Eliot’s Seat at the Classics Table
by Rosie Albenice
T.S. Eliot famously had a true passion for the classics. He spent many years of his life educating himself on the works of the classically acclaimed writers, such as Ovid and Shakespeare. This paper focuses on Eliot’s passion for these writers’ works, along with the ways in which they appear in The Waste Land. With the aid of abundant research, this paper is formulated to present readers with a variety of allusions from “A Game of Chess” and to connect them to the historical texts that Eliot loved and, more importantly, their implications. This paper draws from several other academic works to solidify evidence from a variety of interpretations of Eliot’s intent. In connecting these allusions to classic literature, readers of “A Game of Chess” may have a deeper understanding of the abundance of figurative language within the poem. Eliot alludes to many classic characters in the work in order to give the poem a great deal of historical depth.
Keywords: Eliot, “A Game of Chess,” The Waste Land, Shakespeare, Ovid, allusions
T.S. Eliot once said, “The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (Maddrey 84). His acclaimed poem, The Waste Land, famously employs these complex elements, which scholars have contemplated since its publication. Eliot was a staunch advocate for education in the major cultures of history and how they shaped modernity, which is why many of his works, like The Waste Land, point overwhelmingly to intellectuals like Shakespeare and Ovid. Eliot’s passion for the complex manifested in his connections to their work with a “technique of compression and fragmentary allusions,” which function as a small nod to the classical writers (Laroque 2). Eliot’s firm reliance on the literary masters had a significant influence on the traditions and content of his work. Moreover, Eliot relied on Ovid and Shakespeare as great writers to assert his authority within the academic community. As a scholar, Eliot placed a lot of emphasis on academic prestige and, in turn, employs many allusions to the classics to characterize his attitude toward education. The Waste Land itself is a reforming text of modernity that blatantly tips its hat to many older texts. In many aspects, it is a “Shakespearian palimpsest” of stories; Eliot alludes to such works as The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra and to such staple Shakespearian characters as Ophelia and Lear (Laroque 3). Eliot looked to Shakespeare for social commentary, as well. Beyond Shakespeare’s renowned and unique characters, Shakespeare also responded to issues from the Jacobean era with a classic and traditional attitude, just as Eliot does in The Waste Land (Maddrey 75).1 By using several classical female characters, Eliot shows his disdain for those within the modern world who do not share intellectual ambition or knowledge. “A Game of Chess” has become a literary cache of allusions for modern literature and classical literature through Eliot’s use of these female characters. He pushed the boundaries of intellectual confrontation to inquire into the uneducated propensity of modern society. Moreover, Eliot’s reverence for Ovid leads him to import Ovid’s thematic style from Metamorphoses into The Waste Land. In “A Game of Chess,” Eliot utilizes the Metamorphoses and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, The Tempest, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet to draw comparison and meaning from those texts and into his own.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses had an incredible impact on both Shakespeare and Eliot (4 Laroque). Shakespeare reworked the ancient text as a play titled Titus Andronicus, which Eliot studied along with Metamorphoses (4). In “A Game of Chess,” Eliot writes:
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
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears (Eliot 97-103).
