It's a winter evening in a city. The speaker addresses us, narrating the wet newspapers that hit our feet and the broken, dirty features of the city around us. As night falls, people begin to light their lamps. In the second stanza, it's morning, and we consider the people rising early to rush out into the mud and get to work. Night falls again in stanza 3, and the speaker narrates our insomnia. Sordid thoughts preoccupy our mind until dawn, when we notice our hands and feet are dirty from the day before. In stanza 4, we arrive in the business center of town at the end of a workday. A soul floats around unnoticed, occasionally winding up trampled under feet of people leaving work for the day. The speaker feels emotionally moved by this, and we flash back to an image of the past, where women are gathering fuel to start a fire.
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days
- Well, it's wintertime, and the city is… um, disgusting.
- Although, it doesn't start out sounding so bad: the evening "settles down," which sounds pleasant enough, right?
- After a busy day, doesn't everyone like to relax a little?
- But… an evening can't relax; it isn't a person.
- That's true, but in a poem, anything can happen. Giving human characteristics to non-human things is called personification, and poets do it all the time. (That includes Eliot; in one of the most famous opening lines of all time, Eliot says the sky is like a drugged-up patient.)
- Back to the setting: we are assuming we are in a city, since he mentions passageways and the smell of steak (mmm, steak), presumably from restaurants. It sounds pleasant enough…
- Line 4 is where we start to get the sense that maybe this isn't a totally idyllic scene. The poem's speaker calls the evening the "burnt-out" end of a "smoky" day. With that imagery, we picture a cigarette butt—not exactly the most pleasant metaphor, huh?
- Cities are one of Eliot's favorite settings (pretty much all of his poems take place in one). Check out "Setting" for more.
- We just bet that this won't be the only parallel to Eliot's later work. Don't worry, Shmoopers. We'll let you know when Eliot is using a word or image that he'll later rely on in some of his more famous poems.
- As well, Eliot uses a pretty wild rhyme scheme. Check it out: lines 2 and 4 rhyme ("passageways" and "smoky days"), but lines 1 and 3 don't.
- Let's read on to see if Eliot continues this trend throughout the poem (and then you should check out "Form and Meter" for the full breakdown).
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
- Well, that didn't take long. Our speaker's already switching up the rhyme scheme. Now, lines 5 and 6 rhyme. It sure looks like Eliot's playing with form in this poem, and that doesn't just involve rhyme.
- He also uses enjambment, a fancy word for "hitting the enter key in the middle of a phrase." It's one way to keep the form of the poem consistent while encouraging the reader to keep reading without taking a pause.
- For example, try reading lines 5-6 aloud. Naturally you'll keep moving, without much of a pause, between "wraps" and "The grimy scraps." Keep your eyes peeled for more instances of enjambment in this poem.
- Also, be on the lookout for more imagery. A "gusty shower" has cleared some of the grime from the street, wrapping all the trash and leaves around our feet. Hold up—our feet? Yep, we're there with Eliot, hanging out in the city. We hope someone brought an umbrella...
- Litter is one of Eliot's frequently-used images. "The Waste Land" is just filled with trash. He definitely loves to use garbage imagery to indicate that a city isn't in great shape.
- Here's another clue that this city isn't in great shape: those "vacant lots." Unused or abandoned lots aren't usually found in thriving areas of cities.
- With this image of abandonment, Eliot finally gives us a chance to take a breath by inserting an end stop (in this case, it's a semi-colon). If enjambment keeps the lines moving, end stops force us to take a moment and consider what we've just seen.
- Have you caught your breath yet on this urban stroll? Good, let's keep moving.
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
- Man, it's really starting to pour out there.
- The imagery of "broken blinds" offers another clue that things are a bit run-down hereabouts. The phrase is also an example of alliteration, which Eliot uses to create some fun sounds.
- If you read it aloud, "broken blinds" and "chimney-pots" actually sound like raindrops hitting a surface. Tricky guy, huh?
