Coral Ann Howells looks at James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published 100 years ago and which ushered in the Modernist Movement


‘April is the cruellest month.’ These lines are instantly familiar to anyone who has read or tried to read The Waste Land, and October 2022 marks the centenary of the London publication of T.S. Eliot’s poem and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Those twin peaks of High Modernism revolutionised literary production in the early part of the twentieth century. The modernist movement belongs to a specific period of cultural history, the social crisis of transition to modernity exacerbated by the trauma of the First World War, and modernist artists were obsessed with the collapse of Western civilization in a fragmented destabilised world. Now, looking back at the completed arc of literary modernism, we might read Ulysses and The Waste Land from a different angle, paying more attention to issues of belief, centred often on the motif of the quest, which in both is related to their very different uses of myth. 

Modernist scholarship has generally focused on textual obscurity, themes of alienation and exile, an aesthetics of fragmentation, and on what Eliot called ‘the mythical method’. On reading Ulysses Eliot saw Joyce’s use of myth as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (Ulysses, Order, and Myth’ 1923). Interestingly in their attempts to ‘make it new’ the modernists were haunted by history and tradition, and Eliot’s and Joyce’s use of myth is effectively their way of negotiating with the dead. However, Eliot uses myth to castigate the modern world for its degeneration from ancient holistic world views, while Joyce uses myth as a kind of shadowy blueprint for an imaginative transcendence of ordinariness, exploiting the recurrence of narrative patterns, but with no sense of nostalgia in his comedic celebration of the living world. 

As Northrop Frye suggested, there are two basic mythical patterns: the cyclical seasonal pattern, and the linear teleological one of the Bible from Creation to Revelation, which also gives its shape to the quest myth. Both Eliot’s and Joyce’s texts follow the linear structural principle, though in The Waste Land Eliot overlays this with the cyclical pattern of seasonal return. In both, the religious resonances are frequent, though strikingly Eliot’s awareness of a vast range of spiritual beliefs (Christian, Buddhist, Hindu) and his deployment of different myths disguise his underlying Christian imperative. Michael Bell’s comment accurately describes the poem’s strategies of indirection: ‘The Waste Land is a great poem of religious quest in which the essentially inner or spiritual theme is ambivalently projected both on to an external social plane and on to a mythic backdrop’. By contrast, the quest motif, now doubled in Joyce’s recycling of Homeric myth, is the basic unifying principle in this complex narrative.

The Waste Land does not advertise itself as a quest, but rather as a wandering in the wilderness. The poem evolved from a chaotic draft which Eliot showed to Ezra Pound in January 1922 and which Pound skilfully edited with Eliot’s help, a debt which Eliot acknowledged in his dedication, ‘For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro’. According to Tim Armstrong, Pound who was another American expatriate like Eliot, was ‘central to any account of modernism in England’, for while in London he worked tirelessly to promote avant-garde art as the ‘guide and lamp of civilization’.

The Waste Land opens with ‘The Burial of the Dead’, echoing the title of the Anglican Burial Service and with distorted echoes of Chaucer’s opening of The Canterbury Tales, though promises of resurrection and seasonal renewal are blighted and the strength of the buried life emerges in bizarre forms. Instead of a fertile landscape, here is a waste land, a place of ‘stony rubbish’ filled with ‘a heap of broken images’, dead trees, drought and death. London is the land of the living dead: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’, Eliot’s transposition of his poetic mentor Dante’s lines from the Inferno; as one critic commented, ‘Eliot spends a lot of time in the modern equivalent of Inferno III’. The poem’s densely allusive cosmopolitan texture implicates readers in the hopeless human condition as the narrative continues its grim reportage through the neurotic voices of women mixed with the nightingale’s song and jazz rhythms. Almost glancingly the Fisher King is introduced, the central figure of the Grail legend in Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, a major source for Eliot’s poem. However, his King is a figure in a degraded landscape as he sits ‘fishing in the dull canal, stripped of his role as potential agent of revitalization and resurrection. While there may be visionary flashes in the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and the church of St Magnus Martyr with its ‘inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold’, spiritual and aesthetic feelings are muted in this elegy.

Only in the final section does the deep structure of the spiritual quest break surface, though the moment of release is still entangled in a referential framework which mixes seasonal fertility myths, the Grail legend, the Biblical story of Christ’s crucifixion, with an apocalyptic narrative of civilization’s destruction. A series of nightmare visions imply that even Christ’s appearance to His disciples on the road to Emmaus inspires fear and doubt, or the Arthurian knight’s journey to the ruined Chapel Perilous, where he hears the cock crowing, recalling Christ’s death. Then suddenly comes the moment when the drought breaks over the Ganges, as Eliot turns away from Europe to Hindu scriptures with the fable of the Thunder in the Upanishads. The Thunder speaks three times in an ancient Indo-European monosyllable, ‘DA’, which is glossed by three Sanskrit words: ‘Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata’, translated by Eliot as ‘Give, Sympathize, Control’, and interpreted differently by different listeners. A subtle change occurs as the Fisher King sits on the shore ‘with the arid plain behind me’, and the chaos of voices in the Tower of Babel is stilled with the three words customarily said at the end of a Hindu prayer, ‘Shantih shantih shantih’. Without a full stop at the end, the poem implies that the spiritual quest is ongoing. Eliot became a devoted Anglo-Catholic five years later.

