Pun and Games:

A New Approach to
Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot

Professor Patricia Sloane

New York City Technical College of
The City University of New York

This is one of Rickard Parker's T.S. Eliot pages.

Table of contents to this page

This website's author, Rick Parker, is presenting an article about some of T. S. Eliot's works written by Professor Patricia Sloane and printed in the summer 1999 issue (16:1) of the Yeats Eliot Review, a special issue devoted to T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land.

This article, Pun and Games (and its appendix), is copyrighted by the Yeats Eliot Review (1999) and is reprinted here in this HTML format with their (and Professor Sloane's) kind permission. YER subscription information is provided below.

Professor Sloane is basically saying that 5 of Eliot's poems are a very comical take-off on the Commedia, but you can't see this unless you pay close attention to Eliot's literary sources and to the word play in the poems.

She also supplies an appendix which is an outline of TWL, identifying who each speaker is, to whom the speaker is speaking, and what the speech is about.

The conversion of the article to HTML was done by this site's author and is not as well done a presentation as the printed article, the tables in the appendix particularly.

Some information about Professor Sloane:

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Pun and Games:

A New Approach to
Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot

Professor Patricia Sloane

New York City Technical College of
The City University of New York

Yeats Eliot Review, 16:1 (Summer 1999) pp. 2-20.
Earlier version read at Joint Meeting of
T. S. Eliot Society and American Literature Association,
Bahia Resort, San Diego, May 30, 1996.


I am working on a two-volume reader's guide to T. S. Eliot's use of his literary sources in five early poems, including The Waste Land. The first volume is completed and the second is in draft. I cannot do more here than summarize my approach, and give a few examples.

Eliot's sources are legendary. His early poems include many quotations from works by other authors. Only The Waste Land has actual notes, and the greater number of borrowings are uncited. Many were immediately recognized, and Eliot called attention to others. Early charges of plagiarism faded with the recognition that Eliot's poems are largely innovative collages of quotations and adapted quotations. The question was what to do, if anything, about the literary works from which the borrowings were taken. Or there was a question about whether this was a question. The prevailing view, set forth in its most quotable form by Hugh Kenner, is that the source works are essentially peripheral. Eliot's poems can be appreciated without reading, or re-reading, Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, the Bible, the Elizabethan playwrights, the Metaphysical poets, et al.

This minimalist, but sensible, approach has sustained generations of happy readers, including happy readers who met in committee to bestow on T. S. Eliot every literary honor they could think of. It has, then, withstood the test of time. But it may not be the whole story. Another dimension emerges if close reading of the early poems is combined with close attention to the source works. A chain of five early poems includes a burlesque "hidden" narrative. The five poems are Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar, Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service, The Hippopotamus, The Waste Land, and The Hollow Men. The narrative recycles, in modernized (and absurdist) form, the story of Dante's pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Or it doubles the story by recasting it as two consecutive journeys.

In the first expedition, Eliot's shape-shifting Sweeney, perhaps a loose adaptation of James Joyce's Leopold Bloom (Ulysses), visits a modernized afterworld that consists of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In Burbank, a miniaturized Inferno set in Venice, Sweeney plays the part of a Jew. Or Eliot uses witty parallelisms to imply that "Chicago Semite Viennese" Bleistein may be one of Sweeney's personas. Burbank is regarded as not particularly friendly to Jews. In Commedia, Bernard of Clairvaux, the highest saint in Dante's highest heaven, is not hopeful about Jewish prospects for redemption, especially in Paradiso 32, where he explains the meaning of the rose of the Church Triumphant. Eliot very probably took his cue from Dante's Saint Bernard. But Dante is not Bernard of Clairvaux, any more than T. S. Eliot is Bleistein. By my reading, each poet is distancing himself from the anti-Semitism of his day. Eliot points to Dante as a precedent. Dante points to Saint Paul, not Saint Bernard. Or Dante expects his own reader to be familiar with rarely-remembered passages in Romans that Eliot integrates into Waste Land.

The comedy of Burbank is raucous. That of Sunday Morning Service, a Purgatorio, is exquisitely "philosophical." The narrator ponders, from various perspectives, the nature of Christ, of an Umbrian school painting of Christ, and of the two quatrains in the poem itself that describe the real or imagined Umbrian school painting of Christ. Eliot develops from this melange the kind of abstruse wit that delights my friends who teach philosophy or epistemology. The poem's unnamed "painter of the Umbrian school" may be Oderisi of Gubbio, the failed artist who crawls like a caterpillar in Dante's Purgatorio (11.73-116). Oderisi is familiar to art historians as the only painter who speaks in Commedia. The historical Oderisi, a manuscript illuminator, would have painted on parchment or vellum rather than on "a gesso ground." But he might have imagined making the painting Eliot describes, which was only "designed" (and may never have been actually executed).[1] Here and elsewhere, we may need to study with more than usual care virtually every word in the poem.

The final quatrain of Sunday Morning Service reveals hippopotamoid Sweeney in his tub, a bulky icon.

Sweeney shifts from ham to ham
Stirring the waters in his bath

Why is Sweeney taking a bath? He may need to wash away filth from the canals of Venice. Or he may be washing away his sectarian former lives. In the first quatrain of Hippopotamus, similar cadences present him as the Sweeney-like hippopotamus in its bath.

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;

Now neither Jew nor Gentile, he is (or was) seen ascending to heaven. The Hippopotamus finds `potamus more redeemable than the True Church. Echoing the anti-Jewish complaints lodged against Burbank, the poem has been characterized as anti-Christian. Many of Eliot's early poems, however, appear to be improvisations on episodes from Commedia, with The Hippopotamus a loose take-off on Saint Peter's angry complaints about the Church (Paradiso 27). Dante's Saint Peter episode includes no hippopotamus. But Eliot's whimsical beast may have its own scriptural authority. Few people notice the wry parallels between Christ's Sermon on the Mount and God's speech to Job out of the whirlwind. Christ asks us to conduct our lives by considering the lilies of the field (Matt. 6.28). God, a higher authority, tells the fretful Job to act more like behemoth, the uncomplaining Nile hippopotamus (Job 40.15). If Sweeney takes the Bible literally (some people do), his becoming a hippopotamus may make perfectly good sense.

Eliot's images are typically amalgamations, in this case of several literary hippopotami. Grover Smith notes the contribution of Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno (a hippo is mistaken for a bank clerk).[2] `Potamus may have a soul because a lady hippopotamus with a soul is mentioned in Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough.[3] Small intimations built into the poem itself suggest this up-to-date beast may also have an Id, an Ego, and a Super-Ego, one of several good-natured spoofs of Freudian (and Jungian) theory.[4]

The Waste Land and The Hollow Men recount the second grand tour. As Waste Land opens, we find Sweeney disguised as (or metamorphosed into) the Sibyl of Cumae, the prophetess who escorts Aeneas to the afterworld in Virgil's Aeneid. This experienced, unhappy, traveler will guide Eliot's reader-protagonist on an afterworld safari of his or her own. How Sweeney got back to earth is unclear.[5] He may have dropped from the sky like a bulky Icarus. Flying hippopotami are no exception to the rule that what goes up must come down.

