Debojoy Chanda: On "The Waste Land"

Classicism in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Ever since T. S. Eliot described himself as “[c]lassicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” in his 1928 preface to “For Lancelot Andrewes” (qtd. in Deane 31), a great deal of scholarship began to be expended in interpreting his magnum opus “The Waste Land” (1922) in light of his concept of ‘classicism.’ Most scholars adopted one of two approaches: they either asserted that Eliot’s classicism was associated in some way with Augustan neoclassicism, or misread Eliot’s essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” to subsequently view his classicism as consisting in an advocacy of classical myths used a la James Joyce’s Ulysses to represent the “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 270).

Eliot did indeed base his version of classicism on Augustan neoclassical influences. Nevertheless I would argue that in the final reckoning his classicism did not have much to do with them. Consequently, attempts to view “The Waste Land” as a work that is ‘classical’ by virtue of the presence of neoclassical features in it are riddled with problems. As for the approach centering on Eliot’s interpretation of Joyce’s “mythical method” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 271), while myths do indeed feature very prominently in “The Waste Land,” the implications of myth for Eliot are not as straightforward as proponents of this approach would have us believe. I will attempt to reassess Eliot’s concept of classicism in order to reveal what I believe it connotes. In light of this reassessment, I will also posit a reconsideration of “The Waste Land”’s classicism.

Eliot adopted his concept of classicism from Charles Maurras and the long tradition of French reactionary thought. After the French Revolution, Classicism as an aesthetic principle in France was defined in opposition to Romanticism which, as a literary and philosophical movement, was believed to have been responsible for spawning the Revolution and its excesses (Vaughan 320). In light of this opposition to Romanticism and the Revolution, classicism was constructed as an aesthetic involving allegiance towards the Latin tradition in literature, as well as towards royalism, Catholicism, and a rigidly hierarchical social structure. Maurras’ twentieth-century version of classicism was largely an adaptation of this aesthetic (Asher 8).

Eliot had been considerably influenced by Maurras’ thought. He saw Maurras’ version of French classicism as the outcome of a general propensity towards the ideals of seventeenth-century French neoclassicism that had characterized the early part of the twentieth century. This propensity, according to Eliot, was accompanied by a corresponding allegiance to the monarchical form of government, and to the Catholic Church, these having been the mainstays of sociopolitical life in seventeenth-century France (Asher 38; Kimmel 40).

Irving Babbitt, who had also wielded influence upon Eliot’s intellectual development, framed his own version of classicism drawing upon Maurras’ French neoclassical predilections. Babbitt, who had been a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard, had taught Eliot, and had facilitated his first encounter with Maurras’ thought. Babbitt’s classicism viewed the Romantic tradition of Rousseau as the “glorification of impulse,” and asserted that this preponderance of impulse could be checked by a thorough grounding in the ancients. Babbitt believed that a classical education would make true virtue one’s second nature.

While absorbing influences from Maurras’ and Babbitt’s conceptions of classicism, Eliot almost completely reconfigured them to formulate his own version. He retained Maurras’ and Babbitt’s thought only insofar as he defined his classicism against Romanticism, stating in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) that classicism is “complete,” “adult,” and “orderly” as opposed to the “fragmentary,” “immature,” and “chaotic” character of Romanticism. Eliot opposed Maurras’ classicism because he considered its alliance with royalism and Catholicism problematic—he felt that to generalize about a “classicist in art and literature” being likely to adhere to a monarchical form of government and to the Catholic Church would be to gloss over the “many cross-currents” (qtd. in Asher 38). Given this multiplicity of “cross-currents,” Eliot decides in “The Function of Criticism” to view his classicism as a concept with merely literary and not sociopolitical associations (Eliot, “Function” 34-36).

Eliot’s decision to prune his classicism of sociopolitical ramifications is also explained by his belief that the term classicism has certain bearings when applied to literature, and completely different ones when applied to “the whole complex of interests and modes of behavior and society” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 269-70). His pruning of sociopolitical ramifications was also governed by his opinion that one’s choice of classicism or Romanticism should not be dictated by national and consequently sociopolitical biases, but by an inquiry into “which, of the two antithetical views [as literary concepts] is right [i.e. better for purposes of literary expression].” Eliot casts his ballot in favor of classicism because he links it with a “more mature” literary form that Romanticism lacks (Eliot, “Function” 36; emphasis in the original).

