Experiencing “The Waste Land”: A Four-Day Unit for Teaching T. S. Eliot’s Masterpiece

Steer your students away from the question “What does The Waste Land mean?”, a question that still baffles literary critics. Instead, get them to ask “What does The Waste Land express?” Rather than getting them to interpret the poem; have them experience it. A four day course of 90 minute classes, for high school and undergraduates, based on a theoretical framework laid out in my essay “What The Waste Land Expresses: An Experiential Approach to T. S. Eliot’s Poem.”


(Photo by Ronosaurus Rex)

Objectives: To make “The Waste Land” more accessible to first time readers, by preparing students with three traditional sources and three modernist poems, along with discussion of tradition and modernism, to give readers a sense of familiarity with key passages in the poem and prepare them for the use of allusion and fragmentation of form.  To direct students away from the question, “What does it mean?” towards “What does it express?” thereby focusing on the musicality and expression of emotion.  To look for meanings, during the interpretive stage, rather than a singular, unifying meaning.

1st day: Tradition

Warm-up exercise: Free association under the headings: Metamorphoses, The Holy Grail, and The Inferno, either in small groups or as an open class.  Encourage students to include names, images, feelings, ideas, colors and sounds.  (Even if students haven’t read these works, they will still have reactions to the words themselves, with a little prompting.)

“The Blinding of Tiresias” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (North 46)

Take an anonymous survey of the class, asking, “Who enjoys ‘pleasure in love’ more, a man or a woman?”  Students should include their own gender identification on the survey.

Compare answers.  Does the answer depend on whether the one answering is male or female?

Pose the question:  What do you think someone would say who has been both male and female?

Read the paragraph from Ovid.

Discuss Jove and Juno’s answers to the above question. (Both thought the other gender enjoyed pleasure more.)  How was Tiresias changed into a woman and how was he changed back?  (He struck two mating serpents with his staff both times.)  Then, identify Tiresias’s judgment (that women enjoy “pleasure in love” more than men).  What did Juno do to Tiresias in retaliation for deciding against her?  (She blinded him.)  How did Jove make amends?  (He gave Tiresias the power to know the future.)

Mention that Tiresias is a central figure in “The Waste Land” and read lines 217-221.  “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see / At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.”  Discuss who the sailor might be, but do not try to resolve the question.

The story of the Fisher King from Chretien de Troyes’s Perceval (Troyes 417 – 422)

Ask if anyone has heard of the Fisher King in connection with the Grail story.

Read the short section from de Troyes’ work.

Have students paraphrase the story in small groups.

As a class, discuss these questions:  “Why can’t the ‘handsome nobleman with greying hair’ rise to greet his visitor?”  (He is wounded or sick.)  “What could the white lance, dripping blood, symbolize, if anything?”  (Tell them in many versions it is the spear that pierced Jesus’ side during the crucifixion, inducing death.  This is also the spear that wounded the king.  If some students read some sexual connotations into the spear, this is not inappropriate, as the wound in the king’s “thigh” is probably in his groin, causing impotence, which has caused infertility in the land.  The symbolism goes back to Celtic times, the grail being the feminine counterpart to the masculine spear.)  Why doesn’t Perceval ask about the Grail as it is passing by throughout the dinner?  (The gentleman who knighted him advised him not too talk too much.)  Was keeping silent best?  (No, the text says, “…he kept more silent than he should have” [Troyes 421].)  Why was it a mistake to keep quiet?  (Because he lost his chance to find out about the grail.)  When he wakes in the morning, where are all the people?  (Mysteriously vanished.  Explanations may depend on the reader, but it is an indication of the enchanted nature of the castle and its inhabitants and Perceval’s failure to cure the king of his wound.)

