at a fair in Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow). The cross-dressing gender play of Madame Sosostris foreshadows the sexual ambiguity of the Tiresias figure, who appears later in the poem and whom some scholars take as its central consciousness. Madame Sosostris’s clairvoyance, even if she is merely a charlatan seer, further solidifies her connection to Tiresias and to the Cumaean Sibyl in the poem’s epigraph (taken from Petronius’s Satyricon).

The final piece of the first section is set in a nightmarish “Unreal City,” modern London, and contains the landmarks of the city’s financial district where Eliot worked at Lloyds Bank. The phrase “Unreal City” is borrowed from Charles Baudelaire’s “The Seven Old Men”: “Unreal city, city full of dreams, / Where ghosts in broad daylight cling to passers-by.” Eliot’s London, Baudelaire’s Paris, and Dante’s Inferno merge into a hellish tableau—the inferno of modern life.

The second section, “A Game of Chess,” juxtaposes two scenes, on opposite ends of the class spectrum, like opposing sets of chess pieces—or, perhaps, like the divergence within the set of chess pieces between the pawns and the pieces of higher orders. The first episode involves a wealthy woman surrounded by her accumulation of expensive things (furniture, art, jewels, etc.). These may be fragments shored against her ruins, though Eliot doesn’t use that famous phrase just yet. As in chess, this queen is the focus; the king, the weakest piece in the game but around whose welfare the whole enterprise depends, is largely absent from this section. Her impressions become more fragmented and more erratic as the scene plays out. Amid the whorl of her tidal thoughts, we find a reference to the song “That Shakespearean Rag,” a minor hit in 1912:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— 
It’s so elegant 
So intelligent

The cultural degeneration from Shakespeare to popular music is emblematic of the decline and debasement seen throughout The Waste Land. Eliot interestingly affixed an “O O O O” to the beginning of the song, which is reminiscent of the final lines of Hamlet: “The rest is silence. / O, o, o, o.” The woman suggests a game of chess, the image that gives the section its title, and betrays a sense of listlessness, indolence, and anticipation.

Cut to a London bar at closing time, the working class patrons periodically reminded by the bartender to “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.” Two women discuss a third woman; their conversation covers topics germane to the poem’s thematic interests, such as abortion, adultery, false teeth, army discharge, and male sexual insatiability. This second scene ends with a seemingly innocuous picking from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The words are spoken by Ophelia; they are her farewell: “And so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.” Ophelia is yet another character evoked by Eliot whose death arrives in the form of water, and there is also a connection to the poem’s “hyacinth girl” through their mutual association with flowers.

Elsewhere in Hamlet, a gentleman describes Ophelia’s incoherent words: 

Her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection. They aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily. 

Hearers moved to collection, fitting the words to their own thoughts, could very well be a gentleman’s description of Eliot’s poem too.

The direct reference to Hamlet is curious because in an essay published just a few years before the poem, Eliot called the play “an artistic failure.” He claimed, “Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” In his view, Hamlet’s emotional response to the incidents of the plot do not match the particulars of the situation. Something is rotten in the state of Eliot’s remark; as Harold Bloom explained, “who can believe Eliot, when he exposes his own Hamlet Complex by declaring the play to be an aesthetic failure?” Is it possible to see The Waste Land as Eliot’s attempt to tackle the problem that he thought proved too much for Shakespeare? Did it also prove too much for him? According to Nancy K. Gish, 

Like Hamlet, The Waste Land could be called “a stratification, [and] it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors.” If, according to Eliot, Hamlet is unsuccessful because Shakespeare imposed his own personality on the play, is Eliot able to escape that trap?

The third section, “The Fire Sermon,” on the banks of the “Sweet Thames,” begins with a speaker lamenting the departed nymphs of folklore. But before long, we are introduced to Tiresias. In Greek mythology, Tiresias is a blind seer from Thebes. In addition to his gift of prophecy, he is known for his sexual transformation from man to woman, a punishment from Hera, the queen of the Greek gods. In his endnotes, Eliot explained:

Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.

Most poems do not come with their own author-provided endnotes, but Eliot does offer some guidance by including them. That said, readers needn’t feel obligated to chain themselves to his signposts. The interpretational mileage one gets from shoehorning everything in the poem into a single consciousness, whether it is that of Tiresias or not, varies from critic to critic, but it would be difficult to understand The Waste Land without wrestling with “What Tiresias sees.” Thinking through some of the essential narratives that include Tiresias (especially Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex) can offer connections to many of the major motifs of The Waste Land, including blindness, gender ambiguity, withheld knowledge, cryptic prophecy, dangerous sexual power, stagnant relationships, plagued land, and death by water. Hugh Kenner called Tiresias 

he who has lost the sense of other people as inviolably other, and who is capable neither of pity nor terror but only of a fascination spuriously related to compassion, which is merely the twentieth century’s special mutation of indifference.

So what does this “Old man with wrinkled female breasts” see? Tiresias witnesses a typist at teatime whose lover arrives and has his way with her. He leaves triumphant; she is merely “glad it’s over.” (We are not, however, because this typist segment is one of the great aesthetic achievements of Eliot’s poem.) 