Eliot thus links his version of classicism specifically with literary form—a link he also highlights in the second lecture from his Syllabus of a Course of Six Lectures in Modern French Literature (1916) (Asher 38). However, he first spells out the implications of this association of classicism with form only in his essay of homage to T. E. Hulme published in the Criterion of April 1924. In it, Eliot speaks of the “classical moment in literature” as being one involving the evolution of an ideal literary form “which satisfies the best intellect of the time” (qtd. in Ellis 56). Eliot views this ideal form as the marker of the age of classicism (Ellis 56). Being the distinguishing feature of the classicist age, this form is evidently what constitutes classicism. For Eliot, therefore, classicism is not merely associated with literary form, but in fact refers to an ideal literary form.

In this context, one should note that like Eliot, Hulme views classicism as a literary form—specifically a verse form. He defines Romanticism and classicism as two verse forms embodying two contrasting attitudes to life. According to Hulme, while the Romanticist verse form is characterized by an attempt to epitomize the infinite, the classicist form is distinguished by a contrarious “holding back” through a surrender to tradition (qtd. in Rae 45). Eliot consciously aligns his classicism with Hulme’s in his essay of homage to him. Consequently, given Hulme’s yoking of classicism with tradition, it is not surprising that tradition also becomes one of the central components in Eliot’s version of classicism as delineated by him in “The Function of Criticism” (Eliot, “Function” 31-33).

Eliot speaks of “tradition” in “The Function of Criticism” with direct reference to his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this latter essay, he describes tradition in terms of literature, speaking of it as a view perceiving all the works of the European literary canon from Homer to the present day as “ha[ving] a simultaneous existence” and composing an “ideal order” amongst themselves. According to Eliot, whenever a “really new” literary work is produced in the present day, that work is introduced into this ideal order, thereby causing an ‘alteration’ of the already-existing works in the order. Such a view of the tradition of European literature therefore requires that “the past should be altered by the present as much as [that] the present [should be] directed by the past” (Eliot, “Tradition” 4).

The most obvious question that rears up at this point is: if classicism, for Eliot, is a reference to a literary form, what sort of form could incorporate within itself the presence of the European literary tradition while simultaneously effecting its alteration? Eliot answers this question in his essay on Andrew Marvell published in 1921. In it, he describes Marvell’s poetry as “a classic: classic in a sense in which [English Romantic poetry] is not” (Eliot, “Marvell” 156). The first use of “classic” in this description, as per Frank Kermode, refers to the more common employment of the word as a noun ascribing a certain cultural status to literary works (Kermode 24). Its use in the second instance, on the other hand, is clearly in accord with Eliot’s utilization of the word in his essay of homage to Hulme as the adjectival form of “classicism” (Ellis 56; Eliot, “Romanticism” 293). Eliot emphasizes this implication by speaking of Marvell’s poetry in the context of the latter instance as being opposed to English Romantic poetry, in keeping with his own definition of classicism against Romanticism. Through this latter usage, Eliot brings Marvell’s poetry within the purview of his version of classicism.

According to Eliot, Marvell’s poetry is “classic” in this latter sense because of his poetic form’s ability to “unite.” Given the relevance of the word “classic” in this epithetical sense to his notion of classicism as an ideal literary form, Eliot is here evidently indicating that the constituents of this ideal form are to be found in this ability to “unite” that Marvell’s poetic form possesses. What Eliot means by this capacity to “unite” is the capability that a poetic form has to incorporate the presence of past works of the European literary canon within itself by alluding to them, while simultaneously using the literary resources at its disposal to alter their content (Eliot, “Marvell” 149). He makes these indications clear by explaining this power to “unite” via the instance of Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” quoting the following lines from it:

But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near, And yonder before us lie Deserts of vast eternity. (qtd. in Eliot, “Marvell” 149)