The “sylvan scene” above the mantel is the moment of Philomela’s harrowing rape at the hands of her sister’s husband, King Tereus, in Ovid’s 6th book of Metamorphoses (Eliot 98). In the story, “bright Philomela… the virgin” is taken in the woods by King Tereus, who viciously rapes her and cuts out her tongue so she cannot tell anyone what he has done (Ovid 69, 76). After being deserted in the woods, Philomela weaves a great tapestry depicting her rape over the course of a year to send to her sister, Procne. The “window” displayed above the mantel in the great room is the tapestry telling the “change of Philomela, by the barbarous king,” (Eliot 97, 99). After taking their revenge, Philomela and Procne had to transform into birds to escape Tereus’s megalomaniacal anger (North 46-50). In Metamorphoses, Philomela’s voice is taken from her by her perpetrator, yet her metamorphosis into a nightingale restores her voice, delineated as “Jug Jug,”2 in the poem (Eliot 103). Philomela’s “inviolable voice” as a bird is one heard across the world, even though her actual voice as a woman was stolen from her by a malicious King (Eliot 100). Her stolen voice in “A Game of Chess” is a metaphor for the silence that comes from forced sexual encounters. Moreover, as a woman of her time, the removal of her voice is directly parallel to Eliot’s overarching concern with the importance of education. Without her voice, she cannot speak or conduct any constructive dialogue and may never gain the dominance needed to control her life. Eliot was critically concerned with education as a form of dominance and authority. Furthermore, Eliot alludes to Philomela as another character, Lil, is told she had better get herself some new teeth before her husband comes home from the war (Eliot 141). Lil then claims, “I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face / It’s them pills I took,” as her friend continuously scrutinizes her (Eliot 159-160). The pills Lil is speaking of are the birth termination pills that caused unfavorable changes in Lil’s physical and mental wellbeing. Lil’s dilemma is a connection to the forced sexual narrative drawn by Philomela. Lil remarks that, after the abortion pills, she has “never been the same” (Eliot 162). While Philomela looses her tongue because of Tereus’s rape, Lil looses her teeth because of the abortion pills she took. Both women suffer great physical change because of sexual encounters with men who had power over them. Lil and Philomela face the uncontrollable consequences of sexual interactions that leave them deteriorated in multiple forms (Gooderham 181).
As with Ovid, many of Shakespeare’s women “have been violated or betrayed or exploited by men” (Booker et al. 96). Eliot’s literary imposition of the classics reinforces his preference for universal education as a form of fortitude against weakness. Philomela must tell her story through her hair as she spells out modernity’s perplexity, just like she wove her story into a tapestry. Her brushed hair “glowed into words” to tell Lil’s story from there on out (110 Eliot). Learning to speak beyond her weaknesses is a metaphor for her strength in writing as a form of academic tenacity. Because Philomela is a classic character, she declares her authority through her writing as a way of impacting future women represented by Lil. Philomela tells the incoming story of Lil and her friend’s conversation through her hair; her experiences as a mistreated woman guided her to be able to speak for Lil. Ovid’s character, Philomela, cries out through the sound of the nightingale, her hair, and the story of Lil’s teeth to recreate her literary personage and to guide Lil out of the cycle of sexual abuse.
Eliot famously writes that the introduction to “A Game of Chess” points directly to Antony and Cleopatra (North 8). The first moment of the poem is introduced with a woman sitting in “The Chair… like a burnished throne,” just as Cleopatra did on her barge when she first met Mark Antony (Shakespeare 2.2.190). The description of Cleopatra segues into a description of her surroundings. This description was intentional, although Eliot never names Cleopatra or physically describes her. Her ambiguous physical position points more directly to her geographic location within the story. This also places her in a high position in the poem, which makes her different than Lil and Philomela, who are initially presented as notably weak characters by their respective authors. Cleopatra, among other attributes, was incredibly educated in her time,3 making her a dynamic opponent to Lil and Philomela. Although highly educated, Cleopatra experiences her fair share of convoluted heartache, which is represented in Shakespeare’s dramatization. In “A Game of Chess,” the incredibly complicated love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra is a parallel to the incredibly confusing picture of the “strange synthetic perfumes,” a reference to Cleopatra’s purple sails that were “so perfumed” (Eliot 87, Shakespeare 192).
