T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

The Waste LandIn 1950, T.S. Eliot declared that Dante’s poetry exercised a persistent and deep influence on his work. This influence can be seen not only in Eliot’s use of allusion to Dante’s work in his own poetry, but in one of Eliot’s central themes in “The Waste Land”: the individual’s quest for spiritual meaning through a kind of psychological hell.

Allusions to Dante

In “The Waste Land,” there are several allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy, including specific references to the Inferno. The first of these allusions occurs in the opening section of the poem, entitled “The Burial of the Dead.”  Lines 60 to 63 read, “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.” Eliot’s note to this section refers the reader to Canto III of the Inferno, lines 55-56, in which Dante says “I should never have believed death had undone so many.”

In this canto, Dante the traveller crosses through the Gate of Hell and encounters spirits whose sin in life was ambivalence.  As Virgil explains to Dante, “‘such is the miserable con- / dition of the sorry souls of those who lived / without infamy and without praise.”  Moreover, the crow flowing over London Bridge recalls both the sign that Dante reads over the Gate of Hell in Canto III—“Through me you enter the woeful city, / Through me you enter eternal grief, / Through me you enter among the lost”—as well as Dante’s depiction, in the same canto, of the throng of spirits gathering near the Acheron for their turn to cross the river on Charon’s ferry.

Another allusion to Dante’s Inferno occurs in the same stanza at the end of “The Burial of the Dead.”  Of the crowds flowing over London Bridge, the narrator says, “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled.”  According to Eliot’s note, this line comes from Canto IV of the Inferno, in which Dante encounters the pagan souls of Limbo. Virgil tells Dante that the pagan souls are lost and “live in longing.”

Through the allusions to Canto III and Canto IV, Eliot is trying to draw attention to two particular kinds of sinners depicted in Dante’s Inferno.  Eliot’s London crowds are ambivalent, like the sinners of Canto III, and live in longing like those of Canto IV.  The suggestion is that the individuals who make up the London crowd and who, by extension, represent European society of the early 1920s, long to believe in something but end up believing in nothing decisively.

A Death-in-Life Existence

Dante’s influence on Eliot extends beyond allusion to Eliot’s conception of his contemporary society as a kind of inferno filled with people who long to gain spiritual meaning, but, because of their ambivalence, cannot find the answers they are seeking.  If we also consider Dante’s descent into Hell as a psychological journey—as Wallace Fowlie puts it in A Reading of Dante’s Inferno (1981), “a descent into his subconscious, into his past, in order to understand why he is lost”—then Eliot’s debt to Dante is even greater.

Read in this way, the Inferno involves Dante’s search, within a framework of firmly-held Christian beliefs, for self-knowledge.  Similarly, the narrator in “The Waste Land” is on a quest for self-knowledge, but within what the narrator perceives to be a world devoid of spiritual meaning.  The narrator’s search is also broader: he explores his own subconscious, the larger social consciousness, and finally the entire human experience.

The first four lines of “The Burial of the Dead” clearly indicate the narrator’s dark outlook: “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” In the context of the ambivalent London crowds described later in this section, the narrator seems to possess the characteristics of those Londoners, their longing and their hesitation.  The narrator desires the rebirth that spring entails, but is afraid to be stirred, to embrace this rebirth.

The epigraph of “The Waste Land” underlines this vision of fear and despair. It is a passage from Petronicus’s Satyricon (1st century AD) which references the Sibyl at Cumae.  In Petronicus’s work, the Sibyl was blessed with eternal life by Apollo but also doomed to perpetual old age. The epigraph emphasizes a weary death-in-life existence and a sense of isolation, of being trapped. It also recalls the ambivalent sinners of Canto III of the Inferno.  Dante says that these sinners were never alive, which accurately describes the state of the narrator and other characters of “The Waste Land.”

397px-Gustave_Dore_Inferno1The Narrator’s Spiritual Quest

In the second stanza of “The Burial of the Dead,” the narrator’s spiritual quest begins, as he poses what Nancy K. Gish calls “the riddle of existence” (The Waste Land: A Poem of Memory and Desire, 1988): “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” The “Son of man,” the divine personage that the narrator questions, does not seem to have the knowledge or power to say. The scene then changes from the arid desert to a garden, the narrator’s memory of a time when he gave flowers to a girl.  The new setting would seem to promise some kind of positive revelation for the narrator, but instead reinforces his fear of life and ambivalence: “I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.”

The second part of the poem, “A Game of Chess,” tells two different stories, one that takes place in the dressing room of an upper-class woman and the other in a working-class pub.  The original title for this section was “In the Cage,” which recalls the epigraph of the poem and emphasizes the isolation, confinement, and entrapment of the characters. Interestingly, in the exchange between the upper-class woman and her husband, the woman puts the concept of death-in-life into question form when she asks her husband, “‘Are you alive, or not?  Is there nothing in your head?’” Her questioning implies a search for some kind of connection or meaning with her husband, but they remain isolated, the husband thinking about the empty ritual of their lives.

The third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon,” expands the narrator’s vision even further to include Eliot’s modern London, the London of Queen Elizabeth I, and ancient Greece. We are introduced to Tiresias, the blind prophet from ancient Grecian literature, who is a spectator to a casual sexual encounter between a typist and a clerk. This encounter seems to generalize the narrator’s despair to all of human experience, past and present.

This section ends in fire rather than death, with an allusion to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and St. Augustine’s Confessions. As Grover Smith point out in T.S. Eiot’s Poetry and Plays (1974), in the teachings of Buddha and St. Augustine lust of the flesh is characterized as a burning fire and the only hope for spiritual perfection is renunciation of this lust.  Quenching the fire of lust seems to be central to the fourth section of the poem, “Death by Water,” in which the narrator, appearing as the Phoenician Sailor, drowns at sea.

Solving the Riddle of Existence

The concluding section of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,” depicts a nightmarish and surreal landscape, suggesting that the teachings of Buddha and St. Augustine have failed to provide the narrator with the spiritual meaning he has been searching for. The imagery describes a desert devoid of water, with falling cities and monstrous creatures.  This section does not depict modern human relationships, but rather the stories of Jesus, the Grail, and the postwar decay of Eastern Europe.  In the last two stanzas, the narrator explores possible spiritual answers to the riddle of existence by listening to the voice of the thunder.

According to Eliot’s notes, the fable of the meaning of the thunder is a Hindu legend, the moral of which is to practice self-control, alms-giving, and compassion.  The thunder gives commands to the narrator, to give, sympathize, and control—“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.”—and the narrator interprets each command in terms of his own life and in the wider context of humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, the narrator does not seem to fulfill his quest for spiritual meaning, although the commands of the thunder may provide at least a tentative way of understanding the riddle of existence. In the end, Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven allows him to achieve a kind of transformation that Eliot’s narrator in “The Waste Land” searches for but does not find.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is published in hardcover by Everyman’s Library (1995), ISBN 978-0679433132.

“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot is published in paperback by W.W. Norton & Company (2000), ISBN 978-0393974997.

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


3 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

    • Thanks for reading Thom. I think the difference with Eliot (although it is certainly not unique to him) is that he explicitly stated that Dante had a persistent influence on his work. You can see this throughout his poetry, but I always found the parallels in the Waste Land interesting because the idea of searching for meaning in a modern wasteland still feels relevant today.


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