The Burial of the Dead Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
- An unknown speaker claims that "April is the cruellest month," even though we might usually think of spring as a time of love (1). But if you're lonely, seeing flowers blooming and people kissing might make you even more depressed about your "Memory and desire" (3). The spring rain might normally bring new life, but for you it only stirs "Dull roots" (4).
- Also, you might want to note how Eliot really works the poetic technique of enjambment to carry each phrase over the line breaks with extra participles or -ing words (i.e., breeding, mixing, and stirring).
- These lines are also written in almost-perfect iambic meter, which is really supposed to give you a sense of stability in a poem. But Eliot's enjambment keeps making it unstable by making every thought seem unfinished.
- So right off the bat, he suggests that traditional forms of art might not bring the sense of closure and certainty they once did.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
- The speaker says that instead of spring being the best time of year, "Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow" (5-6). These lines show that when it comes to feeling bad, it's better to be forgetful and almost numb in your emotions, surviving on the little bits of joy in your life as if they were "dried tubers" from you potato cellar (7).
- Uplifting, yes?
- Also, the iambs of the first three lines have started to break down, although you're still getting those enjambed participle -ing words at the end of each line. Eliot is thematically showing you here that an unfinished thought has a way of infecting our sense of certainty and nibbling away at it like a termite.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bing gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
- These lines talk about how "summer surprised us," meaning that the poem's speaker has a crowd they hung out with in the past, but we're not clear who "us" is. At this point, you suddenly realize that you're probably dealing with a dramatic monologue, meaning that the poem is being spoken by a specific character.
- This isn't Eliot, or some third person narrator yakking away. Think of the speaker as a character here.
- "[C]oming over the Starnbergersee" makes the location of the memory more specific, because Starnbergersee is the name of a lake that's just a couple miles south of Munich, Germany.
- The speaker then talks about how the group walked past a bunch of fancy columns and ended up in a city park in Munich known as the Hofgarten (10).
- They drank coffee and talked for an hour.
- Then you have strange line in German that says "I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German" (12). Um, thanks for the info? What this line tells us is that the speaker was having a conversation about who counts as a "true" German, and suggests that a true German can come from the country of Lithuania, which has Germanic historical roots.
- See? This poem isn't so hard, right? Right…
- But rest assured that even if you can't read German, a perfect translation is less important than the fact that we readers are eavesdropping on a conversation.
- We're getting snippets of life in Europe in the early 20th century, and that notion's more important than what's actually being said in those snippets. Stay tuned for more.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
- These lines continue on with the speaker's memories of childhood. And hey—they're not so bad.
- You find out that the speaker is the cousin of an archduke, which means that he or she probably came from a pretty ritzy background. And they went on swanky vacays to boot.
- The archduke took the speaker out on a sled and told her not to be frightened. You find out at this point that the speaker's name is Marie.
- It turns out Eliot's actually alluding to a real, historical figure named Marie Louise Elizabeth Mendel, a Bavarian woman who was born into a family with royal roots, and became Countess Larisch when she was nineteen. She was also the cousin of Archduke Rudolph, the Crown Prince of Austria.
- It's not entirely clear why Eliot inserts Marie into the beginning of his poem, but there are a couple running theories.
- First, there was a widespread scandal in 1889 (Eliot would have been less than a year old) when the archduke was found dead with his mistress, leaving a gaping hole in the Austrian royal line of succession. Whoops. This story could set off the motif of dead royalty that Eliot uses in this poem to symbolize the collapse of traditional forms of government and the "rule of the mob" in the 20th century. Yikes. (More on that coming soon.)
- Also, the countess Marie also barely avoided being killed when a socialist workers' movement swept across Bavaria and encouraged the killing and imprisoning of anyone of Marie's high class. Once again, we've got notes of the decline of traditional, high culture in a modern sea of stupid, violent, and worst of all, average people (cue Eliot's sneer).
- Either way, legend has it that Eliot and Marie once met, so maybe he's just using their brief encounter as poetic fodder, and nothing more. Shmoop's guess is as good as yours.
- These lines close with Marie talking about how awesome and free you feel in the mountains, to which we say obvi.
