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Eliot’s Poetry

by: T. S. Eliot

The Waste Land Section IV: “Death by Water”


The shortest section of the poem, “Death by Water” describes a man, Phlebas the Phoenician, who has died, apparently by drowning. In death he has forgotten his worldly cares as the creatures of the sea have picked his body apart. The narrator asks his reader to consider Phlebas and recall his or her own mortality.


While this section appears on the page as a ten-line stanza, in reading, it compresses into eight: four pairs of rhyming couplets. Both visually and audibly, this is one of the most formally organized sections of the poem. It is meant to recall other highly organized forms that often have philosophical or religious import, like aphorisms and parables. The alliteration and the deliberately archaic language (“o you,” “a fortnight dead”) also contribute to the serious, didactic feel of this section.


The major point of this short section is to rebut ideas of renewal and regeneration. Phlebas just dies; that’s it. Like Stetson’s corpse in the first section, Phlebas’s body yields nothing more than products of decay. However, the section’s meaning is far from flat; indeed, its ironic layering is twofold. First, this section fulfills one of the prophecies of Madame Sosostris in the poem’s first section: “Fear death by water,” she says, after pulling the card of the Drowned Sailor. Second, this section, in its language and form, mimics other literary forms (parables, biblical stories, etc.) that are normally rich in meaning. These two features suggest that something of great significance lies here. In reality, though, the only lesson that Phlebas offers is that the physical reality of death and decay triumphs over all. Phlebas is not resurrected or transfigured. Eliot further emphasizes Phlebas’s dried-up antiquity and irrelevance by placing this section in the distant past (by making Phlebas a Phoenician).

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