Lawrence Rainey asserts that Modernism seeks to find a ‘shareable language within the family of twentieth century tongues’ (34). In The Waste Land that ‘shareable language’ is absence, which conveys the trauma of losing an entire generation to the First World War. The continual allusions to absence generates a traumatised image of society and Eliot expresses this through silence, and the past and present converging in such a way that acts as a barrier to the future. 

In Book 1 Eliot refers to Tristan and Isolde, well known figures in literature for their famed romance. However, Eliot turns what would be expected to be a joyous moment into a stunted, disconnected moment of confusion:

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence. (1.38-41)

The clauses in the poem are disjointed and slowed by caesurae to a pace that suggests that the speaker is confused as to the reaction that he is having when looking at Isolde. He is clearly aware that there is something amiss and the enjambment between the lines ‘I could not / Speak’ suggests a lack of control over his own thought process and emotion, as though he is being disconnected from his own voice. This inability to articulate even when thinking of one of the most famous romances in literature suggests that ‘silence’ has undermined not just voice, but culture and emotion. Eliot also makes a point of connecting the inability to ‘Speak’ and ‘silence’ with being ‘neither / Living nor dead’, therefore the absence of voice is equatable to an absence of being, a halfway state in which one is disconnected and paralysed, just as the speaker seems to be in this stanza.

Eliot continues along this thread in Book 2 with the episode describing Albert and Lil’s relationship, however, instead of a paralysis of voice, there is a voice here that has been omitted entirely. Speaker 1 is discussing Lil’s issue with her teeth and Albert’s views on the matter. Eliot writes: ‘When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said – / I didn’t mince my words,’ (2.139-140). The dash at the end of the first line might suggest that Speaker 1 has merely interrupted herself, however her next words are defensive (‘I didn’t mince my words’), as though someone has uttered a disbelieving comment that only she can hear. This is repeated when she says, ‘To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there,’ (2.144, my emphasis) and ‘He said, I swear’ (2.146 my emphasis). Before each emphasis it is possible to imagine a sceptical comment being uttered which forces Speaker 1 to defend herself. If Eliot has previously associated an inability to articulate with a state between life and death, the completely absent Speaker 2 may not actually exist at all. According to Schreber, ‘a multiplicity of perspectives conveys the realisation that reality includes our attempts to see it’ (qtd. in Sass 137). If everyone is trying to create their own realities it conveys an isolation which in this stanza is highlighted because as far as is decipherable, Speaker 1 is speaking to herself, or to a person whose existence is questionable. No matter who this second speaker is to Speaker 1, the voice is not recorded and suggests another breakdown of communication and the relationship between the two that is a symbol for British society after the war.

The breakdown of communication and relationships as a metaphor for society is used again in Book 2 in lines 113-116:

“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”


I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.

The first line is broken up by the questions within it which get progressively shorter to suggest an increase in pace, thus creating a neurotic voice that is agitated and frightened. The use of the word ‘never’ in the second line suggests that the relationship between the two speakers is established and long term, and yet there is a barrier between them that is emphasised by the stanza-break. The second speaker does not speak at all, despite their speech being a response to the first speaker. The lack of speech marks creates an instinctive slowing down of pace, and the enjambment suggests that the speaker is paralysed in a long, lingering contemplation of the dead, and so cannot respond because they are barely living in the present.

Eliot asserts that a poet must write ‘not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence’ with the present (Tradition 956). This argues that the two are connected, but that is not the case in The Waste Land where the past and present can be separated. In Book 3, we see him invoking the River Thames in a similar way to the the way epic poets invoke the gods in their poetry. However, whilst epic poetry is usually written in dactylic hexameter, Eliot’s use of free verse in The Waste Land provides an immediate barrier to the past which the reader is supposedly trying to connect to here. Eliot starts and ends this section by presenting the absence of the ‘nymphs’, (3.175,179) creatures associated with beauty and Ancient Greek myths which are the foundation of Western literature. His placing of the simple sentences at the ends of their prospective lines makes them act like brackets around the invocation, a sad remembrance of a past that is now unreachable. Eliot also purposefully describes the things that are not in the river, items such as ‘sandwich papers’, ‘silk handkerchiefs’ and ‘empty bottles’, all of which, if they were present in the river, would suggest happy memories of ‘summer nights’ (3.177-9). The caesurae which separate them cause the reader to linger on their absence which suggests that the speaker is no longer able to recall happy memories. Though they try to remember the life that is usually associated by the water, they are tormented by the war dead who are remembered by ‘The rattle of bones, and a chuckle from ear to ear’ (3.186). As well as suggesting a disconnection from a cultural past, the continual remembrances suggest that the speaker cannot move on from the war.

This notion of not being able to move on is addressed earlier in the poem in Book 1, in which Eliot directly addresses the war dead and the effect they have on the present. A speaker comments that they ‘see crowds of people, walking round in a ring’ (1.56). The line is in present tense, and the speaker and reader are unaware that these crowds are dead until Eliot writes, ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many’ (1.62-3) which suggests that there is physically no where for the dead to go. Once again death is ironically connected to the river when water is usually a life giving source. The speaker repeats the words ‘so many’ at the end of both lines which conveys their shock and horror. These lines are also in the past, reminding the reader that the crowds are memories, even though the speakers seem unable to escape them. And whilst the dead seem to inhibit memories and connection to the past as well as prevent the speakers from living in the present, Eliot also suggests that they have prevented any hope of moving forwards in the future:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? (1.72-3)

The very notion of death creating life is odd, and life physically growing out of death seems near impossible, yet the two questions positioned side by side suggest an excitement and quick pace of reading that seems counterintuitive. It leads to the haunting fear that death will only create more death, and that that is what will ‘bloom’ or ‘sprout’ from the corpse, and therefore society will be stuck in a state of trauma and paralysis because of the war dead despite their best hopes.

Eliot’s poem is full of the ‘shareable language’ of absence to convey loss. His use of voice, tenses and allusions suggests a paralysis that can only be conveyed and articulated through this language that epitomises a society disorientated, traumatised and remembering their lost generation. His poem conveys the feeling of futility and helplessness, of not knowing how to reconcile this loss with life and the hope of moving on in the future and we see this in the missing voices, the indications of detachment and the inability to consider the future.



Eliot, T.S. Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010. 956. Print.


Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 57-74. Print.


Rainey, Lawrence. The Cultural Economy of Modernism. The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 12 November 2013.


Sass, A. Louis. Heroism of Doubt. Madness and Modernism. New York: Basic Books, 1992. 137. Print.