The Lyrics of Phlebas the Sailor

“A poem, or a passage from a poem, may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and that this rhythm may bring to birth the idea or the image.” (T.S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets)

For Peter Farnum

In T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (hereafter TWL), Part IV: Death By Water is a variant on the “burial” and death motifs. Many physical and spiritual deaths are implied throughout TWL. Because T. S. Eliot wrote his famous poem after the horrific mass slaughter of soldiers in World War I, one would expect illustrations of deaths of soldiers or sailors. Few such deaths are actually represented, though London Bridge is trooped across by files of ghostly ambulatory citizens, giving rise to the expression “Unreal City,” a kind of Hell: Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death to have undone so many.(vv. 60-63) Alluding to Dante’s circles of Inferno, the crowd appears like a horde of prisoners or dead people: And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.(v.65) Nothing in it implies war dead. Not until the narrator (“I”) spies one he knows, named ‘Stetson.’ He calls out with a punning “Yoohoo” hollo: You who were with me in the ships at Mylae.(v. 70) Here, at least, is one individual related to naval war, who seems to have buried (euphemized as “planted”) a corpse in his garden (and it states “last year”), expecting its life to return as sprouts and blooms. This may represent in the first section some denial of absolute death—a life gone to nothing—so that if the proper rituals are performed there is a chance of revitalization. Since the “Mylae” reference comes from Roman Punic wars, the sly reference is to naval adventure in the Phoenician world. This play upon the Oriental and Egyptian fertility myths of dying and reviving gods—the Attis, Adonis and Osiris myth-type—Eliot drew upon from J. G. Frazer’s Golden Bough treatise and especially Jessie L. Weston’s Grail and Fisher King thesis that Eliot admits having greatly influenced him in his TWL theme. Otherwise, perhaps in the author’s deliberate avoidance of an elegiac strain as memorial to recent European world-war catastrophes, deaths connected with war are not predominant as evidence of the world’s pathos. Eliot expands his themes over a large geographical and historical landscape, among societies high and low.

Despairing of salvation in a death-haunted world, the protagonist is soon grasping at straws, indulging in magical predictions from a fortune teller. The death and decomposition of a sailor is foreshadowed in Madam Sosostris’ cards, that of the drowned Phoenician sailor being the selection for the protagonist as client of the Tarot reader: Here, said she, / Is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor / (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!).(vv. 46-48) In a dramatic afterthought, she warns in a half-line: Fear death by water.(v. 55) Thus, we might expect such a prognostication to be connected in some important way to the protagonist-narrator’s career through the wasteland. How it definitively plays out physically, psychologically or metaphysically is anyone’s guess—the facts are unclear–but one thing is certain: there’s no expectation of “sprouting” from the drowned sailor’s death that occurs in Death by Water. With Phlebas the sailor, here is the recognition of death as life completely gone to nothingness.

In Part I: Burial of the Dead, there is much that connects with sailors and seamen and their concern for death: The lines of the sailor on board Isolde’s ship singing of longing for his “Irisch Kind,” loosely translated as ‘Where can she be tarrying, as the wind blows fresh towards his homeland?’ From Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, this piece is sung in empathy by a sailor concerned for Isolde’s success in finding the ailing Tristan still alive. Isolde is carrying the cure for Tristan’s wound. After the romance of the Hyacinth garden, the protagonist is struck dumb and blind, in a limbo between living and death. Both the protagonist-narrator and Tristan seem to be seeking a cure from a loving woman, but tragedy looks inevitable if the Tristan story is a foreshadowing. Romance is a deadly business. The sea is desolate and empty: Oed’ und leer das Meer.(v.42) Safe sailing is a significant motif of living–and loving–well. In the conclusion of Part V: What the Thunder Said, the narrator details the heart’s safe navigation of the waters: The boat responded / Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar / The sea was calm, your heart would have responded / Gaily when invited, being obedient / To controlling hands.(vv. 418-422) From beginning to end, the ways of turning the wheel and sailing are important metaphors in the course of the protagonist’s smooth navigation through TWL. The elegy to Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor, is given special attention in what I would like to present as the poem’s most lyrical single passage:

Death by Water:

1.a) Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
b) Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
c) And the profit and loss. // A current under sea
d) Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

2.e) He passed the stages of his age and youth
f) Entering the whirlpool. // Gentile or Jew,
g) O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, h) Consider Phlebas, who was once tall and handsome as you.
(vv. 312-321)

[Following Calvin Bedient (He Do the Police in Different Voices (University of Chicago Press, 1987)) in his fine explication of the passage as two quatrains, the half-lines joined to make complete verses, as shown above, I have numbered the stanzas and labelled the lines and breaks for convenience of discussion.]

The shortest section of the five parts of TWL, Death by Wate was composed originally by Eliot as part of another poem in French, “Dans le Restaurant” in 1914, even before the conception of a long work called The Waste Land. (see North’s Norton ed. Note 5, p.16) Ezra Pound with the quick blue pencil, found in the Phlebas passage the poetic force that was integral to the overall work, even though he knew it to be a close translation from a totally unconnected French poem. It is not well understood why Pound forced Eliot to keep the passage from the much longer original French composition. However, it is possible the very poetics—the music and sound, the rhythm and meter of it–may have marked it as exceptional, as well as its sense, being the consummation of the Tarot prophecy.

