T.S. Eliot's The Burial of The Dead: Analysis, Lesson & Quiz

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Taught by

Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

This lesson covers 'The Burial of the Dead,' the first section of T.S. Eliot's poem 'The Waste Land.' Read a summary to learn how to analyze this important selection from the modernist poet. Then take a quiz to test your comprehension.

Introduction

Modern life has many benefits, as we all know. Compared to prior times in human history, the age in which we live takes the cake. Technological advances and medical breakthroughs have combined, together with the creation of a freer and more just society brought on by democratic government, to enable us and our kids to live fuller and happier lives than we could have hoped for had we been born just a few centuries ago.

But there is, as with all things, a dark side to modern living lurking beneath the surface. Think about the last time you ate out. Did someone interrupt the conversation to check their cell phone? In an age in which anybody can send a communication to pretty much anyone else in the world, we seem to have lost the art of genuine conversation. Now think about the modern city, with its sprawling skyscrapers and bustling downtown scenes, which also betrays a 'dark underbelly,' rivers of sewage, trash, industrial pollutants literally bubbling beneath the surface of our streets.

T.S. Eliot in 1934
T.S. Eliot in 1934
It was this dark side, this underbelly, that concerned American modernist poet T.S. Eliot in his famous long poem The Waste Land, published as a single volume in 1922. 'The Burial of the Dead' is not a poem in its own right, but the first of five sections of The Waste Land. Eliot's masterpiece is a critical commentary of modern life, especially what it can do to the human soul, which is not always pleasant to behold, and 'The Burial of the Dead' helps set up the themes and ideas behind the poem as a whole.

The main idea of The Waste Land, in a nutshell, is that modern people are losing the ability to connect with the things that make us authentically human. He especially saw us as failing to communicate meaningfully with one another, to set up systems of morals that serve the human soul, and to muster up the courage to be proper caretakers of the world around us. After all, if we cannot speak to each other effectively, what chance do we have of developing values and passing them onto our children, let alone fixing the world's many problems? To put it another way, we as modern folks are effectively 'dead' to traditional values like courage, community, and morality. What we think of as our individual 'lives,' our daily activities and dealings with one another, are in Eliot's eyes equivalent to a mass burial of dead souls.

Style

The Waste Land is written in a literary vein known as modernism, which flourished between the two world wars in Europe and the United States. Modernism is characterized by an experimental, free-verse style with abrupt changes in poetic voice and point of view. 'The Burial of the Dead' is a perfect example of this, as the reader is never quite sure who is speaking or if Eliot is simply quoting another work. Eliot's use of allusions, or references to outside literary texts and historical events, together with his love for experimentation, make his poetry hard to understand for beginners and scholars alike. It's best to read 'The Burial of the Dead' first by trying to grasp the literal meaning of the words and only then to explore the hidden meanings behind the words. For the curious reader, there are many versions of The Waste Land available using scholarly annotations, or explanations of Eliot's more obscure allusions.

Summary and Analysis

The first stanza of 'The Burial of the Dead' opens with a paradox, or an observation that seems to contradict common sense: 'April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land….' The speaker goes on to say that 'Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.' Common sense dictates that spring is the season that brings things back to life from their winter slumber, and yet the speaker here sees it as 'crueler' than winter, which somehow 'kept us warm.'

Who is this mysterious speaker? It's hard to tell, other than that he apparently is a representative of modern humanity, one of the 'walking dead' whose values are all out of whack. Rather than celebrating the return of life with the coming of spring, modern folks prefer to see the Earth covered up and safely out of sight. This is, of course, one of the main themes of The Waste Land. People today refuse to take life by the horns, and in doing so they become indifferent and careless to its mysteries. We become like the speaker, avoiding the life-giving 'shower of rain,' content to live out our days sipping coffee, making idle chit-chat, and looking forward to our next big vacation: 'I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.'

In the second stanza, the speaker changes from this rather un-heroic representative of modern humanity to a prophetic voice attacking the speaker (and all the rest of us) for allowing this sense of indifference and carelessness to run amok. There are at least two allusions here to outside texts, the first to the Bible and the second to Tristan und Isolde, an opera by Richard Wagner dating from the late 1800s.

The lovers Tristan and Isolde
Tristan und Isolde
The speaker begins by asking a rhetorical question: 'What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?' His answer is directed toward us modern folks: 'Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images….' The heirs to the 'Son of man,' a reference to Jesus Christ, are no longer capable, in the modern era, of developing into full-fledged human beings, lacking the courage to confront life, admitting only those 'broken images' that society offers as a substitute for authentic experience.

We reject our only saving grace, here understood as the waters of baptism, preferring the rocky, dried-out wasteland of modern urban living, where people go about their daily activities with no thought to their ultimate destiny. Wagner's romantic opera, which Eliot quotes in the original German, is offered as a contrast to the love lives of modern people, 'the hyacinth girl' being a great example. She and her lover, after coming home from a romantic outing, find themselves unable to 'speak,' their eyes blinded to the deeper kind of love, true love, available to those who are capable and willing enough to give it a shot. For these modern lovers, and for all of us, 'Oed' und leer das Meer,' or 'Empty and desolate is the sea.'

The next stanza depicts a psychic reading by 'Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante.' Her client is receiving a Tarot card interpretation in which he is advised to 'Fear death by water.' As we have seen, water is identified by Eliot as a means of salvation.

For Eliot, modern people consult Tarot cards and the like due to their own lack of spiritual resources
Tarot
In its association here with death, we can assume that modern folks' denial of life extends to our denial of death. We choose not to regard our ultimate fate as inevitable, and seek instead to busy ourselves with the trivial details of life. This state of spiritual emptiness leads us to seek help from even the most dubious of sources, such as professional psychics.

And yet we are all too familiar with death, according to Eliot. The final stanza depicts 'A crowd … over London Bridge, so many.' But it is spiritual death that has 'undone so many' inhabitants of this 'Unreal City.' We march together across our cities in a perpetual death of the mind and spirit, lacking the courage to speak truthfully to one another and to contemplate the very real prospect of our inevitable demise. Such is the wasteland of modern life.

Lesson Summary

'The Burial of the Dead,' as the first of five sections of The Waste Land, helps set up some of the themes and ideas to be explored in the poem as a whole. In it, Eliot uses a modernist style characteristic of the period between the two world wars with the aim of casting a critical glance at modern life. With multiple changes of voice and perspective, and including allusions to outside texts such as Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde and the Bible, 'The Burial of the Dead' paints an ugly picture of a society inhabited by the walking dead, people who have lost the capacity to care about our human destiny. For Eliot, these sad and cowardly individuals fail to engage life and the world around them, leaving them bereft of values and substance.

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