In the Aeneid, Virgil's Sibyl guards the gates of the afterworld, which are made of ivory and horn. A change of personnel may occur in Sweeney among the Nightingales, where Sweeney (not the Sibyl) is the monitor who "guards the hornéd gate" (l. 8). Is Sweeney really the Sibyl? Is the Sibyl of Eliot's epigraph really Sweeney? Is Sweeney "disguised as" the Sibyl, or a thespian playing that part? In Eliot's witty burlesque of existentialism, canonical literature, and just about everything else, some ambiguities may be irreducible. Less uncertainly, Virgil's Sibyl had demanded that Aeneas bury the dead and pluck the Golden Bough before the visit to the afterworld. In Eliot's slapstick reshuffling in Waste Land, Burial of the Dead is a section title, with a nod to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Sibyl is in the epigraph, in no condition to go anywhere. Eliot's initial note advises the reader (not Aeneas) to fetch The Golden Bough (not Golden Bough). I mean Sir James George Frazer's Golden Bough, a 13 volume assessment of pagan myth. The one-volume abridgment was published in 1922.

Frazer was never as widely read as Joseph Campbell, whose Hero With A Thousand Faces says about the same thing as Golden Bough, that many myths sound like variations on a theme. Eliot's mock-pontifical claim that Golden Bough "influenced our generation profoundly" may make better sense in terms of its far-reaching indirect influence. Golden Bough profoundly influenced both Freud and Jung, whose theories take more than a little ribbing in the five Eliot poems I reviewed. Also, Eliot may be adept at catching anyone at less than his or her best. Jessie L(aidlay) Weston (1850-1928), the author of From Ritual to Romance, calls herself an "impenitent follower" of Frazer[6]. This earnest but bungling disciple introduces her egregiously uninformed chapter on Tarot cards by saying she knows nothing about the pack. The interesting gaffe that follows was never caught by Weston's editors, and Eliot memorializes it in his card-reading passage.

Briefly, the oldest extant Tarot pack is of Renaissance vintage. But the belief persists in occult circles that the pack is of ancient origin and a carrier of the hidden wisdom of the ages.[7] An unidentified Chinese monument provides a cornerstone for Weston's ridiculous argument that Tarot cards could have been used in ancient Egypt to predict the rising of the Nile. The "impenitent follower" of Frazer may have been slipshod in reading Golden Bough. Frazer says the Egyptians made the prediction from Sirius, the Dog star. Worse, Weston never identifies the Chinese monument by name, date, or location. Her reader is told only that each of its sides is about the size of a pack of Tarot cards. The "monument," then, is knee-high or ankle-high, an absurdist (and unintended) miniaturization.

The blunder may have been too good to pass by. In Eliot's card-reading episode in The Waste Land, Madame Sosostris sees "crowds of people, walking round in a ring" (56). Given a limited number of rings in the poem, a search may lead to the ring of the Nibelungen, introduced through Eliot's allusions to Wagner's Ring cycle. If this is the path we should follow, the crowds in the ring may consist of Lilliputian colleagues of the teeny tiny builders of Weston's miniaturized "monument." The "ring," in Wagner's operatic cycle, is the kind that fits on a person's finger.

F. O. Matthiessen complains that Weston's From Ritual to Romance adds nothing to Waste Land[8]. I. A. Richards calls it a theosophical tract with astral trimmings.[9] Both may have missed the serendipitous parallels between Eliot's Prufrock and the fisher kings in the Romance manuscripts Weston discusses. One of her fisher kings is bald, the fate feared by Eliot's Prufrock. Also, a magic question needs to be asked that will cure the sick king and his barren land. The magic question of the Romance manuscripts is not quite the "overwhelming question" of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But it may be close enough. Weston's fisher king, reappearing in Waste Land as Eliot's Fisher King, sounds suspiciously like an absurdly mythologized Prufrock, set with other absurdly mythologized personages in an absurdly mythologized version of London. Eliot's near-malicious burlesque of Weston and her book may be softened somewhat by equal-opportunity parody of The Golden Bough. Frazer may have committed the cardinal sin (in Eliot's eyes) of badly misunderstanding the Ulysses episode in Inferno. Perhaps, in the end, no harm was done. The world remembered that T. S. Eliot said he knew nothing about Tarot cards, and failed to pay attention when Weston, that earnest bungler, said she knew nothing about Tarot cards.

Waste Land, like Burbank, finally emerges as a farcical analogue for Inferno. But its setting is London rather than Venice. The four composite characters act out a burlesque "pagan" myth-Romance that is also a Christian parable about the death of the Fisher King's soul. Let the play begin by imagining an absurdly mythologized recycling of Eliot's earlier Portrait of A Lady. The Prufrock-like Fisher King (borrowed from Weston) cannot pull himself away from Marie, a great goddess akin to those in Golden Bough. Eliot's additional characters, a Sibyl and a Prophet, may be refugees from Saint Augustine's City of God. Largely on Augustine's authority, and more often in the visual arts than in literature, Greco-Roman Sibyls and Hebrew Prophets came to represent the wisest minds of the pre-Christian world.[10] In The Waste Land, the Prophet and the Sibyl never speak to Marie. The Prophet, a disembodied voice, may be the Fisher King's lost voice, his Father in heaven, his divine double, or something along that line. The Sibyl may be the Fisher King's "diviner" double.

An outline of The Waste Land is included as an appendix. The poem takes the form of a playscript (a series of speeches). Among witty clues to identifying speakers, the Fisher King can be any hero or anti-hero of myth, Romance, literature, or life. Marie, his lady, is any variation on a goddess, queen, mistress, or mother, though she also has a Kali-like aspect. The Prophet likes to quote Holy Writ. Avatars of the Sibyl, whether male or female, are Sweeney-like. They have names of Greek derivation, perhaps because the Sibyl speaks Greek in the epigraph[11]. Eliot piles complication on complication. Madame Sosostris, for example, is a fairly transparent updating of Virgil's Sibyl of Cumae, the insanem vatum (insane prophetess) of the Aeneid. Madame Sosostris' name is usually said to be adapted, by way of Aldus Huxley's Crome Yellow, from that of an Egyptian pharaoh.[12] We need to be more exact. Seostris is the Greek name for the pharaoh that the Egyptians called Ramses II (B.C. 1324-1258).

