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Definition: Waste Land, The from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Poem by T S Eliot, first published in 1922. A long, complex, and innovative poem, it expressed the prevalent mood of disillusionment after World War I and is a key work of modernism in literature.


Summary Article: Waste Land, The
from Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable

A densely allusive poem (1922) by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) that is now recognized as one of the landmarks of literary Modernism. The title, like the poem itself, expresses the sense of futility and disillusion that followed in the wake of the First World War. More specifically, it refers to an incident in the second book of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, in which the knight Balyn deals King Pellam the 'Dolorous Stroke' that causes the 'Waste Land', a disaster that devastates three kingdoms and whose effects can only be alleviated by the quest for the Holy Grail. Many lines from the poem have become familiar as quotations (and misquotations), including its opening words, 'April is the cruellest month' (see Cruellest month), and

 When lovely woman stoops to folly and
 Paces about her room again, alone,
 She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
 And puts a record on the gramophone.

It has also furnished titles for several subsequent literary works, including Evelyn Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust (1934) and Iain M. Banks's novel Consider Phlebas (1987). In the years following its publication, the poem attracted numerous admirers, including university undergraduates, who allegedly chanted it from college windows as an act of artistic rebellion:

 After luncheon he stood on the balcony with a megaphone
 which had appeared surprisingly among the
 bric-a-brac of Sebastian's room, and in languishing
 tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the
 sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to
 the river.
EVELYN WAUGH: Brideshead Revisited (1945)
Copyright © Cassell / The Orion Publishing Group Ltd 2000, 2009

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