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Considered the most important poem of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is an oblique and fascinating view of the hopelessness and confusion of purpose in modern Western civilization. Published in 1922the same year as Joyce’s equally monumental UlyssesThe Waste Land is a series of fragmentary dramatic monologues and cultural quotations that crossfade into one another. Eliot believed that this style best represented the fragmentation of society, and his poem portrays a sterile world of panicky fears and barren lusts, and of human beings waiting for some sign or promise of redemption. Mirroring the destruction and disillusionment of World War I, The Waste Land had the effect of a bomb exploded in a genteel drawing room, just as its author intended.
This volume also includes Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and Poems (1919). Prufrock contains the poem that first put Eliot on the map, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which the title character is tormented by the difficulty of articulating his complex feelings. Among other masterpieces, Poems features "Gerontion," a meditative interior monologue in blank versea poem like none before it in the English language.
Randy Malamud is Professor of English and Associate Chair of the department at Georgia State University. His specialty is modern literature, and he has written three books and numerous articles about T. S. Eliot.
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From Randy Malamud’s Introduction toThe Waste Land and Other Poems
If we regard Eliot’s first two collections as thesis/antithesis, then the synthesis was accompanied by (and probably in many ways facilitated by) a personal breakdown in 1921. The Waste Land is a record of the poet’s collapse, as well as the sign of his recovery. As he traveled back from Switzerland, where he had undergone treatment, to resume his life in England, Eliot left a draft of the poem in Paris for Ezra Pound to edit. The poem records a nervous breakdown, but more importantly it recounts how the poet imposes a sense of order, coherence, and direction on the cacophonous chaos of the breakdown.
Explicitly, the breakdown in The Waste Land is meant to be the breakdown of Europe, but increasingly critics have come to realize that it is also the very personal account of Eliot’s own psychological distress. In part III, for example, he writes, “‘On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.’” The beach at Margate was where Eliot had vacationed, following a friend’s advice, in an attempt to avert his breakdown; but the holiday did not ameliorate his situation and prompted him to seek the therapeutic assistance of a Lausanne psychologist, Dr. Henri Vittoz. And when the voice of the poem states (in an unusual first-person address) in line 182, “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .” Eliot is describing the simple, powerful nadir of his breakdown: Leman is the old name for Lake Geneva, which Lausanne overlooks. Although Eliot always resisted autobiographical readings of art, the poem inescapably invites such readings. In the closing lines, when Eliot writes “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” it seems impossible not to read that as a description of how Eliot’s embrace and desperate association of the shards that comprise the poem have helped to stave off his psychological “ruins.” The act of assembling these pieces of the European cultural tradition served as a bulwark against the intellectual collapse—in both his public and private worlds—that seemed so imminent.
On the national level, the breakdown Eliot envisioned was a consequence of the state of Europe during and after the Great War. More personally, the poem can be read as an account from the trenches of a poet who, though he didn’t actually fight in that war, fought and survived his own metaphorical war. (Critics have speculated that Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked poet manqué in Mrs. Dalloway, was at least loosely inspired by her erstwhile friend Tom.)
The Waste Land achieves a synthesis between the free-floating observations of Prufrock and the anguished, surreal pretensions of Poems 1920. The philosophical/intellectual praxis of Eliot’s modern epic is less gratuitous, and more pragmatic, than what he propounded in his previous collection—still difficult and harsh, certainly, but in a way that lent itself (at least for Eliot’s initiates, his devotees) to solving, working through. If Poems 1920 was (and was meant to be) off-putting, The Waste Land was somehow, despite itself, addictively compelling. The themes, the tropes, the images, the aesthetic that Eliot created in that poem are still going strong, inescapably etched into our cultural consciousness nearly a century later. (For example, it is virtually impossible to read any newspaper in any April without a headline recalling that it is “the cruelest month.”) Eliot postulated that the modern landscape looked harsh, hostile, crazy, fragmented, with the monuments of the past tormenting us amid our present unworthiness and inadequacy, and apparently he was right.
A first-time reader confronted with The Waste Land must determine, at the outset, how to read the poem: how to assimilate it and make sense of it. It is, of course, “modern,” so one approaches it with the same understanding of modern aesthetics that one brings to Picasso’s cubism, or Stravinsky’s symphonies, or Diaghilev’s dance. One allows that the apparent chaos of the work, the difficulty, the excess, is in some way mimetic of the dazzling and sometimes incoherent world outside; and also that things will not be presented in a neat, clear narrative structure, because anything too conventional or too easily accessible would be consequently trite—one must work hard to glean important insights from the modern zeitgeist. Modernists believed that the more complex a text is, the more likely it is to do justice to the complexity of the world outside, a world that in the space of one generation is awakening to cinema, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, world war, and so forth.
The poem suggests many schemes or models—probably far too many—that offer aids to comprehension. Some of these come from Eliot’s own critical apparatus: The notes at the end of the poem, for example, promise insights. The endnotes were not included with the first two periodical publications of the poem—in The Criterion (London) in October 1922 and in The Dial (New York) the next month; they appeared only with the first book edition. Eliot once said that the publishers of this edition “wanted a larger volume and the notes were the only available matter,” and in a 1957 lecture he referred to them as a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship.” In fact, the notes vary greatly in relevance and usefulness.