December Selection: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

We will meet on December 5 (Note new meeting day, this month only) to discuss Peter Farnum’s selection,

T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land.

Peter provides the following information about his selection:

Waste Land – How to aproach it

This attachment gives some ideas as to how to approach this difficult poem.

You have many options as to how to obtain a copy to read. It is available for free on the Internet, you can find Eliot or others reading it on, you can buy a collection of Eliot’s poems in which it is included, or you can do as I did, which was to buy a study book on it, which includes the text. What you do depends on what you want to get out of it.

The book I used is listed in a footnote on the first page of document in the above attachment.


The motif of Lovemaking

This is one of two additional “handouts,” which I am asking you to read before our meeting. This one contains quotes from The Waste Land that have to do with the motif of lovemaking without love that occurs throughout the poem. I’ve added footnotes to put the scenes in some context.

My intention is to completely debunk the idea, common to many reviewers, that The Waste Land has no structure, no plan, and consists of disconnected images. Reading this you will see that the image, or motif, if you will, of loveless lovemaking, occurs repeatedly throughout the poem.

It also connects, and stands in contrast, to the Sanskrit philosophy that Eliot gives us to help restore the waste land to health.


Images of Wetness Dryness and Death by Water

Here is an attachment that I hope will give you a perspective on one possible interpretation of the poem. It tracks images of wetness and dryness through the whole poem. Not surprisingly they occur in a clear pattern that helps to reveal what Eliot may have been trying to do. In the footnotes I attempt to tell how these motifs fit into one idea of his plan.

I hope you find it interesting and helpful (if that’s what you want.)


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2013 Selections, The Waste Land and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to December Selection: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

  1. David Gilmour says:

    Since The Waste Land, all 433 pages and a couple of handfuls of dusty notes, may be read a dozen times a week, or even listened to on the YouTube by the poet himself, anyway you go about it, it may not be time-demanding reading. The possibilities for gaining a greater interest in the ideas behind the poetry, Eliot’s sources, and the poetic aesthetics. It is all out there for consideration and I definitely urge the members to pursue some questions they may have in the interpretation, by finding out what someone else thought the passage told or expressed poetically well, and not always–like much poetry, almost totally unintelligible, until the reader gets into it. There are thousands of books on Eliot and studies of The Waste Land as his magnum opus, as well as commentaries on all his poetry generally and in high-brow academic researches. I certainly hope most of us can meet on the Harbor Towers of Elliott Bay to view the welter of humanity in motion outside, moving on every conceivable conveyance in the upscale urban city’s transportation system. Anyway, it will be a good discussion if people read it over and over for a while and have questions. I’ve been all questioning myself for weeks about it. And I do like the poetic techniques a great deal. Like discovering them.

  2. Burk Ketcham says:

    THE WASTE LAND (Peter’s selection for December) and THE LOST STEPS (David’s selection coming up in January)

    Could not resist this but it seems that Peter and David may have put us, as they say, between a rock and a hard place! Try not to get lost.



  3. David Gilmour says:

    We’re actually burning with passion to draw you, Burk, from the dry rocky place, comfortable as it might be under the red rock shelter, into the cooling waters where the music soothes us in our drowning. There’s much to be appreciated of images on fire. The wind, or air, also can be enjoyed if you have the right control of the wheel. — David

  4. Burk Ketcham says:


    You too could be Lorelei impersonators luring us onto the rocks by singing songs of the Waste Land such that we might clutch our slimy belies and sink into the wet bank and lay down and weep by the waters of Leman.

    Several years ago I spent over a week by the waters of Leman (Lake Geneva to most) in Lausanne not for recuperation from nervous disorders and writing non sequetoriously as in the case of Mr. Eliot and not weeping either. Leman seems to have been a watering hole attracting original artistic types. Mary Sheely wrote Frankenstein by its waters, Dostoievsky wrote The Idiot there and Stravinsky lived there when he composed The Rite of Spring.

    London Bridge is now in Arizona.


    I am in The Waste Land
    Spending time in the notes
    Trying to find out first hand
    What Eliot’s words connote

    But alas my friends
    Academics for years
    Have wondered where they tend
    And they – learned seers

    At Leman he did recuperate
    From nervous disorders it is said
    And wrote upon his slate
    Poetry unintelligible when read

    With Peter and David as guides
    We will meet on December five
    To discuss and decide
    If T. S. was worth the drive

  5. David Gilmour says:

    Very good, Burk. You are adept at the quick poem, most lively and acute. I love it, lovit, lov’t! It’s remarkable how the dustiest, fustiest poetry can turn one on, given time. You are, as I take it, already digging in The Waste Land, and you are fructifying it with your own poetizing, through your own mixture of memory and delight, from your world travels, in Lausanne by Leman. Was there a liaison in Lausanne?

