The Source of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

“[amazon_link id=”0385418868″ target=”_blank” ]Myth[/amazon_link]” viewed as an organizing principle for a new way of understanding ourselves and as of a new way of living in the world heavily influenced the [amazon_link id=”081086116X” target=”_blank” ]Modernist-era [/amazon_link]poem, “[amazon_link id=”0393974995″ target=”_blank” ]The Waste Land[/amazon_link]” by [amazon_link id=”0521421276″ target=”_blank” ]T. S. Eliot[/amazon_link]. Essentially, Eliot is saying that in the present day, individuals do not have epic lives; people’s lives are more of the “humdrum.” “Myth” is defined as “a traditional story accepted as a type of history that serves to explain the world view of a certain people.” In Eliot’s case, he is referencing the citizens of [amazon_link id=”039332902X” target=”_blank” ]Great Britain[/amazon_link].

Understanding the background behind the era in which Eliot lived and wrote, helps to understand some of the imagery and references in his poetry; this is essentially true for most poems regardless of who wrote them or when they were written.

Elliott believes that England has the best [amazon_link id=”0205688071″ target=”_blank” ]culture[/amazon_link] of the entire world. Understand that many authors during Eliot’s time were considered [amazon_link id=”1857566319″ target=”_blank” ]elitist[/amazon_link]; an elitist believes that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources. Hence, Eliot has a great fear and dislike of the [amazon_link id=”0226644553″ target=”_blank” ]lower classes[/amazon_link]; yet, he also feels that some of the [amazon_link id=”0312615450″ target=”_blank” ]aristocrats[/amazon_link] are degenerate and decadent. Elliott was an anti-Semite and believed that all of the people in England and [amazon_link id=”0132388294″ target=”_blank” ]the Western world [/amazon_link]had no sense of the past or a sense of religiousness; hence, they are all living in Hell and don’t know it. Think of it this way, The Western World = The Waste Land.

The Western world is a term that can have multiple meanings depending on its context (e.g., the time period, the region or social situation.) It is likely that Eliot would have defined the Western world as the [amazon_link id=”1441408444″ target=”_blank” ]United States[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”B003VPWSHE” target=”_blank” ]England[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1598806637″ target=”_blank” ]France[/amazon_link], and other [amazon_link id=”0321106423″ target=”_blank” ]European nations [/amazon_link]in existence during his lifetime (1988 – 1965.)

Eliot’s best friend, [amazon_link id=”1931082413″ target=”_blank” ]Ezra Pound [/amazon_link](1885 – 1972) was also an anti-Semite; so much so, that Pound made radio broadcast speeches during WWII that were pro-Nazi. He later declared himself insane during the time of the broadcasts and eventually lived out his life in an asylum. This had a profound effect on Eliot and many others in the artistic community.

T. S. Eliot was inspired to use the title, The Waste Land by a book that he had read on the “[amazon_link id=”0140442200″ target=”_blank” ]Legend of the Holy Grail[/amazon_link].” This can be found in the notes that Eliot wrote to accompany his poem:

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.

The allusion Eliot uses is to the wounding of the Fisher King and the subsequent sterility of his lands. To restore the King and make his lands fertile again the Grail quester must ask “What ails you?”

