The poem portrays the experiences of life arising out of different kinds of waste lands: the waste land of religion, the waste land of spirit from which all the moral values have dried up, the waste land of instinct for fertility where sex has become a mechanical activity and a means of animal satisfaction than a life giving source for regeneration. The poem relates to the theme of barrenness of the twentieth century western civilization. While analyzing the poem based on the theory of New Criticism, only less importance is given to the biographical details of the poet T S Eliot but gives emphasis on the symbols, imagery and the style of the poem. New criticism eschews traditional styles of explaining the author’s biography and the social condition of the work. It concentrates on the work as an independent entity. In T S Eliot’s words, a poem should be treated “primarily as poetry and not another thing”. The term ‘New Criticism’ came to be applied as a literary theory after the publication of John Crowe Ransom’s ‘The New Criticism’ in 1941. New critics warn the readers against the critical practices which divert their attention from the poem. In analyzing and evaluating a work, the New Critics avoid reference to the biography and mood of the author. It tends to focus on the literary work in isolation as an organic unity of symbols, images, figures of speech etc.
The Waste Land is such an organic unity, which connects the past and the present, fertility and bareness, life and death, which the poet presents symbolically. The scenes in the poem are symbolic of the frustrations of the protagonist’s journeys, the imperfection of man’s quest and the failure of his visions. The epigraph of the poem is symbolic of the theme of decay and death. The Sybil of Cumae is shown as hanging in a cage and expressing her innermost wish that she wants to die. This is suggestive of the death wish of the modern western civilization. The poem is symbolically the myth of the waste land as illustrated by Jessie Weston, in her book “From Ritual to Romance.” The author “deals with the legend of the quest for the Holy Grail which depicts a region as having been destroyed by a cruel curse. Nothing can grow on this land and the land has lost its fertility” (Eliot 117). In the poem, “The Waste Land,” this legend of physical barrenness is presented as the spiritual barrenness of the Fisher King, represented in the Tarot pack of cards. The poem is dived into five parts which makes use of images that represents this spiritual barrenness. The protagonist, Tiresias, identified as the impotent Fisher King, is the mouth piece of the poet who is in fact the person who visualizes the waste land. The poet makes use of many images in the poem to deal with the theme of death and decay. The image of spring