The Wasteland – Section Notes: Part I ‘The Burial of the Dead’



It is the first section and sets up the overall mood and tone of the following sections


  • Talks about the Sybyl who is trapped within a glass jar
  • It is an allusion to Greek mythology, where the Sybyl was Aenea’s guide through the Underworld
  • The Sybyl was immortal but her beauty faded and hence, she is doomed to live forever without her beauty. This sets up the tragic atmosphere.
  • The atmosphere is also enhanced as she is trapped in the glass jar and wishes to die; this creates the themes of entrapment and desolation and death
  • The idea of the epigraph written in Latin and Greek emphasises the fragmentation and perhaps inability to communicate, which is a reflection upon the society that Eliot refers to

Part I is disjointed

  • Jumps between the past and the present
  • Concrete incidences (the interaction with Mme. Sosostris) and less concrete ones (e.g. The first stanza)
  • There is a lack of communication (the Unreal city stanza) vs. the unity of a family (e.g. Verse 2, where there is a family outing)



Motifs and Connotations:

The hyacinth girl (verse 3)

·         Hyacinths are an allusion to the Greek myth where Apollo killed someone that he loves. It is a predominantly male symbol and therefore the juxtaposition of the girl and the hyacinth is perhaps an attempt by Eliot to fuse the two sexes together in an attempt to allow for communication

The shadow under the red rock

·         The shadow suggests something sinister, for it says, “I will show you something different…I will show you fear in a handful of dust” suggests that something that we always have with us is somehow turning against us and is distorted

·         There is an attempt to hide within this shadow, it shows that the image of the “forgetful snow” and the shadow are serving the same purpose, which is providing a blanket for society to hide under and be ignorant.

·         Also, shadows change size throughout the day and therefore, it is not a permanent image


  • Ambiguous symbol which are a form of protection, as they provide a shadow to hide in and they are natural
  • Gives religious (Christianity) connotations, for the rock is seen as the foundation of salvation. Additionally, another religious allusion that could be made is when Moses strikes upon a rock and water is released, and hence, the rocks that are seen could be a symbol of hope and salvation of the wasteland. Perhaps Eliot is saying that with faith and through a form of religion, there is hope for the wasteland to be restored
  • However, rocks are also dry à no water à no hope, no salvation as the wasteland can’t be hydrated
  • Remnants of something once great but now have merely become rubble and “stony rubbish and therefore have lost its value over time, perhaps like society where Eliot viewed the past as better than the present.
  • Rocks can be contrasted with stones, which are man-made and hence suggest a human interference upon nature


  • Hold religious connotations, for instance baptism, where the Original Sin is washed clean
  • Also holds connotations of birth, life, growth, cleansing and hence is seen in a positive view, for it holds the key to salvation of the wasteland, as it is able to re-hydrate the barren land
  • “Those are pearls that were his eyes” is related to water as it is an allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and although there is an image of death (for the character is perceived as dead), he is in truth alive. This shows that water is changing and that it can be a medium for re-birth and although drowning may initially have negative connotations and that we should “fear death by water”; we find that the painful process is necessary for our salvation.

The Past

  • This is viewed in a more positive light
  • In the past, there were family interactions, seen in verse 2. This is contrasted with the present, where the speaker now reads “much of the night”. The reading is a form of escapism and therefore shows the character’s attempt to hide away from reality
  • Communication was present within the past
  • Things (e.g. The rocks) seemed to hold more value in the past and are now merely rubble




Death and Destruction

  • Of the land; it is referred to as “the dead land”; this may be because at the time of writing this poem, WWI had just concluded and therefore the images of deaths and the destruction of the land were still clear in everyone’s mind
  • Of society, seen mainly within the last stanza

o      The idea of the “unreal city” shows how things aren’t meant to be as they are

o      The image of the indistinguishable crowd flowing “over London Bridge” shows how in a modern society, one has lost their individuality. This may be blamed upon the lack of communication, but also the monotonous work that people are forced to do

o      The “sighs, short and infrequent” reflect the hopelessness of the situation


