Eliot, along with figures such as with Ezra Pound, was one of the major figures of early modernist writing. The Waste Land is one of the most famous and most written about poems of the 20th century, dealing with the decline of civilization and the impossibility of recovering meaning in life.
The poem's reception was originally mixed; though many hailed the poem for its portrayal of universal despair and ingenious technique, others, including F.L. Lucas, detested the poem from its first publication in the October issue of the poetry magazine, Criterion.
Early manuscripts of the poem were uncovered in 1968 and reveal that it originally contained almost twice as much material as the final published version. This is in part due to the fact that Eliot allowed his friend and contemporary Ezra Pound to edit the poem, but Eliot himself is responsible for striking large sections of the poem.
Sources from which Eliot quotes or which he alludes to directly include the works of Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Gérard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Oliver Goldsmith, Hermann Hesse, Paul Verlaine and Aldous Huxley. He also makes extensive use of Scriptural writings including the Bible, the Hindu Brihad-Aranyaka-Upanishad, and the Buddha's Fire Sermon, and of cultural and anthropological studies such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance.
The sections of The Waste Land are:
The poem is preceded by an epigraph from the Satyricon of Petronius. In English it reads: "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in her cage, and when the boys said, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die." (Petronius cast the question and answer in Greek).
The text of the poem is followed by several pages of notes associated with individual lines or sections of the text, purporting to explain his metaphors, references, and allusions. Some of these notes are helpful in interpreting the poem, but some are arguably even more puzzling, and many of the most opaque passages are left unremarked-on. It is known that the notes were added after Eliot's publisher requested something longer to justify printing 'The Waste Land' in a separate book; and so many scholars think the notes are peppered with red herrings.