  Ulysses gives a different inflection to the quest motif and to the mythical method, for Joyce’s approach is more sympathetically attuned to the human condition with its endless proliferation of ambiguities. The Odyssey provides the perfect ordering principle for Joyce’s polyphonic narrative structure, as he enmeshes its mythic pattern in a network of contemporary human relations at a specific place and time: ‘dear dirty Dublin, 16 June, 1904’. ‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past’ (‘Scylla and Charybdis’). And in Ulysses the quest is doubled. Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom’s quest is that of ‘a competent keyless citizen’ who proceeds ‘energetically from the unknown to the known through the incertitude of the void’ (‘Ithaca’) directed towards his homecoming to 7 Eccles Street. He stands in contrast to Stephen Dedalus, who is always ‘proceeding syllogistically from the known to the unknown … upon the incertitude of the void’ (‘Ithaca’); both of them share a modernist sensibility, but their parallel quests never coincide. They reveal, I suggest, Joyce’s own divided consciousness on spiritual matters, for although he lived as an exile in Trieste, Zurich and Paris for forty years, his work is rooted in his Irishness, his Roman Catholic upbringing, and his renunciation of the faith. While Joyce’s hostility to the dogma of Catholicism led him to adopt a deliberately secular humanist vision, he remained profoundly affected by that religion’s habits of thought. As Stephen’s friend Cranly shrewdly observed in Portrait of the Artist, ‘It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve’- and so too with Joyce. Stephen’s aim and Joyce’s also, is to be ‘a priest of the eternal imagination’ where art becomes the sacred mystery. Between these two polar opposites, Bloom / Ulysses / the father and Stephen / Telemachus / the son, Joyce constructs his revision of a quest narrative from the dual perspectives of Bloom’s humanist ethic and Stephen’s spiritual aesthetic.

 Stephen is the youthful artist figure who has failed in his quest for unfettered freedom from obligations to his family, his fatherland, and his church, now suffering from remorse at his refusal to take part in the Catholic prayers for his dying mother. Haunted by her ghost, he is still trying to free himself, when in a crisis of agony he drunkenly smashes the chandelier in a brothel, but he is rescued by Bloom: ‘Come home. You’ll get into trouble’ (‘Circe’). Bloom leads Stephen away, having paid for the broken chandelier. That kindly practical gesture is typical of Bloom, who takes an outsider’s non-judgmental perspective on his fellow human beings. A Jew and a non-believer, Bloom has made his leisurely way round the Dublin streets all day, where he is presented as Everyman or Noman, Sinbad the Sailor, the Wandering Jew, the Good Samaritan, one who accepts ‘warm fullblooded life’ as it is. Unlike Stephen, he does not seek the transcendental, motivated by his human-centred belief in love: ‘I mean the opposite of hatred’(‘Cyclops’). He is a ‘citizen’ of the world, and his approach is more firmly rooted in traditional Christian values than many of Dublin’s Irish Catholics. When Bloom takes Stephen home with him for a cup of cocoa and the offer of a bed, their conversation reveals that they have little in common, and yet when Stephen is leaving and they look silently at each other, Joyce insists on their common humanity in all its ambiguity of difference and affinity: ‘Silent, each contemplating the other in both mirrors of the reciprocal flesh of theirhisnothis fellowfaces’ (Ithaca’). Stephen vanishes into the night, still seeking, and Bloom goes to bed. This is his homecoming and his quest ends with his achievement of ‘equanimity’ as he goes to sleep beside his adulterous wife, now forgiven, under ‘the apathy of the stars’. 

Both Eliot and Joyce rehearse their troubled relationship to issues of belief by adopting the literary form of the quest with its possibilities of artistic resolution – for Eliot finally a benediction, for Joyce a fine balance between Bloom’s equanimity and Stephen’s restless wanderings in this human comedy played out upon ‘the incertitude of the void’. The mythical method proved able to accommodate the proliferating ambiguities so characteristic of literary modernism.


Coral Ann Howells is Professor Emerita at the University of Reading and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. She has lectured and published widely on English Canadian literature, especially on contemporary Canadian women writers, and is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood, co-editor of the Cambridge History of Canadian Literature and volume 12 of the Oxford History of the Novel in English. She has also held Visiting Professorships in Europe and India, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.



Armstrong. Tim. Modernism: A Cultural History. Polity Press, Cambridge 2005.

Bell, Michael. Literature, Modernism and Myth. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997.

Spurr, Barry. ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T.S.Eliot and Christianity. Lutterworth Press, Cambridge 2010.


Ulysses was first published in Paris on 2 February 1922, then in London in October that year. It was banned for obscenity in the USA till 1934 and in Britain till 1936. The Waste Land was first published in The Criterion in October, then a month later in The Dial, before appearing in book form in 1923, with Eliot’s Notes added.