The Waste Land
Shmoopril is the cray-est month.
We won't lie: The Waste Land is a doozy. It's generally considered the 20th century's most important poem—and as you might expect, that means it's also one of the most challenging. Fortunately for us, it's a challenge we're well equipped to conquer. As we battle through this five-part journey, we'll hang out with some zombie hordes, dance to pop songs from the 60s, and dive into a few Greek myths, examining our ideas about art, culture, and identity along the way.
Oh, and we'll have a bit of fun, too.
Not only will we emerge having defeated one of the main bosses of poem-land, we'll also come out the other end with a great arsenal of literary terms and techniques, a sense of history in post-World War I Europe, and a few creative projects to boot:
- Through interactive activities and assignments, you'll situate The Waste Land in greater historical and literary context.
- We'll guide you through the tough passages with intensive close readings.
- Via Common Core-aligned lesson plans, you'll debate the value, relevance, and effectiveness of seemingly dated references. Believe us: there are plenty of 'em.
Now dive on in. The waste land's nice.
Unit 1. The Waste Land
Get ready to tackle one of the most difficult English-language texts in existence. Don't panic, though: in 15 lessons, you'll go from noob to snoob...or snob.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 1: Who Is This Eliot Guy?
Don't let his meticulously combed hair fool you: T.S. Eliot was a pretty rebellious guy—as far as poets go, at least. Following the First World War, Eliot changed the rules of modern poetry for good. We credit Eliot today with some of the greatest poems of the 20th century (including The Waste Land), and his rule breaking even won him a Nobel Prize.
Basically, he's a big deal.
In this first lesson, we'll learn more about who Eliot was, who his friends were, and what life was like in the 1920s when Eliot wrote The Waste Land. (Er…the title of the poem provides a hint.) This background will help us understand why the poem takes the form it does and what Eliot was trying to accomplish in this work.
When Eliot wrote The Waste Land, World War I had just ended, and the effects of this conflict on Europe and rest of the world were massive. Seriously...huge. The war left whole sections of some of Europe's biggest cities, including London (where Eliot spent much of his time), in ruins. These events influenced Eliot in a major way, and we can see the war-torn cities of WWI lurking behind the ruinous landscapes we find all over Eliot's poem.
The world had changed, and Eliot wasn't alone in feeling like poetry needed to change too in order to reflect the experience of a new, disillusioned generation. T.S., along with a group of writers called the modernists, set about developing new rules for literature and poetry—and the results of their efforts amounted to nothing short of a revolution.
Shmoop has front row seats to the rebellion: Let's dive right in.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.1: The Deets
Before we tackle The Waste Land line by line, we'll learn more about Eliot's biography and the time (1922) and place (London) in which he composed his poem. We'll also try to understand what Eliot and his crew, the modernists, hoped to accomplish with all their rabble-rousing. Think of this lesson as a shorter VH1 Behind the Music segment, but for poetry.
First, let's get a brief sense of what life was like in post-WWI London, where our hit was born. Check out this fact sheet for the lowdown. (Click "Full Text" at the bottom to see everything.)
Now we should probably learn a little about the artist, right? We know you're dying to know what T.S. stands for. Total Stud? Too Sweet?
Almost: Thomas Stearns.
Thomas Stearns Eliot—or T.S., as he is affectionately (and sometimes, not so affectionately) called—was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888.
Though he was American by birth, T.S. spent most of his life in Britain, working as a teacher in addition to writing a handful of poems, some essays, and a few plays. And, oh yeah, in 1948 he won the Nobel Prize. This guy's the real deal.
- Now that we've mastered the basics, check out the rest of Eliot's Shmoop biography.
- Ever hear the expression, "You can tell a man's character by the company he keeps"? It means that the friends you choose say a lot about who you are. Take a look at the Shmoop guide to the modernists to learn what Eliot's friends can tell us about who he was and what he wanted to accomplish.
Keep these readings in mind as we explore Eliot's poem. (It's okay if the idea of a "tradition of the new" still doesn't quite make sense.) As we move through The Waste Land in the next few lessons, we'll see first-hand how Eliot repurposed tradition to create something radically original.
One thing's for sure: Eliot and the modernists are rebels with a cause.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.1a: Newspaper Article: Eliot and the Modernists
Break out your typewriter. You've been asked to write a story covering Eliot and his modernist gang for a 1920s newspaper. The editors at the paper have heard that the modernists are changing the face of poetry, and they want to be the first to deliver the scoop.
Using everything we just learned about Eliot and his crew, compile a 300-word newspaper article that explains:
- who they are,
- what they are hoping to accomplish,
- and why they'll speak to a new generation.
You may mention The Waste Land, but don't feel like you need to deal with the poem in detail just yet. For now, focus on the background information we've covered in this section. We'll show you why The Waste Land rocks in the next lesson.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Quiz 1.1b: T.S. Eliot Quiz
- Course Length: 3 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Short Course
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1