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Keywords in
The Waste Land


This page links together the words that Eliot repeats in The Waste Land, and considers their significance.

antique

bed

bells

bones

An obvious image of death

broken

Many things are broken in 'The Waste land'. It is a record of psychological turmoil (the poem was largely written during one if Eliot's frequent bouts of illness and exhaustion), political decline (for Eliot, Democracy was a deplorable institution), cultural decay, moral degeneracy, and spiritual sterility. To what extent does it offer hope rising from the destruction?

brown

dead

The Waste Land is much concerned with life, death and the tentative possibility of resurrection.

dry

The opening verses of 'The Hollow Men' use images of dryness very similarly to 'The Waste Land'. it does not represent simply death (which in Buddhist thought, is the supreme goal of Nirvana, only reached by the most enlightened beings), but a lack of real life, a dreadful, sterile limbo state devoid of redemption or spiritual meaning.

eyes

Ackroyd in his biography of Eliot (T. S. Eliot: A Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984) interprets the strength of this image as reflecting Eliot's acute self-consciousness.

fish

This word signals the presence of the Fisher King in the poem.

rain

The rain image clearly overlaps and reinforces that of water

rat

Eliot returned to the image of the rat several times in his early poetry - most infamously in 'Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar':
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.

red

From the myriad connotations of this colour, Eliot underscores its suggestion of violence and destructive emotion.

towers

An image of the city, cultural order and authority. Also a card in the tarot pack. Eliot moves from an idealised pure tower, through destruction, to an impossible, nightmare vision of an upside tower reminiscent of Bosch.

violet

This colour has a somewhat decadent quality, an echo of the fin de siecle poets such as Baudelaire who had a significant influence on Eliot

water

A key symbol of life and fertility in The Waste Land.