Homework:  Students should read the selections from Jessie L. Weston’s The Grail Quest in the Norton Critical Edition to “The Waste Land” (North 35 – 40) with the question: How does Weston’s description of the Grail story compare to the de Troyes’s version?  Also, Canto III from Dante’s Inferno (Dante 23 – 31) with these questions: What is written over the doorway?  What type of people are kept in this circle of hell?  (“Souls unsure / Whose lives earned neither honor nor bad fame . . . neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him” 31-33).  Why doesn’t Charon want to ferry the narrator across the river?  (Because he is not only living, but also good, since, “Souls who are good never pass this way; therefore, if you hear / Charon complaining at your presence, consider / What that means” [Dante 105-108])

2nd day: Background: Modern Life and Eliot

Warm-up exercise: Exquisite Corpse.  This game was popular with Dadaists and surrealists, since it incorporates accident and collage, important techniques for the modernists.  It will also prepare students for the fragmentation of “The Waste Land.”  Each student begins with a page headed with these titles: To the Reader, In a Station of the Metro, It is Sweet to Die for One’s Country, The Burial of the Dead, A Game of Chess, The Fire Sermon, Death by Water, and What the Thunder Said.  Each student writes two or three lines, folding over the page so only the last line is showing, then the student passes their poem to the left. The next student adds another two or three lines, again folding over the page so only the last line is showing, and so on.  Passing no more than six times will help keep the time for this warm-up short.  The poems could then be read in small groups or as an open class.

Answer questions from the homework assignment.

Charles Baudelaire’s “To The Reader” (North 42 – 43).

Set the question, “What sins are mentioned in the poem?”

Read the poem aloud, each student reading one verse.

Answer the above question. (Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice, drinking, possibly rape, poisoning, arson, sex, narcotics, murder, and most importantly, boredom).  Ask why boredom seems to be the worst of sins for Baudelaire.  Tie this back to Dante and those in Canto III who were neither good nor bad.

“In a Station of the Metro,” by Ezra Pound.

Read the short poem:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Read the major tenets of imagism.

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Examine how Pound’s poem follows these tenets.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” (Bain 747-748)

Write “Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori” on the board and translate it verbally as, “It is sweet to die for one’s country.”  Ask for reactions to this famous statement from Horace.

Read the poem individually.

Ask how Owen feels about Horace’s statement about dying for one’s country. (Obviously, he thinks it is a lie.)  Discuss how Owen’s makes his point and how he makes the images so vivid.

Some biographical background
Objective correlative

Homework: Read about the French symbolists and early modernism (Lewis 45 – 49), the effects of the Great War on modernist literature (Lewis 108-111), and some general biographical background to the poem (Southam 32 – 35).

3rd day: The sound of the poem

Warm-up Exercise:  Write “April is the cruelest month” on the board.  In pairs, students consider why April might be the cruelest month and then a vote on which explanation is the best.

What does the poem express?

Show an abstract painting and ask students what it means.  When you have let them stumble around for a few minutes, explain that non-figurative art is not supposed to mean anything.  Although all paintings, however abstract, have meanings, a painting may represent an emotion or be about color, texture and shape, even the process of painting.  Discuss the presented painting in this light.

Prepare students for “The Waste Land” by shifting the question, “What does the poem mean?” to “What does it express?”  But explain that the poem plays with meaning, approaching idea and then withdrawing from it, and that this technique is evidence of the modernism of the poem.

Introduce fragmentation and collage as other modernist techniques.  Read a translation of the epigraph and an explanation (North 3), but be sure and add that the Sibyl’s prophecies were written on paper, torn up and scattered, so someone who wished to understand the oracle would have to piece it together.

Dictate “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images” and “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”  Discuss what these lines mean in terms of the epigraph and modernism.

“The Waste Land”

Assign each student one section of the poem to read and give them time to go over their parts. Encourage them to think of the reading as a performance. They should be aware that there are often different voices in each section, so they should look for these voices and present the lines differently. Giving student time to go over their section will make the reading of the poem run more smoothly and give each student a chance to wrestle with a part of the poem individually. Encourage them to read over their section several times before exploring footnotes. Tell students not to worry too much about pronunciation, especially of lines in other languages, but tell them to be aware of the sound of the poem and to dramatize their reading.  The teacher should take the first part to set the mood and reserve the last section, “What the Thunder Said” for a recording of Eliot reading the poem, if available.

