Can You Feel Lit? T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

ts-eliot.jpgReading T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is like sustaining a concussion: it's going to hurt, you won't always understand what's going on, you may hallucinate or lose consciousness, and it's best if you lie down for a bit. The poem is basically an extended exploration of man's angst—except in this case, the man is T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets and most erudite men of the 20th century.

Should you come away from The Waste Land with an aching noggin, take heart: a prominent literary critic once said that the poem couldn't be "read," only "reread"—in other words, only on repeated readings does the poem start to make sense. Should that prove too daunting, at your next cocktail party why not distract your friends by passing along these nuggets about the origins and ideas behind The Waste Land.

1. Show off. Eliot had a top-notch education—he attended prestigious boarding schools, got his B.A. at Harvard, studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, and would have gotten a Ph.D. from Harvard had he bothered to defend his thesis. He learned Latin, Greek, French, German, Sanskrit, and the ancient Indian language Pali; he studied French Symbolist poetry, Buddhist philosophy, Renaissance theater, and epiphenomenalism (whatever that is).

The problem? Eliot couldn't resist flaunting all this knowledge. As a result, The Waste Land is a minefield of footnotes. Before you even get to the first line, you've got an allusion to Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a quote in Greek, and another quote from Dante's Purgatory in Italian. Later you find whole passages in German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit. The take-away message? Never play Trivial Pursuit with T.S. Eliot.

2. Nix the Dickens. Eliot's close friend Ezra Pound is famous in literary circles for his extensive revisions of the manuscript of The Waste Land. One of his changes? To cross out the original title, "He do the Policemen in Different Voices."


It's just Eliot slipping in another obscure allusion, this time to Charles Dickens' last novel Our Mutual Friend. The quote comes from the character Mrs. Betty Higden, referring to the talents of an orphan named Sloppy:

'I aint, you must know,' said Betty, 'much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I do love a newspaper. You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.'

In other words, Sloppy changes his voice when he reads the newspaper, "doing different voices" for different characters. Eliot is here pointing to his own practice of writing different "voices" of a wide range of characters in The Waste Land. Clever—but a bit of stretch. Pound knew what he was doing.

3. The vivacious Viv. Most of the "characters" in The Waste Land are figments of Eliot's imagination—except for one: his wife, Vivien. Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood in Cambridge in 1914 and married her three months later. Haigh-Wood was a socialite flapper working as a governess; Eliot was a 26-year-old over-educated self-confessed virgin. The couple quickly discovered they were sexually incompatible, so Haigh-Wood (known as Viv) consoled herself by having an affair with Eliot's mentor, philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Eliot learned later that Viv's family had attempted to forestall the marriage because of Viv's history of mental instability. He struggled to endure Viv's screaming outbursts, anorexia, constipation, neuralgia, and "catarrh of the intestines" (whatever that might be). Eliot describes her hysterical speech in The Waste Land:

'What shall I do now? What shall I do?'
'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
'With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
'What shall we ever do?'

Not surprisingly, the relationship didn't last. Eliot headed to the U.S. in 1928 on a lecture tour: while out of the country, he had his attorney send Viv a letter announcing their separation. On his return to England, he went into hiding to escape her. An increasingly unstable Viv started hanging around outside the doors of Faber & Faber where Eliot worked; the famous poet had to escape out the back door. After alienating friends and family and joining the British Union of Fascists, Viv's brother Maurice had her committed to an insane asylum, where she died in 1947.

Feminist biographers have attempted to restore Viv's reputation—certainly, anyone would find marriage with the fastidious Eliot difficult. (He found the very thought of menstruation repulsive and thought shaving in front of his wife was too intimate.) In any case, we can thank Viv for putting a great poet through great anguish—out of which came great poetry.

4. Don't explain. Eliot was adamant in his refusal to help eager readers interpret his poems. Of The Waste Land, he said, "I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying."

5. The Groucho Connection. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley where he would interview famous celebrities simply by describing parts they had played and quoting from their movies—to their great unease? Now substitute T.S. Eliot for Farley and Groucho Marx for the succession of celebrities.

Rather surprisingly, the Nobel Laureate adored Marx movies, and in 1964 Eliot achieved one of his life goals by having the great comedian and his wife to dinner. A somewhat intimidated Groucho boned up on Eliot's poetry and reread King Lear just in case, but all Eliot wanted to do was quote Groucho's old lines. Eliot refused to talk about his poetry, or Lear for that matter, and before long the Marxes were making their excuses and heading for the door.