    Myself, besides the unending questions the novel–er, I mean the poem–brings up,–and I don’t give a fig or a fig-leaf for answers–the questions are quite enough to ruminate on. As I’ve said, the search for the music, the poetics, the prosody has been quite enough energetic Grail hunting in the dark forest. Twit, twit, jug, jug. It’s affected my speech, says Susan, who reads the Thin Man’s verses better than Mama Sosostris her cards. And she’s right. I’ve found I enunciate my words more tight lipp’t, more Prufrockian, inserting “time for tea” and “keep the cucumber sandwich wedges uncrusted,”as often as I can in sentences, but mostly close to tea-time, the violet hour. My very composition has become clipp’t, uncanny, words canned like sardines, fishing for words that drown the senses. Don’t fret the wet or the dry, don’t stretch to find the all-about, just search, go all about it, you dear Knight, let questions lead, the Grail will sprout. As our predecessor Teddy Wreck once told “Wake to sleep, and take thy waking slow.” Burn to learn by going. –David

  6. Ron Boothe says:

    In case some of you missed David Orr’s review in the New York Times Book Review of Robert Pinsky’s new book, SINGING SCHOOL: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying With the Masters, it seems pretty relevant to our upcoming discussion — even has a passing reference to The Waste Land.

  7. Peter Farnum says:

    Actually I agree with both the main viewpoints of this article. Larkin says “you don’t study poets you read them.” That was my first experience with The Waste Land when I was a freshman in college. I read it and it stuck with me even though I didn’t study it or understand it.

    But the experience David and I have had over the last three months of actually studying =( reading reviews, looking into the works Eliot cited, learning about what was going on in his life at that time, his relationship with Pound, etc.) was a completely different experience than just reading. I learned a lot by studying that I didn’t know by reading

    For me these two approaches were additive. My studying taught me new things, and this added to the pleasure I found in reading it.

    See you next week,


  8. David Gilmour says:

    If we go by Pinsky’s dogma, namely, “We shouldn’t just read something that “seems to be in fashion,” we’re in the right ball park meandering through Eliot’s poetic maze. As Peter implies, anyone who had a taste of The Waste Land or other Eliot poems in their college days, there are always twists, turns and cul-de-sacs of language in them that lure one back in to remeander or reread. And it’s true, once you have taken a good look at all the explications and deep studies of TWL, perhaps many “you have been taught in school,” that “no curriculum or official canon will suffice” to elucidate the poem. Certainly when Peter chose TWL it was not to follow the “easier course” dictated by “the turning wheel of trends”: That would be almost as bad as being content to “model yourself on your university teachers.” It’s a personal choice to forage once again into an illusive poetic landscape, like a knight ‘quipping up and getting “fit” like mad Hieronymo, to consider the enigmatic or mystical Grail, not necessarily to cure a wounded Fisher King, but to question in another way how one can reanimate one’s jaded attitudes, refertilize one’s effete being, or even help to save an ailing planet. The Wheel, whether of fortune or the ship’s tiller, is a guiding mechanism we all must turn. What is the best way to control the wheel, to take the wheel and turn it from the wheel of trends?

    This last bit I wrote in conclusion to my post on Let the Great World Spin. It’s appropriate for The Waste Land, too. Where’s the fertile land in the waste land?

    Oh, it’s great fun to set the imagination afire and ponder such enigmatic language! Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist the intelligence Almost successfully.” It’s a wonder for wondering about. He also explained poetry thus: “It’s the way of making one’s experience, almost wholly inexplicable, acceptable.” Also, in conclusion: “My final point, then, is that imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.”

    Peter has enjoyed himself no end rereading Eliot’s poetry and I have experienced a special joy in appreciating the poetic interest and learning he’s brought to it. We are each ourselves, as a club, Knights of the Round Table together, venturing into “the dark forest” separately, and, as with the thousands of critics and scholars, we will bring out of The Waste Land what we want for ourselves. “A poem should not mean / but be” said dogmatic Archibald MacLeish in his “Ars Poetica.” –David

  9. Peter Farnum says:

    David and I realize that The Waste Land is not an easy poem. However, we are sure that everyone will be able to contribute because, since it is a poem that no one can really master, all reactions are relevant and valid.

    What I’m going to suggest is that you think about it as music or an abstract painting. There’s no need to even try to think about their meaning, and the same holds for The Waste Land.

    Realizing this, then, before the meeting we are suggesting you read it aloud to yourselves, better have someone read it aloud to you, or listen to Eliot on YouTube. Then try to realize what emotions you have just had.

    We think that’s what Eliot had in mind. My reaction, in college when I first read it, was to the contrasting images of wetness and dryness even though I couldn’t connect those to a meaning. But that didn’t matter, it just was like music I liked to hear (although for some perhaps, they didn’t like to hear.)