- She ends on a weird note, though, telling you that she likes to read during the night and travels south in the winter, which makes her sound like a bookwormy goose. This could mean that now that she's old, she gets her enjoyment from books and doesn't go to the snowy mountains anymore, choosing instead to "go south in winter" (18) like an old fogey headed to Fort Lauderdale.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? 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, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
- It's not Marie who's talking anymore, but someone else. These lines throw you three verses from the Bible, and they basically talk about how your soul is like soil without water, which is, yes, as awful as it sounds.
- The first allusion is in lines 19-20. It's based on Ezekiel, and it asks you what could possibly grow from your spirit, which is like "stony rubbish" (20). (Son of man, by the way, is a phrase commonly used in the Bible.)
- Lines 21-23 allude to Ecclesiastes, and they say that you probably don't know the answer to this last question, because all you really know about life is "a heap of broken images" (22), meaning that you live your life on a superficial level and don't bother to draw your thoughts together into any meaningful ideas.
- You (meaning whomever the speaker is speaking to) live in a world that is as hard on you as a beating sun, but your trees (meaning your ideas and your spirit) are dead, and they can't comfort you or give you shade.
- You're dying from spiritual thirst, and there is "no sound of water" (24). All you're going to get is a half-hearted comfort, like shadow under a "red rock" (25).
- Hmm. We're starting to get the feeling that Eliot's a bit of a negative Nelly. But we guess we saw that coming, what with the poem's title and all.
- The next line (alluding to Isaiah) invites you into this shadow, since it's the best you're going to get.
- These are the lines when that whole waste land concept really gets some juice. Eliot's speaker describes a desert, and it's just about as awful as deserts can get—no water, dead trees, red rock. Wherever we are, we're surrounded by stony rubbish, whether real or figurative, and our speaker is Not Happy.
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
- These next three lines are totally creepy, because the speaker suddenly promises to "show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you" (27-29). Well, what other shadows are there, buddy?
- Eliot's use of parallelism in lines 28 and 29 suggests a certain mirroring effect in the two shadows, which gives you a confused sense of traveling into two opposite directions at once.
- We like to think this was on purpose, since it enhances the sense of not knowing where you're going (in a symbolic sense) in the modern world. As in, "hey if no one's reading Homer anymore, what are we all doing here, anyway?" Fair question.
- But let's break this down even further. Your shadow is the trace that you're always leaving on this world, but it doesn't last long. At the end of the day, time passes as each morning and night goes by, and when all's said and done, you're going to die just like everyone else. Bummer.
- And that's when the speaker drops this doozy on us: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" (30). We're shaking in our Shmoop boots over here (shmoots?). The reason dust is so scary is because that's exactly what you're going to turn into some day, but you should probably try not to think about it too much.
- Except that it's hard not to. Hey, nothing gets you wondering about the health of your soul more than knowing that you're going to die.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
- These lines are written in German and taken from Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde, which tells the story of two doomed lovers. They're spoken by a sailor who thinks sadly about a girl he's left behind in his travels, kind of like this guy.
- At this point, the poem takes on a tone of mourning for a love that was once great, but is now kaput. (F.Y.I., you should probably get used to this idea of mourning, because you're in for a couple hundred more lines of it.)
- Another big reason for this tone of mourning is no doubt the fact that World War I had ended only four years before Eliot published "The Waste Land." The Great War was awful, blood mess, and during the four years that it lasted, over nine million soldiers were killed. Needless to say, it set off a huge sense of despair all across Europe, as people became convinced that the so-called "sophistication" of the Western world had come to a bitter end with young men shooting each other over political goals from which they were far removed.
- This sense of despair made artists realize that if there was going to be any way forward, they were going to have to radically rethink how they created art, and this is definitely part of what's informing Eliot's experimental style in this poem.
- From a formal sense, Eliot also really starts upping the ante on the fragmentary aspects of his poem at this point (hint: it's only going to get more fragmented).
- Throughout this poem, Eliot's always taking bits and pieces from the "high culture" that people in the Western world don't fully appreciate anymore and mixing them up with surprising images and other snippets.
- But Eliot is convinced that this culture, like it or not, used to provide a common point of reference for everybody, and now that it doesn't have the power to unite people anymore, daily experience seems more disconnected from any sense of meaning. That's why we only get those bits and pieces, instead of complete allusions.
"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl."
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Yours arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed' und leer das Meer.
- It seems like a woman is speaking again in these lines, and she remembers a time when she was young and someone gave her nice hyacinth flowers, all romantic-like.
