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Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land is unarguably a poem about the decline of western
civilization in general. It is for this reason that the reader would not expect to
find many specific references to time and place. Surprisingly, however, there are
a large number of particular references to London – though, interestingly, only one
to the recently-
Eliot presents a detailed picture of London and its civilization. This is partly achieved through place names. The geographical locations given by Eliot are preponderantly rooted in London. Examples include “Queen Victoria Street” (line 258), “Richmond” (line 294), “The Strand” (line 258), “King William Street” (line 66), “The Cannon Street Hotel” (line 213) and “London Bridge” (line 427). Further examples of typical London locations include churches, pubs and bed sitting rooms. Coote argues that these are “descriptions whose principal purpose is to root the poem in the contemporary physical world” (Coote 49), but this is achieved by other aspects of the poem too.
Eliot shows that ‘life goes on’ regardless of difficulties. One aspect of this can be seen in Eliot’s portrayal of ‘work’, or the working population in a busy and important city. In the poem, work is presented as sterile and meaningless. Eliot shows this through the symbolism of the crowd that “flowed over London Bridge” (line 62):
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. (lines 62-
The reference to the dead sound of the bell suggests, in turn, that life dies at ‘nine’ when work begins. Life becomes a “human engine” (line 216) until the ‘violet hour’ (line 215) when work ends and life returns to be ‘lived’. As Coote states,
What these lines present is a picture of commuters rushing into London.
It is both exact and immediate. We are told the time of day, we see the
crowds flowing across London Bridge, we hear their sighs, we see how
they hold their faces. (Coote 51)
The ‘violet hour’ reference serves as a preamble to a further aspect of Eliot’s ‘life goes on’ theme, this time symbolised by the sterility of love and sex.
In the lines that follow the reference to the ‘violet hour’ Eliot describes a scene which David Craig summarises as “part commonplace, part debased …[and] altogether unpleasant” (Craig 204). The scene opens with an exact depiction of a young woman’s preparations for an evening of leisure as she
clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays. (lines 222–7)
When the “young man carbuncular” (line 231) arrives, he seizes his opportunity at a “propitious” (line 235) moment for sexual relief from the “bored and tired” (line 236) young woman. The sterility and routine of the sexual encounter are reinforced after the act, as the typist is “hardly aware of her departed lover” (line 250) and “smoothes her hair with automatic hand” (line 255). There are no goodbyes, kisses, loving words or emotional moments. The poet’s goal is to demonstrate that relationships between the genders in post war London are empty, sterile and devoid of meaning, and he helps to establish this by using exact details of everyday life at the time.
Three other references to sexuality underline this conclusion. The first is the reference to Mr Eugenides who invites the speaker to spend the weekend with him at the “Metropole” (line 214): a hotel in Brighton notorious for illicit sexual encounters. The speaker himself makes no comment on this invitation though Alasdair Macrae suggests that in this passage “London, representative of urban living, is corrupt and has lost its spiritual vision” (Macrae 23). In the second example, a conversation between two women in a London pub reaches the conclusion that sexual attraction may be reduced to a set of false teeth. Now Albert is coming back from the war, Lil is told,
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have to have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army for four years, he wants a good time
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said. (lines 143-
These lines are a reminder that men were in short supply after the First World War; they underline how many were killed. Moreover, they help to reinforce the extent to which rigid Victorian sexual mores have broken down in the aftermath of the war to end wars.
The third example follows the encounter between the clerk and the typist. It begins with a brief reference to the pure romantic love of “Elizabeth and Leicester” – what Craig describes as Eliot’s “glamourising view of Spenser’s London, Elizabethan England with its pure rivers and stately ways” (Craig 204). By way of contrast, three apparently female voices describe the futility of sexual encounters in modern life, making specific reference to London locations:
‘My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised “a new start.”
I made no comment. What should I resent?’
Sexual encounters at the beginning of the roaring twenties may often have been unsentimental affairs. This is perhaps not surprising given that during the First World War itself sexual morality had broken down, and Eliot’s poem seems to reflect this. But it is interesting that London is so closely associated with this in the poem, “lost” (as Coote argues) in “the city of moral blight that has been Eliot’s chief concern” (Coote 74).
The passage following the encounter between the clerk and the typist implicitly compares
London’s heroic past with its debased present. Craig argues that “modern civilisation
does nothing but spoil what was once gracious, lovely, ceremonious, and natural”
(Craig 204). This of course is a theme of the poem in general: that the present is
debased by comparison with the past. There are many other examples of this. The encounter
between the clerk and the typist is one such case. Here what Coote describes as a
“slight, tawdry, life-
This method of the past sitting in judgement is a mainstay of the poem. This is achieved
through the various literary voices which recur -
Spenser, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, Middleton, Milton,
Marvell, Goldsmith, Ezekiel, Buddha, Virgil, Ovid, Dante,
St Augustine, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and others. Lines of German,
French, Italian are thrown in at will or whim …. (Powell 29)
In the context of this essay it is worth noting how few of these are Londoners. However, as Gardner comments “[t]he sense that ‘History is now and in London’ is a note that recurs through The Waste Land though London, like other cities, is an ‘Unreal City’ and the waste land itself is timeless and unlocalised, a state and not a place” (Gardner 7).
Gardner’s remark suggests that The Waste Land can be treated in some ways as a historical
document. It shows how people saw sex, love, the war and work. To this extend it
has a historical dimension. But this raises the question of what is not shown in
the poem. Surprisingly, World War One is implicitly mentioned only once when Lil’s
husband gets “demobbed” (line 139). Though one can feel a sense of loss and a lack
of faith in the poem there are no explicit references to the effects of war -
One might ask what purpose Eliot himself had in mind when he wrote this poem. Eliot gives his own answer to this question.
Various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem
in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered
it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was
only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse
against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling. (Gardner 4)
Despite his light-
is not just a picture of life in the early 1920’s, what it was like
and how it came to be thus. Rather, the poem is a meditation
on the long experience of spiritual life… (Coote 60)
The point is that London is representative of western civilisation and its decline; it is only one of many ‘Falling towers’ (line 374)
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London (lines 375-
In writing about London at the end of the First World War, Eliot has nevertheless left an interesting historical vignette of life in the early 1920’s, an aspect of the poem which is often overlooked.
Coote, S. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land. London: Penguin, 1985.
Craig, D. ‘The Defeatism of The Waste Land’. In C. B Cox and A. P. Hinchliffe
(eds) T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land. London: Macmillan Press, 1968.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. In Ferguson, M. et al. The Norton Anthology of
Poetry (4th Edition). London: W. W. Norton & Company. 1970. (1236-
Gardner, H. The Waste Land 1972. Manchester: Manchester University Press,
Macrae, A. D. F. The Waste Land. London: York Press, 2001.
Powell, C. ‘Manchester Guardian’ In C. B Cox and A. P. Hinchliffe
(eds) T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land. London: Macmillan Press, 1968.
By Penelope Page