The Waste Land – TS Eliot – Burial of The Dead

TS Eliot demonstrates post war disillusionment through his pessimism of spring…

(images by wiki)

The Waste Land is a five part poem by T.S Eliot published in 1922. If you are not already familiar with the text you may like to take some time to listen to it here, read by the man himself.

The Burial of the Dead begins Eliot’s Waste Land. Notice that the poet has begun his work with death and ended by entitling part five What the Thunder Said, the people in anticipation of rejuvenating rain.

As well as its innovative technique of mixing fragments of classic texts together, The Waste Land was also controversial for its pessimistic tone. This really comes across in The Burial of the Dead when you contrast Chaucer’s April of The Canterbury Tales (14C) with Eliot’s description. ‘April is the cruellest month.’ How ironic that the beginning of spring should be described in such a manner.

Post War disillusionment is a big theme in the text and is demonstrated in The Burial of the Dead through the cruelty of April and this infertile barren place of ‘dead land’,dull roots’ and ‘dried tubers’. These elements not only symbolise the physical death toll in the aftermath of the First World War but also the barrenness of post war culture.

In the fourth stanza the crowd flowing over London Bridge looking at their feet is comparable to the characters in Dante’s L’Inferno which describes a people in limbo. They have led blameless lives and yet they are for themselves, with no interest or belief in God. Eliot uses Dante to express the sentiment of the modern world. Each man for himself. These London dwellers are neither living nor dead but automatons living out a pointless existence, culturally and spiritually unfulfilled.

Madam Sosostris is perceived to be ‘the wisest woman in Europe’ and yet even she can suffer something as commonplace as a cold. Eliot confesses to knowing little about the actual Tarot but the cards he has chosen for The Waste Land reflect the characters and themes found throughout the poem.

1.      The Drowned Phoenician Sailor.

A sailor who has drowned in water.

If we look back at ancient Vegetation Rituals throughout different cultures we will discover that an effigy of the vegetation god was cast into the water and mourned prior to his ‘resurrection.’ This ties in rather well with Eliot’s line from The Fire Sermon, ‘by the waters of Lehman I sat down and wept.’

Also take note of the quote from The Burial of the Dead, ‘Those were pearls that are his eyes.’ This is a quote from Shakespeare’s Tempest which continues:

 ‘Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.’

 The sea has transformed his dead eyes into beautiful pearls. Just as the Vegetation god is replenished by the waters and celebrated.

 The cards were given Eliot’s own interpretation and served his own purpose.

Bella Donna – Lady of the Rocks.

The Lady of Situations.

There are several ways that one could interpret the name given to this card. Firstly it could be that Belladonna or ‘Beautiful Lady’ is referring to the deadly poisonous plant commonly known as Deadly Nightshade. Secondly, one can observe that the lady is carrying the Grail Cup and yet she cannot be reached by ship because of the rocks surrounding her. I know that from a study of Celtic Mythology that the morally impure were unable to attain the mystical chalice.


 The Man with three staves.

(The Fisher King observing his kingdom.)

A genuine Tarot Card.

To Eliot, this card represents the Fisher King whose wounds are reflected in the poverty and barrenness of his land. The Fisher King can only be cured by a hero who seeks spirituality and compassion. The tone of Eliot’s Waste Land may overall be a pessimistic one but look at the tiny buds on the staves he has planted in Waste Land.


The Wheel of Fortune

In Greek mythology Ixion is said to be the first person guilty of slaying his kin. He was punished for his sins by being forced to spin for eternity around a fiery wheel. A comparison can be made here between Ixion and the characters in the post war Waste Land. After the mass killings of the war the characters are living in a limbo. See also Dante’s L’Inferno and the circles of hell.


The Waste Land – T.S Eliot

L’Inferno – Dante

The Cantebury Tales – Chaucer

Fromn Ritual to Romance – Jessie Weston

Crossroads Tarot

Celtic Mythology – Arthur Coterell

Further reading:

The Waste Land – TS Eliot – An Introductory Overview and First Insight

connect with the authoress at:

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  1. Posted January 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    I don’t feel qualified enough to comment on this

  2. Posted January 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    My fault it was a bit daunting of me to launch straight in. I have added a bit of background and an audio video from u tube. Hope to see you again.

  3. Posted February 3, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Magic Quill,
    i’ll take some time to go thru it…..thanks for giving some inputs about the poet.

  4. Posted February 3, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    you’re welcome. As for U tube. I think I’ll have to type it out…

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