Exploring The Waste Land
An allusion page linked from The Waste Land, Part I, line 74

The White Devil
Act V, Scene iv

Eliot's note to line 74 tells us to compare his line

to the dirge song by Cornelia in The White Devil, Act 5, Scene 4, the play by John Webster (published 1612.)

In act 5, scene 2, Cornelia is with her younger son Marcelo. She knows that Marcelo is to fight but does not know with whom or what the quarrel was. Suddenly Marcelo's older brother, Flamineo, appears and returns Marcelo's sword that had been sent to him. He returns it by running Marcelo through with it. Flamineo runs for a surgeon while Marcelo has a few words with his mother and then dies. Cornelia goes mad and she cannot at first believe that Marcelo is dead. Nor can she fully comprehend Flamineo's action.

Later, in act 5, scene 4, Cornelia is preparing Marcello's body for burial. She, like Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, hands out flowers. She offers to sing a song that her grandmother used to sing. It is a song lamenting those who have died and remain unburied. It requests that robins (who proverbally buried bodies with pieces of vegetation) and other animals bury the body and that wolves stay far from the grave. The irony of the song for Cornelia is that Marcello's body is not allowed to be buried in the churchyard because he died in a quarrel (he is figuratively unburied) and that if a wolf dug up a grave it was believed that the occupant was murdered (as Marcello was.)

From the play (the complete scene is also here):


Do you hear, sir?
I'll give you a saying which my grandmother
was wont, when she heard the bell toll, to sing o'er
unto her lute.


Do, and you will, do.


'Call for the robin red breast and the wren,

CORNELIA doth this in several forms of distraction.

Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm:
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.
They would not bury him 'cause he died in a quarrel;
But I have an answer for them:
Let holy church receive him duly,
Since he paid the church-tithes truly.
His wealth is summed, and this is all his store:
This poor men get; and great men get no more.
Now the wares are gone, we may shut up shop.
Bless you all, good people.

* Wren - In folklore the wife of the robin. Think of the poem The Death of Cock Robin where Cock Robin is to wed Jenny Wren.

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T 134 - Webster, John
T 62 - Jacobean tragedy


L 260 - The White Devil - A short synopsis
A one paragraph synopsis of The White Devil (The Oxford Companion to English Literature at xrefer.com)
L 262 - The White Devil - A Synopsis
Scene by scene synopsis of the play by John Webster. At the Kit Marlowe, P.I. website.

Exploring The Waste Land
File name: aq074.html
File date: Sunday, September 29, 2002
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