Cleopatra “is located within a system of differences, and that system is hushing the room enclosed. Though surrounded by significance, she signifies nothing herself” (Booker et al. 102). Her position within this spectacular4 room is a representation of her position within her own life. Cleopatra and, more generally, the women in “A Game of Chess” operate in a closed room that represents their inundated affiliations with men (96). Although complicated by her grandeur, this juxtaposition with Lil and Philomela reveals her true position. In the poem, Eliot allows Cleopatra to be free of perceivable burden yet still encloses her in a singular room, indicating her ability to perform as a higher figure in the poem. Along with Lil, Cleopatra and the Sybil—a caged prophetess in the epigraph of The Waste Land—are kept behind a barrier of sorts. Cleopatra’s connection to the caged Sibyl allows reader to create a true picture of captivity. In a bleak proclamation at the start of The Waste Land, she sets the tone for all of those who do not have the education of the past. In a very bleak proclamation, Eliot employs the Sibyl in this dialogue because, although she knows everything of the future, she sees nothing of the past and therefore knows nothing of the classic intellectuals. The Sibyl and Cleopatra are the figures “in the cage,” which was the original name for this poem (96). The Sibyl, although more obviously and physically encased, is directly opposed to Cleopatra’s first scene in “A Game of Chess.” Cleopatra is trapped within this room, which is uncomfortably false and artificial but full of beautiful artifacts. She is a broader representation of the female characters doing mundane things, like brushing their hair or drinking and talking, all regardless of class. These tasks require little to no knowledge and, in turn, point to the need for knowledge and the use of knowledge to surpass the banal. The Sibyl represents Eliot’s view of the result of ignorance and mindlessness: one becomes completely engaged with only a desire to die. Eliot pushed these women to have some greater use in the world according to their varying levels of knowledge. Each woman is a picture of a woman throughout time who illuminates a more profound issue in education and scholarly knowledge.
Ophelia’s fate in Hamlet is a tragic ending to a young woman’s life. Her death scene is one of the most well-known monologues in Shakespeare’s work, inspiring many artistic and musical works5. The repetition of goodnight at the end of “A Game of Chess” alludes directly to Ophelia’s goodnight monologue. Ophelia relates to Lil as they are both tragically blighted by their partners. In the suicide scene of Hamlet, Ophelia slowly experiences a mental decline. Eliot takes Ophelia’s closing lines, “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night” directly from that Hamlet scene (Shakespeare 4.5.172). This goodnight is a literal end of Ophelia’s life, but, for Eliot’s work, it is an end of society and culture due to its insanity and disconnection from reality. Eliot ends “A Game of Chess” with an austere goodnight because Ophelia’s death was a trap by the deadlock of her surroundings, both mental and authoritative. Her encasement in Hamlet is her own personal cage, much like all the other women in “A Game of Chess.” Ophelia’s traditional role in Hamlet is taken from her as she takes her life. In Shakespeare’s work, Ophelia’s death symbolizes the insanity within tragedy that could have been solved if she had thought for herself rather than helplessly ending her life. Likewise, for Eliot, society’s lack of connection to the classics, such as Hamlet, generates insanity and tragedy.
Eliot directly parallels Ophelia’s rambling into insanity in the aforementioned section of “A Game of Chess.” Ophelia’s rambling concerns are formidably similar to Lil’s. “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak,” are sentiments very similar to Ophelia’s nursery-rhyme style of talking in her insanity (Eliot 111-112). No one consoles Lil’s rambles, just as no one consoles Ophelia. Lil is talking of death and loneliness, just as Ophelia sings:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
Oh, ho (Shakespeare 4.5.26-30).
Lil and Ophelia’s sadness and incognizant rambling have a more accurate meaning than what the characters assume. Ophelia is driven insane by the circumstances in Hamlet, while Lil is driven mad by her pills and her friend. Lil serves as a parallel to Ophelia; they are emotionally abused and damaged by their circumstances (Gooderham 181).
“A Game of Chess” also echoes The Tempest as the title itself alludes to Ferdinand and Miranda’s game of chess on the island (Laroque 3). This acts as Eliot’s commentary to the people who are cheating the innocent from their education and from culture. Miranda is dangerously innocent and separate from the rest of the world, just like the people whom Eliot addresses are separate from classic culture. Ferdinand and Miranda’s role in this text symbolizes Eliot’s issues with the rest of the world. This is further cemented by the line, “Those are pearls that were his eyes,” which appears in both The Tempest and “A Game of Chess” (Shakespeare 1.2.390, Eliot 48). This line is a condensed version of Ariel’s song, which laments Alonso’s supposed death by drowning (Laroque 3). In reality, the eyes that Ariel and Ferdinand thought were now pearls were not. The line “Are you alive, or not?” refers to this confusion coming from the characters whom Ariel misinforms about Alonso’s death in The Tempest (Eliot 47).
