T. S.

The Waste Land



Eliot's Note

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble. To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.


Frazer's The Golden Bough connects the beginnings of organized religion to pagan fertility rituals. In From Ritual to Romance, Weston applies Frazer's ideas to the legend of the Holy Grail. Prominent figures in Weston's reading are the Fisher King, the immortal guardian of the Grail, and Percival, a knight from Arthur's court. The Grail itself is usually imagined as a chalice used during the Last Supper or Crucifixion.

Stories of the Fisher King vary in detail but usually share key features. The Fisher King is crippled by a magical wound and spends his days fishing on a lake near his castle. His lands are desolate, infertile, as a result of his wound. The knight Percival eventually comes to the castle of the Fisher King in search of the Holy Grail. Percival heals the king, restoring the land to fertility and becoming keeper of the grail. (See the note to line 202 for more about Percival.)

Following Frazer, Weston connects the story of the Fisher King to ancient fertility rituals, linking the king's health to that of his land. Eliot credits much of the structure of The Waste Land to Weston's book. The waste land created by the Fisher King's wound serves as the central image of the poem, and the king himself appears several times:

Line 51

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,

Lines 189-192

While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.

Lines 423-425

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?