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

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It is probably worth noting that later versions of the Grail Quest – notably Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – include miraculous journeys by boat as an essential part of the Grail Knight’s journey (sometimes after a bout of sexual temptation, as in the case of Sir Percevale).

None of this, however, quite explains why a drowned Phoenician sailor? There is a straightforward answer, in that the Phoenicians were great seafarers and merchants. This does not entirely satisfy, however, and it is possible , though far from certain, that the name itself had considerable resonance for Eliot. The word Phoenician derives from the Greek Φοινίκη (Phoiníkē) which in turn derives from phoinos (‘blood red’). The word is almost identical to Φοῖνιξ (phoínix), the Greek word for phoenix (the legendary bird associated with resurrection) which was believed to have a tail of red and gold plumage. It may even be significant that just prior to the Death by Water section the two Thames barges are associated with red (the colour of the Grail blood) – ‘Red sails…red and gold.’ This private symbolism of Eliot’s is only of tangential interest when studying the poem, though, if it is true, it adds to the sense of the significance of Phlebas’ death. Is it one of purification, renewal, resurrection (or at least reincarnation) or is it simply a meaningless death that underlines the general hopelessness of the poem?

Considerable weight, therefore, hangs on Eliot’s words, and it is up to the reader to judge. Does, for example, Phlebas’ forgetting ‘the profit and loss’ imply some kind of purification from an overly commercial life? How can a dead body forget something anyway? Are the personified ‘whispers’ that pick at his bones, possessed of some kind of mystical meaning? As Phlebas passes ‘the stages of his age and youth’ is Eliot implying that time is reversed in his death? Is Phlebas somehow growing younger in his death, perhaps to be reborn anew?

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T.S. Eliot
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The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul