Exploring The Waste Land
A commentary page linked from The Waste Land, Part II, line 117

Part II
Lines 117-118

I have found a play on words in The Waste Land that I don't recall having seen noted in my readings. In Part II of The Waste Land ("A Game of Chess") we have these lines:

117)  'What is that noise?'
118)   The wind under the door.

Southam (among others) notes the allusion to death in both lines 117 and 118. However, there is another meaning than the one he gives for "the noise." Apparently "the noise" was used for the death rattle. If Eliot had this meaning in mind then this gives to the "wife" a hidden question about a death as well as the "husband's" hidden answer. This would be of interest to some of the readers of The Waste Land that take a biographical slant to the poem's meaning.

Here are the details:

B.C. Southam's A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot has a note for line 117 of The Waste Land that quotes 'How now? What noise is that?' from The Duchess of Malfi. For line 118, Southam quotes 'Is the wind in that door still?' from The Devil's Law Case by Webster. Southam says "The remark is made by one surgeon to another when he hears a groan from a man supposed to be dead."

In my copy of Middleton's Women Beware Women (New Mermaids, 1968, edited by Roma Gill) the editor has a note for the term "the noise" that appears in Act III, Scene i, line 78:

the noise. 'Sounds supposed to have been heard before the death of any person' (English Dialect Dictionary)

For context the line appears below (the New Mermaids' edition has modernized the spelling and punctuation but has retained Middleton's numerous and unconventional elisions, e.g., 'o'th' or nev'r.)

MOTHER        Ay, too plain, methinks;
And were I somewhat deafer when you spake
'Twere nev'r a whit the worse for my quietness.
'Tis the most sudden'st, strangest alteration,
And the most subtlest that ev'r wit at threescore
Was puzzled to find out. I know no cause for't; but
She's no more like the gentlewoman at first
Than I am like her that nev'r lay with man yet,
And she's a very young thing where'er she be.
When she first lighted here, I told her then
How mean she should find all things; she was pleased, forsooth,
None better: I laid open all defects to her,
She was contented still. But the devil's in her.
Nothing contents her now. Tonight my son
Promised to be at home; would he were come once,
For I'm weary of my charge, and life too.
She'ld be served all in silver, by her good will,
By night and day; she hates the name of pewter
More than sick men the noise, or diseased bones
That quake at fall o'th'hammer, seeming to have

A fellow-feeling with't at every blow.
What course shall I think on? she frets me so.
             [Withdraws to back of stage]

In The Waste Land, Eliot's note to line 138 steers us to Middleton's Women Beware Women. So we know he is aware of that play as well as Webster's The Devil's Law Case ( his note to line 118. )

I've been thinking that the "wife's" use of "noise" is much more than a play on words to go along with the "husband's" thought about death. The answer "The wind under the door" could have been given to a question about what he was thinking about, with no introduction of noise at all. I am leaning now to the idea that Vivien knew of Verdenal's death but not how much he meant to Eliot (due to Eliot's own private nature.) Vivien's questions about the death may have been handled by Eliot's deflecting them, much as the "wife's" questions are handled in the The Waste Land. The "wife's" question about the noise then is not just to show a nervous behavior but to also show that she is aware of something going on that she can't quite figure out. This inclination that there is something in his past shows in "the journey to Emmaus" section (lines 359-365) of "What the Thunder Said" where it is possible to envision Vivien asking about a figure in Eliot's past:

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

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T 134 - Webster, John
T 76 - Middleton, Thomas


L 238 - Thomas Middleton [a collection of his plays]
This website is an attempt to collect online copies of Middleton's plays.
L 239 - Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton: A Synopsis
A one page synopsis of the action of the play.
L 265 - Women Beware Women - A Synopsis
Scene by scene synopsis of the play by Thomas Middleton. At the Kit Marlowe, P.I. website.
L 263 - The Devil's Law-Case - 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: kq117.html
File date: Sunday, September 29, 2002
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