The Waste Land
From Gerald R. Lucas
- 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 (Cambridge). 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. To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies. [E] (Notes or portions of notes signed [E] are Eliot’s.)
- This epigraph is from Petronius’ Satyricon. Apollo had granted the Sybil immortality, but she had forgotten to ask for perpetual youth, so she still aged. Literally: “I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’”
- Pound suggested cuts and edits to the first manuscript of the poem.
- “The better craftsman.” From Dante’s Purgatory (26.117)
- In the original Grail legend a wounded king called the Fisher King rules over a land called the Waste Land, doomed to remain waste, until a knight of surpassing purity comes to heal the king’s wound, which is in the sexual organs. This story became associated in the Middle Ages with Arthurian stories and particularly with the story of the Holy Grail, the vessel supposed to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. Through the efficacy of this vessel, the Fisher King is healed by one of Arthur’s knights, usually Sir Perceval, and the land’s fertility is restored. But before he can execute this mission, the knight has had to suffer terrifying trials and temptations in the Waste Land (as in Eliot’s poem, section V), which culminate in the ordeal of the Chapel Perilous. Miss Weston argues that the roots of this story are to be found in the rites by which primitive men invoked spring and new fertility after the apparent death of winter.
- Aside from Ginsberg’s Howl, this is probably the most influential poem in English of the twentieth century, partly because it utilizes a universal myth, partly because it chronicles, and transcends, the ugly spiritual chaos of our time.
- The Sibyl’s words introduce one of the poem’s ambivalent concepts: (1) that life in the Waste Land is a living death; (2) that death may be made the means of rebirth.
Commentary and some notes are from:
- Mack, Maynard; Dean, Leonard; Frost, William (eds.). Modern Poetry. English Masterpieces. VII (Second ed.). Prentice Hall.