The Waste Land
by T.S. Eliot
When poets refer to other great works, people, and events, it’s usually not accidental. Put on your super-sleuth hat and figure out why.
Literary and Philosophical References
The Bible: Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Psalms (20, 23, 25, 182, 354, 426)
Throughout the text, Eliot alludes to the books of Ezekiel (20), Ecclesiastes (23, 354), Isaiah (25, 426), and Psalms (182). For Eliot, the Bible is an incredible tool for holding together and making sense of our day-to-day lives, but as with any other great spiritual tool, the Bible is underused in contemporary society (according to Eliot).
Richard Wagner (31-34, 42, 266-291)
Wagner was a great composer from the 19th century, whose operas and music are still spread throughout movies and pop culture today. In "The Burial of the Dead," Eliot quotes four lines from Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (31-34, 42). In "The Fire Sermon," Eliot uses the song of the "Rhine-Daughters" from Wagner's Götterdämmerung opera, and replaces the original words with his own, leaving the original "Weialalal leia" (266-291).
Madame Sosostris (Sesostris) (43-59)
This fortune-teller is actually a character from Aldous Huxley's satirical novel Crome Yellow, which was published in 1921 to good reviews, one year prior to "The Waste Land." In Crome Yellow, Madame Sesostris is basically a fraud who dresses up as a gypsy and visits country fairs to tell people's fortunes for money.
Charles Baudelaire (60, 76)
Charles Baudelaire was a 19th-century French poet who was infamous for bringing immoral material into "high" poetry. Eliot quotes from Baudelaire's collection Fleurs du Mal, in lines 60 and 76 of "The Burial of the Dead."
Dante Alighieri (62-65, 293-295, 412-415)
Dante Alighieri was a poet from Italy who wrote in the 13th and 14th centuries. He is most famous for his trio of epic poems, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Eliot refers to the Inferno (62-65) and the Purgatorio (293-295, 412-415) throughout "The Waste Land" in order to give the reader a sense of the hellish, purgatorial existence of modern life.
John Webster (75, 118)
John Webster was a playwright who wrote around the time of Shakespeare (1600) and is best known for his tragedies, particularly The White Devil. Eliot alludes to this play in line 75 of "The Burial of the Dead." In line 118, Eliot alludes to another of Webster's plays, called The Devil's Law Case. Man, this Webster guy sounds like he really loved to write about the devil.
Thomas Middleton (137)
Thomas Middleton was also a playwright who wrote at the beginning of the 1600's, and the second section of "The Waste Land," no doubt refers in general to Middleton's plays A Game at Chess and Women Beware Women. In the second of these plays, the game of chess represents the moves made in the seduction of a woman.
William Shakespeare (48, 77, 172, 191, 257, 417)
Eliot references William Shakespeare many times in this poem because, well, Shakespeare's the man, isn't he? More specifically, Eliot alludes to the plays The Tempest (48, 191, 257), Antony and Cleopatra (77), Hamlet (172), and Coriolanus (417).
John Milton (98)
Ovid's Metamorphoses (99-104, 203-206, 218, 245, 429)
For anyone who wanted an education in the classics of Western literature in Eliot's time, knowing the Roman poet Ovid was an absolute must. Ovid wrote around the time of Christ (43 B.C.E. to 17-18 C.E.), and is most famous for his collection of mythology in poetic verse, The Metamorphoses. Eliot refers specifically to the myth of the "Rape of Philomel," which you can get the goods on in the "Summary" section. Tiresias, the blind prophet, is also a character from Ovid.
Edmund Spenser (176-184)
As he continues to work his way through the list of English Lit. heavyweights, Eliot makes sure to include Edmund Spenser in his references. More specifically, Eliot quotes Spenser's "Prothalamion" in order to show how the Thames of 1600 was definitely a lot nicer than the Thames of 1922.
Andrew Marvell (185, 196)
Another big name (for people who know English Lit. as well as Eliot). Andrew Marvell was a poet who wrote around 1660, and Eliot mentions him mostly to refer to his greatest hit, "To His Coy Mistress."
John Day, The Parliament of Bees, 1608-1616 (198)
Anonymous. Brihadaranyaka—Upanishad, 5.1-5.3 (401-423)
The Upanishads, the holy texts of Hindu belief, gave Eliot a ton of spiritual inspiration.
Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance, 1920 (425)
Eliot was extremely interested in Weston's history of ancient fertility myths, called From Ritual to Romance, especially her chapter on the British myth of the "Fisher King," whose sacrificial death was supposed to bring new life to a barren land. For the symbolic world of "The Waste Land," there has definitely been a death in Western culture; but for Eliot, it's not so clear if this death will bring new life or simply lead to the end of civilization.
Paul Verlaine, Parsifal, 1886 (202)
Eliot alludes to Verlaine's famous take on the Arthurian knight Perceval in his poem "Parsifal."
Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766 (254-256)
Saint Augustine, Confessions, 398 C.E. (307, 309)
Herman Hesse, A Glimpse Into Chaos, 1920 (367)
Battle of Mylae (70)
Eliot refers to this battle from 260 B.C.E. when it would probably be more appropriate (in 1922) to refer to World War I (1914-1918). But in referring to this much earlier war, which was fought for financial gain, Eliot takes the combined greed and stupidity of human history and mashes it all together in "The Waste Land."
The Fire Sermon (308)
According to most accounts, the Fire Sermon was preached by the spiritual teacher known as Buddha. It was intended to encourage people to give up the "fire" of lust for sex and worldly possessions. Although looking at the world today, you have to wonder how well it worked.
Pop Culture References
Tarot Cards (46-55, 312-321, 430)
After they're introduced to the poem by Madame Sosostris, the tarot cards become a major way for Eliot to mix prophecy with criticism in his tone, since he both believes in the symbolic significance of the tarot pack (which is centuries old) and at the same time doesn't buy into fortune-tellers or psychic mediums. The tarot pack is still very much a part of pop culture today, and its wide appeal has made it just as popular in the 21st century as it was in the 16th.
The Shakespearean Rag (128-130)
"The Mysterious Rag" was very popular in the United States around 1912, and Eliot no doubt would have heard it quite often. He probably cringed at the thing the way people now cringe when they hear Nickelback. Sorry, but you know it's true.
Cannon Street Hotel and Metropole (213-214)
The Cannon Street Hotel and Hotel Metropole were two luxurious hotels of Eliot's time, although both had reputations for being places of questionable sexual activities. Check out our "Summary" section for more information.
A subway station in London.
"London Bridge is Falling Down" (427)
This famous nursery rhyme was prevalent in Eliot's time, and still well-known in many places today.