Now, the river song begins. We hear the voices of three “Thames-daughters,” each describing a loss of sexual purity. One laments, “I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” Her speech, one might say, mirroring the gentleman’s description of Ophelia’s words, is nothing. Could this be a response to E. M. Forster who wrote in his novel Howard’s End a decade prior “Only connect”? If so, is it a negation of Forster’s famous injunction or an extension of it? Eliot’s line can mean “I can’t connect anything” or “I can’t connect anything with the nothingness” or “I can connect the nothingness with the nothingness,” all of which yield different interpretations to the closing lines of this section. The fact that this happens “On Margate Sands,” one place where Eliot physically stayed during the writing of the poem, connects the maiden’s voice with Eliot’s personal voice as well. Connection and disconnection are integral to the poem. Here it might be beneficial to turn to Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets”: 

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking: in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. 

Because this scene deals with betrayed maidens and their lost chastity, there is also the possibility that Eliot here is cognizant of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing pun. In that play, there is a triple entendre at work. The most obvious part of the pun is the connection between nothing and noting (or writing), but the less-discussed third aspect of the pun is “an O-thing” (or “no thing”), which was Elizabethan slang for vagina. The section ends with interlaced lines from St. Augustine’s Confessions and the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. Eliot explained in his endnotes, “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western ascetism [sic], as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.”

The fourth section of the poem, “Death by Water,” is by far the shortest, thanks to the extensive editorial cuts made in correspondence with Ezra Pound. After his friend’s edits, Eliot questioned whether he should keep Phlebas the Phoenician at all, but Pound was adamant he remain. Phlebas is connected not only to the tarot cards of Madame Sosostris but also to Ferdinand from The Tempest and the Smyrna merchant Mr. Eugenides. Phlebas, who has drowned, remains imprisoned at the bottom of the sea, laid waste by tidal currents and the creatures of the deep. We are asked to consider this sea-ravaged corpse, “who was once handsome and tall” as us.

Ultimately, a “damp gust” brings rain—and we find ourselves in India at the Ganges. The thunder is no longer sterile; it speaks: “DA.” In the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu scriptures, “DA” is the voice of thunder. Hugh Kenner explained it: “If the race’s most permanent wisdom is its oldest, then DA, the voice of the thunder and of the Hindu sages, is the cosmic voice not yet dissociated into echoes.” It is the root of “Datta” (“Give”), “Dayadhvam” (“Sympathize”), and “Damyata” (“Control”), each of which appears in this final section of the poem.

In the last stanza, the arid plain is behind the speaker, who brings to mind the Fisher King from Grail legend. He questions, “Shall I set my lands in order?”—something people usually do as they prepare for death. This is followed by more cultural detritus, lines from a traditional English nursery rhyme, Dante’s Purgatorio, the Pervigilium Veneris (of unknown authorship), and Gérard de Nerval’s sonnet “El Desdichado,” respectively, each appearing in its original language untranslated. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” the speaker says. The fragmentation is both external (“these fragments”) and internal (“my ruins”), but the one buttresses the other.

Hamlet is evoked again through reference to Thomas Kyd: Hieronimo’s Mad Againe is the subtitle of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (which Eliot noted was a source for Hamlet in his essay on Shakespeare’s play). The words “Why then Ile fit you” appear in Kyd’s play when Hieronymo says them to one of the murderers of his son when the killer asks him to write a play for the king’s entertainment. With that line, Hieronymo means both “I’ll oblige your wishes” and “I’ll give you what you have coming.” He uses the play as a means for revenge; wielding a real dagger as a prop, he murders the men on stage.

Eliot, too, obliges our wishes and gives us what we have coming: “Shantih shantih shantih.” A Sanskrit word for peace that is prayed at the close of an Upanishad, Eliot explained in his endnotes that “The peace which passeth understanding” is “a feeble translation of the content of the word.” The peace which passeth understanding itself, then, passeth understanding. 

Cleanth Brooks knew: “The poem would undoubtedly be ‘clearer’ if every symbol had a single, unequivocal meaning; but the poem would be thinner, and less honest.” Some things, in poetry as in life, must passeth understanding. Remember Eliot’s line about Hamlet: “We should have to understand things that Shakespeare did not understand himself.” Compare this to what he wrote to I.A. Richards: “I am rather inclined to believe, for myself, that my best poems are possibly those which evoke the greatest number and variety of interpretations surprising to myself.” “Shantih shantih shantih” The beyond-language-ness of this final prayer again returns us to those final lines of Shakespeare’s play: “The rest is silence. / O, o, o, o.”

Much of this guide concentrates on the poem’s Hamlet connections. The focus could just as easily have been on the references to The Tempest or to Dante or to the Fisher King—each of which are more numerous than the references to Hamlet—or to any number of other metatextual associations. The focus on Hamlet here was not because that particular set of allusions is a skeleton key that unlocks all doors and gives us complete access to the poem. As Eliot writes, “We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.” Hamlet merely offers an interesting point of view. If anything, each allusion, each image, each feeling is more keyhole than key. Peer through whichever keyhole you like. What you see, in fact, is the substance of the poem.

