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

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Is the image of a whirlpool significant, given that a whirlpool sucks things underwater only to spew them up elsewhere? Does this suggest re-birth? Could those who ‘turn the wheel and look to windward’ be those who heroically take charge of their fortune (the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ tarot card having been invoked earlier in the poem)?

Perhaps it is fairest to say that none of these questions on its own would suggest any particular significance in Phlebas’ death. Together, however, they are more convincing. One thing, however, that is less open to dispute is that the memento mori aspect of Phlebas – ‘consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you’ – is a clear reversal of Madame Sosostris’ false advice to ‘Fear death by water.’ We should, in fact, face death by water in the Grail quest, just as we must soon face death from the absence of water in What the Thunder Said .

Two further reasons for the view that Death by Water is a crucially significant part of the poem may be given. Firstly, the very brevity of this section seems to add to the luminosity of these lines. Secondly, this section is perhaps the most consciously poetic sequence of the whole of The Waste Land . The whole section is more rhythmic and chant-like that other parts of the poem, and Eliot uses such techniques as alliteration (‘Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead’, ‘Gentile or Jew’) and internal rhyme (‘…stages of his age…’) to achieve this. So much emphasis is laid on these ambiguous words, in fact, that it seems likely that Eliot wanted us to at least be teased with the possibility of Phlebas’ death signifying more than just the chance end of a life.

What is to happen after ? This is the word with which the final section of the poem begins.

What the Thunder Said

“After the torchlight red on sweaty faces…” and all the other evocations of Christ’s Passion comes, of course, the resurrection. Does the positive come to counterbalance the negative in this final section of the poem? This is really a question to be approached from two points of view – it can be answered on a symbolic level and on a ‘real’ level – psychological and cultural. In a symbolic sense, there certainly appears to be a resurrection, as Eliot clearly alludes to the story of the Journey to Emmaus found at the end of Luke’s gospel, where the resurrected Christ walks to this village near Jerusalem with two disciples who fail to recognise Him until the end of the episode.

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T.S. Eliot