Students are routinely taught, in introductory Art History classes, that Egyptian pharaohs have both Greek and Egyptian names. Eliot may have picked up this bit of trivia, and many other bits included in his poems, from the two Art History classes he took at Harvard. Also, Seostris or Sesostris (Ramses II) "may have been the unnamed pharaoh of the Exodus," who held the children of Israel in captivity.[13] Despite concern about Eliot's Jewish allusions in Burbank, the many sprinkled through Waste Land tend to escape notice. To His Coy Mistress, for example, an Andrew Marvel poem cited by Eliot, reads as follows.

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime (ll. 1-2)
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews. (ll. 9-10)

Hollow Men, despite its mournful visage and brevity, proves to be an equally comical and intricate Purgatorio in which the narrator (a hollow man) has emptied himself of his former sins. The reader is offered two choices on where to find Paradiso. Perhaps Eliot's final Cantica is so whimsically "abstract" that it does not exist. Or it exists only as a complicated piece of epistemological wit that turns on the endlessly debatable question of whether nothing is really "something." A foundation is laid by many bits of wit that, in a manner of speaking, create much ado about nothing. The Waste Land itself, for example, may be nothing (a phantasmagoria?), because Eliot stipulates that "what Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem." Tiresias, who is blind, sees nothing.[14]

Readers in search of more than philosophy department wit (or Harvard humor?) should take the alternate path. This completes the picture by leading to the last two cantos of Dante's Paradiso, or to the unusual Jewish imagery in those cantos. The alternative path may be more fruitful for the greater light it sheds on Eliot's controversial Jewish motifs, some recognized and others less obvious.

The double ending of Eliot's cycle may be prefigured by the double beginning of The Waste Land. Petronius' Satyricon, from which Eliot took the Sibyl epigraph, is the oldest extant European novel. It was one of two books Eliot read at Harvard in a class on the Roman novel. The gutter Latin of Petronius' speakers is a root of the Romance tongues. In one of its two lives, Satyricon has its sober academic audience and definitive Latin-English edition. Leading its more bawdy life, in an anonymous translation attributed to Oscar Wilde, Satyricon is a famous pornographic book, still widely available as such. The passage Eliot quotes for his epigraph is not pornographic, perhaps a provocation aimed at the censors who were eyeing James Joyce's Ulysses. Or the epigraph from a pornographic book may be a simple prefiguring of the cock-crowing passage in Waste Land, a madcap take-off on "Freudian symbolism." With only four (composite) characters in the poem, and The Golden Bough as a guide, the question of who owns the cock may not be inordinately difficult. In the original draft of The Waste Land the cock was black, perhaps a nod to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with its veiled hints about orgiastic rites in the jungle.

Eliot's reader may need to consult both editions of Satyricon. Only the standard edition can tell us whether Trimalchio really said, in the original Latin, that he visited Cumae and saw the Sibyl suspended in a perfume bottle (ampulla). That is exactly what Trimalchio said. We need the translation ascribed to Wilde for other reasons. One would want to know what kind of incidental wit Eliot can devise from the fey juxtaposition of, say, Oscar Wilde and a Sweeney-like (or genie-like) Sibyl trapped inside a perfume bottle.

These and other mad-hatter intricacies have not been recognized previously for two reasons. First, Eliot's "narrative" is constructed largely from jokes, puns, and witticisms. Second, the greater number of these turn on passages in the source works. Imagine, for a brief example, that a poet made a witty remark about a particular passage in Commedia. To understand what was meant, a listener would need to know the passage (and have a sense of humor).

We have no way of knowing whether Eliot planned the ensemble in advance or improvised as he went along. The three poems that trace the first expedition were published in Ara Vos Prec (1920). The Waste Land (1922) and The Hollow Men (1927) appeared later. Possibly Eliot devised the farcical tale of Sweeney's sojourn in the afterworld, then thought of recycling it with improvements. The improvements include burlesque intimations (or farcical "proofs") that the Fisher King, the aptly named protagonist of The Waste Land, is in actuality the reader.[15] Any reader who arrives at the point of recognizing the face in the mirror will have done a considerable amount of "fishing" through the many literary works Eliot cites in his notes.

Perhaps we should have anticipated some innovative tour de force of this kind from this poet. Eliot is remembered for polymath learning and extraordinary sensibility to language, but also as a poker-faced comedian and prankster. He may have meant to expand the horizons of poetry, or the horizons of humor (or both). He may also have meant to direct our attention to aspects of Commedia we never noticed. Finally, he may have meant to pay homage to what he thought Christianity meant to Dante.

Among devices for playing games with our expectations, Eliot loads his early poems with passages that may reasonably mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. In a simple example, Eliot's epigraph to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock quotes (in Italian) the opening lines of a speech by Dante's Guido da Montefeltro. Guido says that nobody ever leaves hell (Inf. 27:61-66). Dante's point in the original passage, however, is that Guido is not to be believed.

In terms of Eliot's epigraph, we need not worry the question of whether relying on Guido is "right" or "wrong." The two ways to read Eliot's poems can be reduced to alternative game plans, each of which leads to a different reading. If the rule of the game is to ignore literary sources, Guido's words can be taken at face value. The epigraph "means" that nobody ever leaves hell. If we follow the rule of studying the sources, Dante's Guido is not to be believed. And we may need to look into the poem to find out whether Eliot's narrator believes or disbelieves Guido.

The question is how often Eliot plays Jesuitical games of this kind with his reader. The answer may be almost always. That the twist in the epigraph to Love Song has not been picked up in the literature in nearly 80 years suggests that Commedia may be revered more than read. That, in turn, may have a bearing on Burbank, a far more ornate Jesuitical game.

It has always seemed odd that Eliot, charged with being obscure, had written one poem that caused an uproar because it was said to be too clear. Spender characterizes Burbank as "notoriously anti-Semitic." Despite the concern, the Jewish allusions in Waste Land passed largely unnoticed. And the open question may be whether Burbank is any more "obvious" than anything else Eliot wrote. The poem's manicured lion (or its manicure) may be a borrowing from Charles Lamb's 1808 essay on Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta (1590). Lamb uses the essay to celebrate, perhaps prematurely, the end of anti-Semitism in England. In the reading I am getting for Burbank, Eliot systematically cycles through virtually every anti-Semitic slur anyone has ever thought of, and reduces each to absurdity. The poem may be less a portrait of Jews than a comical, though vitriol-laced, burlesque of Christian preconceptions about Jewish names, Jewish identity, the Old Testament, and the place of Jews in the Christian cosmology. As in the epigraph to Prufrock, though in a more complex manner, Eliot makes the reader work hard to sort out what is actually being said.

