Study Guide

The Waste Land Memory and the Past

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Memory and the Past

There's just no getting away from the past in "The Waste Land," but Eliot's biggest criticism of modern society is that it has gotten too far away from the past. Throughout this poem, you encounter a lot of personal memories; but for Eliot, these aren't nearly as important as the "cultural memory" he's trying to preserve in this poem.

Many critics have criticized Eliot for being "nostalgic," meaning that he tends to fantasize about a glorious past that probably never existed. Sure, if all you read are the great classics of literature, then it's going to seem that everyone living in Rome was killing tigers with his bare hands and drinking wine with the gods. For Eliot, though, there's just no question that modern society has developed a depressing sort of cultural amnesia, and the decline of this society is directly connected to the fact that people don't have a good enough understanding of their cultural history. So you make the call: is he right on or way off?

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. Do you think it's possible to have a personal, emotional connection with a past you never lived through, or is this always just a fantasy? In other words, is it possible for us modern folks to do what Eliot wants us to do, or are we doomed from the get-go? 
  2. Does Eliot's poem offer any worthwhile advice for us to take forward into the future, or is the poem just too stuck in the past to have any value for us?
  3. Why do you think Eliot was so obsessed by the idea of society's decline? Do you think things were as bad in the 1920's as he says they were? Are they better now? Worse?
  4. In what ways do you find comfort when you look to your own past? Why do people so often think that the past was somehow better than the present?

Chew on This

In "The Waste Land," Eliot suggests that Western culture has no hope for the future, and that all it can do is sit around and mope.

In "The Waste Land," Eliot is calling for a full-blown revival of the past, and he truly believes we can return to a more glorious time in our history.

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