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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials: The Waste Land

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

The Waste Land is one of T. S. Eliot’s most important works. An important example of modernist poetry, it is divided into 5 sections, with titles like “The Fire Sermon” and “The Burial of the Dead”. The poem is filled with quotations and references to other works of literature, from the Bible to Baudilaire and from Shakespeare to nursery rhymes. Dramatic monologue is used extensively, leaving the reader with multiple, often disjointed speakers. The basic theme of the poem, that modern society has fallen into a shabby, immoral mess, is returned to by Eliot throughout the wandering verses, and is very much in line with modernist sentiment.

"The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot. Part of the Qwiz5 series by Qwiz Quizbowl Camp, written to help quiz bowl teams power more tossups!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on The Waste Land.


This opening line really sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The twisting of the traditional image of spring as life and renewal reminds the reader that hope is a nasty thing meant to ruin your life, a perverse trick is played on us. The Modernists were so chipper.


The “famous clairvoyante” who “Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe with a pack of cards.” She’s a tarot card reader who talks about her vision of a sailor drowning and fearing death by water.


A prayer for inner peace in the Hindu religion, the Sanskrit word Shantih is repeated like a mantra at the end of the poem. Perhaps the Sanskrit is Eliot’s way of reminding us that hope can be found in the wisdom of the past--if we are willing to look there and turn off distractions.


As section two draws to an end, the barkeeper can be heard calling this phrase out over a pair of women discussing Albert, a third woman’s husband. The patrons are lingering in the bar even as the barkeeper is trying to get them to leave--let’s hope that that’s not a metaphor for us and the divine.


Likely the drowning that Madame Sosostris mentions early in the poem, Phlebas the Phoenician appears in section four, Death by Water. He’s had a bad fortnight--dead, picked over by the fish at the bottom of the ocean. Eliot warns us all, “Gentile and Jew...Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

* Madame Sosostris is a reference to a similarly named character, Sesostris, who is a psychic fraud in Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow. You can read the book or download it for free as part of Project Gutenberg.

* Neil Gaiman’s famous character Morpheus, from the Sandman graphic novels, appeared once on a promo poster with the Waste Land quote “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”.

* T.S. Eliot also had moments where he was a bit less bleak; he also wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which would later be adapted into the book for the musical Cats. He also drew his own cover for the collection - you can learn more about his penchant for cartooning in his poems over at OpenCulture, where there is also audio of him reading these poems.

* You can listen to Eliot himself read the poem below:


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