  • Mainly seen through the Sybyl, who is trapped within her glass jar, as well as being immortal but having lost her beauty
  • The theme of entrapment can also be seen through the monotonous jobs that people had, as they were unable to escape and break free of the routine that they have everyday. This entrapment also shows how individuality is now lost, as well as showing what Eliot perceived of his mundane banking job.
  • The image of the “snow” and the “shadow” could be interpreted as a form of entrapment as it prevents us from seeing the desolation that has occurred throughout the wasteland


  • This is seen through the various languages that are used within this section (Latin, German, Greek, English, and French) and it causes the reader to work harder at trying to understand what is being said. The languages used are perhaps a way for Eliot to convey that complexity of communication and emphasises the fragmentation of society
  • The fragmentation/disjointed nature of the poem is also seen through the structure, where the stanzas jump from past to present, as well as talking about seemingly unrelated topics (upon closer inspection it can be seen that they have the same underlying messages: desolation, etc)




The Sybyl

  • Classical reference from Greek Mythology
  • She was Aeneas’ guide through the underworld
  • Entrapment, Death/Immortality, Desperation, seer


  • A male symbol
  • Associated with Death (Esp. with President Lincoln’s death)
  • Natural and they have connotations of life, nature and peace in contrast with the idea of deat
  • A sense of lament

“Winter kept us warm, covering”

  • Winter = good, covers the earth and keeps what is underneath warm
  • “Covering” suggest the concealment of truth
  • Therefore, winter is concealing the truth which is hidden underneath
  • Suggests that Society doesn’t want truth to be revealed, they like winter

“Breeding” “Mixing” “Stirring” “Feeding”

  • Sexual connotations
  • Connotations of growing and birth
  • Possibly rebirth of humanity.
  • Continuous
  • The words are hidden at the end of the line suggesting there is hope for rebirth, but it is only hinted at the ends of the lines

Natural Imagery

  • Flowers, Sunlight, Mountains, Night
  • Roots, Branches which are harsh sounding words, that emphasise negative images of  no leaves, no life, desolation
  • Rocks, Stones are “Dry” Negative Image > lifeless, dry, hopelessness. However the “Red rock” possibly suggests Salvation + Life
  • Water, suggesting life, rebirth, hope
  • Seasons, suggesting the cycle of life, continuation, rebirth, hope for new life
  • “April” as the start of the cycle, start of new life and the start of the Canterbury Tales
    • Beginning of a journey
    • A group of people from different societies
    • Reflects the mix society that is present in the poem


  • Hope, nature
  • Commonly associated with males
  • Juxtaposition between a male symbol associated with a girl (Hyacinth Girl)
  • Sexual confusion





  • The Austrian Countess Marie von Wallersee-Larish
  • The illegitimate child of Duke Ludwig.
  • Was involved as a “messenger” between two people who were having an affair
  • Was seen as a disgrace
  • Symbolises the loss of innocence.
  • Her memories of her staying at the arch-duke’s create a sense of innocence with images of happiness and freedom and natural imagery of “mountains” “sunlight”. “There you feel free”
  • However, the last sentence contrasts with the rest: “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” suggesting the present, loss of innocence which reflects how society now has lost the innocence and life that we used to have and the reference to winter, recalls the idea of covering up the truth. Similar to how Countess Marie lost her innocence and became a disgrace

The Hyacinth Girl

  • Hyacinths – a male symbol
  • Her memories of the garden and coming back – innocence
  • Full of emotion but is also emotionless, helpless and powerless:  “I could not speak - and I knew nothing” which contrasts the positive and negative: Living & Dead, Light & Silence > confusion
  • Loss of life
  • Oed’ und leer das meer” (desolate and empty the sea) - loss of water (water = possible life + salvation)
  • The Hyacinth girl is remembering her friend – so there is a connection between the Hyacinth Girl and Lilacs which remind Eliot of death in general and especially the death of Lincoln, referred to in Walt Whitman’s poem ‘When Lilacs last in dooryard bloomed’
  • The Hyacinth Girl breaks the tone slightly, bringing us to her memories but the German brings us back to lamentation.

