The Waste Land Death by Water

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An interesting section of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" is that headed "Death by Water," a section that has engendered some argument about its meaning and about whether or not the death of Phlebas is intended to be real or symbolic. The poem uses sound in an interesting way to draw ideas together and to create a musical lilt. In the first line, the repeated "f" sound carries over to the first word of line two, evoking the idea of death, the image of the sea, and a connection between the sea and the financial district seen elsewhere in the poem:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss (313-315).

Phlebas is referred to earlier in the poem by Madame Sosostris, who predicts his death as she turns over her cards:

Here, she said,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor (45-46).

There is a clear link here between the poet and the drowned man, since this is the poet's card. The working place of the poet, London's financial district, is evoked as it is noted that Phlebas no longer cares about the rise and fall of the sea or the rise and fall of the markets. The sea is referred to in the "s" sounds, which also end the phrase "profit and loss."

The image of rising and falling appears again in line 316 as the body rises and falls beneath the sea, and this idea of rising and falling is linked now with the life cycle:

As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the whirlpool (316-318).

The idea here is reminiscent of the belief that a drowning person's life passes before his or her eyes.

Eliot presents an image of this life cycle and of the way that cycle ends, with death and decay. The Phoenician is an ancient resident of this earth, for Phoenicia is long gone. This drowning is thus not something recent, and the fact that Eliot turns to the story at this point creates an image of life and death through the ages. He indeed tells the...
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