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
Wide
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