Intertextuality and literary adaptation exemplified by T.S. Eliots "The Waste Land"

Essay, 2011

11 Pages, Grade: 3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. General remarks about the poem

3. Intertextuality exemplified by the motif of the April 4 April is the cruellest month, breeding

4. Adaptation and reworking of medieval material: the quest for the Holy Grail
4. 1. The Holy Grail legend in The Wasteland
4.2. Romance structure and Arthurian matters in Small World

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal“ 1, T.S. Eliot once said himself. What he probably wanted to express with that statement was the fact that every poet takes ideas from his role models and transforms them into something new – even though one would not necessarily call this procedure “stealing”, but rather “adoption”.

This is going to be also the topic of the following essay: the adoption of a certain subject-matter over several centuries. The major part of my investigations is going to deal with T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land. After giving a short summary of the background and creation of the poem, I am going to depict the references between Eliots poem, Geoffrey Chaucer´s The Canterbury Tales and David Lodge´s novel Small World by the example of their description of the month april. In doing so, I am going to analyse the similarities and differences concerning contents, style and adaptation of the literary material and deconstruct how the material that was first elaborated by Chaucer later is readopted and converted into a modern poem resp. narrative by Eliot and Lodge.

The following questions are going to lead through the whole essay: What are the basic issues that all of the three discussed writers deal with? How was the subject-matter that first turned up in Chaucer´s writings transformed by Eliot and Lodge? What is the main difference between the text from the 14th century and the modern readings?

The aim of this essay is to demonstrate how intertextuality works and the phenomenon that no piece of poetry is thinkable without its reference to the entirety of earlier writings.

2. General remarks about the poem

Written and published in 1922, The Waste Land was dedicated to T.S. Eliots adored and long-time friend and supporter Ezra Pound. Eliot elaborates writings from various poetic and religious sources in his poem. Its reception history is astonishing and it is not only considered to be Eliots most influential work, but also one of the most outstanding pieces of work of the 20th century.

Strangely enough, the first reactions of his contemporaries on The Waste Land were cautious. When Eliot publishes it in 1922 in his own literary magazine Criterion and one month later in wider circulation in the Dial, it set off a heated-up debate among literary criticism. As the poem is generally regarded as one of the pioneering and ground-breaking works of modernism, it probably seemed too modern to many of the critics.

Compared to the “ordinary” poems that the reading public of he 20th century were used to, Eliot created a very innovative and unconventional piece of work by disregarding the usual criteria for a poem, such as a coherent structure or correlative themes. Instead, The Waste Land is ful of widely unknown references to religion, history and mythology and even contains some parts that are written in foreign languages, which might seem kind of desultory or randomly to some readers. That is maybe why Eliot himself bothered to attach some explanatory notes to his poem, which, as it was quite uncommon for a poet to do so, again caused a wide range of critics.

All in all one can call The Waste Land a touchstone of modernism. It expresses a rebellion against traditional literature that was clarified by the use of distingushing forms and rules. By running counter to everything that was traditional and setting of a firestorm in the literary world, it seemed to have the intended effect and, in the end, became one of the reasons for Eliot’s still lasting fame.

3. Intertextuality exemplified by the motif of the April

One aspect that illustrates very well how intertextuality works in reference to The Waste Land is the depiction of the spring month april, which is present in every of the discussed texts. Geoffrey Chaucer describes the effects of the April in the following way (here in modern English):

When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower;

When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

Quickened again, in every holt and heath,

The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun

Into the Ram one half his course has run,

And many little birds make melody

That sleep through all the night with open eye

(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

And specially from every shire's end

Of England they to Canterbury wend,

The holy blessed martyr there to seek

Who helped them when they lay so ill and weal.[2]

Chaucer starts his praise on april with a description of very general meteorological, cosmological and biological phenomenons – and later links human behaviour to these. His verses sound bright and carefree; the sequence of various effects of spring create some kind of high spirits that suit the topic. People´s reaction to spring and its impact is distinguished by the conjunction “than” that correlates with the “whan” at the beginning of the poem. Thereby Chaucer does not address emotions like happiness and love – meaning partner relationships – however to a greater degree he talks about religion, which makes a completely diverse group blend into a common geographical and spiritual aim throughout a pilgrimage.

The reference to Thomas Becket is a historical one. The archbishop had a conflict with King Henry II. and died as a martyr in 1173. So the first, mythologic-cosmological layer of the poem connotates a second one which roots the events spatially and temporally in England. The pilgrims travel to the grave of Saint Thomas to pray and thank him for having helped them to heal their diseases.

Thus, initially, the two systems that are indicated here include on the one hand nature and its physical regeneration – On the other hand the sphere of human beings and their spiritual regeneration is addressed as well. Although in the medieval world, which was characterized by Christianity and piety, the second system absolutely took precedence over the first one, it is possible that Chaucer’s lines also contain some kind of irony: humans were also part of the physical nature with alle its needs – as it is more or less drastically displayed by some of the Canterbury Tales. Others of them take up on courtly and chivalrous material, others on religious matters, and there are also such which focus on gender relationships – Chaucer unfolds the whole panorama of the late medieval narrative from romance to the legend of the Saints through to fabliau. There the pilgrims, acting as storytellers, present cross section of status groups and characters. Positively depicted, exemplary figures play as well a role in the ensemble of pilgrims as such whose weaknesses and infirmities are revealed in a humorous and ironic way. The combination of temporality and eternity, of this life and hereafter as its given in the first part of the prologue, is reflected in various, sometimes contradictory ways throughout the whole opus. In the course of this, it is always the mundane world that is depicted as superior. Only in the last story, which describes a sermon, things come full circle with an explicit turn to the spiritual level. Whether Chaucer's final words, his retraction, which states a rejection of all worldly stories, has be taken literally, or whether he only submits to a contemporary convention, has been a widely discussed and controversial question in literary studies until today.

The effect of Chaucers Canterbury Tales that – due to its multiple intertextuality – might be called the first European work of English literature and has hardly been surpassed up to the present day.



2 Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford University Press: New York 1985.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Intertextuality and literary adaptation exemplified by T.S. Eliots "The Waste Land"
University of Coimbra
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intertextuality, eliots, waste, land
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Melanie Heiland (Author), 2011, Intertextuality and literary adaptation exemplified by T.S. Eliots "The Waste Land", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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