The Burial of the Dead

Section I: "The Burial of the Dead"
"The Waste Land" begins with an excerpt from Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon, in Latin and Greek, which translates as: “For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered, ‘I want to die.’” The quotation is followed by a dedication to Ezra Pound, Eliot’s colleague and friend, who played a major role in shaping the final version of the poem.

The poem proper begins with a description of the seasons. April emerges as the “cruellest” month, passing over a desolate land to which winter is far kinder. Eliot shifts from this vague invocation of time and nature to what seem to be more specific memories: a rain shower by the Starnbergersee; a lake outside Munich; coffee in that city’s Hofgarten; sledding with a cousin in the days of childhood.
The second stanza returns to the tone of the opening lines, describing a land of “stony rubbish” – arid, sterile, devoid of life, quite simply the “waste land” of the poem’s title. Eliot quotes Ezekiel 2.1 and Ecclesiastes 12.5, using biblical language to construct a sort of dialogue between the narrator –- the “son of man” -– and a higher power. The former is desperately searching for some sign of life -– “roots that clutch,” branches that grow -- but all he can find are dry stones, dead trees, and “a heap of broken images.” We have here a forsaken plane that offers no relief from the beating sun, and no trace of water.
Suddenly Eliot switches to German, quoting directly from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The passage translates as: “Fresh blows the wind / To the homeland / My Irish child / Where do you wait?” In Wagner’s opera, Isolde, on her way to Ireland, overhears a sailor singing this song, which brings with it ruminations of love promised and of a future of possibilities. After this digression, Eliot offers the reader a snatch of speech, this time from the mouth of the “hyacinth girl.” This girl, perhaps...