Journey in The Waste Land

Topics: The Waste Land

From Starnbergsee to London: Understanding the Narrative Route of The Waste Land When I first booted up Google Maps and entered the first location that was named in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, I thought the research might take no longer than a few minutes. Yet as I went on, I began to feel a little overwhelmed by the deluge of information that became available to me and I had to narrow my focus a bit. Who were the most prominent names I could find? What locations and ideas did Eliot mention the most? As I read through each stanza typing in important-looking words into Google, I was led to more information than I initially thought I would get.

The intent was to find out where in the world a specific location was and mark it on my map and provide a short explanation of its significance to the poem. I did not expect to find out Eliot has so many allusions to other works of literature in his poems while still delivering an original tale and vision.

I learned more about the customs and expectations of 1922 while I had not p it much attention in previous assignments. It took some consideration and cutting, but I think I have been able to find out some key details that help me to understand this poem a little bit more. By using so many established works to support his ideas, Eliot constructs a narrative that made me consider the geography and history of what goes into writing.

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It may be the behind-the-scenes details that give the most insight into someone’s mind.

The first name that got my attention was Starnbergersee or present-day Lake Starnberg.

It took a little bit of research to learn that this is a lake resort near Munich that Eliot visited in the summer of 1911. It remains a pretty popular tourist destination today and because of its vastness and natural beauty, it makes sense that Eliot would describe the coming of summer with it. Our narrator mentions that they were surprised by the arrival of summer, doubtless because the warmth can catch people off-guard after months of somewhat dreary winter weather, and made a leisurely trip to the lake and nearby Hofgarten. This sounds routine for most people, but keep in mind that this poem was written shortly after the end of the First World War. In a time when people would likely be helping with the reconstruction of their communities after such a costly struggle, do you think the act of idle small talk would be frowned upon? Even today a lot of people know the feeling of unspoken expectations. For example, does not doing anything productive make a person feel bad even if they know they have to take time to recuperate? Eliot was likely observing the manners that Modern Western Society was starting to embrace.

It was a society where people were putting work and contributing behind more petty actions like the aforementioned small talk and coffee drinking. I do not think these are inherently bad, but it should be important that a person knows their priorities.

Immediately following the details of their trip, the narrator says “Bin gar kine Russin, stamm’ as LitauenStamm Deutsch (12). The narrator is telling the reader that they are not Russian but aail from the newly independent Lithuania. Yet they go on to say that they are a real German. It appears that this attitude was a way for people to retain favor from their original countries as a basis for future moves. Since Germany would start to unify into one large power in the lead-up to World War II, this attitude was a way to show that people were still loyal and should be given proper treatment in case of such an event. I wonder if this form of “loyalty” is a healthy one. Is saying you are from a particular region simply to receive certain treatment a noble action? I realize people would not want to face the consequences of siding with an enemy, but this fickle nature does not seem like a healthy or honest way to live. It is a strange way of being unhappy with one’s roots.

One place that gives off quite an aura of unhappiness? That would be where a lot of the action in the poem takes place: London. It is introduced as an “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn” (60-61). That should immediately give you the mental image of a city surrounded by a dense, dreary fog. People might paint cities like London as structural and historical marvels and while that may be true, the real appeal of a location has to outweigh the seedy portions. In Eliot’s poem, we get the impression of a dirty London. One where the rivers are unclean and the people trudge along seemingly oblivious to the others around them. Namely when the crowds of people are walking across London Bridge, which is one section that might make one recall Dante Alighieri’s poem Inferno. In that poem, we have seemingly endless lines of people walking down the path toward Hell. Since Eliot and other poets would see London as a melancholy city that gives the aforementioned deathly aura, this connection becomes apparent and understandable. If someone walks through the city they live in with almost no regard for what goes on around them, are they any different from the people condemned to a fiery afterlife as depicted in Dante’s work? It should also be noted that the path after the London Bridge leads to St. Mary Woolnoth Church of England. While one might think of a church as a place to repent and seek forgiveness, Eliot cleverly notes that the church’s clock has nine chimes “with a dead sound” (68), and nine is the same number of the levels of Hell that Dante described in Inferno.

That certainly complements the feeling of a dreary city like London that Eliot would imagine, doesn’t it? By this point, it is established that London is seen as an allegory for lives being taken. But could it also be seen as a place where life cannot emerge? In the third verse, “The Fire Sermon,” a stanza opens by repeating “Unreal city,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn” (207-208) shortly before the narrator is invited to a luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel. The repetition makes the reader remember that London is a place filled with seemingly lifeless people and contrasts with the accounts of the river Thames. The invitation sounds mundane until one realizes that the Cannon Street Hotel was at the time a meeting place for homosexuals. I do not think the poem is intending to condemn homosexuality by placing it close to the supposed bridge to Hell, but Eliot is pointing out that life cannot spring from such a relationship. A child cannot be conceived naturally in a homosexual relationship; that is simply a medical fact. Or if a child is conceived naturally, it may not be in a loving relationship. Its life might then appear less valuable than other children’s. Later on in line 265, we are taken to a public house where a lot of fishmongers conduct business. They may certainly be fishermen hoping to sell their catches for a profit, but consider the alternate meaning for a fishmonger. Name, ly a fishmonger was a title for a panderer, one who used women for profit in several ways. The most notable example of that definition comes in Hamlet where Hamlet says “You are a fishmonger.” (2.2.174) to Polonius.

There Polonius wants to use his daughter Ophelia to get information about Hamlet without him learning Polonius’ true intentions. Information is certainly one way to look at these people but also consider other actions, namely activities like prostitution. If a man were to “buy” a woman’s services in this way, it is always feasible that a child could be inadvertently conceived. If neither person wants the child, it could either be given up to someone else or, maybe the child could be removed less lovingly. It makes one wonder if keeping a person from living is as cruel as taking their life away.

How does this tie back to The Waste Land? By repeating the word “unreal,” Eliot paints London as a melancholy city surrounded by a musty, dim fog. He was not alone in this mentality. Poets such as W.B. Yeats, who Eliot greatly admired, shared this thought pattern and in his admiration, Eliot likely picked up on it and wanted to convey it in his way. In the 21st century, London is seen as one of the premier cities in the world and has become a popular setting for film and novels alike. The positive, lively side of London began to outshine the negative with time. Yet a century ago in the aftermath of war, there was little reason to be optimistic or very proud to be in this city. Few people could make it in a place like London. By calling to poems like Inferno and life events like taking a trip to Starnbergersee, Eliot’s poem is part memoir, part societal commentary. Perhaps by formatting it that way, Eliot wants to ask the reader what they want to do now. Will they take the knowledge and insight that was just given to them and use it to improve their portion of the world? By working together and using ideas that are conjured, life can spring in the unlikeliest of places. Certainly, if area Ito is not a wasteland, the people living in it have to do their part.

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Journey in The Waste Land. (2022, Jun 15). Retrieved from

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