It must be dangerous to review a collection of poems. For one, you must distill themes that were already presented more artfully, and more succinctly, in the poem itself.
Second, a reader’s interpretations will inevitably be revealing of the reader’s emotional state – not necessarily that of the poet. Eliot himself once compared the reading of poetry to an orgasm; both are highly vulnerable personal moments. I thought this was a bit dramatic, though I now see the point.
Nevertheless, this particular poet’s maxim was that the reader has as much interpretive license as the writer. So I’ll begin.
T.S. Eliot poems, by and large, are vignettes, presumably from his own life. More than that, they are vignettes filtered through a dream-like compression.
Many of the poems read like dreams: apparent non-sequitur clips that might have made sense when they first flickered into being; images that would be clear if not for their peculiar features, like: “short square fingers stuffing pipes.”
In many of these vignettes, Eliot (or the narrator) is spending time with people, love interests, or meandering through various European cities. What is striking about these poems is that, for all the powerful scenes they evoke, the narrator does not seem impressed.
If I had to use one word to describe Eliot’s view on the world, it would be: listless. At it’s best, the current state of the world (Eliot wrote in the early 20th century) is vacuous. It is not quite apocalyptic, as the title poem suggests (though it reaches that point, and so will we in this review). Rather, the horror is to be found in the monotonous and the mundane. A barge drifting down the river. A goat that coughs in the night. Streams of faces moving through the brown city fog.
More obvious themes that appear less often:
1) a sort of reverence for lost ages. Eliot’s sampling of everything from Shakespeare to Ovid and Virgil is rather prolific. It is hard to imagine he pulled it off without an either excellent memory or an epic library on hand. He laments that the land where Roman legions fell are now “buried beneath the snow-deep Alps; Over buttered scones and crumpets; Weeping, weeping multitudes; Droop in a hundred A.B.C.’s.” (A.B.C.s were cheap chain tea shops of that era, perhaps today’s Starbucks).
2) Fear of death. This is quite obvious throughout, and doesn’t need considerable explanation. “Death by Water,” the fourth section of The Waste Land, is the most terrifying example; we are treated to a brief visit with a Phoenician who ages past died at sea, and whose skeleton now sort of bounces up and down on the sea floor with the ocean swells. Eliot reminds us he was “once handsome and tall as you.”
Finally, it would be unfair to conclude without touching on the title poem, which, according to the back of the book, was written while Eliot was “recovering from a mental collapse in a Swiss sanitarium in 1921.”
The Waste Land follows Eliot’s usual form; vignettes that are clouded in the sort of monochrome of his outlook. Then he (the narrator) is fishing alone on the Thames, observing the emptiness around him, then abruptly daydreams the apocalyptic world that the real world might as well be (baby-faced bats scurrying over walls and other hellish imagery). In short, Eliot comes to his point in this poem: humanity is in a great and systemic decline, and there is nothing a man can do about it.
(P.S. Eliot is often called a “conservative” poet. He is not. I fear that terminology makes him seem like a free market economist. If anything, Eliot is perhaps a conservative only of the spirit. More accurately, he might be one of Evola’s “differentiated” men.)