T.S. Eliot's The Burial of The Dead: Analysis & Explanation

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

This lesson covers 'The Burial of the Dead,' the first section of T.S. Eliot's poem 'The Waste Land.' Read a summary to learn how to analyze this important selection from the modernist poet. Then, take a quiz to test your comprehension.

Introduction to The Burial of the Dead

The Burial of the Dead is not a poem in its own right, but the first of five sections of The Waste Land, which was published by T.S. Eliot in 1922. This masterpiece is a critical commentary of modern life, especially what it can do to the human soul, which is not always pleasant to behold. The Burial of the Dead helps set up the themes and ideas behind the poem as a whole.

The main idea of The Waste Land, in a nutshell, is that modern people are losing the ability to connect with the things that make us authentically human. He especially saw us as failing to communicate meaningfully with one another, to set up systems of morals that serve the human soul, and to muster up the courage to be proper caretakers of the world around us. After all, if we cannot speak to each other effectively, what chance do we have of developing values and passing them onto our children, let alone fixing the world's many problems? To put it another way, we as modern folks are effectively 'dead' to traditional values like courage, community, and morality. What we think of as our individual 'lives,' our daily activities and dealings with one another, are in Eliot's eyes equivalent to a mass burial of dead souls.


The Waste Land is written in a literary vein known as modernism, which flourished between the two world wars in Europe and the United States. Modernism is characterized by an experimental, free-verse style with abrupt changes in poetic voice and point of view. The Burial of the Dead is a perfect example of this, as the reader is never quite sure who is speaking, or if Eliot is simply quoting another work.

Eliot's use of allusions, or references to outside literary texts and historical events, together with his love for experimentation, make his poetry hard to understand for beginners and scholars alike. It's best to read The Burial of the Dead first by trying to grasp the literal meaning of the words and only then to explore the hidden meanings behind the words. For the curious reader, there are many versions of The Waste Land available using scholarly annotations, or explanations of Eliot's more obscure allusions.

Summary and Analysis

The first stanza of The Burial of the Dead opens with a paradox, or an observation that seems to contradict common sense:

'April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land….'

The speaker goes on to say that:

'Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.'

Common sense dictates that spring is the season that brings things back to life from their winter slumber, and yet the speaker here sees it as 'crueler' than winter, which somehow 'kept us warm.'

Who is this mysterious speaker? It's hard to tell, other than he apparently is a representative of modern humanity, one of the 'walking dead' whose values are all out of whack. Rather than celebrating the return of life with the coming of spring, modern folks prefer to see the Earth covered up and safely out of sight. This is, of course, one of the main themes of The Waste Land. People today refuse to take life by the horns, and in doing so, they become indifferent and careless to its mysteries. We become like the speaker, avoiding the life-giving shower of rain, content to live our days sipping coffee, making idle chitchat, and looking forward to our next big vacation: 'I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.'

In the second stanza, the speaker changes from this rather un-heroic representative of modern humanity to a prophetic voice attacking the speaker, and all the rest of us, for allowing this sense of indifference and carelessness to run amok. There are at least two allusions here to outside texts, the first to the Bible and the second to Tristan und Isolde, an opera by Richard Wagner dating from the late 1800s.

The speaker begins by asking a rhetorical question:

'What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish?'

His answer is directed toward us modern folks:

'Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images….'

The heirs to the 'Son of man,' a reference to Jesus Christ, are no longer capable, in the modern era, of developing into full-fledged human beings, lacking the courage to confront life, admitting only those 'broken images' that society offers as a substitute for authentic experience.

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