The Waste Land Summary
The Burial of the Dead
It's not the cheeriest of starts, and it gets even drearier from there. The poem's speaker talks about how spring is an awful time of year, stirring up memories of bygone days and unfulfilled desires. Then the poem shifts into specific childhood memories of a woman named Marie. This is followed by a description of tangled, dead trees and land that isn't great for growing stuff. Suddenly, you're in a room with a "clairvoyant" or spiritual medium named Madame Sosostris, who reads you your fortune. And if that weren't enough, you then watch a crowd of people "flow[ing] over London Bridge" like zombies (62). Moving right along…
A Game of Chess
You are transported to the glittery room of a lavish woman, and you notice that hanging from the wall is an image of "the change of Philomel," a woman from Greek myth who was raped by King Tereus and then changed into a nightingale. Some anxious person says that their nerves are bad, and asks you to stay the night. This is followed by a couple of fragments vaguely asking you what you know and remember. The section finishes with a scene of two women chatting and trying to sneak in a few more drinks before closing time at the bar.
The Fire Sermon
Section three opens with a speaker who's hanging out beside London's River Thames and feeling bad about the fact that there's no magic left in the world. The focus swoops back to the story of Philomel for a second, then another speaker talks about how he might have been asked for weekend of sex by a "Smyrna merchant" (209). Next, you're hearing from Tiresias, a blind prophet from myth who was turned into a woman for seven years by the goddess Hera. You hear about a scene where a modern young man and woman—both not much to look at—are having this really awful, loveless sex. Finally, you overhear someone singing a popular song, which in the context of this poem just sounds depressing.
Death By Water
In a brief scene, you watch as a dead sailor named Phlebas decays at the bottom of the ocean, and the poem tells you to think of this young man whenever you start feeling too proud. Good tip, T.S.
What the Thunder Said
Section five takes you to a stony landscape with no water. There are two people walking, and one notices in his peripheral vision that a third person is with them. When he looks over, though, this other person disappears (it's like one of those squiggly lines that dance in the corner of your eye). In a dramatic moment, thunder cracks over the scene, and its noise seems to say three words in Sanskrit: Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, which command you to "Give," "Sympathize," and "Control." This is followed by a repetition of the word Shantih, which means "the peace that passeth all understanding." After all that slogging, T.S. maybe gives us a little hope with this final word. Then again, maybe not.