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 passes 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.

(turn the page)

(turn the page)

-T.S. Eliot-
The Waste Land


First publication date 1922.
Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

CST Approved.

It is interesting that the first draft of this section of The Waste Land was much longer, and included a Melville-esque account of a failed polar expedition, ending when the ship founders on ice.

Ezra Pound basically asked T.S. Eliot to axe the whole thing. We are thus left with the above text, even though the first draft is still available in a Dover edition (including a photostatic reproduction of the typed manuscript with Pound's and Vivian's notes).

From this first draft, which I find very beautiful, let me quote this two verses:

And if another knows, I know I know not,
Who only know that there is no more noise now.

If you were anything like me, the first time you read The Waste Land you were very confused. Here are some explanatory notes:

    Another reference to The Tempest, Phlebas -- like Alonso -- has drowned. Phlebas is a combination of the Phoenician Sailor and Mr. Eugenides.  His redemption (rising from the dead, rebirth, etc.) is still uncertain.

Eliot merges the sailor and Mr. Eugenides, the one-eyed merchant, to show that the  modern fertility god-- Phlebas-- is merely a businessman interested in "profit and loss". Primitive fertility gods were thrown in the water in the winter, hence the connection of Phlebas and fertility. If Phlebas is not resurrected, the wasteland remains barren and the King infertile. However, seeing as Phlebas has so far spent "the stages of his age and youth" in the whirlpool, his chances of resurrection are slim.

The whirlpool, and later mention of the "wheel" you turn, are probably connections to the medieval "Wheel of fortune" and the Buddhist wheel of life. To reach Nirvana, one must leave the wheel, i.e. the whirlpool which sucks you under.
props to mr. shelton, my ap english teacher for elucidating me.

Although I must confess to not quite getting the gist of The Waste Land either, having just finished Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas, the above explanation seems to show links between Phlebas (in the poem) and Bora Horza Gobuchul in the book.

In particular:

  1. Phlebas-- is merely a businessman interested in "profit and loss".
  2. If Phlebas is not resurrected, the wasteland remains barren and the King infertile.
  3. Phlebas has so far spent "the stages of his age and youth" in the whirlpool

These three things would seem very appropriate; his involvement in the war was essentially mercenary in nature since he didn't really agree with either side; the name Bora Horza Gobuchul is resurrected by the Mind he sought to capture and as a Changer he had spent his life as many different people, young and old.

Death by Water in itself is an appropriate reference to the passage from the book which Horza recites in his mind so many times throughout the story:

The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual assassins of the new Yearking's immediate family by drowning them in the tears of the Continental Empathaur in its Sadness Season

Eliot's Notes Continuted


Though this section of The Waste Land contains no notes by Eliot, I will give some of my own. I will, however, retain the italics convention, so as not to disrupt my project.

First, that the title of this section is a recurring theme of drowning: King Ludwig II, Ophelia, and now of course Phlebas the Phoenician, who had shown up earlier in the poem (l.47). Phlebas is earlier mentioned as a card in the Tarot pack; this card does not exist (though oddly enough, after reading this poem, I did have a dream about such a card).

Why a Phoenician? The Phoenicians were an advanced culture, who gave the world such things as the alphabet (the original alphabet--as opposed to pictograms--is generally accepted to be the Phoenician alphabet, which influenced both the Greek and Hebrew alphabets), and who sailed the known world, going as far as Britain. This fact is alluded to what was an earlier version of this section, appearing in an earlier Eliot poem, "Dans le Restaurant" (1918):

Phlebas the Phoenician, drowned fifteen days,
Forgot the crys of gulls and the swells of Cornish seas,
and the profits and losses and the cargo of tin:
A current carried him far,
Took him back to stages of his previous life.
Imagine it - a terrible end for a man once so handsome and tall.

The Phoenicians are known to have begun the tin trade with the Britons in Cornwall at an early stage (probably at St. Michael's Mount); when Pythias of Massalia went to Britain in the third century (BCE), it was already an ancient economic endevour. The Phoenicians settled Spain (giving it the name Hispanola--"the land of rabbits") and northern Africa. In Spain, they intermarried with the slowly invading Celts, who eventually went off to Ireland (at least according to the legends). The founded Carthage, which is why the Punic Wars are given that name (Phoenician = Punic).

This rewritten poem (translated from Eliot's original French) replaces the original, cut by Ezra Pound. The original version tells of a failed polar expedition. The theme of the failed expedition was then moved instead to the final section of the poem, "What the Thunder Said."

Apparently, looking at his notes around line 46, Eliot associates Phlebas with Mr. Eugenides the one-eyed trader from Smyrna ("profit and loss") in the previous section. If Phlebas is a sacrifical king who must die and rise, then the one-eyed merchant-sailor is an unmistakeable phallic symbol, but in this case one of impotence. This reinforces the idea of the Fisher King, who has been made impotent, thus causing the land to become a Waste Land.

Line 320.: "Oh you who turn the wheel and look to windward" This refers first to the helsman of a ship, but it is also perhaps a reference to the Fates controlling the Wheel of Fortune, another Tarot card mentioned earlier with Phlebas. But then, Eliot would be telling the Fates to consider Phlebas, who once was like them. While at first this seems impossible, Phlebas is, in fact, a god. Eliot would then be warning the Fates that, like this sacrifical god whose role cannot be completed, the role of the Fates may be in jeopardy also, thanks to the upheaval of the world in the wake of the social collapse following World War I. The Fates represent order; now, though, the world is in chaos, and the sense of order, fate, destiny, is shattered.

(turn the page)

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