See Also...

Can You Feel Lit? Macbeth

Elizabeth Lunday writes about art, architecture and literature for sources such as mental_floss and her blog, The Dilettante. Her first book, Secret Lives of the Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors, will be released in Fall 2008 by Quirk Books. It contains the outrageous and uncensored profiles of the world's greatest artists, complete with hundreds of little-known, politically incorrect, and downright bizarre facts—like who died of syphilis, who beat his wife, and who was convicted of murder. She's also written about a wide range of other topics from archeology to wastewater management, and once you've written about wastewater management, you can write about anything.

5 Subtle Cues That Can Tell You About Your Date's Financial Personality

Being financially compatible with your partner is important, especially as a relationship grows. Fortunately, there are ways you can learn about your partner’s financial personality in a relationship’s early stages without seeing their bank statement or sitting them down for “the money talk.”

Are they a spender or a saver? Are they cautious with money? These habits can be learned through basic observations or casual questions that don’t feel intrusive. Here are some subtle things that can tell you about your date’s financial personality.


Casual conversations about finance-related topics can be very revealing. Does your date know if their employer matches their 401(k) plan contributions? Do you find their answers to any financial questions a bit vague—even the straightforward ones like “What are the rewards like on your credit card?” This could mean that your partner is a little fuzzy on some of the details of their financial situation.

As your connection grows, money talks are only natural. If your date expresses uncertainty about their monthly budget, it may be an indicator that they are still working on the best way to manage their finances or don’t keep close tabs on their spending habits.


If you notice your partner is always watching business news channels, thumbing through newspapers, or checking share prices on their phone, they are clearly keeping abreast of what’s going on in the financial world. Ideally, this would lead to a well-informed financial personality that gives way to smart investments and overall monetary responsibility.

If you see that your date has an interest in national and global finances, ask them questions about what they’ve learned. The answers will tell you what type of financial mindset to expect from you partner moving forward. You might also learn something new about the world of finance and business!


You may be able to learn a lot about someone’s financial personality just by asking what they usually do for dinner. If your date dines out a lot, it could be an indication that they are willing to spend money on experiences. On the other hand, if they’re eating most of their meals at home or prepping meals for the entire week to cut their food budget, they might be more of a saver.


Money is a source of stress for most people, so it’s important to observe if financial anxiety plays a prominent role in your date’s day-to-day life. There are a number of common financial worries we all share—rising insurance rates, unexpected car repairs, rent increases—but there are also more specific and individualized concerns. Listen to how your date talks about money and pick up on whether their stress is grounded in worries we all have or if they have a more specific reason for concern.

In both instances, it’s important to be supportive and helpful where you can. If your partner is feeling nervous about money, they’ll likely be much more cautious about what they’re spending, which can be a good thing. But it can also stop them from making necessary purchases or looking into investments that might actually benefit them in the future. As a partner, you can help out by minimizing their expenses for things like nights out and gifts in favor of less expensive outings or homemade gifts to leave more of their budget available for necessities.


Does your date actually look at how much they’re spending before handing their credit card to the waiter or bartender at the end of the night? It’s a subtle sign, but someone who looks over a bill is likely much more observant about what they spend than someone who just blindly hands cards or cash over once they get the tab.

Knowing what you spend every month—even on smaller purchases like drinks or dinner—is key when you’re staying on a budget. It’s that awareness that allows people to adjust their monthly budget and calculate what their new balance will be once the waiter hands over the check. Someone who knows exactly what they’re spending on the small purchases is probably keeping a close eye on the bigger picture as well.


While these subtle cues can be helpful signposts when you’re trying to get an idea of your date’s financial personality, none are perfect indicators that will be accurate every time. Our financial personalities are rarely cut and dry—most of us probably display some behaviors that would paint us as savers while also showing habits that exclaim “spender!” By relying too heavily on any one indicator, we might not get an accurate impression of our date.

Instead, as you get to know a new partner, the best way to learn about their financial personality is by having a straightforward and honest talk with them. You’ll learn more by listening and asking questions than you ever could by observing small behaviors.

Whatever your financial personality is, it pays to keep an eye on your credit score. Discover offers a Free Credit Scorecard, and checking it won't impact your score. It's totally free, even if you aren't a Discover customer. Check yours in seconds. Terms apply. Visit Discover to learn more.

Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]


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