Assigned: The Waste Land (2368-83); "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (2395-2401).
The Waste Land
I. The Burial of the Dead.
1. What elements of the first section set up the problems that the poem as a whole explores: the loss of a unifying mythic consciousness and loss of individual and cultural vitality?
2. To what end does the first section of the poem incorporate historical references, people, and settings?
3. Is there a single narrative voice behind the various utterances made in the poem? To what extent do the biblical references help you construct a narrator or to what extent do they encompass the poem's meaning?
4. What seems to be the value of Madame Sosostris' the clairvoyant's from 42 through 59? Does she have anything to offer us?
5. From lines 60 through 76, who is the "Stetson" addressed by the narrative voice? What sense of London emerges from this stanza?
6. If you are familiar with the grail legends of Arthurian romance, what elements of these stories does the first section introduce?
II. A Game of Chess.
7. How does this section represent sexuality or sexual reproduction?
8. How do you connect this section with the previous one?
9. Why might the reference to Philomel be significant in terms of the poet's task in the waste land as well as to the cultural regeneration the poem calls for?
10. How do you interpret the references to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in this section? Is the poem making a statement about the relationship between the present and literary tradition?
III. The Fire Sermon.
11. To what extent does this section purge our vision of the scenes in the previous section? Explain.
12. If purgation is the theme of this section, what kinds of purgation do you find?
13. This section seems to continue the scenes of sexual frustration and apathy from the previous section. But does Tiresias offer a way around these problems? How might Tiresias be considered a purgative or purifying force?
14. Why is the mention of Edmund Spenser's River Thames a possible turning point in the poem? Explain.
IV. Death by Water.
15. What happens to Phlebas the Phoenician? Does this section advance the plot? If so, how?
V. What the Thunder Said.
16. In the course of this section, what is discovered, and what does the discovery make possible? For whom?
17. What strategies for survival or at least for understanding do the poem's final three stanzas involve?
"Tradition and the Individual Talent"
18. How, on pages 2396-97, does Eliot describe the tradition and the "mind of Europe" to which writers must connect themselves? How can the past be altered by the present?
19. How does Eliot answer the charge that his theory requires "a ridiculous amount of erudition"? Do you find The Waste Land, which Eliot wrote three years after this essay, a successful example of the kind of poetry he is calling for? Why or why not?
20. From 2398-99, how does Eliot characterize the creative process? What does the poet's mind "express"? How does his analogy of the poet's mind to "a bit of finely filiated platinum" help him explain the creative process?
21. What fault, on 2400, does Eliot find with Wordsworth's formulation of poetic expression as "emotion recollected in tranquility"? How does his essay as a whole reject romantic expressivism?
22. Eliot does not say much about how the reader connects to the kind of literature he is defending. What conjectures can you offer on this point?
Edition: Abrams, M. H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vols. 2A-C. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2000. ISBN 2A = 0393975681, 2B = 039397569X, 2C = 0393975703.