Eliot's early poems seem to be largely improvisations on Commedia, though by an intricate path that wends its way through other literary sources as well. The question, then, is what Eliot could have seen in Dante that inspired interest in Jews, anti-Semitism, the relationship between Christians and Jews, or (in The Waste Land) the fairly abstruse theological issue of the conversion of the Jews. One possibility is that the last two cantos of Paradiso are among several in Commedia that may have been seriously misunderstood. I would never have noticed alternative possibilities had I not been led by the fairly relentless prompting Eliot packs into his own poems. I can sketch only a bare outline of one of the cantos here.

In Paradiso 32, Dante has a vision of the Church Triumphant. He sees it as a rose in which the blessed are seated. The flower is cleft down the center, divided into Hebrew and Christian halves. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux explains the meaning of the rose. He says it means, briefly, that Jews born before the time of Christ will be saved. Those born after the time of Christ will go to hell if they do not convert to Christianity. The usual assumption is that the words Dante poet puts in Bernard's mouth can safely to be taken at face value. But at least two things are terribly wrong with this assumption. Please begin putting the question to Dante specialists.

First, nobody in the Inferno is identified as an unbaptized Jew (who is in hell for that reason). Yet, according to Bernard, Dante's hell ought to have a large and well-populated Jewish Quarter. Where has Dante hidden, so to speak, the damned Jews? Second, Bernard's claim has no Scriptural authority. Worse, Dante may have Bernard actually contradicting what Paul says in Romans, the only New Testament book that speaks to the conversion of the Jews. Eliot helpfully prompts his own reader by using a borrowing from Romans as line 319 of The Waste Land. Dante helpfully prompts his reader in other ways. In yet another aid, we can learn from the historians what the Dante commentators will not tell us. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is remembered as an anti-Semite, and justifiably so if some of the anecdotes are true. Whether Dante intends Bernard to be speaking for God, for the author, or just for himself is not the easiest of questions.

The "theological" issues may be fairly simple. In the Old Testament, God chooses the Jews in a covenant that he says will be everlasting (Gen. 17.13). In the New Testament, he chooses the Christians, a new covenant. Gentile converts ask Paul, in Romans, about the status of the Old Law covenant, and what God intends to do about those Jews who do not convert to Christianity. Will God keep his word to the Jews or not? Paul's reasoning is more transparent than that of Dante's Saint Bernard, who in fact simply makes pronouncements without explaining his logic or pointing to any precedent. In Paul's reasoning,

I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid....God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. (Rom 11.1-2)

Paul concludes that "all Israel shall be saved" (11.26). The argument he offers to support this conclusion may be one of the unrecognized gems of Western thought, a beautifully balanced integration of Judaeo-Christian faith and Greek rationalism. Like Eliot's Burbank, it is not really about either Jews or Christians. Buried under centuries of fanciful allegorical interpretation, it may be an argument about the nature of God, and Paul's logic sounds as simple as a child's. Yet his conclusion is irrefutable if we accept the unspoken premise that God is perfect. Eliot, trained in philosophy, was well-equipped to appreciate the epistemological subtleties. Had Paul given any other answer, Christianity would not be as we know it today. It would have relapsed, over a period of time, into paganism. The manner in which Dante builds on Paul's argument is equally innovative.

I am not qualified to say how Commedia ought to be read. I will limit myself to suggesting that there is an alternative reading for Paradiso 32-33 that Eliot may have seen, that may need to be considered carefully by Eliot's readers, and that he may be playing with in the five poems I reviewed.

In a tale told in several variations, Eliot characterized himself to an interviewer as a Christian, therefore not an anti-Semite. The logic is Saint Paul's. Or it might have been Dante's, though this is not how any of us were taught to read Commedia. I am willing to take Eliot's word that this had become his perception of Christianity. It may bear on an otherwise inexplicable letter he wrote to his brother in 1920. Eliot called Burbank "intensely serious," and among his best works to that date (Letters, 363). 

That Dante never demonizes Jews is rarely or never brought out in the literature. He also brushes aside, without comment, the terrible slanders against Jews that originated in England and turned all Europe into a cesspool of hate from about the mid-twelfth century onward. The first wave of pogroms began shortly after 1144, when William of Norwich, a young boy, was found dead. The rumor that the child had been crucified by the Jews was soon embellished with the further accusation that Jews kidnapped Christian children to eat them or drink their blood at the Passover meal. During the following century, the alleged victim was Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, relatively undocumented but mentioned by Chaucer and recalled in ballads and stories.[16] Medieval Christendom had forgotten, or never noticed, that the Last Supper of Christ was the Passover meal. If Christ and the Apostles had been eating children, or drinking their blood, one might expect the New Testament to mention this. Assuming that the blood slander did not arise out of thin air, it might have been based on an ignorant or perverse misunderstanding of Christ's demand that Christians eat him, that "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6.54). Whatever the case, Dante was a quiet eye at the center of the storm. He sat in a cesspool of sectarian hatred, writing about a universe ruled by love.

I can imagine that any sighting of this different Dante might have made a strong impression on Eliot. He was young, and might have set out to improve the world by sharing what he had seen, perhaps in an amusing way that would win us over. I am truly sorry that the wit, especially in the case of Burbank, may have blown up in Eliot's face. Parody is easily mistaken for whatever is parodied. Harold Bloom has complained, recently, about institutionalized misreading of the Bible, and the misconstruing of Commedia as "versified Saint Augustine." Many of Bloom's points are well-taken, and Eliot may have noticed long ago. He may have been too brilliant for his own good, a Cassandra who saw too much.

Dante's reasoning is further removed from our own, and therefore more difficult to assess. Certainly we should ask, given the tenor of his times, why his hell includes no wicked Jews punished for poisoning wells or for drinking the blood of Christian children. Maybe Dante reasoned that the slanders were not in the Bible, or that Holy Writ carried more weight. I would be slow to assume that Dante would have been ecumenical in any modern sense. The question of whether he "liked" Jews is silly. We have no idea whether he ever met any. Among several possible scenarios, he may have held to the eschatological belief of his day that the end of time would be heralded by the conversion of the Jews. The Savior might not appreciate having his Second Coming fouled up because all Jews had been annihilated in pogroms, leaving none waiting to be baptised. Even this seemingly discouraging dénouement leads back to a germ of hope. If Dante concluded that Christians ought to mind their own business, and leave judgment to God, this means that his conception of Christianity excluded what we now call anti-Semitism.

Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar

In Burbank, as in Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service and The Hippopotamus, very little actually happens. Tubercular (phthysic) Princess Volupine, a modernized and over-the-hill whore of Babylon, satisfies lust on her burning barge. Her predecessor, the New Testament whore of Babylon, "sitteth upon many waters" to commit fornication with the kings of the earth (Rev. 17.1-2). Burbank opens, in other words, with a splendid illustration of how closely Eliot follows his sources, often to great comic effect. For Princess Volupine, the Biblical whore turned 20th century princess, the "many waters" are reduced to the canals of Venice, fed to this day with effluent from the municipal sewerage system. The kings of the earth are (male) Anglo-American tourists.[17]

Of the three tourist kings, Burbank's name has long been recognized by Grover Smith and others as an adaptation of the name of the American horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849-1926). The other two men appear to be Jews, each of a different type. Sir Ferdinand Klein was knighted. Bleistein, perhaps, is "benighted." Though we might assume Burbank is a Christian, the real Luther Burbank preferred to call himself an infidel. From 1914 onward, he made no secret of his rationalistic atheism, or of views very similar to those of Bertrand Russell. In 1926, a few months before his death, Burbank created consternation by publication of "Why I am an Infidel."[18] Eliot's Burbank, if populated by Jews and infidels, rather than Jews and Christians, may draw these motifs from Inferno 4, where Dante and Virgil discuss the fate of the Jews and meet with the illustrious heathen.[19]

Jews are present in name only in Dante's Limbo, and perhaps also present in name only in Burbank. Politically correct readers fled from saggy-kneed Bleistein, as if he had been the bogey-man. They may have been spooked by a ghost. Assuming that the (past tense) "was" on line 13 is definitive, the narrator is only remembering Bleistein, or recollecting what his way "was."

But this or such was Bleistein's way:
A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese. (13-16)

The knee and arm problems that make Bleistein a Jewish animal almost match those of Sweeney, the Irish animal.[20]

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,

Assuming that the similitude between Bleistein and Sweeney is meant to be farcical, the farcical questions may be in order. Is Bleistein a twin or persona of Sweeney? Is Sweeney an Irish Jew? Has Leopold Bloom, James Joyce's Irish Jew who was a modern Ulysses (Ulysses), returned as one Irishman and one Jew?

Burbank includes many cross-references with Gerontion, and both poems mention painters of the Venetian school. A dead eye stares at a Canaletto in Burbank, and Hakagawa, the Japanese museum visitor, is incongruously "bowing among the Titians" in Gerontion. Possibly the Jap is a persona of J. Alfred Prufrock, who seems to wear many hats?[21] But I am more interested in the Titian paintings to which J. A. P. is bowing. John the Divine's description of the whore of Babylon is one of the most gorgeous passages in the Bible. It had to be. Unless we admit that sin can have a powerful allure, we have no way of explaining why anyone ever strays. In a little game of objective correlatives, the Venetian painter Titian (1477-1576) is justly famous for paintings of Venus (a pagan goddess) that may match the allure of John's description. Given the Venetian setting of Burbank, we may be invited to ponder the comic possibility that Princess Volupine, in her prime, might have been Titian's model.[22] The hard times she seems to have fallen on suggest Eliot may have wanted to show the other side of the coin. In the familiar cliche, sin tempts because it seems beautiful, but in the long run is not beautiful.

Reversing a high falutin' image to show the real picture can be a literary device, and Eliot repeats the device with Dirge (1921, unpublished until 1971). The poem takes off on Ariel's dirge in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Shakespeare's beautiful, but fanciful, dirge pushes "poetic license" to the limit. It speaks of marvelous changes but says nothing about the agents that effect these changes. Dead men's eyes never really become pearls, unless we are asked to assume a series of intermediary changes that are implied but not mentioned. In Eliot's Dirge, the agents of change take over. Drowned Bleistein is being eaten by sea creatures, as drowned men usually are. Eliot may have meant to tell us what Shakespeare forgot to mention. Or he may have turned to Shakespeare's The Tempest because a tempest sinks Ulysses ship in the Inferno.

Much of the wit in Burbank turns on the names of the characters, or on our assumptions about "Jewish names." "Volupine" amalgamates voluptuous and lupine, wolf. Or it might be collapsed into vulpine, fox. On the one hand, either Wolf or Fox might be a Jewish name. On the other, Eliot knew a Ms. V. Woolf--Virginia--who was not Jewish. Her husband, Leonard, was Jewish, perhaps suggesting that Woolf can be a Jewish name and not a Jewish name at one an the same time. Among the male characters, Bleistein's name is taken from that of a mercantile establishment. The Bleisteins were furriers who kept a shop near Llloyd's, when Eliot worked at the bank and for about fifty years afterwards.[23] Though jokes about names are impolite, Bleistein easily does double duty as a "Jewishing" of the name of William Bligh (1754-1817), the English naval officer who commanded the Bounty. Sir Ferdinand Klein's closest real-life analogue may be Felix Klein [1849-1925], the German mathematician who was born the same year as Luther Burbank. The mathematician's full name was Felix Christian Klein. His parents may have hoped that the right middle name would send the right message. Eliot may be making light of mother and father Klein's imagined agenda, or of our own expectations. Klein, like Wolf (or Fox), is not necessarily a Jewish name. Nor are brilliant mathematicians necessarily "smart Jews."

If Eliot wanted Klein and Burbank to be twins in his poem, they were not only born the same year, but died within months of one another. Also, each character in Burbank may lead back to some member of Eliot's inner circle. I see no sign that any of them noticed, and the humor may be a bit rough. The American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) studied with Eliot at Oxford, after entering Harvard at the age of 12 and completing his Ph.D. at the age of 18. Assuming that Wiener might fit anyone's stereotype of a "smart Jew" mathematician, we may be asked to ponder why Klein is not written off as a "smart Christian" mathematician.

Bligh-Bleistein's "Christian connections" may be as farcical as those of Volupine-Wolf (Woolf) and Klein-Klein. The mutiny on the Bounty, against Bligh, was led by Fletcher Christian. Bligh was strongly disliked, and remembered as loud, insensitive, pushy, and abrasive.[24] Maybe he wanted people to think he was Jewish. Or Fletcher Christian may have mistakenly believed Bligh was Jewish, a novel theory indeed about the mutiny on the Bounty, and of course a ridiculous theory. Or Bligh may be a stand-in for pushy, abrasive Ezra Pound, who by report actually was treated badly in England because he was mistakenly thought to be a Jew.[25] If Eliot means that Jews have no monopoly on bad behavior, Dante makes a similar point. He identifies usury as a vice, but not as a vice unique to the Jews (Inf. 17, also Inf. 11.94-105). The more immediate target for Eliot's barbs may be the practice of puzzling over who is Jewish, who is not, and how difficult it can be to tell the difference. In Dante's day, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) addressed the problem by requiring that Jews identify themselves by wearing yellow badges.

As a "Jewish problem," anti-Semitism is of limited interest to the general public. Eliot does an end-run around that constraint. He seems interested largely in anti-Semitism as a Christian problem. If the Christian, at least in theory, treats everyone in a Christian manner, why is it important to know who is Jewish? In Golden Legend, Archbishop Voragine repeatedly alludes to an answer that had evolved in Dante's day. All Jews go to hell, and God himself has abandoned them. But this is not what Saint Paul says in Romans. The Christian, at least in theory, reads his or her Bible and uses it as a guide.

