Bringing Myths To Modern Time – T.S. Eliot`s “The Waste Land”

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer


Eliot message is not very clear, for its hidden meaning, it is what makes the poem the most important of its time. This poem is unique, unlike Eliot’s other poems, the use of mythology in a very artistic way is one reason. This paper explores the background of each mythology used in the poem, and the text it is taken from, with its reflection in the 20th century. The historical background of Europe in 20th century is mentioned as well. He brings myths to modern time, merging past with present, as if nothing has changed. It suggests a new way of writing, that instead of using the narrative method, mythology can replace it.


Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, while his family origin is from New England. He studied at Harvard and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Art. Eliot served as a philosophy assistant at Harvard for a year, and then leaving for France to study philosophy. From 1911 to 1914, he was back at Harvard, improving his knowledge by reading Indian philosophy and studying Sanskrit. T.S. Eliot’s main influence in poetry was the American poet Ezra Pound, who immediately recognized Eliot’s work of poetry to publish it later. The first published poem is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1915. In 1922 Eliot published The Waste Land, which is considered the most influential poetic work of the 20th century. For the lifetime of poetic innovation, Eliot won the Order the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. spending most of his life in Europe, he died in London, England, in 1965.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, is considered by many to be the most important poem of the 20th century. It is a poem that speaks about many issues in just five brief fragmented sections. While writing the poem, Eliot has been reading works for famous writers like Jessie Weston’s Ritual to Romance, and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bug. Eliot himself admitted that he was influenced deeply with their works as well the primitive myths and legends, which from there the mythical background is derived from.

Mythology is “a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event”. While Greek mythology is a set of stories about gods, goddesses, heroes and rituals of Ancient Greeks, it was also part of the religion in Ancient Greece. In the poem, Eliot portrays these myths as if they are in the 20th century. Eliot accomplishes this by choosing specific mythologies that are exactly a reflection of the time. For instance, the poem is written after World War I, in which people has neither forgot the war yet, nor the horrible things they suffered. As some things just cannot be forgotten. People cannot just get over the horribleness they experienced, war may be over but that does not mean that everything will ever be normal again. Eliot uses mythology, to explain the horribleness people suffered, nothing could have express it better than myth. Because, mythology shows the worse in people, gods, and war.

Eliot’s Waste Land, is not just a poem, it is the poem of the century. True, it is not easy to understand, yet when you really know its deep meaning, and hidden messages, you can feel at some point, the sufferance of people. The variety of voices puts you back in the mood of the 20th century. Paving the way of a new form of verse, Eliot is the master of poetry. His poems are taught in both American literature in 20th century and England literature in 20th century.

Literature Review

The Waste Land, first published in 1922, is said to be the most important poem of the whole twentieth century. The use of intertextuality, that is the use of a text but in a different way, since Eliot use texts like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. In addition to intertextuality, two very important styles used by Eliot are pleophony and the use of fragments. In addition, the theme of death is shown mostly in all parts of the poem, which indicates the horror Europe was in, they brought it to themselves. The time period of this poem reflects a time when Europe is dying and there is no place for happiness and love, due to death being everywhere. Some critiques, discussed the idea of it being the new type of modernism. While some explain the idea of seasons that Eliot manipulates “April is the cruelest month…” “Winter kept us warm…”.

In Champlin’s article that discusses the Waste Land from a modernist point of view, Champlin suggests that T. S. Eliot, in his poem The Waste Land, examines the way that people think and their minds through the modern individual perspectives. As such, The Waste Land is considered one of the greatest modernist poems that criticizes the esoteric nature of such times and eras with similar deeds and qualities. It is about analyzing this piece of literature in the lights of modernism examining. For example, Champlin points to Eliot’s intense use of the metaphorical language throughout the whole poem. Also, the article is about two main points in the poem which are the allusion and the incoherent flow structure; That is, to find the aim of this literary work which is considered as a meaningful master piece. Despite the fragmented design or its structure, The Waste Land indicates multiple religious morals and critical subjects about the way mankind lives and behaves in the eyes of modernism. “…Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know onlyA heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,And the dry stone no sound of water.”

The quotation above is an obvious invocation of Jesus with the term “Son of man.” The following images recall various lines found in the Old Testament. “…the dry stone no sound of water.” This is a reference to a miracle by God as Moses leads the Israelites through the desert. The desert imagery is a direct address to Biblical stories. Another example, the scene is reminiscent of Jesus’s temptation by Satan, Satan showing him the world and offering relief if only Jesus says the word. It is suggested by Champlin, that Eliot’s purpose in employing religious elements is to express that religion still exists, and that people should not stop believing, especially in miracles.

