Symbols in The Waste Land

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The Waste Land is a notable literary work by T. S. Eliot. A complete discussion of this literary work is given, which will help you enhance your literary skills and prepare for the exam. Read the main text, key info, Summary, Themes, Characters, Literary Devices, Quotations, Notes, to various questions of The Waste Land.


What symbols are used by the poet in “The Waste Land”?

“The Waste Land” (1922) by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) displays the devastation and despair caused by World War I. According to Ezra Pound, who furnished the poem after Eliot’s composition, the poem represents the collapse of Western civilization. Thematically and rhetorically, “The Waste Land” describes a postwar landscape of fractured identity and people who cannot connect meaningfully with the world surrounding them.

The fundamental concept of Symbolism: A word has two-fold meanings: original meaning and targeted meaning. Symbolism is the study of the targeted meaning of the words. For example, white colour symbolizes purity; likewise, a dove is a bird but symbolizes peace. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “symbol is a sign, shape or object that is used to represent something else which means to represent a quality or idea”. The wheel in the Indian flag is a symbol of peace. Eliot uses symbols in his poem “The Waste Land” to express the massive idea of a fractured civilization.

Fragmented form of poetry as a symbol: “The Waste Land” is formed in a fragmented structure, unlike the traditional poetry form. For example, the poem begins with “April is the cruellest month, breeding.” At first glance, the nonsensical starting words may seem more frustrating, like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, which suggests we get even more frustrated with April’s ‘sweet showers’. However, when you get to Line 11 of the poem “The Waste Land, the frustrating expectations will be shattered because such a start symbolizes the restless mental state of modern man.

The versatile symbolic meaning of water: Water is a significant symbol of birth, death, and resurrection throughout this poem. At the poem’s beginning, water stands for life-giver and symbolizes fertility. However, it also stands for death in the “Death by Water” section. The symbolic meaning of water in this section is taken from one of Shakespeare’s best plays entitled “The Tempest”. However, in the “What the Thunder Said” section, water is a symbol of hope because, according to Eliot, the resurrection of a desolate wasteland is only possible as a tree that finds new life in rainwater:

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain,…

Drought as a symbol of death: Although the poem deals with the physical and emotional effects of war, the speaker of the poem uses drought as a symbol of death:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road.

Among these and others, drought is a symbol of death. To raise concerns about waiting for rain, the speaker says that even lightning, which indicates the possibility of rain, is “infertile.” So, there is hope of rain in this infertile land if the purification of modern people is done.

Symbols of disconnection between the human and natural worlds: The poem’s speaker in the “A Game of Chess” section presents how the modern world has lost contact with nature. Organic life-giving spirit has become inorganic inert matter: 

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne
Glowed on the marble,

Thus, the poem’s characters have isolated themselves from the natural world in an artificial world immersed in synthetic fragrances.

Extended Symbol: Eliot uses specific symbols that have extended significance. For example, the journey of the German princess to different places stands for the rootlessness of modern people; Traveling to her south in the winter refers to her fun and sensual pleasures. The well-known symbol of the rats’ alley alludes to the monotony and emptiness of city life. The collapse of the London Bridge is not an accident but a sign of modern Europe’s political and spiritual decay. So, all the symbols used in the poem “The Waste Land” mention far more than what they present. It is the responsibility of the reader to understand their broader significance.

In light of the above discussion, it is safe to say that the symbols of the poem “The Waste Land” are unclear if not understood. Still, with a reasonable assumption of the symbols, it is unique and timeless because this poem symbolically represents a spiritually deadly nation.