The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

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Death by Water

It is worth just recapping the tiny but significant details that prepare us for Phlebas’ unhappy voyage:

Frisch weht der Wind
Der heimat zu

Oed’ und leer das Meer .

Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea

And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge and noon

The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar

Beating oars
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold

To Carthage then I came

It may be seen from these quotations that the idea of a sea-voyage is tied into a number of The Waste Land ’s themes, including, perhaps surprisingly, themes of love and coition as well as the quest and death/resurrection. Indeed, the modern, and corrupt, version of Phlebas, Mr Eugenides, is apparently determined on a sexual conquest, albeit a homosexual (and unprocreative) one. Later, at the very end of the poem, sailing is associated explicitly with a successful self-giving relationship (indeed this is, effectively, the ‘Holy Grail’ of the whole poem):

Damyata : The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

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T.S. Eliot