- "Steams and stamps" is another example of alliteration. Those S sounds give us a backdrop sound of a steady rain, while the hard P in "stamps" kind of sounds like the horse stamping his foot. Can you hear it? Even if you can't, check out "Sound Check" for more, and keep your eyes peeled for more sonically-solid examples throughout the poem.
- You might also notice the end stops in these lines. We're slowing down a little, in order to take it all in. After the cab-horse stomps, we pause our walk through the city and look around.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
- This line is set apart from the rest of the stanza, so… it must be important.
- Evening is turning into night here, causing everyone to light their lamps (they didn't have light switches in those days).
- This simple, daily action seems to change everything about the way we experience setting; now we are focusing not on the rainy, dirty streets but the lights from indoors.
- Eliot would use lamps as a way to reveal truth in a later poem, but here, they are more of an invitation to come inside.
- And with this invitation, the stanza ends. Shall we accept? Let's read on…
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
- We have returned to the city in the morning, which is just "coming to consciousness" (and here we get more personification since mornings aren't really conscious).
- It's not such a lovely morning, though; there's the smell of stale beer and the traces of muddy footprints from the city's many inhabitants. Yuck.
- Oh, and don't forget the sawdust. All in all, it's a smelly, dirty morning. And because of the enjambment of these lines, all the lovely smells, sights, and sounds are assaulting our senses at once.
- Talk about a rude awakening.
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
- Well hey, at least there's coffee. And we might need it, because the poem starts to get a little less literal and a little more figurative in lines 19-20. It's time to up the brain power.
- So, a "masquerade" is a costumed dance and here "time" is the one throwing this dance. Now what's that all about?
- Perhaps our speaker means that time isn't real; it's an illusion, like a mask. (We can say that the idea of time-as-illusion is an idea he'll pursue again and again in his later work. Check out "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for one example.)
- Let's read on to see if there's more on this metaphor.
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
- The speaker considers how, every morning, all of the people of the city raise their shades to let in the light. It's not necessarily a lovely thought, though; the shades are "dingy."
- Thinking about how people in the city live seems to depress the speaker, or maybe the people themselves are depressed by the idea that everyone is doing the same thing at once, day in and day out.
- So there's the reason behind calling time a masquerade: if we always do the same things every day, it is like time never passes. Nothing ever really changes, says the speaker.
- They seem to find the monotony of these small actions to be pretty sad. Where's the joy, where's the excitement?
- Maybe it's in stanza 3? Let's find out…
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
- The third stanza has gotten pretty direct—notice the change in tone? All of a sudden, the poem is all about us again, instead of the more impersonal "one" back in stanza 2.
- Here we are, then, in bed. But don't get too excited about an impromptu nap; we are suffering from a little bit of insomnia.
- We stare at the ceiling, restless and waiting. Waiting… waiting… Waiting for what? Let's read on.
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
- If it's sleep we are waiting for, it's finally arrived. It isn't the most restful sleep, though. It's full of "sordid" (a.k.a. smutty) images.
- And we guess it isn't just the city that's a bit… seedy. Our souls are, too. They're filled with "dirty" thoughts.
- These thoughts are only revealed in the night, according to the speaker. But isn't it light that normally does the revealing? How can the dark reveal anything?
- Let's read on for answers…
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
- We get more light imagery in these lines. The "sordid images" are flickering, like a candle's flame. Whatever the light is revealing, it sure isn't pleasant.
- After this image, Eliot uses an end stop. Maybe we are supposed to pause for a moment and consider our own sordid thoughts.
- But morning comes, like always. The return of the light (at daybreak) seems to bring the whole world "back" to us.
- Does that mean that night brings negative things, and the day takes them away? Maybe. But notice the personification in line 31: the light "crept up." It sounds kinda… creepy (pardon the pun)—like a bug. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" for more.
- It sure doesn't sound like daybreak does much to relieve the images that have been keeping us awake all night.
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
- We might still be cozily inside, but morning is breaking. It's time to start thinking about getting up and ready for the day. But then we have a "vision" of the streets of the city.
- Say what? Perhaps we are imagining the day ahead of us, and we can't help but think of those dirty streets from the first stanza.
