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Themes & Symbols in the Poem "The Waste Land"


T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” was published in 1922 and depicts the devastation and despair brought on by World War I, in which he lost one of his close friends. According to the poet Ezra Pound, the poem represents the collapse of Western civilization. Thematically and rhetorically, "The Waste Land" describes a postwar landscape of fractured identity and people who are unable to connect meaningfully with others or the world that surrounds them.

The Fragmented Form of the Poem as a Symbol

Unlike traditional poems, tidy connections and neat organization are largely absent in "The Waste Land." For example, the poem opens with “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” At first glance, the opening might sound like we're being offered a more pessimistic take on April's 'sweet showers' in the prologue of Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales." But such expectation gets shattered by the time you reach line 11: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus Litauen, echt deutsch [“I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, I am a real German”]. The line fragments the two languages and jolts the lyrical opening. As pointed out on the website Poetry Genius, even the German text quoted above is fragmented, as it omits the subject of the sentence “Ich [I]” deliberately to indicate lack of identity.

Water, Symbols of Birth, Death and Resurrection

Water, a predominant symbol of birth, death and resurrection, appears throughout the poem. As in the opening, water signifies the giver of life, a symbol of fertility. Yet it also stands for death: “Fear death by water,” or “Those are pearls that were his eyes,” a literary allusion to a character in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" who had been drowned so long under water that his eyes have turned into “pearls.”

The symbolic meaning of water as an emblem of death climaxes in the section “Death by Water,” which deals with a deceased Phoenician. “A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers," Eliot writes. "As he rose and fell / He passed the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool.”

Yet in “What the Thunder Said,” water symbolizes the hope -- the resurrection of the desolate wasteland: “Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves / Waited for rain, while the black clouds gathered far distant, over Himavant.”

Drought as Symbol of Death

Although the poem deals with war's physical and emotional effects, the speaker of the poem uses drought as a symbol of death: "Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road / [...] There is not even silence in the mountains / But dry sterile thunder without rain [...]" Throughout these and others, drought is the symbol of death. To heighten the anxiety of waiting for rain, the speaker says that even the thunder, which indicates the possibility of rain, is “sterile,” thus killing what hope of rain there is in this stricken landscape.

Symbols of Disconnect between Human and Natural Worlds

In the section “A Game of Chess,” the speaker of the poem derides the how modern world has lost touch with nature. The organic life-giving nature has turned into inorganic lifeless objects: “The Chair, she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Glowed on the marble, where the glass / Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines [...]” Fruited vines belong to nature, and not to an artificial object like chair, for example. The characters in the poem have isolated themselves into an artificial world “drowned in synthetic perfumes.” Such mismatch between what is natural and what is artificial pokes fun at the sense of personal disconnect in “The Waste Land,” one of the poem's recurring themes.

Centralized Theme

By simply looking at the symbols and their meanings illustrated above, you can easily deduce the major themes of "The Waste Land:" despair of living in the modern world -- fragmented, empty, nonspiritual and unnatural. However, under such overarching themes are sub-themes such as resurrection. The poem's last lines, "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih", translate to "Give. Sympathize. Control. / Peace peace peace." Some readers interpret those lines as acceptance of a spiritually inert culture. Others say they're a prescription for improving it.

About the Author

Dr. Yoon Kim earned a Ph. D. in English from Oklahoma State University. His editing experience includes Ph.D. dissertations (English), and senior professor’s research articles (Psychology and Education) that are published in peer-reviewed professional journals.

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