Eliot says that in these lines Marvell alludes to Horace’s first and fourth odes, and to Catullus’ poem “Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (“Let us live and love, my Lesbia”). Eliot states that in alluding to these works, Marvell uses his poetic voice to alter their content, making it “more comprehensive by penetrating greater depths” than Horace or Catullus had accomplished (Eliot, “Marvell” 149). By extension Eliot indicates that Horace’s odes have similarly alluded to and altered the content of “Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,” Catullus’ poem having been the work that had ostensibly started the carpe diem tradition encompassed in Horace’s odes and in Marvell’s lines (Rainey 219). Marvell’s allusion to and alteration of Horace therefore involves a simultaneous allusion to and alteration of the fountainhead of the carpe diem trope in the European literary tradition. What Eliot consequently signifies is that the quoted lines from “To His Coy Mistress” cannot be viewed in isolation. By citing and modifying the source of the carpe diem theme in European literature, the lines should be seen as in effect altering the entire European literary tradition that deals with this theme, thereby helping perceive and alter the whole of European literature as a “simultaneous order” in keeping with Eliot’s tenets in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Eliot, “Tradition” 3).


Consequently, Eliot signifies that what constitutes classicism as a literary form is the allusion to and alteration of content from a past work of European literature—a process which automatically encompasses and alters the entire European literary canon down to its sources through that past work’s own literary allusions. One should note in this context that the passage Eliot quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” to demonstrate this process of allusion and alteration is exactly the one he himself alludes to and modifies twice in the third section of “The Waste Land.” In fact, the poetic form of “The Waste Land” depends on Eliot’s citation and modification of the content of past English, French, German, Italian, Greek, and Latin literary works, and of the Bible. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), Eliot refers to the European literary tradition as being made up specifically of these bodies of literature (Eliot, Culture 189-90). Therefore, if the alteration of material from past works of the European literary canon is what classicism as a literary form is about, it is executed through the full length of “The Waste Land” via Eliot’s procedure of citing and altering the content of works from those very bodies of literature which, for him, together constitute this canon.

It can consequently be concluded that “The Waste Land” sees Eliot putting into exercise the literary form he refers to through his use of the term “classicism.” Given the fact that he was working on “The Waste Land” even as he was writing “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and his essay on Marvell, it is not surprising that “The Waste Land” puts into practice this literary form whose possibilities Eliot lauds in these essays. By using “The Waste Land” to cite and modify those very lines by Marvell that themselves do the same for Horace who in turn alters Catullus, Eliot demonstrates in practice what he speaks of in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—that this ‘alteration of the past’ so intrinsic to the European literary tradition is a continuous process (Eliot, “Tradition” 4).

Very often when citing a quote from a literary work in “The Waste Land,” Eliot modifies it to some degree. This is what he does when quoting “To His Coy Mistress.” But through the example of Marvell’s modification of Horace and by extension the latter’s modification of Catullus, Eliot makes it obvious that by the ‘alteration’ of a literary allusion, he refers to the modification of that allusion’s substance and not of a quote as such. This alteration of the substance of literary allusions may not always be very overt in “The Waste Land.” Nevertheless, I would assert that every allusion made in “The Waste Land” has its substance altered merely by the presence of the allusion. This is because these allusions, whether in the form of quotation or paraphrase are singly or otherwise collapsed with Eliot’s own lines. This changes the context and the implications of the allusions’ content by forcing the reader to consider Eliot’s lines and the allusions simultaneously (Brooker & Bentley 24).

To demonstrate this process of alteration, let us take the instance of the first literary text alluded to in the body of “The Waste Land”—Countess Marie Larisch’s autobiography. The passage in “The Waste Land” paraphrasing portions from the autobiography is preceded by and fused with Eliot’s own lines discussing the aridity of the waste land of the poem’s title. The substance of the alluded content from the Countess’ autobiography is, as I have stated, altered by its mere citation, thanks to this fusion with Eliot’s lines—it changes the context and the implications of the Countess’ talk of her aristocratic lifestyle, making it symptomatic of the moral and spiritual aridity of modern civilization. This same process of modification through the collapse of lines applies to Eliot’s use of quotations as literary allusions. For example, in the two instances when he alludes to “To His Coy Mistress,” he partially quotes the poem’s line “But at my back I always hear” and melds it with his own input. This alters the connotations of the line in the context of “The Waste Land,” making it signify a sense of physical decay in keeping with the moral decay of modern civilization that the poem portrays.