My feeling about the short elegiac Death by Water is that it has a rarer prosody, an acute lyrical element to it, than most of the other episodes in the other WTL sections, those that originated with the long poem. Representing a sea-change from the prior description of dead things, it is strangely soothing in watery rhythms. Written with what seems a personal sympathy for the subject, the passage allows the drowned, dismembered sailor a peaceful swirling experience. All anxiety of the flesh is finished, all the striving of the profit and loss, all life of the surface world forgotten. As if a shred of consciousness remains in bones, a last flicker of mingled memory and desire, after a final montage of life through stages of youth to age is reviewed, the bones then swill down into the abyss. A much calmer descent into the abyss is this than the punitive circles of the dead in Dante’s Inferno. Compare Phlebas’ end with the dry or slimy death (“wreck”) of decomposed bodies in The Fire Sermon: But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear. // A rat crept softly through the vegetation / dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / … / Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / And on the king my father’s death before him. / White bodies naked on the low damp ground / And bones cast in a little low dry garret, / rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.(vv. 185-195) Very unhappy sights these dumped bodies– damp, unhygienic–and the dislocated bones tossed into a tiny low garret (a shallow dirt grave or ditch?) visited by rats. These deaths are unpleasant musings. Against the run of lengthy passages about grimly dissected corpses, about a world going to pieces, the sailor’s death and decomposition over a fortnight comes across as hygienic, graceful and healing.

Though Phlebas the Phoenician sailor has, like others, gone to pieces–A current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers–the complete passage’s rhymes, alliteration, the consonance and assonance are quite beautifully composed in the varied verses. The sounds and the sense harmonize. For example, particularly lovely is the phrase Picked his bones in whispers: the quiet, secret effect created by the short assonantal i-vowels and the whispering sibilants. The dismemberment was not a violent or stirring action, but one performed in secret, in the silence, by natural elements, and the body moving in sing-song waves controlled by Nature’s currents. This is imagery and sound of a complete death; at last the protagonist looks with his blind Tiresian eyes into darkness and silence. The troubled protagonist has broken through into a realm of “feeling.” His senses are not drowned. Though they are not mentioned here, the pearly eyes can be imagined as two gleaming marbles resting on the sea floor. Can’t you see them? Alas, he doesn’t remind us in the verses.

Description of romance, innocent or experienced, previously had been presented as tawdry, sinful goings-on by the voyeuristic narrator and viewed by the audience (the readers) from a safe distance, as though we were watching in a darkened theatre. In Death by Water, for the first time in TWL, an affective scene, no one is getting raped or being accosted; no one is suffering a stunned acedia from misjudgments, “drowned senses” or rude violations. No one is acting out of vanities or burning with desire. We experience a cooling off from the climactic Burning burning burning burning at the close of The Fire Sermon. There, horrific in the protagonist’s mind, in the sinful, fiery world, the dislocations of physical parts are crude scatterings in the passages of desire: Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees / Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.” / My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart / Under my feet. (vv. 293-297). This unnamed woman has been “tossed” hither and thither, “bored” through and undone, even in a canoe—enough to make the reader twitch! Finally, on Margate sands / I can connect / Nothing with nothing (vv. 300-302). The natural dismemberment of the drowned sailor is far from the clairvoyant Madam Sosostris’s ironic warning Fear death by water; his end is more like submission: “Accept the drowning when the time comes and go with the flow.”

The musical scheme is quite imitative of the marine and submarine. The first quatrain (lines a-d) has an end-rhyme scheme in the second and fourth verses “swell” and “fell.” Noticeable is the emphatic alliteration of f-sounds in “Phlebas,” “Phoenician,” “fortnight,” and “Forgot,” and the final rhyming “fell.” These might be imitative of the winds on the water or even of surf foam, the soughing sound of water in motion. The rhythmic phrases after the three long-syllabled “fortnight dead” (_ _ _) become a rhythmic flow in their iambic lapping of waves: “Forgot the cry of gulls” with the stress on “–got,” “cry,” and “gulls.” Then the end phrase “deep sea swell,” matching the three syllables of “fortnight dead” adds a spondaic gravity to wave motion in its slow swelling sweep. The waves continue in “And the pro/fit and loss” but with anapests (da da dáh / da da dáh) throughout, to the rise and fall of “As he rose and fell.” Obviously great attention is given to meter, sound and its cognitive content.

