Eliot once wrote that all literature had a simultaneous existence no matter where or when it was originally composed. He argued that no poet had his complete meaning alone and that ‘his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets’. He wrote this in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and his poem, ‘The Waste Land’, illustrates this idea. An artistic patchwork that unites the traditions, myths, and beliefs of the East and West with its multitude of cultural allusions and various intertextual references, Eliot had to provide additional notes for some of his poem because it was so rich with literary and anthropological references. It’s a typical modernist poem in being such a collage, but it’s amazing just how much ‘The Waste Land’ depends on the work of other writers, and an understanding of other cultures, to make much sense at all.


Take Madame Sosostris, for example. The poem clearly indicates she’s a mystic, a clairvoyant who can read Tarot cards, but a fuller appreciation of her role emerges when you realise she’s an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow. Crome Yellow focuses on the disenchantment of an age that had seen The Great War and its aftermath, so referencing such a work adds to the mood Eliot is to build upon throughout ‘The Waste Land’. Additionally, in Crome Yellow, Sesostris is a man dressed as fortune teller woman, so now the character of ‘The Waste Land’ is also sexually ambiguous by association.

Ambiguity and ideas of transformation are key to Eliot’s poem: we have Philomel’s transformation into a bird; the use of Tiresias who changed sex; Actaeon’s transformation into a stag. There is also ambiguity in the role of narrator for it transforms several times throughout the various sections; rather than a consistent narrator figure there is a merging of voices, a fluidity of identity that crosses boundaries and knows no restriction of age, race, or gender. Madame Sosostris’s card of the Phoenician Sailor readies the reader for this as those ‘pearls that were his eyes’ alludes to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the line featuring in Ariel’s song which is one of transformation ‘into something rich and strange’. In using so many cultural references, ‘The Waste Land’ does exactly that, making something rich and strange from its different sources.


The concept of change is closely related to that of time. Eliot’s interest in this is emphasised by the repeated cry of ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’, the pub call for last orders strikingly out of place alongside the various historical references within ‘The Waste Land’. The Sibyl, aging beyond normal mortality; Tiresias, resurrected from the dead to foresee the future; Philomel, living eternally as the nightingale: each of these figures embodies time. Madame Sosostris, too, is a similar figure for she is foretelling the future via her ‘wicked pack of cards’. She is a prophet figure like the Sibyl and Tiresias, and as her cards reveal the future, so do they foreshadow elements of the poem. The ‘drowned Phoenician Sailor’ appears later and ‘fear death by water’ warns of this forth section of the poem, whereas the ‘one-eyed merchant’ recurs as ‘Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant’ of part three. Eliot associates the ‘Hanged Man’ with the hooded figure of part five and the ‘crowds of people’ are met again flowing over London Bridge. Such internal allusions serve to create a sense of unity within an otherwise fragmented poem, developing themes and concerns which are highlighted as timeless by the historical allusions. It’s a particularly effective way to emphasise one theme of the poem: regeneration.


In being self-referential and repetitive, and in employing allusions to previous works and myths to resurrect sources of the past, ‘The Waste Land’ is itself an act of regeneration. Figures emphasising this include ‘The Hanged Man’ of Madame Sosostris’s pack, associated in Eliot’s mind with the Hanged God of Frazer’s well-known book, The Golden Bough. This Norse god, Odin, drank from a well of knowledge, but he had to trade one of his eyes to do so, making him similar to the one-eyed merchant of line 52. The hanged god reference, however, comes from the time he speared himself and hung as a corpse, again in a desire for secret knowledge; after nine days and nights he was able to cast off death and thus become a figure of regeneration.

Yet despite these references to regeneration, there seems to be a contradictory desire for finality in the poem. Again, various allusions emphasise this. Sybil laments ‘I want to die’ in the epigraph and we are shown fear in the ‘handful of dust’ that is her longevity. References to Cleopatra, Dido, and Ophelia remind us of suicide, whilst the ‘shanti shanti shanti’ of the final line directly mimics the formal ending of Hindu literature. However, any possibility of an ending to ‘The Waste Land’ is denied entirely because of such references: allusions that flit back and forth across time mean the poem can’t finish.

Cultural references to regeneration and fertility make an otherwise bleak poem rather optimistic. The Fisher King of Arthurian legend, indicated here by the ‘man with three staves’, had a sickness that was reflected in the state of the country, his own weakness and sterility making it a barren waste land. He and his realm were one. Many have read Eliot’s poem as an expression of the disillusionment of a generation or a criticism of contemporary society and its effect on the individual, and it has become something of a cliché, but this allusion to The Fisher King also represents hope, for to cure the individual is to cure the land, and vice versa. The Fisher King also adds to the poem’s mythological feel, and in being without precise history, myth can explain past, present, and future, reminding the reader of Eliot’s views regarding literature and simultaneous existence. ‘The Waste Land’ is regenerative. It ‘breeds lilacs out of the dead land’ that is the past, ‘stirring dull roots with spring rain’ whilst at the same time using the past to interpret the present and future.


Myth does more than extend the poem’s span across time or emphasise its significance; it creates a poem that is impersonal. There is no clear definition of the poet within ‘The Waste Land’ and the multicultural references, together with the fragmented structure, forces our attention to the content and deliberately makes identifying a singular poetic voice difficult. By employing the words and phrases of other poets before him, Eliot is able to keep his distance; he’s there, but he’s ‘the third who walks always beside you’, glimpsed but never really seen. ‘The Waste Land’ is less about writing and more about reading. Even Madame Sosostris, who may be considered a poet figure inasmuch as she reveals truth, is really primarily a reader for she finds her truths in cards which demand interpretation. But even she is forbidden to see the blank card which the merchant carries, suggesting that full interpretation will always be elusive.


Eliot’s poem defies any definitive reading, and he acknowledges this via figures like the Sibyl, Tiresias, and Madame Sosostris, figures associated with riddles. Considering the complexity of the poem, such references are very apt. But do you have to understand all of the puzzle to enjoy the poem? Certainly not; simply reading it aloud is enough for that. A deeper appreciation of ‘The Waste Land’ may come from understanding each allusion, but the use of so many that are obscure seems to mark a deliberate attempt to reintroduce an element of mystery to poetry, the intertextual references teasing with additional depths of meaning rather than simply validating the work by indirectly namedropping Ovid, Dante, Wagner, Milton, Shakespeare. There is barely a single line within the poem that does not refer to another source, be it another poem, the Bible, Greek, Roman, or Germanic myth, Eastern mantra or Australian army ballad, and readings of ‘The Waste Land’ are just as numerous and varied. The cultural references of the poem are rather like the cards of Madame Sosostris, each depending upon individual interpretation, for anything else would be too restrictive. Rather than existing independently in an apparently fragmented structure, and far from making a ‘sprawling chaotic poem’ as Eliot claimed, the allusions and intertextual references in ‘The Waste Land’ coexist to bind it into a unified pack that can be dealt and read again in different ways. It’s up to the reader just how ‘wicked’ they allow the pack to be.