(Alternatively, students could video tape their section of the poem as homework, as this will be easier for shyer students and will encourage experimentation and performance.)

The Sound of the Poem

After initial broad reactions, have each student find one part of the poem which is particularly musical (let them define this term in their own way) and one part where the rhythm changes abruptly.  Give them about ten minutes as this will give them time to review the poem.  Compare answers and discuss how sound affects the emotional impact of the lines.

The Emotion of the Poem

Ask students to find two parts of the poem that express very different emotions.  Compare and discuss what emotions Elliot expresses, how he expresses them and how well he expresses them.  If the themes of the waste land or frustrated relationships are mentioned, and they should be, connect that back to the readings and to each other, going over the biographical material as well.  It might be helpful to write on the board Jewel Spears Brooker’s line, “When love fails, a waste land develops,” since this is such a clear and concise statement of that theme.  If any mention of war, or any other theme covered in the previous readings, comes up, connect them back to those readings.  

Homework: Read, part of Eliot’s essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” (Prose 31-36) and the last two pages of “Hamlet.”  (Prose 48 – 49).  Set these questions: What does Eliot mean by “suggestion and evasion” in terms of meter? What other poetic technique is mention in “Vers Libre“? (Rhyme.)  What is the “objective correlative”?  Reread “The Waste Land.”

4th day: What are the meanings of the poem?

Warm-up exercise: Play Pictionary with different lines of the poem.  Each student picks one line and draws some picture on the board that illustrates it somehow.  The pictures do not have to be well drawn; the drawings should be quick, so a one minute time limit is necessary.  Besides being a lot of fun, this will draw out visual elements of the poem and review key lines.

The easy stuff: Pairs of students should each choose one section that is very easy to understand, read it and paraphrase it for the class.  Discuss how it fits into the poem thematically, if at all.

The hard stuff: Pairs of students choose one difficult passage each.  Using Southam to work out allusions, try to find some sort of sense to the lines and present these to the class.  If only one copy of Southam is available, then students must come up with one question about the lines, about which Southam will hopefully have something to say.

Homework: Read the short selections of Buddha’s “The Fire Sermon” (North 54-55), The Road to Emmaus from The King James Bible (North 59 – 60), and “The Three Great Disciplines” from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Take one of the themes of ritual, renunciation and rebirth and prepare a 15 minute presentation on that aspect of the poem, using close reading, reference to the readings listed above, and translations if necessary, and so on.

(I developed this unit while taking Emily Merriman’s graduate course on T. S. Eliot at San Francisco State University. This unit owes a great deal to her excellent teaching.)

Works Cited

Bain, Carl E., Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Fourth Edition. York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1986.Dante, Alighieri. The Inferno of Dante. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.—. “Reflections on Vers Libre.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.—. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Dante, Alighieri. The Inferno of Dante. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.

Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

—. “Reflections on Vers Libre.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

—. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

—. “from The Music of Poetry.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

—. “Ulysses, Order and Myth.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

—. “The Waste Land.” The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Lewis, Pericles. The Cambridge Introduction to ModernismCambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Moody, A. David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Seymour-Jones, Carole. The Painted Shadow: the Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot, and the Long-Suppressed Truth about her Influence on his Genius. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Southam, B. C. A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 1968.

Troyes, Chretien de. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

2 thoughts on “Experiencing “The Waste Land”: A Four-Day Unit for Teaching T. S. Eliot’s Masterpiece”

  1. Great resource; proving useful in preparing to teach Eliot to an A level lang/lit course.

    One detail needs correcting:
    Wyndham Owen should be Wilfred Owen.



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