Rhymes, internal and ending, continue in the second quatrain (lines e-h): “Jew” end-rhymes with “you.” “Youth” in line (e) is a near end-rhyme; “-pool,” in line (f) carries on the assonance of long /oo/-sounds, as does the “you who” of line (g). Metrically the rhythm continues the iambic flux of waves (O you who turn the wheel) and perhaps of up-and-down fortune in the turning of “the Wheel.” Although we are more obviously concerned with navigation by the ship’s wheel, which in search of profit is turned by the daring merchantmen against the wind (and look to the windward(line (g)), it also hints back at the turns of the wheel of fortune in the Tarot cards (and here the Wheel connected with “And here is the one-eyed merchant.). Phlebas, whose name (by my best guess from Greek phleps, as in “phlebitis”) means “vessel” or “vein” as in “blood vessel,” that through which one’s life flows. The sailor is now separated from his flesh and has become merely floating, swirling bones, i.e. vessel-less “un-Phlebas,” tossed by the whirl of the sea. He is wheeling and whirling without any straining or navigational control. A montage of his life’s stages from youth through age pass through his mind before he is caught and pulled down into the whirlpool, rather like remnants swirling down a conical drain. At least Phlebas is free of Fortune’s change of profit and loss, he’s freed from his sensate carnal being. He’s cool, no longer burning with desire. His swirling about in the waves and sea, though not a pleasant swim, seems to be freeing of all worldly anxiety. He is allowing the waters and the deeps to take him where they will. In the flesh, perhaps Phlebas was the type of sailor the violet hour brought home from the sea, and perhaps he behaved not unlike the clerk who ravished the typist home for tea. The protagonist doesn’t fully explain, but in ways of passionate romance perhaps he was like typical sailors looking for love.

The narrator, like truthful Tiresias or fortune-telling Madam Sosostris, plays worldly and word-ly wise in the event of Death by Water and tells of future wrecks. The serious, somber note comes in his sure, stern warning to the living merchants (line (f)), who ply the wheel (which is also the wheel of fortune, plowing dangerous seas for profit) and who navigate daringly against the wind (to the windward)(line (h)). The verse, mostly monosyllables, drums the message home, beginning with a seaman’s “hallo” in “O Yoohoo!”: O you who turn the wheel and look to windward. The w’s continue the mimesis of the sea winds and the iambs the movement of waves. The merchants (sailors) are asked to consider the short-lived vanity of the “handsome and tall” young sailor. Their fate may be met on the sea striving for profits, striving against winds, daring to think their flesh is not subject to corruption. To all it is a reminder, memento mori.

We can go back to Madam Sosostris’ cards for another merchant, one also from the Near East lands of the Phoenician sailor. He may be one of the gentiles or Jews attentive to the narrator’s words. The “one-eyed merchant” may be Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, an importer of currants, (“C.i.f. London”); he is just such an example who shows up in The Fire Sermon (vv. 207-214) as one of several salacious figures. Currants are seedy dried fruits, and Mr. Eugenides seems to be a “seedy fruit” himself. He’s Greek by name—“Mr. Noble” or “Well-born,” but he’s from Smyrna on the Turkish coast and as an Oriental in that time is Greekish-Turkish, neither one nor the other, neither here nor there. In 1922 he was probably a Displaced Person after the evacuation of Greeks from Turkey on the quays at Smyrna. A man of the streets, he solicits in “demotic French.” Suspiciously satyr-like in his “unshaven”—not merely bearded—face, he attempts to lure the protagonist first to lunch and then for a homosexual liaison in Brighton. All this is performed in, we are reminded, the Unreal City / Under a brown fog of a winter noon. (vv. 205-206) No telling what daring there is in the merchant or seamen class. For the protagonist, their’s a particularly vulgar world of burning desires. What happened one wonders to the eye of the one-eyed merchant? Was it gouged out in a brawl or lost in an accident at sea? Does he have a winking gesture to his face? Does he have a fixed glass eye?

Freudian intimations show, both subtly and overtly, throughout TWL and something genital or anal may be implied by pockets full of currants and his one-eyed nature, just as the canoe of the fornication earlier is female genital symbolism. In Native American myths the term “canoe” is used as metaphor for the female vulva. Likewise in the song of Elizabeth and Leicester, on the sweating Thames, barges shifting leeward on the turning tide, Beating oars / The stern was formed / Red and gold / The brisk swell / Rippled both shores / etc. (vv. 279-285), there is a frantic “beating” in these verses, a formed “stern,” the “swell” etc., all are excitedly phased in chopped lines in a section of scenes dealing with sordid liaisons. In all the scenes of The Fire Sermon there is much wild and passionate behavior that whips one up to the climax of the (Augustine’s) entrance into Carthage (v. 308) where he suffered his conversion after experiencing to the full the shameful lascivious life of the streets. The fire that burns strips away the sinful desires, to the last exhaustive “burning”(v. 311), standing alone, unpunctuated, perehaps faintly uttered. Out of this cleansing by fire, the reader (following the narrator) emerges and plunges into water, drowning with Phlebas. What has drowned and no longer burns is the venous heat of the flesh; the rise and fall is no longer emotional desire, the phallic drive, the acquisitive urge, or lure of vanity. A few cleaned bones have their final twirl down the sea’s deep hole. The pearls, though, those little beauties, his eyes that no longer see, they show forth rolling around down in the dark: Look into the abyss!

David Gilmour (March 10, 1914)

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One Response to The Lyrics of Phlebas the Sailor

  1. Pingback: On a Darkling Plain | Tacoma Retired Men's Bookclub

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