Study Guide

The Waste Land Memory and the Past

By T.S. Eliot

Memory and the Past

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (1-4)

These opening lines strangely tell us that spring is an awful time of year. Sure, you might not like how wet the ground is, but isn't spring the traditional time of love and rebirth? Not so much for Eliot, because for him, all the spring rain does is stir "dull roots." These dull roots are connected to human memory and desire, which seem to be so dead in this opening scene that nothing will bring them to life. In this passage, Eliot connects memory to a feeling of longing that can never be fulfilled, just as the desire to return to the past can never be fulfilled. This would suggest that memory can only connect us to a past that is gone forever, so it only has the power to make us feel numb. Well, that's one way of looking at it, at least. Hey, we never said the guy was an optimist.

In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. (17-18)

You have to stare at these lines for a long time before they start making any sense at all, but after a while, you start to realize that they are spoken by the woman named Marie who has gotten old, and is no longer the sled lovin' child she was in her younger days. In these lines, we're told about present-day Marie, who only finds adventure by reading books in the night. Her tendency to travel south in the winter is important, too, since it contrasts with the exciting winters she once spent in the snow-covered mountains. Eliot might open the poem with this passage about Marie to show us that society as a whole is too removed from its innocent and playful days. Now, people might want to be too safe, and simply read books about the world instead of experiencing it.

You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Nothing?" (121-125)

An unknown person asks the narrator of the poem a bunch of really nervous, neurotic questions, which all seem to express doubt that the speaker (or even you, the reader) know anything at all. But if you double-check the lines, you find that they're actually asking if you "know nothing," which is different than not knowing anything. These lines ask if you remember nothing, as in the feeling of nothingness. Is this a feeling you know? Eliot is very curious to hear the answer to this, because if the experience of total spiritual nothingness is something you've experienced, you'll probably be able to relate to the depression of this poem in some way. This experience of knowing nothing(ness) is what comes out of having a lack of memory, and of remembering nothing. Throughout this poem, one of the greatest reasons for society's collapse is the general amnesia that many modern people tend to have about their cultural past.

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.) (243-246)

The blind prophet Tiresias describes the scene of the typist being seduced by the "young man carbuncular." Because Tiresias is a prophet, he's already seen or "foresuffered" everything that's about to happen, so the future is already like a memory to him. Trippy, right? Well ol' Tiresias follows these comments with a note about how he used to live in Thebes a couple of thousand years ago. By doing this, Eliot collapses the future and the past into the present of this poem, basically making all three times into one. He might do this in order to disrupt the conventional idea of time, which is all about past, present, future (and in that order), which is a classic modernist trick. He makes this disruption to show us that there are many different ways we could see the world, but we're just so numbed by our routines and habits that our minds are narrow.

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you. (320-321)

The speaker of "Death by Water" describes the image of the sailor Phlebas' body rotting at the bottom of the sea, and uses this image to caution readers of all religions about being too proud. Basically, the passage is asking you to think about the fact that one day you'll die so you won't feel too high and mighty. Humility is a big thing for Eliot in this poem, and there isn't much he dislikes more than people with big egos (although Shmoop must say that Eliot's own ego was not exactly Rhode Island-sized). For this reason, he's trying to get you to think about the story of Phlebas as if it were one of your personal memories. That way, you might learn from the past and not be so full of yourself.

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