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The Waste Land (Part IV) -- T S Eliot

(Poem #354) The Waste Land (Part IV)
IV. Death By Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
                A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
-- T S Eliot
Eliot, like Empson and Coleridge, has an equal reputation as both poet
and critic. His most famous words in the latter capacity are these:

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an
"objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation,
a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion;
such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory
experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."

- which ties in quite nicely with our discussions of last week.

He himself follows his prescription quite scrupulously (though it has to
be said, Eliot was never an emotional poet, always an intellectual one);
the perceived 'difficulty' in his poetry rises from the fact that he
chooses to eliminate the connections between his 'sets of objects,
situations and chains of events' leaving it to the reader to elucidate
what meanings he or she can. And his range of reference is extremely
wide - he quotes Virgil, Dante, Kyd, Mallarme and the Gita with equal
facility. In his own words:

"Tradition is a matter of [great] significance. It cannot be inherited,
and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in
the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly
indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his
twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not
only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical
sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his
bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe
from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country
has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This
historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the
temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes
a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer
most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity."

And, rather more snappily:

"Some one said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so
much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know."

This makes for a fascinating intellectual exercise - Eliot's poems
reward patient study and analysis - but it also opens him up to
criticisms like Yeats':

"He wrings the past dry and pours the juice down the throats of those
who are too busy or too creative to read as much as he does."

Yeats' quote may have some truth in it, but it is nonetheless unfair to
Eliot and to the Modernist poets in general; their works way be erudite
and inaccessible, but they remain, incontrovertibly, poetry of the
highest order.

Which is the point I wanted to make with this extract. 'The Waste Land'
is, quite simply, the most important poem of the twentieth century; its
influence on poets, critics and readers cannot be overestimated. But
what often gets lost amid the wealth of cross-references and quotations,
the multi-layered symbolism, the innovations in form and technique, the
pschological insight - indeed, all that made the poem revolutionary - is
that Eliot retains a consummate mastery of the language, with the
ability to craft utterly beautiful verse. Like the lines above.



All the Eliot quotes are from his collection of critical essays, 'The
Sacred Wood', which you can read online at the Project Bartleby archive:
[broken link]

The Yeats quote is from memory, so it's probably not verbatim.

45 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Tsetse1888 said...

Just a correction from an Eliot fan--his masterwork is not titled The
Wasteland, but The Waste Land. [Thanks. Fixed. -- ed.]

This is not a mere spelling issue, because the title reflects Eliot's
belief that we are wasting the land by poor choices, both morally and
environmentally, rather than that the land is inherently a "wasteland."
Also emphasizes his pun on "waist" land that introduces the pervasive
sexual imagery of the poem.

Thanks for an interesting collection,
Lindy Ader

Kwallace32 said...

I'm writing a research paper on T. S. Eliot's use of aurthurian legend in
"The Wasteland." Where you're research helps clarify things for me, I was
wondering where you got it? As you can guess I've been researching this
subject for weeks now and I haven't heard anything like this before.

My email adress is If you would please write me back
I'd be much obliged.

Elizlovernfa said...

The Waste Land (act IV)

Phlebas is the Quartet in the tarot reading in (act I) The Burial of The Dead.
Humm... a fortnight is two weeks - picture the image of a
corpse decaying in the salty waves for 14 days.Now lets this next verse
"Forgot the cry of gulls," Humm... The word gulls is plural for gull witch
is defined as (1) a costal aquatic bird of the family Laridae, (2) Someone
who is a dupe some might say a person who is gullible. I Savor both
we have a image of a sailor and what Phlebas heard when docking, it is
a costal bird remember, and when docked Phlebas was a con man who got what was coming to him cheating people out of their wages "the pearls that were his eyes". I am very sorry I have to go and press my heavy lids upon goose feathers...

Celiamarcella said...

The quote attributed to Yeats is in fact from a letter by Dorothy Wellesley
to Yeats.

lloyd evans

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