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


“The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot published in 1922 depicts the devastation and despair brought on by World War I. According to Ezra Pound, a great poet, and friend of Eliot, the poem represents the collapse of Western civilization. Thematically and rhetorically, “The Waste Land” describes a postwar landscape of fractured identity and people who are unable to connect meaningfully with others or the world that surrounds them.

Symbols in The Waste Land

The key concept of Symbolism

A word has two-fold meanings in terms of use such as original meaning and targeted meaning. Symbolism is the study of the targeted meaning of the words as for example white is a color but it symbolically indicates purity and likewise, the 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. To express the gigantic idea about fractured society Eliot has adopted symbols in his poem “The Waste Land”.

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Fragmented form of poetry as a symbol

Unlike conventional poetry, clear connection, and neat structure are largely absent in “The Waste Land”. For example, the poem begins with “April is the cruelest month, breeding.” At first glance, the ridiculous starting words may seem more frustrating like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” which suggests we get even more frustrated with April’s sweet showers’. But when you get to Line 11 of the poem “The Waste Land, the frustrating expectations will be shattered because such a start is basically a symbol of the restless mental state of modern man.

The versatile symbolic meaning of water

Water is a major symbol of birth, death, and resurrection throughout this poem. At the very beginning of the poem, water refers to the giver of life, which means a symbol of fertility. Yet it also stands for death in the “Fear death by water” section. The symbolic meaning of water in this section is taken from one of Shakespeare’s best plays entitled “The Tempest“. Yet in the “What the Thunder Said” section, water is a symbol of hope because, according to Eliot, the resurrection of 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 no hope of rain in this infertile land unless the purification of modern people is done.

Symbols of disconnection between the human and natural worlds

The speaker of the poem in the section “A Game of Chess” presents how the modern world has lost contact with nature. Organic life-giving nature has become inorganic inert matter:

“The Chair, she sat in, like a burnished throne

Glowed on the marble,”

Thus the characters of the poem have isolated themselves from the natural world in an artificial world that is 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 symbol of the political and spiritual decay of modern Europe. So all the symbols used in the poem “The Waste Land” mentions 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 opaque if not understood, but with a good conjecture of the symbols, it is unique and timeless because this poem symbolically represents a spiritually destructive nation.

SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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