In T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (which you can read online), T. S. Eliot claims that someone (probably either humankind or the reader) only knows "a heap of broken images".

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

What is the "heap of broken images"? What does it mean/represent?

5 Answers 5


To say anything definitive about The Waste Land is challenging; indeed, this work seems to evade interpretation with each new line and stanza. With many interpretations carry with them some merit, I contend that the line "heap of broken images" is meant to evoke something broader about modernist art: this line is a metatextual reference to the poem itself and its underlying epistemology.

Eliot writes, "[Y]ou know only / A heap of broken images." I want to focus on that word "know." Eliot is calling into question that which we can know in this waste land. The mirror that we used to be able to hold up to reality is broken; the self is fractured. There is no unifying epistemology, or, in post-modern terms, meta-narrative. Everything is a broken image. Reading the poem in this light, one can realize that what Eliot is presenting us with broken images of a broken world.

Moreover, in A Genealogy of Modernism: A study of English literary doctrine 1908-1922, Michael Levenson argues,

"The principle of order in The Waste Land depends on a plurality of consciousnesses, an ever-increasing series of points of view, which struggle towards an emergent unity and then continue to struggle past that unity." (source)

In the aftermath of the destruction of World War I, the social and political institutions can longer be trusted to hold society together. Instead, rather than unification, we have separation and multiplicity. We have an epistemology that jumps from image to image, each time only seeing a part of the whole. The whole has been destroyed.

Consider this line amidst the plethora of allusions and annotations. The meaning of The Waste Land relies on other texts and other writers. Its meaning is fractured insofar as it is not self-contained; it is allusive. In that sense "heap of broken images" is an apt description for the poetic effort Eliot is making in this work. It evokes Eliot's essay "Traditional and the Individual Talent." In it, Eliot writes,

"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead." [emphasis added]

That is exactly where we are in the first section of this opus: in the midst of burying the dead, tracing meaning back through the work of other artists and finding meaning in the broken images of humanity. This constitutes what the artist can know.

  • 1
    I accepted this not because it is the only possible answer, but because it's really good and I got sick of it being hidden under a less helpful answer. If you have an alternative explanation, please post it!
    – user111
    Aug 12, 2017 at 0:48

From this source: (emphasis mine)

Adopting a prophetic tone of archaic allusion for much of the poem, Eliot asks, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/A heap of broken images…” (ll. 19-22). Being a devout albeit unconventional Catholic, Eliot uses the term “Son of man” as one loaded with history and meanings, bringing the modern man into the discourse of ancient Semitic religions as well as the discourse of Christ himself, the purified son of man. Modern man cannot reach this purified state because his world is a barren wasteland of both sexual and intellectual exhaustion, a heap of broken images of the past and present.

From Shmoop:

Lines 21-23 allude to Ecclesiastes, and they say that you probably don't know the answer to this last question, because all you really know about life is "a heap of broken images" (22), meaning that you live your life on a superficial level and don't bother to draw your thoughts together into any meaningful ideas.

It seems that the meaning of the phrase alludes to how little we, as mere mortals, know about the vast enigma that is life.

  • 3
    I've decided to downvote this answer because it only consists of two quotes: there's no critical analysis of the poem or of the sources you cite.
    – user111
    Jan 25, 2017 at 15:24
  • 2
    Downvoting for the same reason as @Hamlet. Sorry, but this site should be able to do better than commentless quoting from Shmoop :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 12, 2017 at 16:53

This is my first attempt at writing an answer, so I hope I have done it right in terms of links of attribution and format. If I have not, I hope someone will tell me, so I can benefit from clarification. Beyond that, I’ll simply give it a whirl!

Perhaps this is too simplistic and pedestrian of an interpretation, but maybe we can make a case for simplicity. It seems that the entire first verse is the antecedent referent for the phrase “a heap of broken images.” The phrase in question might best be studied by the words that immediately precede it: “Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images…”

So, the first verse is fascinating because it contemplates the utter cruelty of a month that births beauty, and all the subsequent moments of beauty in a life, all the half stories, “mixing memory and desire,” mixing what we recall with what we wish, perhaps. But as this verse is entitled, The Burial of the Dead, we see a foreshadowing of some point, some perspective, some lesson that is almost tangible, albeit it with ‘broken images’—the earthy erosion, snow, rain, tubers, lilacs, a girl named Marie.

(As an aside that may or may not be relevant, but which requires discussion in another direction, it might help to know that a dear friend of Eliot’s died in the month of April during WWI. Eliot mourned deeply for his friend. Like I said, that takes it in another direction, a direction potentially important enough to rquire its own discussion for some other time.)(But if curiosity is killing you, this New Yorker article is excellent and cites original sources)

In an overall sense, that foreshadowed point, that message or lesson, is: Despite all the life we have and think we remember, whether we live it well or not, whether we remember it accurately or not, it is all for naught if we do not accept that we have one job on earth. That job, apparently, is to face the inevitable end of that life with a gratitude and gracious acceptance of the Higher Power that has made it all possible.

