The SatyriconTrimalchio’s Dinner


Eliot’s allusion at the start of the Wasteland is a quotation from the Satyricon, a novel written in the first century A.D. by the Latin author Gaius Petronius that tells the story of Encolpius and his young lover. The novel is an important historical document that has given us an insight into the lives of the lower classes in the early Roman Empire. All complete versions of the original text have been destroyed but literary historians have managed to piece together some sections of the novel and Eliot would have been familiar with the fragments of the 141 chapters that have been preserved. The fractured and fragmented nature of the Satyricon is perhaps itself significant. It’s possible that in the struggle required to piece together the original Satyricon Eliot sees a reflection of how modern readers will have to struggle to decode and understand his own poem and perhaps also how they will have to struggle and endure hardship in order to make it out of the Wasteland.


The opening allusion itself comes from a point in the tale when the hero is dining with a character called Trimalchio who claims that he once saw the Sibyl of Cumae. As its name suggests, the Satyricon is a satirical text that mocks people who pretend to be more wealthy, more educated, more well-mannered, more sophisticated and more civilised than they actually are. Trimalchio is one such character. He is an ex-slave who, through a stroke of good fortune, has managed to amass incredible wealth. He now spends his time hosting lavish parties and trying to impress his guests with his manners and good breeding which actually fall far short of the standards of classical Rome, although Trimalchio does not realise this. Why might Eliot have alluded to this text at the start of his poem?