- It's a mental image that we can't communicate; not even the street itself could recognize itself in our image—that is, if streets could recognize things (personification, anyone?).
- It might be that the way we see the city is influenced by our emotions. If we feel gloomy, the streets feel gloomy, too. That's why they may not appear in our "visions" the same way they do in reality.
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
- We're just getting ready for the day, unrolling the newspaper strips from our hair. Sure, who hasn't hopped out of bed to do just that?
- Actually, winding sections of hair up with strips of paper was a cheap way to get pincurls, which were popular in Eliot's time.
- In this stanza, we're a woman, getting ready for another day (even though we're still pretty grimy from the day before).
- The imagery of the paper—as well as the dirty, yellow feet and hands—mirrors the imagery of the dingy street in the first stanza.
- The stanza ends with this grime that we can't seem to avoid. It's affected our mind and our body.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
- So, we've gone from yellow feet to someone's soul.
- Whose, you ask? Perhaps it belongs to some man from the street, where we again find ourselves. This soul is both in the sky, which is fading, and under the feet of the people, who are trampling all over it.
- Either way, the fellow's soul is being diminished and ignored. Everyone is just too busy to notice it (sad).
- He tries to get us to slow down and notice it, though (the bossy guy); there are two end stops in these lines to get that idea across.
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
- Again, we get more unpleasant imagery. These three lines focus in on particular body parts of the people in the city: the fingers (stuffing a pipe) and the eyes (which seem assured of "certain certainties").
- So what could these people be assured of? Consider what is pretty certain in day-to-day life: day, night, bills, work, hunger, pipe-smoking—all the basics. Whatever the daily certainties of life are, Eliot is not painting them in the most flattering light.
- And the newspapers are back, too. With this repeated symbol, Eliot is reminding us of the grime that we can't seem to escape. We aren't just observing the people and their habits, though; we're watching someone's soul. It floats around all these people, and yet they still ignore it.
- Could this soul represent everyone's souls, which exist outside of the hum-drum of daily life? Let's read on to see...
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
- Here, he tells us that the soul is the street's conscience. Because it's fading, like the sky, or being trampled underneath people's feet, it's not something that most people bother with.
- Our conscience isn't so easily put off, though; it wants to join the world. Eliot even calls it "impatient."
- So why don't we see our conscience, if it's there impatiently waiting for us? Do the daily, grimy facts of life (like newspapers and buildings) prevent us from really seeing it?
- Deep stuff—Eliot definitely wants us to consider these big questions. He even uses an end stop after "world" to encourage us to take a break and contemplate before we move on to the next image.
- Contemplation over? Okay great—now we can move on.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
- We see a change in perspective here. Now, we get the speaker himself (or herself) in the first person. Suddenly, our speaker is involved, instead of just narrating from afar.
- The speaker sees a more hopeful world, one where something "infinitely gentle" floats around dreary images.
- But "thing" is not exactly the most specific word. Is he keeping it kind of vague on purpose? Are we supposed to guess what this "thing" is, or is it something (like the soul) that can't really be pinned down? Whatever these vague "fancies" might be, they don't give up. They're eternal.
- This moves the speaker, perhaps enough to make him or her use first-person perspective for the first time in the poem.
- But is our speaker moved in a positive, hopeful way, or is he or she still totally bummed out? Let's read on to the finale.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
- With this strange, compelling final image, Eliot's speaker reminds us that the world "revolves"; history repeats itself. There'll always be women gathering fuel in dismal, "vacant lots."
- Remember what he said earlier about time having no meaning, since we are always doing the same things? He's echoing that here.
- Basically, human life will always involve dreary, monotonous situations, like the ones we've seen in the poem.
- It's hard out there—especially for women. It's interesting that both here, and in stanza 2, the speaker specifically indicates that women struggle. In any case, it's not a super-hopeful thought…
- Though, on the plus side, he does tell us to buck up and laugh. The command to wipe our mouth seems to indicate some kind of preparation. It's as though we're being told prepare our face (clean all the tears and spit and cookie crumbs off) to face reality with a chuckle. Of course, whether it's a bitter laugh or a joyful one is… well, up for debate.