I get this notion from the words, “Son of man,” which was a reference to a verse in Ezekiel: “And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.” There are recurring “Son of man” references in Ezekiel.

The basic message of that Biblical reference is ‘Yes, it is all doom and gloom and the people will fight and write books about it, and bend the knee to false images and some will fight harder than others for their right to glorify said images. In the end, though, we ought to rejoice in the behavior that celebrates God’s word—having done so is the reward, the goal, the point of it all.’

Then Eliot gives us this: “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.”

This appears to be a half-formed holographic Biblical reference to Ecclesiastics [12.5]: “Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets…”

Ecclesiastics: 13,14 sums it all up this way: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”

It’s worth noting that Eliot underwent a “conversion” of sorts to Anglo-Catholicism, an Anglican form of Christianity that emphasizes the Catholic rather than Protestant heritage and even customs. But he was very selective and discerning in his faith, and it didn’t happen overnight. Still, he was resolute and dedicated. His pursuit of faith was neither an overnight miracle nor was it something he dropped for the next new thing. It was a life-long pursuit for Eliot.

So, what the heck does all this have to do with “A heap of broken images?”

Plenty as it turns out. There is mention of Marie. Briefly, she was Marie, Countess Larisch. Cousin to Crown Prince Rudolph (who was also an Archduke), famous for the apparent murder suicide of his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, and himself. There remains considerable controversy over whether it was, in fact, a murder-suicide, or a couple of murders. It seems that from the moment of the deaths, a cover up was well underway. Either way, it was forevermore ‘The Mayerling Affair’, as the doomed couple was staying at Mayerling Lodge when they left earth. Marie, the Countess Larich, was a close friend of Baroness Vetsera, and after the deaths, it was discovered she acted as a kind of go between for cousin Rudolph and Mary.

Marie was banished from court and spent the rest of her life in varying degrees of scandal, poverty and something less than palaces.

(You may be familiar with popular film culture that presents the basics, fictionalized and otherwise, of the Mayerling saga, namely Mayerling (1969) - This remake of the 1937 French favorite stars Omar Sharif as the Prince of Hapsburg, who defies his father by leaving his royal lifestyle and joining in student protests during the Hungarian Revolution. When he falls in love with the young and wealthy Catherine Deneuve, the king thwarts their plans of marriage, which leads to tragedy. Also starring James Mason and Ava Gardner. Also, in theater, Joseph and David Zellnik wrote City of Dreams, an original musical based on what the musical calls “the double suicide” of Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage mistress, Mary, in Vienna in 1889 and which includes the character of Countess Larich.)

And guess what? T.S. Eliot met Countess Marie Larich, probably in 1911 near Munich—he was about 22 and she was 53. They spoke. The bulk of the first verse of The Wasteland were her memories, her conversation, her heap of broken images—and what a heap it was! Most of the lines of the first verse of The Wasteland were remembered snippets of conversations he had with Marie, according to Eliot’s second wife, Valarie Eliot. (Can be seen here, too). (Further, see the voluminous sites created by Richard A. Parker for information on Countess Marie Larisch, who wrote several books, including one about her involvement in the Mayerling Affair, an involvement she largely denied but which cost her the position as intimate and confident to her aunt Empress Elisabeth, Crown Prince Rudolph’s mother.

So! T. S. Eliot, who later became a Christian, surely began his search for “the answer” years before he tried to be a Christian. (And he prevailed in this attempt despite his rather unchristian like treatment of his first wife and collaborator, Vivien Haigh-Wood, a bright and creative, if tormented, troubled and emotionally damaged, woman. Eliot seemed not so much in love as he was desirous of losing his virginity.) Speaking of which, his friends (largely, the Bloomsbury clique) did not like Vivienne; Virginia Wolf once referred to her, as "This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck." (She, of course, later strolled along the banks of the River Ouse before wading in over her head with stones in her pockets.)

His search for faith, his unhappy marriage, his utter disillusionment with the war all combined to form what Ezra Pound, a friend and critic, saw as Eliot poetry that could be trimmed, edited, reworked and enhanced to become a major part of the Modernist literary movement that defined some of the greatest writing in our history. Eliot’s poetry began as far more autobiographical than it became in its final forms. By the time we read the leaner versions, including The Wasteland, we had real T.S. Eliot poetry, real sets of poems, yes, but one could say that we, too, had only “a heap of broken images” belonging to someone else and someone else’s someone else. Which reminds me of another verse from Ecclesiastics (12.8): “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.”