Each farcical question raised by Eliot's rich mix of imagery leads to a complex of "possible" answers, one more absurdist than the next. But Blighs, of course, never change their name to Bleistein, a small sign of how the deck is stacked. I cannot continue further here, and hope these limited scraps suggest a perspective. I am not saying that readers en masse should begin poring over Eliot's sources. Realistically, most people do not have the time. Also, Eliot supplements allusions to literature and philosophy with fairly recondite allusions to art history. I hope my two volumes can helpfully fill the gap.



[1]   Eliot's borrows some features of the painting from Piero della Francesca's Baptism (London, National Gallery), some from the Baptism (Florence, Uffizi) painted by Andrea del Verrocchio, who was assisted by Leonardo da Vinci. But Eliot's description does not exactly match either painting. Oderisi may have imagined the painting. Or Eliot imagined Oderisi imagining the kind of painting that Oderisi might have wished he could have made. Eliot's familiarity with Piero, Verrocchio, and Leonardo may date from the class in Florentine Art he took at Harvard.

[2]   Smith, T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays 40.

[3]   On Lake Azyingo, in West Africa, a hunter who had accidentally killed a hippopotamus washed himself in the animal's blood, "while he prayed to the soul of the hippopotamus not to bear him a grudge for having killed her." Golden Bough, 523.

[4]   In Hippopotamus, the beast has three names. Each is used twice, once to compare the animal to the Church and once to the tautological True Church. Each name is keyed to a different type of activity, and no quatrain includes more than one name. The activities of hippopotamus (the first name) are loosely those of the lower animal functions that Freud ascribes to the Id. Those of hippo (the second name) approximate the moralizing functions of the Super-Ego. Those of the aspiring 'potamus (who ascends to heaven) loosely match the Ego, which Freud identified as the true self.

[5]   Also see, however, Eliot's use of verb tenses. The narrator (past tense) "saw the 'potamus take wing." Yet the hippopotamus (present tense) "rests on his belly in the mud." Among possibilities, 'potamus may have gone to heaven and come back. Or, like Dante's Alberigo (Inf. 33), he may be in two places at once. Or, since hippopotamus means horse of the water, the hippo (horse) part may have remained on earth while the potamus (water) part rose to heaven.

[6]   Weston's thesis is that the Romance of the Grail is a loose reworking of the myths of the year gods examined by Frazer in Golden Bough, and in Attis Adonis Osiris.

[7]   Weston says her information about Tarot came from William Butler Yeats, and there seems no reason to doubt this. On Modernism and the occult, see Surette, Birth of Modernism.

[8]   Matthiessen, 50.

[9]   Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, 292. Waite, a leading authority on both Tarot and the Grail legend, is more severe.

[10]   The most famous examples may be the twelve gigantic Sibyls and Prophets who frame the events on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. The easiest to overlook may be Dante's almost invisible Sibyl and Prophet (David) in the last two cantos of Paradiso.

[11]   See, for example, Mr. Eugenides, Phlebas, Tiresias, and Madame Sosostris. Mrs. Equitone, though mentioned, is never heard from, perhaps because the letters of her name can be rearranged to spell "quiet one." The horoscope Mrs. Equitone awaits would be cast from the stars, and stars are never mentioned in The Waste Land. Stars are mentioned repeatedly in The Hollow Men.

[12]   On Madame Sosostris, see Smith, "The Fortune Teller in Eliot's Waste Land," American Literature 25 (January 1954), 490-92. Also, Huxley, Crome Yellow, 282-87. Huxley's satirical novel also includes a passage about the death of Petronius (p. 144), and a web of links criss-crosses the source works on which Eliot relies.

[13]   HBD, "Egypt." See also EBD (1897) that "Rameses II, the son of Seti I, is probably the Pharaoh of the Oppression....In 1886, the mummy of this king, the "great Rameses," the "Sesostris" of the Greeks, was unwound."

[14]   In another piece of wit about nullity or negation, Madame Sosostris, that (Weston-like?) bungler, names the Tarot cards wrong. The Hanged Man, suspended from a crossbar by his foot, is the only card among the seven she names that actually appears among the Major Arcana of the Tarot. But the Tarot pack itself is wrong (wicked). Its use for the discredited (wrong) purpose of prophesying may introduce the comic question of the double negative. If two negatives make a positive, Madame Sosostris' wrong (wicked), wrong (incorrectly named) cards may actually be right cards.

[15]   The Fisher King's name (or title) never appears in Waste Land, though mentioned in the notes. The detail is one of many small signs that the notes may be integral to the poem, and not to be lightly brushed aside.

[16]   In Canterbury Tales, see the Prioress' copy-cat story of the widow's son. His corpse is discovered when the decapitated head sings Christian hymns to rebuke the Jews who murdered him. The prioress closes with an appeal, on behalf of all such innocents, for the prayers of "yonge Hugh of Lyncoln, slayn also with cursed Jewes...but a litel while ago."

[17]   The "tourists" may have a mythic dimension if Eliot means we are all tourists, transient royals who pass through Venice, Babylon, or the world until we "pass on" to another world or to no other world. Eliot visited Venice in 1911. The city actually is known for its tourists, and for the flocks of pigeons who relentlessly deposit droppings on the plaza in front of Saint Mark's.

[18]   Luther Burbank, Why I am Infidel, edited By E. Haldeman-Julius, Girard, Kansas, Haldeman-Julius Company, Little Blue Book No. 1020, 1926. Also, Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries (12 vol. 1914-15).

[19]   That Dante's Limbo includes only illustrious heathen, and no Jews, attracts little attention, though red-lined in various ways. The pilgrims, for example, see three Muslims, including Avicenna and Averrhoes, both remembered as influential commentators on Aristotle (Inf. 4.143-44). Perhaps pointedly missing is Maimonides, the third great commentor on Aristotle. See Cantor, Civilization of the Middle Ages, 359, that "when the Aristotelian corpus was made available to western thinkers in the second half of the twelfth century, they discovered that it had come from the Arabic world trailed by clouds of Moslem and Jewish commentaries....Some of the greatest minds in the Moslem world, such as Avicenna and Averroes, and Jewish scholars, such as Maimonides, had either already dealt with the consequences of Aristotelianism for their traditional faiths or were in the course of doing so in the twelfth century."

[20]   Also see Hebrews, which stirringly demands that sinners "lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" (12:12). Eliot's more "offensive" passages are often tastelessly comical take-offs on Biblical verses, given the slight twist that makes them almost unrecognizable. Also, Bleistein's knees may be giving way for any of a number of reasons. Perhaps, like the one-eyed merchant in The Waste Land, he carries something in a pack on his back, and the burden is quite heavy. Assuming that the Jew's burden is anti-Semitism, we may be offered one of many Eliotesque interminglings of tragedy and comedy.

