1. What was Eliot's state of mind/position at the time the poem was composed? What were some important elements of his background? Are many of these overtly present in the poem? What may have been Eliot's intention in focusing on mostly European rather than American motifs?
2. What were some circumstances surrounding the poem's publication? What advice did Ezra Pound offer during its composition? How was it first published?
3. What significance do you attach to the poem's date of composition?
4. What are some implications of its title? To what landscapes/traditions is it indebted? Which antecedents does Eliot mention in his notes?
5. According to your headnotes, which parts of his original draft did Eliot excise? What effect on the poem do you think these changes had? In general, were they helpful?
6. What are some purposes/implications of the poem's five partite structure? Are the four elements represented in the subtitles? Do the parts seem to suggest a progression?
7. What are some advantages of Eliot's disconnected, allusive method? Which "fragments" seem most valuable to him for shoring up against the fear of ruin?
8. What is the purpose of the epigraph? Why do you think the poet places this despairing statement in the mouth of a decayed Sibyl? What are some features of the poem's diction and use of sound and rhythm?
I. The Burial of the Dead
9. What are some ironies in the opening passage? What literary allusions predominate?
10. Who seems to be the "us" of lines 5 and following? What is the purpose of the memories of pre-war aristocratic life in Munich?
11. What echoes and images underlie ll. 18ff. In what circumstances does the speaker find "fear in a handful of dust"? What seems to have happened to past romantic relationships? Why do you think examples are chosen from difference cultures, or described in German?
12. What is the purpose of introducing te clairvoyante and her pack of cards? Does she give good advice? What are some of her symbolic associations? Are readers supposed to respect her?
13. What forms of death are presented in this section? What is the function of the allusions to Dante's Inferno?
14. What is the importance of the shift to the pronoun "I"? Of the encounter with Stetson? What truths are awakened by the encounter?
15. What relationship with the reader is suggested by the final allusion to Baudelaire?
II. A Game of Chess
16. What happens in this section? What two scenes are described and how are they related?
17. What is the purpose of the initial descriptions of the woman seated in a chair? What seems her mental state? What is meant by the pastishe allusions to a "rag," and the narrative voice's description of their lives as playing a game of chess, "[p]ressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door"?
18. What is the effect of the refrain, "Hurry up please its time"?
19. What are we supposed to infer from the sad story of Lil's abortion, marred teeth, marriage and rude companion?
III. The Fire Sermon
20. How are previous themes expanded in this section? What are some significant literary allusions, and what judgment do they cast on the present?
21. What are some features of the affair between the clerk and typist? The couple who have sex in a canoe? What value does the poem place on these acts?
22. Why are images of burning introduced at this point?
IV. Death by Water
23. What seems the significance of the fate of Phlebas the Phoenician?
24. What seems to be the narrator's relation to Phlebas? On what grounds does he make a final appeal to the reader?
V. What the Thunder Said
25. What problem is faced by the inhabitants of the land in the final section? What literary/religious traditions seem to be evoked here?
26. What does the thunder say? Why do you think Eliot turns to Hindu tradition to evoke these values?
27. What is the meaning of the speaker's response to each injunction? Why is he inspired to set his "lands in order"? What are some of the notions he wishes to preserve?
28. What is meant by the final allusion to a scene from Kyd's Spanish Tragedy? Why does the poet cite the lines, "Why then Ile fit you"?
29. What seems the tone of the ending? Is the final ending one of resignation or of hope?
Would you describe this poem as an epic? What are some of the advantages of its form and style? What seem some of its final messages?
Did you find the notes helpful? Is the poem aided by its burden of erudition and appended notes? Do you find the poem memorable? Beautiful? In what ways does it reflect the values of its class and time?