  • This looks like a nice answer. Let me think about it for a bit. The one feedback that I can give at the moment is that you should provide citations for all the biographical details about Eliots life.
    – user111
    Aug 11, 2017 at 23:52
  • Yes, thank you, I did have a couple more and somehow they didn't transfer. Maybe I can edit to include them.
    – TTThomas
    Aug 11, 2017 at 23:57
  • Phew, this is an incredibly interesting answer! Are you arguing for the broken images representing memories, then? Aug 12, 2017 at 0:43
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    Wow. You've clearly put a lot of time and effort into this! I don't know if this interpretation is correct (or even if there is a single 'correct' interpretation), but you can certainly have an upvote for a well-supported and detailed answer with lots of relevant references.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 12, 2017 at 16:57
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    Hi Heather, thanks! I think of the “broken images” line much as I think of history—we think that’s how “it” happened, we have some contemporaneous evidence that that’s how “it” went, but we sense that none of “it” as presented is “the whole story.” I think Eliot is also saying that it’s all irrelevant. It’s fun or it’s funky, but it’s filler, however hellish and fiery the entanglements.’ So, yes, memories, histories, even transcripts and cinematic film are an inaccurate memorialization. As Ezekiel says: Son of man, you cannot say or guess…” Naturally, that shouldn't stop us from trying! IMHO
    – TTThomas
    Aug 12, 2017 at 18:20

I'm no expert on this poem, but having read its first chapter (the first four stanzas, "The Burial of the Dead") several times, poring over individual words and sentences, I came up with a couple of possible interpretations of the "heap of broken images" based on context from elsewhere.

Tarot cards

The third stanza is all about one "Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante" and her tarot cards. These, of course, contain images and can be piled in heaps, so the "heap of broken images" could be an earlier reference to tarot cards.

Furthermore, let's look at some of the specific cards mentioned:

  • Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

  • I do not find / The Hanged Man.

These references both to rocks and to death, specifically by hanging, may be intended to link back to the earlier stanza, specifically the following lines:

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

While a shelterless dead tree isn't necessarily evocative of hanging, the word "dead" used in juxtaposition with the idea of a tree and of being unwelcoming, no help provided, could easily put that idea across. This links up with the "Hanged Man" from later on. Also, the inviting red rock - and the speaker doing the inviting, who may be the same as the "hyacinth girl" mentioned a few lines later - could be related to the "Lady of the Rocks".

Oh, and one more thing from the same description of the barren desert scene:

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

This is arguably what a tarot card reader might do. If the cards come up indicating some gruesome fate, then despite being nothing but small scraps of paper which will soon turn to dust, they can strike fear into the hearts of those who believe in them. Another potential link.

The remains of a life

The entire chapter, from its title through every stanza, has a theme of death about it. The description of the barren landscape, with its "stony rubbish", "dead tree", and "dry stone", is particularly evocative of death - we might call this place a dead landscape, and bones or a skeleton would fit neatly with the scene described. And later, in the fourth stanza, there is talk of growing corpses as if they were plants:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

This could be a possible way of reading the second stanza. The desert scene so evocative of death could be the site of someone's grave; the "branches grow[ing o]ut of this stony rubbish" correspond to the sprouting of the corpse referenced later on.

The "heap of broken images", under this interpretation, would be images of the dead person's life. It's said that you see images of your life flashing before you just before you die; and once you're dead, those images are all that's left of what used to be your life.

The branches growing from the grave are probably something metaphysical, perhaps symbolising eternal life after death. The "[s]on of man" cannot say or guess anything about them, for we know only the mortal life, the "heap of broken images", and are blind to what comes after it. We, the mortal children of man, see only the barren desert scene and the remains of the dead person's life, not what is sprouting from their corpse in a different dimension.

  • Not really sure why this is upvoted. This answer makes a lot of wild leaps of judgement that are contradicted by a basic understanding of the poem. (I left comments explaining why and suggesting improvements in chat, this comment is for voters who might want to take a closer look at this answer).
    – user111
    Aug 12, 2017 at 0:43

I am no expert on this poem, and I haven't read all of it, but my immediate thought was that the broken images represented the pieces of memories each person has. The position of that phrase at the beginning of the stanza comes right after the narrator recalls various scenes, presumably from their past.

The memories seem fragmented - memories about seasons, months, conversations, and then the longest "fragment" is of the narrator sledding with her cousin. With this interpretation, I read the stanza as "What life will grow out of these memories?" As in, how will these memories shape you?

We cannot know because we are not all-knowing - our only knowledge ("You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images") is these memories that are so fragmented and limited. The latter part of the stanza

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I'm reading as the the limits of the life allotted to each person - for example, "Your shadow at morning striding behind you" represents what you were at your birth, and "your shadow at evening rising to meet you" your death to come. These images are shown under shadow; here the shadow is in desert, meaning it is relieving. Why is the image of ones' death relieving? My answer is that it gives one a sense of purpose - brings one out of indecision, knowing that death is coming, in a sort of "live life to the fullest" attitude. The image of one's birth is given to show how far you have come.

The sprouting of a corpse, written about in the lines

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

I think is asking if the life, and the memories left from it, have had an impact on people and have lead to a new growth yet.

  • literature.stackexchange.com/q/2782/111
    – user111
    Aug 11, 2017 at 9:12
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    This is an interesting take on a very difficult poem. I think what @Hamlet is saying is that you might be able to analyse it even better by using close reading, one of the most essential tools in literature. The Q&A he's linked to, although about a different poem, is very useful for learning about close reading in general, and well worth your time to peruse.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 11, 2017 at 14:19
  • @Randal'Thor thank you, I will try close reading the poem. Aug 11, 2017 at 15:17