T S Eliot’s ‘Fear Death By Water’: a reading

Posted: August 19, 2018 in Chat
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T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ section IV ‘Death By Water’, consisting of just ten lines, seems to consist of three short sections.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land

 Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea 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 as and tall as you.

Ten lines, in this case, can also give two sections of five lines. This arrangement is important.
It is possible to be read as to have been composed in corresponding parts. It begins and ends:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,……………………..
and
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome as and tall as you.

So, we have opening, and ending, and then also a central section, or hinge:
……………………………………….. 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.

So, we have what could almost be a chiasmus, each line and a half paralleling the other line and a half.

Surrounding this central section we have, firstly,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

and lastly:
                                                      Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

That gives opening and closing  correspondences, first section central-surround, central hinge, second section central-surround, and closing part.

The form gives suggestion of overall chiasmic structuring. Line length mirrors the arguments being presented.

If this is so, and it is strongly suggestive that this is the intended structure, then this  makes us read an unfortunate correspondence between ‘(…) the profit and loss.’(line 3) and ‘Gentile or Jew’(line 8).
The former is inclusive, the latter exclusive.
As a deliberate paralleling of lines 3 and 8 – indeed, the page layout emphasises the phrases – are we to read an anti-Semitic slur intended there?

In the former section of ‘Death by Water’, the first section of the poem (lines 1-3) is epitomized in this descriptive phrase; the latter third (lines 8-10) is an appeal to the reader, who may be Protestant Western Europe and New World, or Semitic and Old World – whoever it is that takes civilisation forward.
In this I would like to think are included Einstein, and Neils Bohr: the General Theory of Relativity, and the Quantum Theory.

Implicit here also in ‘once was’ is a progressive concept of civilisation and growth of  humankind away from middle-eastern religious roots, Judaism, and towards Western reason (- and non-autocratic Anglicanism?). The end-rhyme claims a relationship between Jew and you, that addressee being both contemporary reader, and Old World culture. The two terms are again in exclusive and inclusive arrangements emphasising the survival of one, but not both.
The earlier rhyme pair swell and fell state a sense of, if not cyclic (Vico-esque?), then organic growth and fall of civilizations that this last rhyme pair predicate.

The centre of the piece is the balancing of phrases ‘As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of age and youth’ (lines 9 and 10) which gives a janus-like sense of descent of age to youth, and the life-review that is the accepted experience of death. The section ends as it begins with vocative appeal to the hearer/ reader as in the ‘Greek Anthology’.

We notice also the ‘current under the sea’ of half-line 4 is balanced with ‘(…) the whirlpool’ of half-line 7 each framing the central section of the piece. The ‘cry of gulls’ and ‘who look to windward’ are paralleled here, as are ‘the deep sea swell’ with ‘you who turn the wheel’. We sense a metaphysical mariner at work, a conflation of the wheel of fate, and a will that steers, that rises above and beyond the world.

If the form of this short example from ‘The Waste Land’ is certainly chiasmic, it not a ring – there is no tri-partite construction, the central section is a straight change from first half to second ABCCBA. Ring structure has ABCDCBA.

– The English sentence structure, of subject-predicate, has possibilities as another base-chiasmic scheme. It is not by any means a universal language structure, however. There are examples of chiasmic use in languages not structured in this way.

 

Excerpted arguments are from my study: Gifts of Rings and Gold, An Introduction to Chiasmic Text Structures.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gifts-Rings-Gold-Introduction-Ring-composition-ebook/dp/B01IRPODPW/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1533399879&sr=1-1&keywords=Gifts+of+Rings+and+Gold

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