T.S. Eliot * The Wastelands * Death by Water (IV)

T.S. Eliot’s major themes are fading youth and aging – tempered throughout by a feeling of inadequacy, fear and indecisiveness. He writes about fading greatness, and fading youth – not necessarily his own youth – but something idealized.
Eliot’s second major theme is religion – the purifying fire of faith and unqualified belief. Eliot writes almost lustfully about the fire.
He’s indecisive, unsure of his footing – metaphor, perhaps, for the fading glory of the British Empire, too – but certainly a nostalgia for a moment that passed.

The shortest section of the poem, “Death by Water” describes a man, Phlebas the Phoenician, who has died, apparently by drowning. In death he has forgotten his worldly cares as the creatures of the sea have picked his body apart. The narrator asks his reader to consider Phlebas and recall his or her own mortality.

Just as fire burns and purifies so does water drowns and purifies. This section forms a contrast with “The Fire Sermon”, maybe a contrast between the symbolism of fire and water.Some specific connections can be made: the drown Phoenician Sailor recalls the drowned god of the fertility cults and also fulfills one of the prophecies of Madame Sosostris in the poem’s first section: “Fear death by water,” she says, after pulling the card of the Drowned Sailor. The head of the god was thrown into the water as a symbol of death and it is carried by the currents to Bylobs where it’s taken out of water, signifying the reborn of the god. The drowned Phoenician Sailor is also compared as being similar or equal to the death in Ariel’s song in the Tempest.
“Entering the whirlpool” here, the whirlpool might acts as a portal to another world, showing the rebirth of immediate life after death. The whirlpool also symbolizes the Wheel of Fortune to mark the temporal world.Overall, one may suggest this section gives an instance of the conquest of death and time (“The perpetual recurrence of determined seasons”, the “world of spring and autumn”, “birth and dying”) through death itself.This section, in its language and form, mimics other literary forms (parables, biblical stories, etc.) that are normally rich in meaning. These two features suggest that something of great significance lies here. In reality, though, the only lesson that Phlebas offers is that the physical reality of death and decay triumphs over all. Phlebas is not resurrected or transfigured. Eliot further emphasizes Phlebas’s dried-up antiquity and irrelevance by placing this section in the distant past (by making Phlebas a Phoenician).


Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
                          A current under sea  315
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                          Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,  320
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
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