An Approach to Teaching The Waste Land
Undeniably a complex and inexhaustible work, The Waste Land is also in many ways a simple poem with themes that are central in human experience and in Western literature. When presenting the poem to freshmen and sophomores, I focus on a single basic theme: "When love fails, a wasteland develops." I then move to more complex and more literary issues of structure and meaning. The idea that failed love has disastrous consequences is basic to all Eliot's work from "Prufrock" to The Elder Statesman; as presented in The Waste Land, this motif is so clear that almost any student can pick it up, even on a first reading.
My presentation of The Waste Land requires three ninety-minute class periods. In the first, I introduce the theme of failed love and its consequences, lecture on the mythic backgrounds of the poem, and lead students through a reading of the first seven lines of the poem and of the epigraph, relating these passages to the theme and to the wasteland myth. In the second class, the students and I read together and discuss three passages of the poem that illustrate failed love and its consequences--the boudoir scene and the pub scene in "A Game of Chess," and the typist-clerk scene in "The Fire Sermon." In the final class, we touch on other parts of the poem that are relevant to the theme, and we discuss why love has failed and how it can be recovered.
A crucial aspect of my approach to teaching literature involves the formulation of assignments that build common ground between me and the students. Even when they seem to be passive, when they are listening to a lecture or to the comments of their classmates, students can (and should) actively collaborate with the poet and with their teacher. To help prepare students to become my collaborators (and