“The Wasteland”

‘Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: άποθανεîν θέλω.’

     For Ezra Pound
       il miglior fabbro.

              I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

                      Frisch weht der Wind

                      Der Heimat zu

                      Mein Irisch Kind,

                      Wo weilest du?

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,

And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,

Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,

Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find

The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.

Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,

Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:

One must be so careful these days.

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: 'Stetson!

‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

              II. A Game of Chess

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Glowed on the marble, where the glass

Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines

From which a golden Cupidon peeped out

(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)

Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra

Reflecting light upon the table as

The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,

From satin cases poured in rich profusion;

In vials of ivory and coloured glass

Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,

Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused

And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air

That freshened from the window, these ascended

In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,

Flung their smoke into the laquearia,

Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.

Huge sea-wood fed with copper

Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,

In which sad light a carvéd dolphin swam.

Above the antique mantel was displayed

As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale

Filled all the desert with inviolable voice

And still she cried, and still the world pursues,

‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.

And other withered stumps of time

Were told upon the walls; staring forms

Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.

Footsteps shuffled on the stair.

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair

Spread out in fiery points

Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

I never know what you are thinking. Think.’

  I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.

  ‘What is that noise?’

                          The wind under the door.

‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’

                           Nothing again nothing.


‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember


       I remember

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’    


O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—

It’s so elegant

So intelligent

‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?’

‘I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street

‘With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?

‘What shall we ever do?’

                                               The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

  When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—

I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,


Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.

Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.

Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.


If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.

Others can pick and choose if you can’t.

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.

(And her only thirty-one.)

I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,

It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.

You are a proper fool, I said.

Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,

What you get married for if you don’t want children?


Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—



Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.

Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

              III. The Fire Sermon

  The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

A rat crept softly through the vegetation

Dragging its slimy belly on the bank

While I was fishing in the dull canal

On a winter evening round behind the gashouse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck

And on the king my father’s death before him.

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.

But at my back from time to time I hear

The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring

Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda water

Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

Twit twit twit

Jug jug jug jug jug jug

So rudely forc’d.


Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter noon

Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant

Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants

C.i.f. London: documents at sight,

Asked me in demotic French

To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel

Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back

Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits

Like a taxi throbbing waiting,

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,

Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

Out of the window perilously spread

Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,

On the divan are piled (at night her bed)

Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs

Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—

I too awaited the expected guest.

He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,

A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,

One of the low on whom assurance sits

As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.

Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

Exploring hands encounter no defence;

His vanity requires no response,

And makes a welcome of indifference.

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all

Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.)

Bestows one final patronising kiss,

And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

'Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smooths her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.

‘This music crept by me upon the waters’

And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.

O City city, I can sometimes hear

Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,

The pleasant whining of a mandoline

And a clatter and a chatter from within

Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls

Of Magnus Martyr hold

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

               The river sweats

               Oil and tar

               The barges drift

               With the turning tide

               Red sails


               To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.

               The barges wash

               Drifting logs

               Down Greenwich reach

               Past the Isle of Dogs.

                                 Weialala leia

                                 Wallala leialala

               Elizabeth and Leicester

               Beating oars

               The stern was formed

               A gilded shell

               Red and gold

               The brisk swell

               Rippled both shores

               Southwest wind

               Carried down stream

               The peal of bells

               White towers

                                Weialala leia

                                Wallala leialala

‘Trams and dusty trees.

Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew

Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees

Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.’

‘My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart

Under my feet. After the event

He wept. He promised a ‘new start.’

I made no comment. What should I resent?’

‘On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect


                       la la

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest


              IV. Death by Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.

                                   A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the whirlpool.

                                   Gentile or Jew

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

              V. What the Thunder Said

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces

After the frosty silence in the gardens

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 now dead

We who were living are now dying

With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

The road winding above among the mountains

Which are mountains of rock without water

If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand

If there were only water amongst the rock

Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain

There is not even solitude in the mountains

But red sullen faces sneer and snarl

From doors of mudcracked houses

                                      If there were water

   And no rock

   If there were rock

   And also water

   And water

   A spring

   A pool among the rock

   If there were the sound of water only

   Not the cicada

   And dry grass singing

   But sound of water over a rock

   Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

   Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

   But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


A woman drew her long black hair out tight

And fiddled whisper music on those strings

And bats with baby faces in the violet light

Whistled, and beat their wings

And crawled head downward down a blackened wall

And upside down in air were towers

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

In this decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings,

Dry bones can harm no one.

Only a cock stood on the rooftree

Co co rico co co rico

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust

Bringing rain

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves

Waited for rain, while the black clouds

Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

Then spoke the thunder


Datta: what have we given?

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed

Which is not to be found in our obituaries

Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider

Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor

In our empty rooms


Dayadhvam: I have heard the key

Turn in the door once and turn once only

We think of the key, each in his prison

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours

Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus


Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands


                                    I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

                  Shantih     shantih     shantih

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