One of the most influential poems in the English language is T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, “The Waste Land.” I recall studying portions of this poem in high school and college, but I couldn’t honestly say that I had read the entire 434-line poem from start to finish, which is why I added it to my “bucket list” several years ago.
Yesterday, Sunday, was a somewhat rainy day, and while sitting around the house, I got to thinking about Eliot’s famous poem. I moved a few hundred comic books aside, reached way back on a shelf and pulled out my old, freshman-level Norton American Lit anthology book. A quick glance at the table of contents told me that “The Waste Land” could be found between pages 1038 and 1052, complete with footnotes.
At the outset, this poem doesn’t appear long. You say to yourself it’s only 434 lines long, but it took me a little over an hour to slowly read the whole thing along with the footnotes. After taking a little break, I read it for a second time without stopping to read the footnotes, and that took about 15 to 20 minutes.
Reading it all the way through without stopping to read the footnotes is a much more enjoyable experience, but you will probably need the footnotes in order to understand the poem, especially if you don’t speak Greek, Italian, German or French. These languages are sprinkled throughout this long poem, and without the footnotes, these phrases are incomprehensible and meaningless in relation to the overall poem.
The footnotes are also indispensable because they explain dozens of references to other great works of literature that can be found throughout this poem. These references are numerous and include references to the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek mythology, the Arthurian legends, Baudelaire, Dante, Ovid and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” If you’re like me, and not an expert on all these sources, the references might fly right over your head. Even with the footnotes, the meaning of some of these references is still somewhat hard to grasp.
All of these literary references somewhat reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” graphic novel series in that you never know when some unusual reference will rear its head. These references are more clear in the “Sandman” series, but they are of the same ilk as those in “The Waste Land.” The poem also reminded me of Faulkner’s “The Sound in the Fury” in how it seemed to jump around in time, character and point of view.
Taken for face value, this poem has a really high “cool factor.” Reading from start to finish without stopping for the footnotes, the poem has a nice beat and reeks of mystery and hidden meaning. It also left me wanting to make copies of it, so that I could read it at least once a day, so that more meaning might reveal itself to me through multiple readings.
In the end, how many of you have read “The Waste Land” from start to finish? What did you think about it? Did you like it or not? What other world class poems would you recommend reading? Let us know in the comments section below.