The Waste Land: Structure and Style Explained

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  • 1:45 Disjointed Timeline
  • 2:33 Voices
  • 4:16 Past & Present Juxtaposition
  • 6:50 Allusions
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

As an introduction to T.S. Eliot's landmark poem, 'The Waste Land,' this lesson will outline some of the key Modernist features of the work. We'll address nonlinearity, irony and juxtaposition, voice, and allusions. Through taking a look at each of these features, we'll try to understand why 'The Waste Land' is as strange as it is important.

T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land'

'The Waste Land' is one of T.S. Eliot's most famous poems. When you look at it for the first time, it might seem kind of intimidating. It might not seem like it makes a lot of sense.

That's ok! I'm going to give you some things to hold on to as you approach it. We're going to go over the basic structure. Hopefully, that'll help to demystify 'The Waste Land' for you.

It's one of Eliot's most famous poems. It was published near the beginning of his career in 1922. It's one of the more representative works of literary Modernism. A lot of things that make the Modernist movement what it is are in 'The Waste Land.' That's the way we're going to go through the poem, looking at some of its most prominent Modernist features and say how 'The Waste Land' exhibits them.

We're going to be on the lookout for a disjointed timeline, like a plot that's not that easy to follow. Second, we'll look at voices and streams of consciousness, or people talking in their own words, essentially, but lots of different people. Next, an ironic juxtaposition of the past and present is something we'll see. Also, we'll look for tons of literary allusions, which are shout outs to other works (some in different languages - that's fun!).

All of these things contribute to difficulty, which is another hallmark of Modernist literature; they're just difficult. That's kind of part of the point. If you feel intimidated, that's fine.

Literary Styles: Disjointed Timeline

The first feature we're going to look at is disjointed timeline. Again, that's a plot that's kind of not a plot or not that easy to follow. 'The Waste Land' really doesn't have a plot that takes you from beginning to end. The only obvious structure it has is that it has five sections: 'The Burial of the Dead,' 'A Game of Chess,' 'The Fire Sermon,' 'Death by Water' and 'What the Thunder Said.'

Throughout the sections, you'll encounter all kinds of characters. For example, Madame Sosostris, a fortune teller, and Phlebas the Phoenician, literally an ancient sailor who's in this poem and drowning. These threads of all these characters weave in and out. They don't seem to be that related to each other. They're all kind of sprinkled in among general references to waste, which you might expect given the title.

Literary Styles: Voices

In terms of voices, you might expect that with all this weaving, you'd get some monologues, voices and streams of consciousness, which is the second thing that we mentioned we're going to look out for. One of the first people you meet in 'The Burial of the Dead,' the first section, is Marie, an aristocrat. She's reminiscing about her time in Munich and she says:

And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,

My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened.

We can contrast that with later, in 'A Game of Chess,' we've got these two women talking in a bar as the bartender is announcing closing time. We get these lines of poetry:

When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said--

I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,


Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

You can see there that's a totally different voice than Marie. Marie sounds like an aristocrat, she's all, 'Oh, time in Munich.' This lady sounds totally different. And then you have that 'HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,' which is the bartender coming in and he's talking.

And yet there's no indication that these are different people. There are no quotation marks or anything that's going to tell you. You kind of have to figure it out. That's one of the things that makes it difficult. You get these people going in and out and you don't really know who's who.

There are distinct voices rather than in earlier poetry, in which you might have found a single speaker that's guiding you all the way through. In this, you really get distinct people that we meet and who talk to us.

Literary Styles: Juxtaposition Past & Present

The next thing that we're going to talk about is the juxtaposition of the past and the present. There's a really great example of this in a scene in 'The Fire Sermon' where there's basically a young typist - a young woman in her apartment - and her lover comes by. He's described as the 'young man carbuncular.' This is kind of funny, because carbuncular just means pimply, so you've learned a new insult, now.

It plays out as a seemingly straightforward, lackluster seduction scene in a crappy apartment, which might be a little too familiar for some of us. It goes:

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,

Endeavours to engage her in caresses

Which still are unreproved, if undesired.

So, basically, dinner's over, she's not that into it, but he goes for it anyway and she doesn't push him off. That's really romantic, isn't it?

But that's not all. If this were all it were, it would be an interesting scene that's kind of well done. But Eliot isn't content with that. He has the whole scene actually being narrated by Tiresias, who is an ancient Greek prophet. This guy crops up in myths all the time. He can see the future. Not only can he see the future, he also made some gods back in the day angry and they turned him into a woman for a while, then back into a man.

So he forms an interesting narrator and perspective on this scene with the typist and the lover. He's watching this modern seduction scene and he's saying that he has 'foresuffered all.' This kind of gives it weight, like he's seen this happen over and over again. He's also maybe seeing it from both a man and woman's perspective, because he's been both.

The addition of Tiresias, the juxtaposition of this old, ancient figure and this very modern scene with the typist and her lover give it weight and it makes the whole thing seem much more tired and mechanical. It reinforces this idea that she's not into it. And not only that she's not into it, but that this has been happening forever. These kind of juxtapositions can really reinforce or offer ironic commentary, or both at the same time, on the modern scene.

Literary Styles: Allusions

We're coming to our last Modernist thing that we're going to look at in 'The Waste Land,' and those are allusions. Allusions are basically shout outs to other works. So you might include a bit of something in your work that's meant to reference something else.

If you listen to any kind of popular music right now, you probably are familiar with this. Sometimes, it's just done for fun, like Flo Rida has a song 'Right Round.' He didn't come up with 'Right Round;' he takes that from an 80s song by Dead or Alive.

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