Back to top

Waste Land

Briar and fennel and chincapin,
     And rue and ragweed everywhere;
The field seemed sick as a soul with sin,
     Or dead of an old despair,
     Born of an ancient care.

The cricket's cry and the locust's whirr,
     And the note of a bird's distress,
With the rasping sound of the grasshopper,
     Clung to the loneliness
     Like burrs to a trailing dress.

So sad the field, so waste the ground,
     So curst with an old despair,
A woodchuck's burrow, a blind mole's mound,
     And a chipmunk's stony lair,
     Seemed more than it could bear.

So lonely, too, so more than sad,
     So droning-lone with bees –
I wondered what more could Nature add
     To the sum of its miseries . . .
     And then – I saw the trees.

Skeletons gaunt that gnarled the place,
     Twisted and torn they rose –
The tortured bones of a perished race
     Of monsters no mortal knows,
     They startled the mind's repose.

And a man stood there, as still as moss,
     A lichen form that stared;
With an old blind hound that, at a loss,
     Forever around him fared
     With a snarling fang half bared.

I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
     Like a dead weed, gray and wan,
Or a breath of dust. I looked again –
     And man and dog were gone,
     Like wisps of the graying dawn. . . .

Were they a part of the grim death there –
     Ragweed, fennel, and rue?
Or forms of the mind, an old despair,
     That there into semblance grew
     Out of the grief I knew?
Additional Information:
NOTE: In a letter to the editor printed in the Times Literary Supplement (8 Dec. 1995, p. 14), Robert Ian Scott suggests that "the many similarities between this poem" and T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" "can hardly be coincidental." Scott notes that Eliot "had reasons to be reading" the Jan. 1913 issue of Poetry in which Cawein's poem appeared because it contained Pound's article on the poets then in London (though Eliot himself is not referred to in the article).