[21]   When Stetson is sighted on line 69 of The Waste Land, the letters of his name cannot quite be rearranged to spell out T. S. Prufrock. But they will spell out T. S. Stone.

[22]   In a thread that I have not traced here, Volupine might also be a pointer to the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. If so, Burbank introduces the three groups that Saint Augustine ponders in City of God, that Eliot plays on elsewhere, and that Dante may also have pondered. The three groups are Christians (Burbank), pagans (Princess Volupine), and Jews (Bleistein). Commedia is sometimes read as an allegory about Christians and pagans. It may have greater coherence as an allegory about Christians, pagans, and Jews. Or Eliot may have correctly or incorrectly thought this might have been the case.

[23]   I am grateful to Grover Smith for passing along an article from The Observer (18 June 1967) in which Professor J. Isaacs says he met Eliot in 1923, knew him for 42 years, and was told by John Gross that "he had seen the name 'Bleistein' over a [furrier's] shop in Upper Thames Street, not far from the church of St. Magnus the Martyr. Eliot must have seen the name during one of his lunch-time walks when he was in Lloyd's Bank in the City."

[24]   The mutineers took native wives and fled to Pitcairn Island, where their descendants still live. Bligh, before a naval commission, blamed the mutiny on the crew's desire for "some female connections" (the Princess Volupine motive?). Descriptions of Bligh, who was Christian, almost exactly match caricatures of Jews. See Encyclopedia Britannica, 1972, "Bligh, William"

[25]   The rumor that Pound was Jewish was started (said Wyndham Lewis) by S, a scholar at the British Museum who "had an excellent nose for Jews, it was claimed: he had a gift for detecting a Jew under almost any disguise--something like water-divining, a peculiar and uncanny gift." Simpson, Three on the Tower, 15. qqq

Works Cited or Consulted

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. 6 vol. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Bloom, Harold. The Book of J. Translated by David Rosenberg. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Botterill, Steven. Dante and the Mystical Tradition: Bernard of Clairvaux in the Commedia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cantor, Norman. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Nevill Coghill. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1961.

Conrad, Joseph. Three Great Tales: Heart of Darkness, Typhoon, Nigger of the Narcissus. New York: Vintage Books, n.d.

Easton, M. G. Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Thomas Nelson, 1897. Cited as EBD

T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts including the annotations of Ezra Pound Edited by Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

T. S. Eliot. Edited by Hugh Kenner. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Frazer, Sir. James George [1854-1941]. Attis Adonis Osiris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion. Part IV of The Golden Bough. New York: University Books, 1961.

Frazer, Sir. James George [1854-1941]. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. One volume abridgment from the 13 volume edition. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. Translated by Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger. New York: Arno Press, 1941.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Noonday, 1966 [1948].

Huxley, Aldous. Crome Yellow. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1990 [1922].

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1959.

Lamb, Charles. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume I, 1898-1922. Edited by Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Matthiessen, F. O. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959 [1938].

Petronius and Seneca. Edited by E. H. Warmington. Translated by Micael Heseltine and W. H. D. Rouse. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987 [1913].

Richards, I. A. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1925.

Saint Augustine: The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods. New York: Random House, 1959.

The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. Translation ascribed to Oscar Wilde New York: Book Collectors Association, 1934.

Simpson, Louis. Three on the Tower: The Lives and Works of Ezra Pound, . T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams. New York: William Morris, 1975.

Smith, Grover. T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meanings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Patric Dickinson. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Wagner, Richard. Das Rheingold. Official Libretto. Translated by Charles Henry Meltzer. New York: Fred Rullman, Inc., n.d.

Waite, Arthur Edward. The Holy Grail: The Galahad Quest in the Arthurian Literature. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1961.





An Outline of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."

Pat Sloane



Epigraph: Sibyl of Cumae wants to die

device for indicating break in text number of lines number of lines lines narrator I. The Burial of the Dead
  34 18 1-18 Marie Marie, an earth goddess modeled after those in Golden Bough, speaks enticingly to her reluctant paramour, the Fisher King.
preceded by white space (break) 12 19-30 Proph. Voice Prophetic Voice warns Fisher King to beware of the vegetal (earth goddess) enticements of Marie
change to indented text, italic 4 31-34 Fisher King Fisher King sings in words of Wagner's young sailor (Tristan und Isolde)
return to Roman text, no indenting 8 2 35-36 Marie Marie remembers affair in hyacinth garden
no quotation marks around words of Fisher King 5 37-41 Fisher King Fisher King remembers affair in hyacinth garden
change to italic, no indent 1 42 Proph. Voice Prophetic Voice warns against hyacinth garden ecstasy, and leaves, perhaps feeling hurt. Speaks (or sings) in words of Wagner's (good?) shepherd (German, hirt), from Tristan und Isolde.
preceded by white space (break in text) 34 17 43-59 Fisher King Card reading scene. Fisher King seeks advice from Madame Sosostris (the Sibyl).
preceded by white space (break in text) 17 60-76 Sibyl Unreal City episode. Sweeney-like Sibyl sees a crowd flowing over London Bridge, calls out to Stetson (Fisher King).
  76 76 1-76    


device for indicating break in text number of lines number of lines lines narrator II. A Game of Chess
  34 30 77-106 Fisher King Dressing table (vanity) scene. Fisher King describes the Cleopatra-like Marie in her throne-like Chair
page break ? 4 107-10 Fisher King Footsteps on the stair, her hair
white space 13 4 111-14 Marie Question with no question mark (line 112)


remembers drowned father (lines 124-5)

white space 2 115-16 Fisher King
white space * 1 117 Marie
indent 1 118 Fisher King
no indent 1 119 Marie
indent 1 120 Fisher King
quotation marks 3 121-23 Marie
white space 2 2 124-5 Fisher King
quotation marks 13 1 126 Marie
begins with indent 4 127-30 Fisher King
quotation marks 4 131-34 Marie
begins with indent 4 135-38 Fisher King
white space 34 34 139-72 Sibyl Tells about Lil and Albert (dark side of Marie and Fisher King
  96 96 96    

Note: Throughout Waste Land, the Fisher King consistently has no quotation marks around his words. He may have something wrong with his voice, Eliot's farcical reworking of the mysterious wound of the Grail King. The magic question that will cure the Fisher King (though not until he asks it himself, as a prelude to the cock-crowing passage) appears in Waste Land with no question mark, an oddity sufficient to distinguish it from ordinary questions.


