I read a lot of poems as an English major back in the day.* Not many have stuck with me over the years, but The Waste Land
is one of them: T.S. Eliot's lamentation about the spiritual drought in our day, the waste land of our Western society, lightened by a few fleeting glimpses of hope. It's fragmented, haunting, laden with symbolism and allusions, difficult, and utterly brilliant.
A diverse cast of characters take turns narrating the poem, or having their conversations overheard by the narrator, including:
✍ a Lithuanian countess, reminiscing about her childhood and life ("I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter")
✍ a prophetic voice, like Ezekiel, examining the barrenness of civilization ("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 ...")
✍ Madame Sosostris, a famous but fake clairvoyant, telling a fortune with tarot cards ("I do not find the Hanged Man. Fear death by water. I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring. Thank you.")
✍ a bored woman of leisure, talking to her husband, who answers in his mind ("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.")
✍ Two women talking in a bar about sex and abortion ("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.")
... and many more. Those are just the main ones in the first two (of five) sections). Symbols of drought and fertility, spiritual waste and renewal, surface and resurface, showing a different facet each time. I'd forgotten that the Holy Grail (cup) and Holy Lance (spear) doubled as a nifty set of female/male sexual symbols!
This is a poem that deserves to be read, taken apart and studied, and then simply read again and appreciated.
"These fragments I have shored against my ruins..."
*I still have my 2600 page The Norton Anthology of English Literature
, which has extensive analysis and footnotes. It also has my helpful handwritten margin notes from 30+ years ago, written in the most amazingly lovely, minuscule handwriting imaginable (seriously, the letters are about a half a millimeter high) that I could never in a million years recreate now.