Madame Sosostris

  • A character from Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow’ (1921)
  • She is a fortune-teller and clairvoyant who uses her Tarot cards and psychic talents as seer to counsel wealthy Europeans.
  • Introduces a sense of mythological/ritual undercurrent to the desolation in Elliot’s poem.

The Drowned Phoenician Sailor

  • Death by water
  • Peaceful, positive, being made better, rebirth


  • Lady of the rocks, lady of situations - Rocks suggests salvation however, alternatively, Rocks also suggests dryness and lack of water, life
  • Possibly an allusion to Mona Lisa in Vers Libre - William Bulter Yeats talks of how Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits”: almost similar to the Sybyl in age and wisdom

Man with Three staves

  • A man who looked out to sea = water, positive image of life + salvation

One-eyed Merchant

  • One-eyed Merchant carried another card which is black
  • The inability to see what is on the card shows the unreliability of seers and possibly our own inability to fully see the state of the world around us until Eliot reveals it to us, suggesting the future is unclear
  • Possible allusion to Odin who exchanged an eye for wisdom and is a symbol of power, wisdom and strength - the all-seeing eye

Hanged Man

  • Hanged Man, associated with nature (he hangs by his feet from a tree, which is peaceful, natural, serene. It is also associated with the Hanged God of Frazer
  • However the card does not turn up which shows that salvation and serenity might not happen in the future




Time, the past and present:

Through out there is a constant shift from the past to the present as Eliot compares the two. This is evident with the reference made to seasons, specifically in the beginning of the poem “April if the cruellest month”, the reference to the seasons suggests the shift in time and accordingly the changes. Moreover, a sense of routine is also suggested as the seasons are part of cyclic process, perhaps reflecting the monotonous routine of Eliot’s urban life.


However, the opening line of stanza two suggests the opposite, “summer surprised us coming over the Starnbergersee”, as Eliot implies that the change in season wasn’t expected, thus contradicting the sense of routine and a cyclic process, perhaps the disruption of order and fragmentation of society. Furthermore with the change of the season, the mood of the poem changes too, for example, the alliteration in the opening line creates a softer sound, “summer surprised us”, the reference to rain too is positive, in contrast to the “little life with dried tubers”, in the previous stanza, as water is able to bring things to life, suggests cleansing and a sense of hope. Therefore the changes in season suggest an evident shift in the mood of the poem.    


Eliot shifts the past, through memories too, which to an extent imply a sense of hope, as “Marie” reminisces about her childhood, a classic picture of innocence is created and hope is suggested as the past was better than the present and it is possible for humanity to be like it was in the past, as there was a time when things were better.


Change in setting, references to places:

Through out this section of the poem Eliot makes several references to various cities. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many”, the references made to the several different cities perhaps suggests a sense of division, specifically in humanity, reflecting the world war one time era. Moreover, the fragments of different languages, through out this section further suggests this sense of division, Eliot implies that because of this division there is a problem and lack of communication in society.


Furthermore, there is a constant shift between the “Unreal City” and the setting Eliot depicts.  The unreal cities seem to reflect Eliot metropolitan life, they’re cold and the individuals are isolated, “And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”.  Specifically the final section of the first section allows Eliot finally to establish the true wasteland of the poem, the modern city. The city is crowded but at the same time, the people are isolated. However, Eliot shifts constantly between this setting and the, the naturalistic setting Eliot depicts differs, as he focuses on the disruption of nature by society, depicting a dry, desolated land.  “…out of this stony rubbish?” The settings portrayed suggest the physical destruction through out this section.



Relation of part to Whole:

Being the first section of the poem, ‘The Burial of the Dead’ is significant as it brings attention to the major themes of the poem, such as the physical destruction and the emotional devastation. Moreover, Eliot in this section draws on a vast range of sources, allusions. E.g. the drowned sailor makes reference, Shakespeare's The Tempest. Several of these allusions reoccur through out the poem, thus this section introduces us to them.  The overall range of allusions in The Waste Land, suggests broken fragments that must somehow be pieced together to form an articulate whole, like in fact the sections of the poem, “a heap of broken images”. By making references to these several illusions and breaking the poem up into these sections, Eliot provides a mimetic account of life in the confusing world of the twentieth century, specifically in this section, preparing us for the rest of the poem.