Of course, in the attempt to fully understand this allusion, one must read Miss Weston’s book. This book’s full title is [amazon_link id=”B000NST4MO” target=”_blank” ]From Ritual to Romance an Account of the Holy Grail From Ancient Ritual to Christian Symbol [/amazon_link]and continues to be in demand by those interested in getting to the bottom of Eliot’s most revered work, The Waste Land. Of course, there are many authors’ works that Eliot read which influenced his poetry including [amazon_link id=”0872205401″ target=”_blank” ]Homer[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0451531531″ target=”_blank” ]Sophocles[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0140444890″ target=”_blank” ]Petronius[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0140449329″ target=”_blank” ]Virgil[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199537372″ target=”_blank” ]Ovid[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1594732825″ target=”_blank” ]Saint Augustine of Hippo[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0142437220″ target=”_blank” ]Dante Alighieri[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199267170″ target=”_blank” ]William Shakespeare[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0393962997″ target=”_blank” ]Edmund Spenser[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”014044601X” target=”_blank” ]Gérard de Nerval[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199540535″ target=”_blank” ]Thomas Kyd[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0393925870″ target=”_blank” ]Geoffrey Chaucer[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199580537″ target=”_blank” ]Thomas Middleton[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199539286″ target=”_blank” ]John Webster[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0143105116″ target=”_blank” ]Joseph Conrad[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199539189″ target=”_blank” ]John Milton[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0521711169″ target=”_blank” ]Andrew Marvell[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1857549392″ target=”_blank” ]Charles Baudelaire[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0521644399″ target=”_blank” ]Richard Wagner[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199537542″ target=”_blank” ]Oliver Goldsmith[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0520041526″ target=”_blank” ]Hermann Hesse[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0061729078″ target=”_blank” ]Aldous Huxley[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0199554013″ target=”_blank” ]Paul Verlaine[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”1883011353″ target=”_blank” ]Walt Whitman [/amazon_link]and [amazon_link id=”0199564094″ target=”_blank” ]Bram Stoker[/amazon_link].

Eliot also makes extensive use of scriptural writings including the [amazon_link id=”B001XUQF82″ target=”_blank” ]Bible[/amazon_link], the [amazon_link id=”0195285255″ target=”_blank” ]Book of Common Prayer[/amazon_link], the Hindu [amazon_link id=”1586380214″ target=”_blank” ]Brihadaranyaka Upanishad[/amazon_link], and the [amazon_link id=”1569244324″ target=”_blank” ]Buddha’s Fire Sermon[/amazon_link], and of cultural and [amazon_link id=”0195088360″ target=”_blank” ]anthropological studies [/amazon_link]such as [amazon_link id=”0199538824″ target=”_blank” ]Sir James Frazer’s [/amazon_link] well-regarded classic, [amazon_link id=”0374504938″ target=”_blank” ]The Golden Bough[/amazon_link].

A warning to the wise; careful study and consideration of these authors may only add to one’s confusion. Eliot wrote that he regretted sending his readers on a “wild goose chase” by revealing his sources in the heavily annotated edition demanded by his publisher.

To build a more reliable picture of Eliot, read some of his correspondence. In 1921 and 1922, Eliot was the London correspondent to [amazon_link id=”0415939801″ target=”_blank” ]The Dial [/amazon_link]magazine published in New York by his Milton Academy and [amazon_link id=”0674377338″ target=”_blank” ]Harvard University [/amazon_link]schoolmate [amazon_link id=”081301316X” target=”_blank” ]Scofield Thayer[/amazon_link]. The Dial published eight letters written by Eliot about the cultural scene in England. Although Eliot continued to have articles published in The Dial he no longer had time to keep up the “London Letter Series” as he began editing his own publication, [amazon_link id=”0521421276″ target=”_blank” ]The Criterion[/amazon_link]; the first issue was printed in October, 1922.

The first four “London Letter” essays published in 1921 are available in the book [amazon_link id=”0300119941″ target=”_blank” ]The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose [/amazon_link]edited by [amazon_link id=”0631204490″ target=”_blank” ]Lawrence Rainey [/amazon_link]who added extensive notes on the people, books and events written about by Eliot.

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Attention Students: to cite this web article in the current MLA-style, please use the example below.

Dixon, Catherine Jo. “The Source of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.” Feast Of Languages. Catherine Jo Dixon, 31 Jan 2011. Web. [today’s date].

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English literature students most commonly use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style to write their papers. This citation reflects the [amazon_link id=”1603290249″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition[/amazon_link] and/or the [amazon_link id=”0873522974″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition[/amazon_link]. For additional information, I recommend a free online writing lab from Purdue University: “The Purdue OWL” https://owl.english.purdue.edu/ which has current, credible information and reliable examples.


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