Even when the allusion to the literary text is too short and/or obtuse to be either a quote or a paraphrase, its content is altered by this same process. When, for example, Eliot claims that he is citing Baudelaire’s poem “The Seven Old Men,” his reference is limited to the words “Unreal City” (Eliot, “Waste Land” 60; “Notes” 71) which neither constitute a quotation from nor a paraphrase of any part the poem. The words only bear a rough resemblance to the poem’s opening line which speaks of the illusory character of a city “crowded with dreams” (qtd. in Rainey 83). At any rate, the reference melds with Eliot’s own lines to make the city of London illustrative of the illusoriness and emptiness that, for Eliot, characterizes materialistic modern life.

This ‘classicist’ framework within which “The Waste Land” functions is, however, fractured in three parts of the poem where Eliot applies this process of allusion to Asian and not European literature. According to the notes appended to “The Waste Land,” Eliot refers to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon in the poem’s third section, and to the Sanskrit Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in its fifth section. This allusion to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad being the more extensive of the two, it would be fruitful to closely examine it.

“What the Thunder Said,” the title of the fifth section of “The Waste Land,” alludes to a fable narrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The fable is about the three classes of beings in Hindu mythology i.e. the gods, the demons, and the humans going to Brahma, the creator of the universe, to ask him what they should ideally do. In response to their query, Brahma utters a single syllable—“da.” While the humans take it to mean “datta” i.e. “give,” the demons think it means “dayadhvam” i.e. “be compassionate,” and the gods feel it means “damyata” i.e. “control yourselves” (Rainey 119-20). What ensues as a result of Brahma’s instruction is thus a crisis of meaning. In the final verses of “What the Thunder Said,” Eliot alludes to this fable by thrice quoting the syllable “da,” besides citing the words “datta,” “dayadhvam,” and “damyata” (Eliot, “Waste Land” 400-11).

By the quotation of the syllable “da” which pertains to a crisis of meaning, I would suggest that the allusion to and alteration of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s content gets reduced to a process bearing no meaning. The repetition of the syllable “da” in “What the Thunder Said,” after all, recalls another instance to which such a repetition is central—Dadaism, which derives its name from the syllable “da” that constitutes an integral part of French baby-talk (Shell 162). Eliot, while writing “The Waste Land” was greatly concerned with the element of meaninglessness in Dadaism, as his essay “The Lesson of Baudelaire” (1921) proves (Eliot, “Baudelaire” 144). The syllable “da” that Brahma utters in the aforementioned fable from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is used in “The Waste Land” to onomatopoeically represent the sound of thunder (Rainey 120). Be it as a literary allusion to onomatopoeia or as a reference to baby-talk, the syllable connotes the absence of meaning. It collapses in “What the Thunder Said” with Eliot’s lines to also draw them within its ambit of meaninglessness instead of having its content coherently modified by them.

One observes this same failure to make meaning in the allusions to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, and to the closing benediction of the Upanishads. The line from the third section of “The Waste Land” that alludes to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon runs “Burning burning burning burning;” it ultimately gets reduced to the single word “burning” with which the section closes. The word remains isolated, with no punctuation marks or other formal features with which to make sense of it. This isolation of the word leaves it without a sense of closure although it is itself used to close the third section of “The Waste Land.” Lacking Eliot’s lines to collapse itself with, it also lacks closure within the poem’s classicist framework in that its content thereby remains unmodified in contrast to the European literary allusions in the poem (Eliot, “Waste Land” 308-11). Without this element of closure, the word and by extension its meaning remain open-ended, encompassing any possible number of meanings only to indicate the absence of any specific meaning assignable to it. These very features are to be found yet again in another allusion in “The Waste Land”—the Upanishadic “Shantih shantih shantih” with which Eliot ends the poem (Eliot, “Waste Land” 433). Isolated, and without any punctuation to make sense of it or any of Eliot’s lines to modify it, the citation lacks closure and consequently meaning.

