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The Opening of The Waste Land By T. S. Eliot 1922

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

NOTE: THE WASTELAND is not a “difficult poem” (see Pound’s CANTOS) but it does require some study and attention. It ain’t a pop song written to be glib. The whole of THE WASTELAND with annotations is AT THIS LOCATION: You click on the links in the poem on the left to see the meaning of the poem’s allusions on the right. It is, as Sherlock Holmes has said, “Simplicity itself.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anne April 2, 2020, 10:13 AM

    Good poetry is a gift we give to ourselves–Thank you for this posting.

    BTW–do you have a website that provides information regarding the various types of journal writing? I know that one can write a journal in chronological order, or you can write a journal mixing up the times and sequences of the various events, but I am not sure about the different types and how they are identified. For those of us of a certain age who are staying home it might be fun to record a journal for our grandchildren to understand the times and events. Thank you again.

  • Anne April 2, 2020, 10:30 AM

    Please forgive my multiple postings, but I thought your readers might appreciate this review of the poem and its author.

  • John Venlet April 2, 2020, 11:37 AM

    Eliot’s imagery, in this poem, is exceptional, and, at least in my neck of the woods, one can see with their own eyes the lilacs coming to life, the fingers of hostas and garlic reaching up to the sun, and various shades of green in grasses, mosses, and hardy herbs. This is only cruel in the sense that the nights still dip below freezing, the sun is most often hindered by the clouds, and the thawing ground camouflages a viscous mud.

    As to the ending of Eliot’s poem, the fear in the handful of dust that we are being shown, is the unending stream of contradictory, false, and misleading information we are being fed by the propagandists of doom, not only in the media, but within the government in regards to this Chinese flu.

  • Willy Ruffian April 2, 2020, 11:48 AM

    I read it; and its gibberish, either the emperor has no clothes or I’m a simpleton, I’m not sure which.

  • Daniel K Day April 2, 2020, 12:04 PM

    Willy: Dittos.

  • Vanderleun April 2, 2020, 12:38 PM

    Willy. Dan. It’s not difficult but you do have to take it slowly and sometimes multiple readings of the whole poem. It’s not gibberish and it’s not ditto. Trust me on this.

    The whole Wasteland WITH annotations is here:


    You click on the links in the poem on the left to see the meaning of the poem’s allusions on the right. It is, as Sherlock Holmes has said, “Simplicity itself.”

  • Vanderleun April 2, 2020, 12:42 PM

    Now noted above. Hope that helps.

  • Daniel K Day April 2, 2020, 1:49 PM

    That’s very gracious of you, Gerard. Thank you.

  • Rob De Witt April 2, 2020, 2:17 PM

    These opening lines have always brought to mind this, from Robert Frost:

    Nature’s first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold.
    Her early leaf’s a flower;
    But only so an hour.
    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.

  • PA Cat April 2, 2020, 4:48 PM

    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
    That line, along with Eliot’s references to memory, desire, and the life cycles of trees and flowers, reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring & Fall: to a young child”:
    [the accent marks are Hopkins’]

    Margaret, are you grieving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?
    Leaves, like the things of man, you
    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
    Ah! as the heart grows older
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
    And yet you wíll weep and know why.
    Now no matter, child, the name:
    Sorrow’s springs are the same.
    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
    What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
    It is the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.

  • Vanderleun April 2, 2020, 5:07 PM

    I’ve long thought that Hopkins’ finest line among thousands of fine lines was:

    “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;”

    Just sound it slowly and savor.

  • ghostsniper April 2, 2020, 6:11 PM

    Don’t forget the peonies. I didn’t cut ours back last fall, they are 4′ long and now the ends are turning red. Never seen that before. Yes, the hosta’s, sneaking up out of the ground. Stepped on one the other day and almost twisted an ankle. Slick devil. The daffodils are happy, and almost 2 feet high. The crocuses are little though, maybe 4 inches, most unusual. In a couple weeks the irises, my favorites. The forsythias are poppin! It’s happenin’!

  • Anne April 2, 2020, 7:40 PM

    We had snow today. DH hates late spring snows. He had already pulled my potted peony out of winter storage!

  • jwm April 2, 2020, 8:24 PM

    It is still a difficult piece. I’ve had this long cool day on my hands with not much to do, so I gave The Wasteland several readings, and clicked through the links to illuminate the allusions. I’ve read this poem quite a few times through over the years. In some ways reading Eliot reminds me of learning to listen to classical music. You can’t hear a Beethoven symphony, or a Bach cantata on one listening. It may take nearly a dozen tries before you ‘get’ the music, and then it can be absolutely overwhelming. Like staring into one of those magic eye pictures until the three-D illusion becomes clear. I have had friends who were in love with progressive jazz. I can understand, that like Mozart or Bach, it is an acquired taste. I’ve never felt like the investment in energy was worth whatever reward I might find in Coltraine. So it seems with a lot of Modern poetry.
    Even so I actually enjoy reading Eliot. I will, on occasion, go back and look at this piece, The Hollow Men, Prufrock, or the Quartets, although I mostly fail to hear the music in his poems. I’ve never had that break through moment. No Eureaka! I think I’m coming close, but only coming close. I recall some time back here that The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock came up. Much the same story. I get a hazy montage of images, and something like shapes in a fog in the way of meaning. I find this frustrating, because it leaves me with the suspicion that I just didn’t “get it”. Maybe I’m trying to apply a seventy-five watt brain to a hundred watt task. Could be. But that’s never a comfortable feeling.


  • James ONeil April 3, 2020, 9:45 AM

    The Waste Land, read by Alec Guinness

  • Vanderleun April 3, 2020, 10:19 AM

    Now that is a great reading. Needs that upper class Brit roll to work.

  • Willy Ruffian April 3, 2020, 4:04 PM

    Thanks for that link. Ive read it through twice and i am resigned,alas,to being a philistine. I think,in my case,its a lack of emotional synchronicity. Back to Kipling for me. I take some comfort in the fact that Elliot was a fan too. Keep up the grand work, i havent missed a day since you started.

  • H April 3, 2020, 5:52 PM

    And thrice he heard a breech-bolt snick tho’ never a man was seen.

  • BlogDog April 3, 2020, 11:50 PM

    I found Eliot with “Prufrock” as a college student and never let go. This after having “read” “The Hollow Men” in high school and finding absolutely nothing in it. Then, a few years down the road, I read him again and it stabbed into me like a shard of glass. I still read the Four Quartets and sink into those words every time. And pretty much the same with “Waste Land.” At the same time, I fully understand he’s not to everyone’s taste.
    To me, sublime. Thanks for posting.

  • BlogDog April 3, 2020, 11:52 PM

    The second sentence above should be: This after having “read”….