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)