Eliot’s Poetry

by: T. S. Eliot

The Woman

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.

This Latin and Greek quote in the Epigraph to The Waste Land refers to a blind Sybil, or prophetess, who is imprisoned for eternity in a jar. She possesses the gift of foretelling the future, but she only wishes for her own death. In his footnotes, Eliot says that “all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias.” So the Sybil, the blind prophetess, might also be Tiresias, the blind prophet.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch. And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s, My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled, And I was frightened. He said, Marie, Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. In the mountains, there you feel free. I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

In the first stanza of “The Burial of the Dead,” an aristocratic woman drinks coffee and reminisces about her privileged youth as a cousin of an archduke. She speaks in German about Russia, thus associating herself with two huge, decaying empires, the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs. Her name suggests she is also the Madonna. Marie represents the old European world order. In her youth, her aristocracy protected her. Now her life seems idle and useless.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, Had a bad cold, nevertheless Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she, Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor, (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!) Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.

The fortune-teller Madame Sosostris appears in the third stanza of “The Burial of the Dead.” Like the Sybil in the Epigraph, she—a clairvoyant—can see into the future. Here she reads the cards for the speaker, who might or might not be the drowned Phoenician sailor. A Madonna figure appears on another card. She might be another version of Marie. Then again, the woman on the card might foreshadow the enthroned lady in the next section of the poem.

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, Glowed on the marble, where the glass Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines From which a golden Cupidon peeped out (Another hid his eyes behind his wing) Doubled the flames of seven-branched candelabra Reflecting light upon the table as The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it, From satin cases poured in rich profusion.

The first line of “A Game of Chess,” Section III of The Waste Land, serves as an allusion to Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra. The gilded setting could be a palace, a temple, or just a bedroom. The room appears to be richly decorated by objects found in Virgil, Ovid, and Milton. The woman is inside an enclosed space, like the Sybil trapped in a jar in the Epigraph. She is rich, idle, and useless, just like Marie in “The Burial of the Dead.”

I remember Those are pearls that were his eyes. “Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”

The woman in “A Game of Chess” talks with an unidentified listener. “The pearls that were his eyes” is a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The pearls fulfill the prophecy of Madame Sosostris in “The Burial of the Dead,” a clue that the “I” in this dialogue stands for Tiresias, the blind seer. In The Odyssey, Tiresias lives in the underworld and allows Odysseus to communicate with other dead souls.