T. S. Eliot Questions for English 222 American Literature, CSU Fullerton



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"The Waste Land" (Vol. D 378-91).

The Waste Land

General Questions

1. Is there a single narrative voice behind the various utterances made in The Waste Land? To what extent do biblical and classical-age references help you construct a narrator or to what extent do they affect the poem's development and drive home its themes?

2. Many readers have found the allusive style of The Waste Land daunting since, after all, the poem's author was a polymath who chose to incorporate an astonishing array of historical references, characters, narrative voices, settings, and myths. What strategy do you find yourself employing to understand the broader significance of the poem as a whole?

I. The Burial of the Dead

3. In Part I, lines 1-18 of The Waste Land, how are the first seven lines related to Countess Marie's recollections about her childhood, fraught as they are with seasonal references? What kind of consciousness does Marie seem to represent? What is the substance of her recollections, and why do you suppose Marie is the first character (aside from a narrative voice) we hear from?

4. In Part I, lines 19-30 of The Waste Land, the text refers to three Biblical sources, as your Norton notes indicate: Ecclesiastes and the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah. Who seems to be the "Son of Man" addressed, and who is speaking to that figure? The text in with allusions to these prophetic/wisdom texts to make them "show" the Son of Man something, so what is it that he is being shown: what insight is being imparted to him and presumably to us as well?

5. In Part I, lines 35-42 of The Waste Land, we hear from the "hyacinth girl." What symbolic charge does the flower in question carry? What kind of experience is this girl relating to us, and why is that experience significant to the first part of the poem? Furthermore, why surround it with the tragic strains of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at lines 31-34 and 42?

6. In Part I, lines 43-59 of The Waste Land, the fortuneteller Madame Sosostris puts in an appearance and reads her pack of Tarot cards. What thematic significance can we gather from her enumeration of the images on the cards she draws?

7. In Part I, lines 60-76 of The Waste Land, London is cast as an Unreal City, rather like Paris in Charles Baudelaire's collection of poems called Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), or William Blake's miserable spectral London, or Dante's hellish landscapes from The Inferno. What is going on in Eliot's London, and how can we put together the strange pastiche of allusions throughout this block of lines – i.e. the references to the English Renaissance playwright John Webster and the French poet Charles Baudelaire, to Dante and to the famous Roman First Punic War victory in 260 BCE over Carthaginian naval forces off Mylae in Sicily? How do you interpret the relation between this segment and the poem's first 59 lines? That is, does it mainly drive home themes already mentioned and thereby cap off the first part, or does it bring up new matter to be explored?

8. We might do well to say that Part I of The Waste Land sets up the problems that the poem as a whole explores: the loss of a unifying mythic consciousness and loss of individual and cultural vitality. How does any one of the several concentrations in this part of the poem (i.e. the initial reference to the seasonal cycle, Countess Marie's recollections, Biblical allusions, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Madame Sosostris, or London the Unreal City) help in that regard?

II. A Game of Chess

9. Part II of The Waste Land alludes to a number of famous historical or mythical females: Cleopatra, Queen Dido of Carthage, Philomela from the Ovidian story "Tereus, Procne, and Philomela" in The Metamorphoses, and (at the very end of this part) Ophelia from Hamlet. Why this cluster of women -- what do these famous figures have in common that makes them all relevant to the thematic interests of this section of Eliot's poem?

10. How do you connect Part II of The Waste Land (with its concentration on gender, sexuality, and reproduction) with the previous section of the poem, which emphasized scenes and thoughts rife with incomprehension, failure, sterility and despair?

11. It is always difficult to pin down the narrative voices or speakers in The Waste Land, so reflect on that issue here: what voice or voices seem to be speaking the lines in Part II, and what leads you to make the determinations that you make in that regard?

III. The Fire Sermon

12. In keeping with the title drawn from one of Buddha's sermons, we might say that condemnation of humanity's fixation on sensuality and the things of this world is a major theme in Part III of The Waste Land, along with the implied need to purify or purge one's mind and senses to escape such fixations. If that's the case, choose a few voices or scenes in Part III and discuss how they articulate this theme.

13. Part III of The Waste Land continues to dwell on sexual frustration and apathy as the previous section did. What perspective does the Greek prophet Tiresias (whom Eliot considered a central voice in the poem) offer on these problems? What does Tiresias see, and how does he respond to it?

IV. Death by Water

14. What happens to Phlebas the Phoenician in Part IV of The Waste Land? Does this character's death advance the poem's plot? If so, how? In any case, why do you suppose this admonitory relation of Phlebas' death has been placed here before the climactic ending of the poem?

V. What the Thunder Said

15. The Waste Land draws in part upon independent scholar Jessie Laidlay Weston's discussion of the Grail Legend in her impressive 1920 study From Ritual to Romance. The basic idea is that a Fisher King has been wounded or is ill and his lands have suffered as a result; a quester (an Arthurian knight or an heir to the throne) must help the King heal and thereby restore his lands, in part by "restoring the waters" to a drought-stricken territory. The motif of a restorative quest seems especially important in Part V of The Waste Land, so what elements of it can you find there? If the end of the poem is the end of the quest, how successful has it been? What, if anything, has been achieved by way of insight or improvement in the world constituted by the poem? What passages in Part V are you drawing on to arrive at your view?