    See you Thursday morning,

    Peter and David

  10. David Gilmour says:

    Dear All,
    Eager for Thursday to come, Dec 5th 2013 at Sid’s house for our discussion of Peter’s selection The Waste Land. Can hardly wait.

    Recently I wrote a short commentary on Part IV: “Death by Water” which considers not just what to make of the short elegy on the drowning Phoenician sailor but attempts to illustrate how the poetic aesthetics of sound and rhythm combine with the content of the passage. I haven’t
    written anything that says, “This is what it means.” Rather I have speculated about various aspects of the poetics and the relationship of Part IV with other comparable verses from other parts. I thought about
    doing something in this style of interpretation from the first engagement Peter and I had with the poem. After reading about Eliot’s great concern for the poetry and feeling first, before moving to the conception of idea
    or image, I felt the combined interpretation was quite the way to proceed in analysis. It may give you an example of how to “play” with the poem.

    Here below is a passage from A.D. Moody’s essay in which he emphasizes the musical over the logical in Eliot’s work:

    From “A Cure for a Crisis of Civilization?” by A. D. Moody in Michael North’s Norton Critical Edition: T .S. Eliot: The Waste Land: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism (New York, Norton, c2001) pp. 240-246.

    …[The poet must not submit to the mood or the mind of his generation. When his poetry and criticism after The waste Land made explicit how remote in feeling he was from most of his readers, there was a defensive tendency to find that he had betrayed his own real convictions as well as theirs. It is hard to accept that the poet who is using our language greatly is using it for purposes alien to us. Yet the simple truth of the matter is that Eliot had been working from the start for another world than the one
    men and women make up together.

    The cause of the general misapprehension could be that modern readers, like romantic poets, do not feel enough. Certainly we hear the music of feeling—it is what most of us respond to. But when we come to think and talk about the poem, we put the music in the background and ask ‘what does the poem mean?’ When we would be serious we grow rational and regard feelings as less than ideas and opinions. Yet the profound and original life of the poetry, which is the life of feeling, is all in the music. To neglect that is to miss the essential action, the patient dying in order to pass beyond death. (p.244)

    Click here for my essay, , for your consideration.

    Looking forward to being with you again in person. –David

  11. Stirling Smith says:

    Hi All, This is the link that I came upon while listening to T. S. Elliot on youtube.
    It doesn’t take long. I believe perhaps it could extend and even further perpetuate our club’s wonderful digestion of The Waste Land. It is the “Cliff Note” link I spoke of.


  12. David Gilmour says:

    Thanks for posting the Mount lecture, Sterling. It was a worthwhile 48mins. of listening, and I’m glad, as I was earlier not to have read too much of other critics’ explications, that I did not hear it before Peter and I had spent long hours of puzzling deliberation over the whole of The Waste Land. We each did pore over the dried bones, the slimy banks of dull canals, and fished, fished, fished–How we sat and fished! What we fished up often slipped from our grasp, but we had a catch that we purposely released. We did find semblances of order in those rocky places, and we knew by our discussion we each had a different mind at work on it, each of us pondering the new and strange verses like maze-walkers lost in different parts of the mandala. Mont makes a mountain of sense and quite sensibly realizes he can’t explain the poem fully because it’s not a work born from mundane senses. As McLeish urged, Eliot made a poem that does not strictly “mean” but whether it is taken as a personal pilgrimage through one’s own experiences, memories and desires, or a hashing of thoughts in a discussion with a good friend, or with a club of willing discussants, it is a “happening.” It was one the other day, and it still is in my thoughts and feelings. With a little patience, it took on life and has kept giving. As I have already stated, reading Eliot this time around, with Peter’s constant prodding and encouragement, through sharing his mind-blowings towards loftier, insightful nirvana-happiness moments, my aesthetic neurons have been fecundated. The dull banks are blooming. I’m not half so depressed at this year’s end as the mad acquisitive duties of the past Xmas season burdened me with.

    Yesterday I went to a discussion at the Grand Cinema of the newly released film Philomena, with Judi Dench and Stephen Coogan (who also scripted and produced). Stephen Frears of The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, Dangerous Liaisons ddirected. A great filmmaker! I say “Go fish.” or rather “Go see.” After reading and discussing Eliot, I thought much more deeply about the film’s theme of living by faith and living by reason. It’s a powerful indictment of Catholicism of the past–and with resonance toward the more contemporary scandals, but at its heart is the question of forgiveness, as we discussed it some years ago in Burk’s choice of The Sunflower (by Simon Weisental). And it’s connected with the idea of Shantih, the need for catharsis, a way to go onward. — David

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