Eliot’s Poetry

by: T. S. Eliot

Tiresias

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long. But at my back in a cold blast I hear The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

“The Fire Sermon,” Part III of The Waste Land, opens with a desolate scene by a river. The speaker, who remains unidentified at this point, sings a line from Spenser’s Prothalamion, or wedding song—a clue that Part III focuses on sexuality. The speaker also parodies a line from Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”: “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights Her stove, and lays out food in tins.

In “The Fire Sermon,” Part III of The Waste Land, Tiresias at last introduces himself by name and describes an early evening scene in a city. Although blind, Tiresias is a seer, so he can see all human activity, like a god. Eliot’s notes reveal that what Tiresias sees creates the poem’s contents. Here Tiresias observes a typist after she comes home from work. Like the woman in “A Game of Chess,” the typist prepares for a visitor.

(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all Enacted on this same divan or bed; I who have sat by Thebes below the wall And walked among the lowest of the dead.)

Tiresias observes a rather pathetic sexual encounter between a typist and a clerk and reminds us that he once foretold this encounter. As a hermaphrodite, Tiresias identifies with both parties. In The Odyssey, Tiresias inhabits the underworld and can communicate with others who live in Hades. The passage from which these lines comes suggests that the typist and clerk are also dead souls. Their intercourse seems unsatisfying and meaningless.

O City city, I can sometimes hear Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, The pleasant whining of a mandoline And a clatter and a chatter from within Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls Of Magnus Martyr hold Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

In “The Fire Sermon,” Tiresias roams modern London and hears timeless sounds, including music from an ancient instrument and the chatter of fishermen. Magnus Martyr, a church in London, evokes Tiresias’s memory of the Ionian era of ancient Greek history, which took place centuries before Homer wrote about such events in The Odyssey. Tiresias transcends time. He can foresee the future, but he lives in the present as well as the past.

Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman —But who is that on the other side of you?

In Part V of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said,” the speaker asks an unknown pilgrim about a mysterious fellow traveler who might be either a man or a woman. The lines allude to Jesus Christ’s appearance, after his crucifixion and resurrection, to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. The “brown mantle, hooded” suggests a ghostly monk. However, readers may note that the mystery man is also Tiresias, who might be either a man or a woman.