Through these three citations, Eliot indicates that the allusion to and alteration of the content of the Asian work within the classicist literary form opens itself to the possibility of an absence of meaning. This can be traced to a belief Eliot expresses about Asian culture in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He states in it that Asian culture is cut off from the comprehension of Europe because all culture makes sense to the European insofar as he perceives it through the prism of Christianity. He says, “[i]t is in Christianity that our [European] arts have developed…It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance…The [European] World has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations [sic] of Greece, Rome, and Israel, from which, owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we trace our descent” (Eliot, Culture 200). In short, the European literary tradition encompassed by Eliot’s classicism gains meaning in the European situation by being perceived through the lens of Christianity because “[i]t [i]s only in relation to his own religion that the insights of any…m[a]n ha[s] its significance to him” (qtd. in Izzo 104).

For Eliot, European culture is synonymous with Christian culture in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He brings even pre-Christian Greek and Latin literature within the purview of Christianity because he views Virgil as having “led Europe towards the Christian culture which he could never know”—a conception that Eliot formulated largely because of Virgil’s role in Dante’s The Divine Comedy(Kermode 23). Thus, the European literary tradition whose subjection to the process of alteration Eliot describes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is bound by and comprehended through the Christian religion.

Eliot’s classicist literary form in “The Waste Land” is, as I have indicated before, a formal exposition of the European literary tradition as represented in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot’s own lines in the classicist form of “The Waste Land” are, in the context of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” significatory of the “really new” work of art in the “ideal order” of the European literary canon, altering the past works of the canon by modifying their content. Therefore, what Eliot’s classicist form demonstrates in “The Waste Land” through its citation of Asian literature is in effect an attempt to fit a non-European work within this ideal order. But this intrusion of the non-European work into the European literary canon is, as I have shown, marked by a failure to make meaning. Eliot’s conception of the European literary tradition as described in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture evidently attributes this failure to the fact that the non-European work lacks the “background of Christianity” so intrinsic to enabling the European reader’s comprehension of the European work. Therefore, in keeping with Eliot’s representation of the European literary canon vis-à-vis his classicism in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The Waste Land” shows how intrinsic the European literary work and the alteration of the European literary canon are to the poem’s classicist form; it does so not only through its profusion of European literary allusions, but also by its fracture of the classicist form to introduce the non-European work only to highlight how such a work is alien to the form.

Works Cited

Asher, Kenneth. T. S Eliot and Ideology. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Brooker, Jewel Spears, and Philip Bentley. Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst, Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Deane Patrick. “Eliot’s Classicism, Pound’s Symbolism, and the Drafts of The Waste Land.” At Home in Time: Forms of Neo-Augustanism in Modern English Poetry. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. 31-55.

Eliot, T. S. “Andrew Marvell.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005.146-57.

---. “Notes” on “The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 71-74.

---. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Christianity and Culture. USA: Mariner Books, 1940. 79-208.

---. “Romanticism and Classicism.” Canonical Texts of English Literary Criticism with Selections from Classical Poeticians. Ed. Rangoon Kapoor. Delhi, India: Academic  Foundation, 1995. 294.

---. “The Function of Criticism.” The Criterion 1922-1939 in Eighteen Volumes: Volume 2 (October 1922-July 1924). Ed. T. S. Eliot. London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1967. 31-42.

---. “The Lesson of Baudelaire.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed.with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 144-45. ---. “The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed.with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005.  141-43.

---. “The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 57-74.

---. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” 22 June 2010 <>.

---. “Ulysses, Order and Myth (T. S. Eliot on Ulysses and Myth).” The Critical Heritage: James Joyce (Volume 1: 1907-27). Ed. Robert H. Deming. New York, NY: Routledge, 1970. 268-71.

Ellis, Steve. The English Eliot: Design, Language, and Landscape in Four Quartets. London, UK: Routledge, 1991.

Izzo, David Garrett. The Influence of Mysticism on 20th Century British and American Literature. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2009.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic. New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1975.

Kimmel, Michael S. Absolutism and its Discontents: State and Society in Seventeenth-Century France and England. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Inc., 1988.

Rae, Patricia. The Practical Muse: Pragmatist Poetics in Hulme, Pound, and Stevens. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Rainey, Lawrence. “Editor’s Annotations to The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed.with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey.

Shell, Mark. Stutter. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Vaughan, William. “The French Romantics.” The French Romantics (Volume 2). Ed. D. G. Charlton. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 308-52.

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Title Debojoy Chanda: On "The Waste Land" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Debojoy Chanda Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Nov 2015
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