- Eliot uses the poetic technique of apostrophe here, meaning that the woman is addressing another person who doesn't seem to be present in the poem at this point.
- Or, more creepily, she might actually be talking to herself, which would suggest a deep sense of longing or mourning for something that's gone. And a little break with sanity, too.
- Somewhere in the woman's distant memory, something went really really wrong. She remembers how suddenly, without warning, her love went south, so to speak. She felt she "was neither / Living nor dead, and [she] knew nothing" (39). It's like her soul just up and died.
- These lines finish with another line in German from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde opera, which translates as "Waste and empty is the sea." This basically means that the sea—which is supposed to bring your lover to you, when your lover's a sailor and all—is basically a big fat hole. No water? No sailor.
- The gist here? At some point in the speaker's life, there was a great love; but that time is gone, and her soul is now empty.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe.
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
- The speaker shifts again and tells you about a fortune-teller named Madame Sosostris, who "Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe" (45), even though she gets a "bad cold" like everyone else.
- Sosostris is a literary allusion to Madame Sesostris, a fortune-telling fraud from Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow, a satire of high British culture which was published a year before "The Waste Land."
- This woman also has a "wicked pack of [tarot] cards" that she uses to tell fortunes. Tarot cards are special hand-held cards that people have been using to predict the future since the 1400's in Britain and elsewhere.
- In these lines, the speaker seems to be really critical of this woman's superstitious schemes (especially since he seems to think a mere cold would throw off her skills), but the speaker goes on to take some of the images in her tarot cards pretty seriously, as you'll see soon enough. And with all the crazy stuff that's going down in this poem, that's probably a good idea. You don't wanna mess with those tarot cards.
- Sosostris pulls cards, and the first one shows "the drowned Phoenician Sailor" (47). The Phoenicians were a group of people from around 1,000 B.C.E. who really knew their way around a boat.
- The next line has Sosostris telling you that "Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!" (48). This line is taken from Shakespeare's The Tempest, and it describes how a person lying at the bottom of the sea for a long time has had his eyeballs turn into pearls.
- Eyes are windows into the soul, and if a person's eyes have hardened into pearls, it's a logical assumption that the soul is completely hardened and dead, too.
- The next card Sosostris pulls is "Belladona," meaning "Beautiful Lady" in Italian, but also referring to a type of poison called nightshade. Yeah, it's as scary as it sounds.
- Of course, the "Belladonna" is not actually a tarot card—Eliot's just pulling that out of…somewhere. Some folks think this is an allusion to Leonardo's famous painting, Madonna of the Rocks, which gives us a distinctly Christian way to read these lines. After all, in the Christian tradition, rocks symbolize the foundation that the Christian church provides for your life.
- So we get a weird combo of associations here—Christian faith and poison. Yikes. Maybe that's why the woman is called "the lady of situations": she can be either beautiful or dangerous, depending on what's going down. Kind of like swans: so pretty, but so very mean.
- That's the last time we let T.S. read our fortune.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
- More tarot cards.
- Next, Sosostris pulls you "the man with three staves" or three staffs, which is an actual card that represents famine and drought in the land, and relates back to the "stony rubbish" that the poem compares your soul to in line 20 (yes, this poem can be a bit judgmental).
- Then there's "the Wheel," which represents the wheel of fortune or rota fortunae, a medieval symbol of how life and death keep going in an endless circle and how good and bad fortune often come to us for reasons we can't control.
- After this, Madame pulls "the one-eyed merchant" (another totally made up tarot card), and then finally, just when you're about tarot-ed out, there's one last card that shows someone carrying something on his back, but you can't see what it is.
- Sosostris says she does not find "The Hanged Man," which sounds like a good thing at first, but this card actually would've symbolized spiritual rebirth, as all you tarot buffs out there know. So you lose again. Sorry.
- And as if that weren't bad enough, the lady tells you to fear death by water (hey, that's a familiar phrase). You might normally think this means drowning, but don't forget, you can also die by lack of water…like in a waste land.
- By the way, now that we're done with that tarot disaster, Shmoop's gonna give you a little heads up: watch out for these tarot figures—the Phoenician sailor, the merchant, and even the Hanged Man—who'll show up later in the poem in some form or other (the Hanged Man will be the hardest to spot, but Eliot associates him with the hooded figure who appears at the beginning of "What the Thunder Said"). Eliot may be totally making these cards up, but in the world of the waste land, they've got all kinds of symbolic significance.