device for indicating break in text number of lines number of lines lines narrator III. The Fire Sermon
  34 14 173-86 Proph. Voice Prophetic Voice, paraphrasing Psalms, sings swan song for doomed Fisher King
space (1st edition) 15 187-201 Sibyl Sibyl on Fisher King's fate?? Fisher king??
French, italic 1 202 Marie Marie sings
space 4 203-206 Fisher King Fisher King, who may be a twit, sings 13 word song in voice of nightingale.
space 8 8 207-14 Fisher King Prufrock-like Fisher King (a twit?) recalls solicitation from Sweeney-like Mr. Eugenides (the Sibyl), who wants to go away with him (passage has 46 words, reversing 64, the number of squares in the chessboard )
space 34 34 215-248 Sibyl Sibyl (as Tiresias) sees typist
space 8 8 249-56 Proph. Voice Proph. Voice sees typist alone ("religious" orientation of narrator of this passage is indicated by note citing Goldsmith's "Vicar" of Wakefield)
space, quotes 1 9 257 Sibyl Sweeney-like Sibyl recalls words of Shakespeare's Prince Ferdinand, (The Tempest), who mistakenly thought his father (in heaven?) was dead.
not in quotes 8 258-265 Fisher King Fisher King Magnus martyr
indent, space 46 13 266-78 Fisher King Fisher King
indent, space 13 279-91 Fisher King Fisher King
indent, space, quotes 4 292-95 Marie Three Thames daughter speak in turn (Eliot's note)
space. quote 4 296-299 Marie
space. quote 6 300-305 Marie
space. quote 6 306-311 Fisher King Fisher King
  139 139 139    


device for indicating break in text number of lines number of lines lines narrator IV. Death by Water
  3 3 312-14 Proph. Voice Prophetic Voice, quoting from Romans, comments on drowned corpse of the Sibyl, who "passed on" by drowning as Phlebas. Sweeney-like Sibyl had to leave without Prufrock-like Fisher King, who refused earlier invitation to go away (Mr. Eugenides passage).

Sibyl wanted to die in epigraph, and has now achieved that wish by drowning as Phlebas the Phoenician (a Semite). Pilgrim Sibyl may have "passed on" to continue search for our Father in heaven.

indent 4 4 315-18 Proph. Voice
indent 3 3 319-21 Proph. Voice
  10 10      


device for indicating break in text number of lines number of lines lines narrator V. What the Thunder Said
  64 9 322-30 Proph. Voice Prophetic Voice muses on Fisher King's fate, "he who was living..."
white space 15 331-45 Fisher King

104 lines

104 = 8(13)

indented line 1 346 (indented line)
not indented 13 347-59 13 unindented lines
white space 7 360-66  
white space 11 367-77 Fisher King asks magic question (Eliot, Hesse note)
white space 8 378-85  
white space 49 10 386-95 cock-crowing episode. Parody of both "Freudian" imagery and Petronius' Satyricon. Fisher King consummates great sexual act with Marie that will ensure the fertility of the earth (but also lead to Fisher King's death). As Prophetic Voice is apparently disembodied, and Sweeney-like Sibyl has "passed on," the only "cock" left in poem at this point belongs to the Fisher King. Crows in French or Portugese (Romance languages), brings the desired lightning and rain, and so forth.
white space 28 396-423  
indented line and white space 11 424-434 Fisher King, like any of Frazer's pagan year gods, now puts his lands in order in anticipation of his imminent death. He will be buried in the ground and resurrected with the growing crops so that the cycle can be run through again. Poem goes back to beginning for yet another of an infinite number of replays of "birth (or rebirth) and copulation, and death."
  113 113 113    



About Professor Sloane's book

This section of the web page is not part of the Yeats Eliot Review article but contains some useful information. Professor Sloane has a book due to be published in 2000 and has provided this description. The book should be available for order through amazon.com soon.



T. S. Eliot's Bleistein Poems:

Literary Allusion in
"Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar"

Professor Patricia Sloane

New York City Technical College of
The City University of New York

ISBN 1573093319

T. S. Eliot built his famous poems largely of fragments borrowed from the works of other authors. "T. S. Eliot's Bleistein Poems" is the first of three projected volumes that look closely at his use of literary borrowings in five early poems that comprise an organic sequence--a previously unrecognized take-off on Dante's Commedia. Sloane shows that the five poems each possess two faces, one that seems "obviously" serious (and vaguely tragic), the other mischievously comic. The familiar serious face established Eliot's reputation as a major Modernist poet. The comic face--perhaps a more profound touchstone of his genius--completely subverts the "serious" face, yet has passed almost entirely unnoticed. Why? Because the poems are loaded with jokes and witticisms nicely calculated to go over the head of any reader who lacks sufficient grounding in the source texts--or who has no sense of humor.

Sloane guides the reader through each poem and its related "sources" into a kaleidoscopic and Joycean universe of wit, irony, and linguistic counterpoint. The unfolding centers on Eliot's twin rapscallions, Sweeney and Bleistein, who may be the two halves of James Joyce's Leopold Bloom, the most famous Irish Jew in modern literature. The reader follows them in their various permutations on two consecutive pilgrimages through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the very kingdoms of death that Dante visited in the Commedia. The haunting journey leads back to arresting questions about the Commedia itself. Dante's masterpiece is often read as an allegory about Christians and pagans. Did Eliot believe it was more coherent if recognized as an allegory about Christians, pagans, and Jews? Sloane weighs these possibillities by assessing what Eliot borrowed from the Commedia and his other "sources," and how he uses those borrowings to prompt the reader to a consideration of what may indeed be an overwhelming question.

"T. S. Eliot's Bleisten Poems" is the first text to combine a full reading of Eliot's literary sources with a unified theory about his use of those sources. Scholars, students, and general readers alike will discover in Sloane's insightful work challenging and provocative new perspectives not only on T.S. Eliot's most controversial poems, but on the larger enterprises of poetry and language, art, theory, culture, and the creative process.

Volume I. The Bleistein Poems: T. S. Eliot's Use of Literary Allusion in "Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" and "Dirge." Introduction by Shyamal Bagchee; A close reading of the two poems in which Bleistein appears. Shows that "Burbank" is an intricate take-off on Dante's Inferno. Includes a general introduction to Eliot's use of his literary sources and to the organization of the five poems.

Volume II, "Pun and Games" (in progress), covers "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" (a Purgatorio) and "The Hippopotamus" (a Paradiso).

Volume III, "More Pun and Games," treats "The Waste Land" (a Inferno) and "The Hollow Men" (a Purgatorio) carries the development back to the last two cantos of Dante's Paradiso.

Other works by Patricia Sloane:

zzz Professor Sloane has some web pages collectively titled Notes and Observations on T.S. Eliot's Early Poems accessible at this URL: http://www.missouri.edu/~enggf/sloane0.html

Information about this page

Portions copyright © 1999 by Yeats Eliot Review, portions copyright © 1999 by Patricia Sloane, portions copyright © 1999 by Rickard A. Parker

Send mail to "Rick" at raparker@world.std.com


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