Eliot has clarified the concept of mythical method in his review of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antique. He has adopted the technique of compression and telescoping and with a poetic shorthand. The poem of four hundred thirty lines, The Waste Land, acquires a disillusionment in the cultural history of the entire human nation.

The Waste Land, is a poem that has many analyses, that discuss the use of mythology. However, what has not been discussed is the use of myths and their relation to the time period of the when the poem was written. In order to fill the gap that is observed with the analyses, this paper aims to discuss the mythology and its relation to the 20th century, which has not been done before. Although the poem, is written in a time of, but all the writers focus in on analyzing its themes, and just criticizing it, trying to find a flow on it.


Eliot has found a whole new language for poetry in the everyday world. For this poem has many speakers that is why it is refers to as Polyphonic poem. The variety of speaker indicates and emphasis on the issue, especially the use of ancient Greek voices. The use of specific mythology is very important, especially if it represents another time. In a very artistic way, Eliot brings these ancient mythologies into the 20th century and makes them alive in somehow. In the following paragraphs each myth will be explain in detail, as well as its relation to the 20th century.

The very first myth in the poem, is on the epigraph about Sybil. She is a sear who requests to have eternal life but forgets to ask for eternal youth. She is given eternal life but doomed with eternal aging. “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidiin ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.” The Wasteland Epigraph. Hanging in a jar shriving, while boys ask her what she wants, her answer is that she wants to die. Living without purpose, and no meaning perhaps death is desirable, perhaps death presents the one way out of this pain and emptiness, that is what the Waste Land presents. Sybil is described to be tormented by horrible conditions and a lack of hope. This demonstrates how death is presented to be a way out of this pain and emptiness. With its imagery of death and hopelessness, this image is what Europe is at the 20th century, as many viewed the only escape from war and its horribleness, to be death. Everybody wishes death, it is the time after world war 1 that the poem is written in, that is why it can be a perfect reflection of that time. Especially the myths in it. The ultimate death wish is the symbol of Europe.

In perhaps the most famous story about Sybil, Apollo offers to grant her any wish if she would make love to him. Holding up a handful of sand, Sibyl askes to live one year for each grain of sand she is holding. She is granted the wish, but to refuse Apollo later. As punishment, she is doomed with long life but not eternal youth. Getting older, she shrinks in size, finally becoming so small she lives in a bottle. The ending is the same in all of Sybil’s stories: she asks for death. This story reflects the unfulfilled promises of peace in the 20th century. People were tired of waiting for their lives to go back to normal, the promises their government were going nowhere. That is why death is easier, at least they can get their freedom, that is what they believe in, no one will be forcing them to fight a battel they are victims in. Syble is not the only myth, Eliot uses the myth of Philomel, to refer to the bad situation as well, since her story is horrible as the war is.

Philomel, in Greek Mythology, is the daughter of king Pandion of Athens. “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king”. The myth explains that Philomel’s sister Procne marries the king of Thrace, Tereus, moving to Thrace. Five years later, wanting to see her sister, Tereus agrees to bring Philomela for a visit. But when seeing how beautiful Philomela is, rapping her, then cutting her tongue, leaving her to die, telling Procne that she is dead. Eliot’s Philomel is the same as V. Ovid Metamorphoses. The lesson from her story, or how it is reflective of 20 century events, is that almost all people of Europe were silenced, if they are to express their voices, means death sentence. Kings, Politician, and governments are represented in Tereus. While they don’t literally cut off people’s tongues, they manage to silence them in one way or another. This is the technique of war: to be strong you need literally stab other people, especially the weak. In Eliot’s poem, the two sisters get their revenge, unlike real life, that is why it is called a myth. Unable to speak, Philomel weaves a tapestry telling what happen, then arranges for an old woman taking it to her sister. When Procne sees the weaving, she asks the woman to lead her to Philomel. Planning revenge on her husband, she kills their son serving him to Tereus for supper. Philomel appears and throws the boy’s head on the table. Realizing what just happen, Tereus chases the women trying to kill them. But before he could catch them, the gods transform them all into birds. The myth appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as mentioned before, Eliot uses intertextuality a lot, but in an impressive way by twisting it to fit the context of the poem, that is if the myth is living in the 20th century.

