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SUMMARY and Notes
The title of the poem consists of the central waste land symbol and a significant date 1922. For the title of his poem, Eliot chose the central symbol of a devastated land. The title evokes all the associations of a barren landscape blighted by drought and Famine, leading on to wide-scale human starvation, misery and death. At another level, this symbolic title recalls the ancient vegetation or fertility myths and primitive folklore associated with the sterility of a land affected by the impotence of its ruler. Both the land and its people could be saved by a virtuous and daring youth whose life was ritually sacrificed so as to renew the earth.
The Waste Land, as a title and symbol has a profound and subtle significance. Eliot uses it to refer to the post-war devastation of Western civilization as a modern counterpart to the mythological waste land. Significantly, Eliot affixed the date "1922" to the title, suggesting thereby that his "waste land" pertains to the contemporary scenario of woe and waste following the carnage of World War I. For the most part, Eliot relates the waste land symbol of the title to the "Unreal City" such as London, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna or Jerusalem (all centers of human civilization destroyed in past or recent human history).
Eliot uses for epigraph a chance remark in the Roman poem The Satyricon by Patronius. Literally, this passage in Latin and Greek reads as follows:
"I myself once saw, with my own eyes, the sibyl of Cumae hanging in a cage; and when the boys asked her: "What wouldst thou prophesy, Sibyl? She replied: "I want to die."
The 19th century English poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in his verse translation of The Satyricon renders it thus:
"I saw the Sibyl at Cumae
He said, with mine own eye;
She hung in a cage and read her rune
To all the passers by
Said the boys: "Sibyl what wouldn’t thou prophesy?"
She answered: "I would die"
Eliot had first chosen a line from Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness (1899) as the epigraph to his poem. It was the famous dying words of the central figure, Kurtz, as reported by Marlow, the narrator: "The horror! The horror!" when Pound edited Eliot"s manuscript of The Waste Land, he objected to the original epigraph on the grounds that Conrads novel was not weighty enough for the purpose Eliot had in mind. So the words were removed and substituted by a quote from The Satyricon by the 1st century AD Roman poet, Petronius Arbiter. The drunken Trimalchio at an ostentatious feast hosted by him speaks to them.
The Sibyl of Cumae is one of the oldest and most famous prophetesses known to the ancient Graeco-Roman world. She was the guardian spirit of a sacred cave at Cumae, the earliest Greek settlement in Italy. (Her cave may still be seen on the Italian coast a little north of the Bay of Naples). Her Sibylline prophecies (in nine volumes) were entrusted to Rome's last king, Tarquinus Superbus. She was also regarded as the gate-keeper of the underworld, and in the sixth eclogue of Virgil’s Aeneid, she conducts Aeneas through Hades (or the underworld). Once the God Apollo offered her immortality if she would be his lover. The Sibyl accepted but failed to ask for perpetual youth and hence, withered into old age. Thus, her death wish is linked to her desire to be rid of her antiquated life, just as the walking dead of the modern "Unreal City" have nothing to look forward to in life but death. Eliot, perhaps, suggests that we are about to be led into a kind of Dantean descent into the "hell" of a modern waste land just as the Sibyl guided Aeneas through Hades.