I was surprised to encounter footnotes to the poem in the Project Gutenberg website version, which makes me wonder if these are by the author, included in the original version? How common in general, and if by Eliot, why they were included?

Many authors, in both literature and film, encourage the reader/viewer to search for their own interpretation and perhaps even lose themselves, but these footnotes suggest that Eliot might not have shared this view quite so strongly or rather was delivering a calibrated message. Is Eliot attempting to educate us? What does this mean with regard to the confusion that the poem apparently causes, was this an accident or intentional?

(PS I know multiple questions are discouraged, but as this is an aside: I am also curious why the title is "The Waste Land" as opposed to "The Wasteland". Are these synonymous?)

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    The notes are written in the first person (for example, I am indebted), so they appear to be by Eliot himself. Why? Because the poem contains a lot of obscure references. Commented Feb 12 at 15:39
  • @KateBunting "they appear to be by Eliot". The notes don't "appear" to be by Eliot, they are by Eliot.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 12 at 17:31
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    @Tsundoku - OK, I bow to your superior knowledge! Commented Feb 13 at 12:41

1 Answer 1


Peter Ackroyd writes in his biography of T. S. Eliot that there were two reasons for including footnotes (pages 177-178 of the German translation):

  1. The first motivation was to avoid accusations of plagiarism, since the poem quotes from and alludes to various other works, both in English and in other languages.
  2. The second motivation was that the poem didn't seem long enough to be published in book form. The addition of the footnotes led to what Eliot later called "the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that we still see today" (in On Poetry and Poets, 1948).

The versions printed in the literary magazines The Dial (USA) and The Criterion (UK, edited by T. S. Eliot) didn't have the footnotes. Modern editions of the poem typically reproduce the footnotes.

The majority of the notes don't really steer interpretation in a specific direction. They identify sources and backgrounds. Some of them aren't even of any use, for example, when Eliot writes about the line "With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine" (line 68), "A phenomenon which I have often observed." Or his note on line 199: "I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken: it was reported to me from Sidney, Australia."

One effect seems to have been that the notes "left some early critics mystified enough that they couldn't come out and say they didn't like the poem for fear their ignorance of [Eliot's] learned and sophisticated methods would be discovered" (Karr, xv; emphasis by Karr).

None of the above suggests that the notes were intended to help readers. Mary Karr encourages readers to start by reading the poem "intuitively" (page xxi) and to listen to the poem's music (page xxiii). After that, you can still read the texts that Eliot quotes or alludes to. However, she adds: "Just be forewarned that such investigations may not pay off with a different or greater understanding that your own reading will. You will get no encoded punchline unavailable from the poem's surface" (page xxi).


Ackroyd, Peter: T. S. Eliot. Eine Biographie. Translated by Wolfgang Held. Suhrkamp, 1988. (English version: 1984.)

Karr, Mary: "How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head", in: T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

See also the related question, Were T. S. Eliot's notes to The Waste Land partly inspired by plagiarism laws?

  • Ok, thank you! If I interpret this correctly, Eliot added footnotes after the original was published for the reasons you mention here, in essence in reaction to public scrutiny and to increase readership with a book, and while doing so had a bit of fun. Leaving plenty for later academics to chew on.
    – Buck Thorn
    Commented Feb 12 at 17:43
  • I am pretty sure that some of these notes (like "A phenomenon which I have often observed") are simply jokes on Eliot's part.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 12 at 17:43
  • @PeterShor Yes, some of them may very well be jokes.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 12 at 19:03
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    @BuckThorn The publication processes for the magazines and the book ran in parrallel (Criterion: October; The Dial: November; book by Boni & Liveright: December), so it's very unlikely that the addition of notes to the book version was influenced by reactions to the publication on both magazines. Proofreading and printing takes too much time for that, especially in the pre-digital era.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 12 at 19:08
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    In previous poems, Eliot had occasionally been criticized for supposed plagiarism. For example, Eliot used "the army of unalterable law," the last line of George Meredith's Lucifer in Starlight, in his poem Cousin Nancy. But judging from this letter in The Dial, I suspect very few poets took these accusations seriously.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 12 at 19:53

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