Other Shakespearian allusions to Romeo and Juliet and King Lear appear throughout “A Game of Chess.” Eliot alludes to Romeo and Juliet as he writes, “The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,” a reference to Juliet’s nickname, Jule (Eliot 8, Laroque 3). This reference adheres to the uneasy conversation these characters are experiencing about sexuality. When seeing Juliet, Romeo says she looks “like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” (Shakespeare 1.5.46). The allusion to Romeo and Juliet, in the context of “A Game of Chess,” is a reference to Cleopatra (Laroque 4). These two texts together give a perception of sexuality and sterility that are emphasized by both Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. In this form, “Eliot also lays stress on cruel, brutal, and even barbaric forms of sexuality… on the fates of seduced and abandoned women” in a blatant form, which is evident throughout The Waste Land (Laroque 5). These abandoned women place the allusions to the classic works closely together as they are women experiencing suffering, as many of the female characters in “A Game of Chess” do. Moreover, the animosity of sexuality is furthered by unemotional conversation about sex, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit” (Shakespeare 4.6.123-124, Laroque 5). The reference is directly connected to the genitals of a woman, whom Lear is lamenting. These are cemented by Lear’s “Howl, Howl, Howl, O” and Eliot’s “O O O O” 6 (Shakespeare 5.3.270-271, Booker 108). The suffering of Eliot’s, Shakespeare’s, and Ovid’s characters is the suffering of modernity.
Eliot’s allusions and insight in “A Game of Chess” are connected to literary works by Ovid and Shakespeare. Eliot’s allusions are directly related to his passion for and understanding of classic writers like Ovid and Shakespeare. Eliot was “piecing together the fragments of his own vision of the future”: he was connecting the past, present, and future into the reality of modernity and its consequences (Maddrey 100). The Waste Land grapples with the reality of modernity, while also paying homage to the creators of a more traditional time. Many allusions within “A Game of Chess” and the rest of The Waste Land are exemplary uses of Shakespearian and Ovidian themes and characters. Eliot’s allusions suggest a profound alignment between Eliot’s appreciation for works of the past and his criticism of the present.
1. See page 75 of Maddrey for more information regarding Shakespeare’s work on social commentary outside of the noted texts.
2. See page 81 of Maddrey for similar arguments about Philomela’s form in The Waste Land.
3. Many say Cleopatra was very educated in “a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy.” See History.com’s write-up of Cleopatra
4. See page 118 of Maddrey for an interesting argument that the room is actually Princess Imogene’s bedchamber from Cymbeline.
5. See John Everett Millais’s Ophelia and The Lumineers’s “Ophelia”.
6. See page 180 of Gooderham for an opposing opinion. Gooderham argues the line “O O O O” is taken from both a popularized song and Othello’s cry of horror at Desdemona’s death.
7. See lecture by Nick Mount for incredible insight into The Waste Land. Lecture was given at the University of Toronto in 2009.
Booker, Jewel Spears, and Joseph Bentley. Reading “The Waste Land.” Univ of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. Edited by Micheal North, W.W. Norton, 2001
Gooderham, Tim. Shakespeare and “tragedy” in The Waste Land. Vol. 3, 1991.
Laroque, Francois. Will in “The Waste Land.” Institut du Monde Anglophone.
Maddrey, Joseph. The Making of T.S. Eliot. McFarland, 2009.
Ovid. “The Story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Metamorphoses, translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al. 8 AD. The Internet Classics Archive, 2009, http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.6.sixth.html
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Project Gutenberg, 2000, gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2268/pg2268.html.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Project Gutenburg, 1992, gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1122/pg1122-images.html.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Project Gutenberg, 1997, gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1128/pg1128-images.html.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Project Gutenberg, 2000, gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2261/pg2261-images.html.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Project Gutenberg, 2019, gutenberg.org/files/1540/1540-h/1540-h.htm.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to all my professors who taught me how to enjoy poetry in ways I never knew I could!