The Wasteland * T.S. Eliot – A Game of Chess (II)


This chapter title is taken from two plays by the early-17th playwright Thomas Middleton, in which the theme of one play is, a move in a game of chess denotes stages in seduction. This poem can be divided into three distinct parts; part 1 from line 77-110, part 2 from line 111-138, and part 3 from line 139 – 172. Each part has a different narrator accompanied with totally different settings, tones, and language usage. Interestingly, they all convey a very similar mood to the audiences. This is the most paradoxical poem in the whole chapter with two sets of opposing scenes.

The first opposing scene is the juxtaposition between the exquisite furnishings inside a beautiful-looking castle from the outside(part 1) compared to paranoid and devastated state inside of the London people after World War 1 (part 2). The second opposing scene juxtaposes two women, one of high-class and one of low-class. The first part of this chapter depicts a very high-class women (seemingly equal to Cleopatra) being placed on a “burnished throne” in a surreal, mystic chamber full of ivory and colored glass. On the other hand, this last part can be any typical low-class gossiper talking about her friend (who is also low-class and should get her teeth replaced) whose husband is coming home from the army.

All of these oxymoron appear as fix differences just in order to cover up the desolation everyone was in. Castle or just dirty London street, the woman in part 1 (which is alluded to many women with fail romance) is drowning and confused in her ocean of thoughts, the state of London is similar with zombified people who don’t have any particular purpose in life. Low-class or high-class, both women are suffering and crying alone helplessly while one hides her desperation in glorious furniture and the other conceals her sadness by speaking like nothing could ever put her down.

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out   80
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;   85
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended   90
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,   95
In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale  100
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms  105
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair,
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.  110

The word ‘throne’ serves as a big clue to the setting of this chapter. It paints a faint picture of a mysterious venue such as an ancient castle with a woman being who could be Cleopatra, beautiful but strong in her political power. It reminded me of Ayesha. The scenery is opulent in nature, filled with riches and the author italicizes the word “gold” to draw attention to the precious metal used to build up Cupid and “candelabra” to showcase the crystal on the ceiling.
We don’t just “see” the room, we can smell it too as incense “drowns” us
The word ‘drowned’ appeared again, after ‘troubled’ and ‘confused’, signified a state of desperation (probably of the sailors) that has been previously mentioned on line 47, chapter I. Figuratively, this could be interpreted as the drowning of reason in the flood of emotions, the unstable mood of the sailor when it came to his romantic life. But if this was taken literally, then drowning in this case sure meant death and separation. Either way, it did not forecast a delightful future of anyone.

* Laquearia means a fancy paneled roof, which in a way complemented perfectly well with the magnificent setting of the castle.
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

As a narrator, she is ruled by emotions, appears unsure, jumps from thought to imperative action, to command. She seems mad. She’s a sample of how people thought back then and how they talked in the city, all broken up. The city is also a place of decay and rot where rats can be found. This can be the world post-war where a murderer can be found behind the door if the wind is not blowing. If the answer is “nothing, nothing” – it’s like a hush-hush word said to calm children down. Nothing can also symbolize what’s left once war has been and gone.

I think we are in rats’ alley  115
Where the dead men lost their bones.
“What is that noise?”
                      The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
                      Nothing again nothing.  120
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
        I remember
                Those are pearls that were his eyes.  125
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent  130

Did you notice how the Mysterious Rag became the Shakesperian Rag? And how it’s so elegant, so intelligent. Those words sound like sarcasm – when the person speaking can think of other things that are more elegant and intelligent than the paper.

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
What shall we ever do?”
                          The hot water at ten.  135
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

This lovely lament shows how lost she feels, how truly alone. You’ve most likely heard the expression: “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.” Loneliness also serves as a life signal to indicate you’re in search of something. It’s when we’re in the midst of solitude that answers come from true soul searching. Often those who are feeling isolated and unto themselves will develop a defeatist attitude. This does nothing but feed negativity and perpetuate the situation.

The wife in this chapter is refered as Lil, which can be short for either the Lilly flower or Lilith (Adam’s first wife in Jewish folklore)
In our present days, when we picture the white fragile lilly flower, we immeditaely think of compassion, innocence and virginity because obviously that is what white represents for.
Ironically, according to Jewish folklore, Lilith is Adam’s first wife before she was banished from the Garden of Eden. Lilly was actually the wife that was created from the same time as Adam while Eve was created from one of Adam’s ribs. Lil was casted down because she refused God’s word that man represents dominance and decided to not be subservient to Adam by insisting to be on top during intercourse.

What could be the author’s intention when he named her Lil? Is he foreshadowing, hinting, implying that Lilly will soon be Adam’s ex-wife? Is he saying Lilly seems very gentle on the outside but inside she has her own set of thoughts and is just as determined as Lilith?

Lilly has a good intuition that the person whom her husband might cheat with is no one else but the narrator, the very friend that is talking to her. And she knows he *will* cheat as he’s been in the war and once he’s back, he will look for sex and if she won’t give it to him, there will be someone else who will.

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said,
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,  140
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,  145
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.  150
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said,
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.  155
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)  160
The chemist said it would be alright, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.  170
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

These few last lines of the poem alludes to a fictional character in “Hamlet” called Ophelia. She was mad and bewildered after her dad’s death, commited by her lover Hamlet. Ophelia’s dad – Polonius told her that she should not love Hamlet but she insisted. Before the night Hamlet kills Polonius, he even sits with Ophelia that evening as he makes sexually suggestive remarks and tells her that “A woman’s love is brief”. Everynight, Ophelia sings songs about death and maidens losing virginity while she gives flowers to girls. To end her songs, she always announces, “Goodnight, Goodnight, Goodnight”. She also gives one flower to herself and only that one kind of flower named, Rue “… there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference”. The flower rue is a symbolic meaning of regret which fits the circumstance very well.

Note: “Ta ta” is just a nursery rhyme for good night.

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