A passage from the fifth part of the poem The Waste Land (which you can read online) says:

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

I'm not quite sure how to interpret this passage. For example, what does it mean to say "thinking of the key, each confirms a prison"? I get that the sound of the key turning represents the locking of a prison door. But I'm not sure how this passage fits into the larger meaning of the poem. Any insight would be appreciated.

  • 3
    FYI: the phrase "I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only" is a reference to Dante's Inferno. This doesn't answer the question, but maybe it will be a starting point for further research.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 17:09
  • I think it's about mortality. Prison is body, death is key and we can pass only once through the door to afterlife.
    – Mithoron
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 22:10
  • There are lots of commentaries on The Wasteland; Eliot wrote one of his own.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 18:17

6 Answers 6


T.S. Elliot is trying to communicate a very subtle point, in something of a reverse order, and there are a couple possible interpretations of this.

Much of The Waste Land is a tirade on selfishness, portraying the harm it does to oneself. The key line here is actually the last one: Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison. The prison could be one of the mind: we're each trapped within our own prisons, and in thinking of the key, we confirm that we are trapped in it. We each hear the key, in our own prisons, without giving thought to the others who are also trapped in the same.

But it's also a commentary on the way poetry and literature as a whole locks itself into a cage of introspection. After a little digging, I found a good reference. Steven Colbrun, in Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale (somewhat oddly) writes on this point:

"We think of the key, each in his prison, / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison," wrote Eliot a half-century back, on the way to his conversion to Christianity. But consider how much of our literature, our high literature especially, and most especially our high poetry, confirms the prison. We are instructed perhaps in its interior decoration, but not encouraged to seek escape. ...If each in his cell believes himself locked up forever, the last thing he wants to hear from a neighboring cell is the noise of scratching, poundings, screamings for the jailer.

Interestingly, this point isn't necessarily contradictory with the notion that our prisons are ones of selfishness. We get caught in our own webs of thinking, and stop listening to what's going on around us.

These are just a couple possible interpretations. Either way, the passage certainly is on the topic of self-imprisonment and self-centeredness: that once we fall into that well ("Turn in the door once..."), you can no longer get out of it - not because you're incapable, but because of... some external reason that varies depending on your reading of the poem. Your perspective, and how you view the rest of the poem, should influence where you go from there.

  • Not sure if I want to upvote this answer just yet. I think your point "We each hear the key, in our own prisons, without giving thought to the others who are also trapped in the same" is a good one. I think this answer could be improved if you referenced other parts of the poem that discuss the theme of selfishness.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 4:18
  • I also would like to see more of an explanation of your argument that "it's also a commentary on the way poetry and literature as a whole locks itself into a cage of introspection". Is that a theme that is present in other parts of the poem?
    – user111
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 4:20

Most likely quite simple. The prison is the problems people have in their minds. In other words, problems are known as ‘karmic traps’ of the mind that make life a prison for people.

Schopenhauer stated that life is a prison, because all the bad choices people make, in turn, create a burden of bad karma in their minds, emotional states and lives. This makes life a prison for them.

Such people stray from the good things of life, such as love, wisdom and, most interestingly, freedom; psychological and spiritual freedom. Freedom is opposite of being in prison.

There is a spiritual woman from India, I think her name is Shivani. Shivani has You Tube videos on karma. One video is titled Karmic Traps, the second one is called Creating Karma. These videos are about the negative karma in our lives, that decisions of a bad nature we make in life lead to making life a prison for our mind and soul.

As Sting sings in Fortress around your heart:

These prisons are now your home.

This means the prison of the mind and soul.

Also in the Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen there are the lyrics

save us all from Satan's pow'r When we were gone astray.

Being led astray creates the karmic prison we inhabit.


I think it refers to the stoïc connotation of freedom. Freedomnis all about state of mind and has nothing to do with physical constraints. Suppose you are in a room that is unlocked. You are free to think whatever you wish. Now we lock the room. What does it change to your thinking? Nothing at all unless you let the same key lock not only the room but also your attitude towards it. I think personally that this interpretation holds also in view of the ending.


I think that, in addition of what You All said, It could Also refer to the Image of sterility that goes trough the entire poem: each One of us Is trapped in a mental prison: You can't see your prison, but You feel It and, once You felt that there's something prisoning You, You aren't able to leave this consciousness behind and thinking about and feeling your prison, You confirm your prison and this prison becomes deeper and deeper. I think that It could Be similar to a sort of woolfian moment of being or an epiphany: You Gear the Key once and onc only, so you discover that You are prisoned, and even if You Won't have this consciousness never again so clear, You will not Be able to forget that sense of prison in you.

And then... "We' Ve lived": idk how to uderstand it! We had the illusion of Living? We tried to live? We forced the Key? Or we had this illusion before hearing the Key and now we are bound to the consciousness of the prison and that our attempt to live failed? It's the mr prufrock that when asking ti himself "do I dare" decided to dare? And failed? And remembering of when he was thinking of being Alive, he hear the Key? And thinking on the Key he Is prisoned?

Or Is prufrock prototype a Man Who Heard the Key, tries not to confirm his prison and would like ti attempt Life but asks himself do i dare? I know that i amico bound to fail, but i want to leave the Cage? And obviously Is bound to fail.


I always thought that last line meant that one constructs the prison by believing in the key and granting it power

  • 3
    Can you provide some reason or explanation to support this? Answers here work better when they're justified with something a bit better than "I always thought".
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 20, 2019 at 8:37

I recall my English Literature teacher speaking of a prisoner knowing that when the key turns only once, they realise they're being condemned to death, as usually it turned twice - but can't remember where that reference came from - or even if it's true as it's 40 years ago. Dante?

  • 2
    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Even though I have read The Waste Land multiple times and even consulted annotations, I can't judge the plausibility of this explanation. Because of this (and also because this is a general rule on this site), I strongly recommend that you try to back up this statement with something more solid than "my English Literature teacher [said]".
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 9:43
  • The most famous "prison story" in Dante is that of Ugolino della Gherardesca in Canto XXXIII of Inferno, but as far as I can tell, a key is not mentioned in Dante's text.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 10:10