when the world was young: “the waste land”

The latest in a series about influences from my earlier days

My favorite poem—which I was introduced to back in college—is also one of the most difficult: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s long (over 400 lines), so I won’t quote it all, but as it’s in the public domain, you can find an online copy here.  And as for what the heck is going on in it, this summary isn’t too far from wrong.


The Waste Land is a tough read because it’s a stream-of-consciousness piece that jumps—with little or no warning—from character or character (most of them unnamed).  Eliot freely drops in references to myth, legend, literature, and (then-current) popular culture.  Some lines are in Greek, German, or other languages, and Eliot follows the poem with extensive footnotes.


The gist of what Eliot is saying with The Waste Land is that society is exhausted and decadent, in desperate need of renewal and healing (one wonders what Eliot would think of the world today, nearly a century later).  Along the way, Eliot drops some killer lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land


What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish




I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


I do not find

The Hanged Man.  Fear death by water.




I had not thought death had undone so many.


I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.



Those are pearls that were his eyes.


By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…

Sweet Thames, run softly til I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.



To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest



He who was living is now dead

We who were living are now dying

With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road




Who is the third who always walks beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you




The Waste Land is widely considered as one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century.  When I first read it, I was blown away by the power of its apocalyptic imagery and desolate landscapes.  Every time I’ve re-read it, I’ve found something new to reflect on.  The Waste Land is a huge influence on In Lonely Lands, my work-in-progress novel, so much so that I’m seriously considering its title to reflect that.

(On a side note, I’ve long been reminded of The Waste Land every time I hear “London Calling,” by The Clash.  It’s the similar end-of-the-world theme and the line, “I live by the river.”)



Kenton Kilgore is forging a new direction in young adult science-fiction and fantasy.  His latest work-in-progress is In Lonely Lands, a modern-fantasy/horror novel, to be published in late 2016.

Kenton is the author of Dragontamer’s Daughters, based on Navajo culture and belief.  He also wrote Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.  

Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. 




This entry was posted in when the world was young and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.