I see crowds of people, walking around in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
- The worst tarot session in the history of tarot sessions may be over, but Sosostris is not done fortune-telling.
- Suddenly, she has a vision of people "walking around in a ring" (56), which could go back to the wheel of fortune image.
- Or, as the line suggests, these folks are walking around, either trapped inside a circle or circling around it. Either way, it sure doesn't sound like they have much direction.
- And finally, it could also refer to the circles of hell that make up Dante's Inferno, a classic of 14th-century Italian literature that describes every little detail of life in hell. This book no doubt inspired Eliot not only because of its subject matter, but because of the sheer detail that Dante uses to describe hell, thus giving his religious beliefs a complex, yet cohesive sense of order and stability. This kind of faith-based stability is exactly what the modern world lacks in Eliot's eyes. Plus, dude used it in his famous epigraph of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
- After Sosostris has done her thing, she asks you to give a message to one of her other clients (Mrs. Equitone), saying that she'll deliver a horoscope herself to make sure it doesn't get stolen. Because at the end of the day, a fortune teller's gotta get paid like everyone else.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
- The speaker shifts again, this time to someone who's peering out over an "Unreal" or fake modern city whose "brown fog" suggests that it isn't the cleanest of places.
- The phrase "Unreal City" is actually a reference to Charles Baudelaire, a 19th-century French poet whose collection, Fleurs du Mal (1857), brought light to the unsavory sexual practices and indulgent lifestyles of the poet's time (just like Eliot does in "The Waste Land").
- The speaker remembers watching a crowd flowing over London Bridge like zombies, and says he "had not thought death had undone so many" (63). Here, Eliot is definitely talking about the circles of hell in Dante's Inferno (he's basically quoting the poem here), and is comparing modern life to living in hell, you know, where all the dead people are.
- The people in this scene are sighing and staring (more Inferno allusions) only at the ground in front of their feet. They seem pretty unsatisfied with their undead lives, if you ask Shmoop. Maybe they should take a zombie self-actualization course at the local Zen center.
- The speaker mentions a landmark street in London, and notes how a church bell (of an actual church—St Mary Woolnoth) let out a "dead sound on the final stroke of nine" (68). There we go again, associating religion and death.
- In a formal sense, you should also notice how every now and then, Eliot will throw you a little rhyming couplet, like he does with "feet" and "Street" or "many" and "many" (nice one, T.S.). Again, these sudden bursts of classic, recognizable form help remind us of the overall sense of cultural fragmentation that Eliot is trying to convey in this poem.
- Or in other words, we still have reminders of the structured, orderly world that once existed in Europe (ah, yes, the bygone days of the heroic couplet), but reminders are all they are, since they've been shattered into pieces and scattered over the waste land of modern intellectual and emotional life. Phew.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: "Stetson!
You were with me in the ships at Mylae!
The corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the dog far hence, that's friend to men,
Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
You hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frère!"
- "The Burial of the Dead" ends on a pretty gruesome note, in which the speaker claims that he saw someone he knew from an ancient war (named Stetson) in the flowing zombie-crowd and asked him if the "corpse [he] planted last year in [his] garden" has begun to sprout" (72).
- Normally, we think of burying the dead in order to get them out of sight. But this speaker is so demented that he thinks planting a body in the ground is like planting a seed that's supposed to grow. The speaker then gives the Stetson man advice about keeping the dog and the frost away from where the corpse is planted.
- Um, what? Has this speaker gone nuts? Probably. But he's also alluding to John Webster's The White Devil, which contains the same lines as 74 and 75 above.
- His final words are from Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire, a poem published in 1857 that dealt with themes of modern eroticism and decadence, basically calling people out for many of the same things Eliot is in "The Waste Land." Sure, plot-wise, this is our latest speaker calling out his zombie buddy named Stetson, but you might also look at it as Eliot calling out the reader for being a lazy hypocrite.
- The speaker more or less admits that he's no better by calling you "mon frère" or "my brother" in French. So after reading all this stuff about how awful the world's gotten, you get to find out that the speaker of the poem personally blames you, himself, and pretty much everybody for what's happened.