Tiresias, even not being a character, he is a mere spectator. Yet he is the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest, but first, how is really Tiresias as a myth? He is a blind Theban seer, or a prophet and his blindness have different stories, including being blinded by Athena. The most known story is that he commits violence on two huge snakes in the green forest, and he is turned into a woman by Hera. Spending seven years as a woman, in the eighth year he sees the snake again, saying that he doesn’t regret the past, and if he gets the chance again he will redo it all over. With these words he is struck back to a man, which makes him the first transgender creature, goes back to 800 B.C. as a reconciliation of his blindness, Zeus gives him the gift to see the future, because what is done by a god, cannot be undone by another. Many ancient writers mentions him like Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, and Ovid, but Homer’s Odyssey is the very first appearance of Tiresias in a work of literature. In that work, Tiresias uses his prophetic gifts in the underworld, where Odysseus goes to consult him about his fate, and what to do next to go back home. The figure of Tiresias recurs in later European literature, both as prophet and as transgender, in such works as Guillaume Apollinaire’s Surrealist play Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and of course T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).

As if Tiresias is living in the present and telling a prophecy, he is mentioning past events, bad events that are recurring, which is an indication that Europe has not change. He is just an observer. Yet what Tiresias sees is the substance of the poem. So, considering that it is 20th century, and Tiresias is there, he can see the future of people, of Europe, with all its horribleness. But he cannot intervene, he is powerless when it comes to real people of power, and as portrays by Eliot, he is just an observer. The same applies to Sybil, she is hopeless, cannot change her fate, since she disobeyed a god, the ultimate power. When it comes to information that he knows, all are associates with death.

One last mythology in Eliot’s poem, is Aeneas, the son of the prince Anchises. Despite later becoming the ancestor of the Romans, he is described as coming from Troy (in today’s modern Turkey) and sails west until reaching Carthage (in today’s modern Tunisia). It is a tragic love story that ends with a princess killing herself as a result of heartache caused by Aeneas. His story and adventures are written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, it tracks his journey from Troy to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. Of course, in between he destroys kingdoms, just like Tido. “To Carthage then I cameBurning burning burning burning, O Lord Thou pluckest me out, O Lord Thou pluckest”. It is another indication about the horribleness of Europeans, for Aeneas being one of them. His character brings nothing with him but death and destruction, which is symbolic of the role Europeans have played throughout history. History does not change for them, it is repetitive. They pass by nations, destroys them, then leave as if nothing happens. Aeneas, stand for all Europeans who destroys kingdoms, he is not the first one, or the last. In the 20th century, European invaded varies countries, that their affects still standing now. For example, the conflict between Britain and Ireland, having a settlement few years ago, but still they are in control. Destroying a nation, without thinking of the millions who fled Ireland. The only thing they are good at, is dividing, killing, and conquering. This is the perfect image of the wasteland of Europe.

Eliot picked the myths in this poem very carefully, since all of them gives an exact representation of the time of the poem. In these brief myths, he was able to express a nation, with all the flues it had. The Waste Land became the bigger image of Europe. Nobody was able to compete with Eliot and his techniques in poetry. The Waste Land was not called the most important poem of its century for nothing, it is a clear study of the past, thanks to the details in it.


What makes a great work of literature is that readers will be always seeking to understand it. The way that poetry can respond to the mess the world has become is what makes it survive for a long time. Eliot’s success on delivering a masterpiece is due to the way he open readers eyes to what really is happing around them, especially in this way. Reading the poems needs a lot of effort to connect the deferent texts Eliot uses to present various ideas in an artistic way. The deferent presentation of death shows how awful it is, and to imagine that this is what was happening during the 20th century in Europe. Europe is dying, nothing decent is left, still people are not taking actions.

In this poem, Eliot highlights some major issues that people were living in, yet in a twisted way, which make it again a masterpiece. The way he brings ancient mythologies to life, as if they are living among us, and witnessing all the events. The use of intertextuality makes the poem more interesting, since Eliot use myths from classical texts, like Philomel also the representation of women from powerful to a low-class woman for being corrupt, and unmoral. That is the image Eliot wants to deliver that nothing decent is left.

It is not just about death and the image of the wasteland, it is a lesson for everyone. A lesson to apply in everyday use. It is what really Eliot wants, a language of poetry in the everyday world, poetry must become the respond to the mess the world has become. People are sleepwalking through their daily life, that is why this poem is their wake-up call.

Even that this poem is about the 20th century, still it can reflect a lot of the 21st century, the time we are living in. it is a tribute to people after world war 11, as well can fit people who are suffering today. The Waste Land is not just Europe, neither the people, it fits any place with that includes the themes of the poem. Eliot is immortalizing a time and its people by writing this poem, to be like a dedication to the life they had to go throw.


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