The Centrality of Tiresias in The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land presents a multitude of fragmented depictions of character, voice and dialogue, which combine to create the overall sense of disorientation within the poem. Despite this pervading lack of stability, the poem continues to succeed as a united whole; from some source in the text, a growing sense of unification and constancy develops. Arguably, Tiresias is this source: his position in the poem is not that of ‘mere spectator’, but a disconnection that assigns him almost omniscient authority, rising above the other voices with a tone of certainty, and thus providing a balance to the otherwise dislocated atmosphere.
On a superficial level it could be viewed that Tiresias as a figure in The Waste Land is undercut by his limited appearance in the sequence of poems, the first view the reader is given of the prophet being in the middle of ‘The Fire Sermon’. Yet Eliot’s placement of Tiresias at almost the exact half way point is revealing of his value: structurally, Tiresias appears to be a transitional and bridging figure, perhaps representative of a turning point in thought for Eliot and, as in a five-act tragedy, and his brief appearance could thus highlight Tiresias as a pivotal character. Most prominently, his appearance paves the way to the essential resolution of the poem, in ‘What the Thunder said’- arguably his presence shifts the pace of the poem, and although this initially catalyses the breakdown of the speakers’ language in ‘The Fire Sermon’, it eventually leads to the pared down coherence of Eliot’s various reflections on the conclusive vocalisation, ‘Da’. He seemingly purges the overarching anguished voice of the poem, as indicated by the disintegration of language from lines 301 and 346, allowing Eliot to rebuild the text up to the summit of the instructing final section. Thus Tiresias seems to become the transitional figure that permits Eliot to refigure the ‘heap of broken images’ of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ in his mind, even if by ‘What the Thunder said’ he has only managed to ‘shore (them) against his ruin’; it still appears that Tiresias has allowed for progression, in the speaker’s resolve to seemingly reclaim these disjointed ideas, images and emotions which litter the text.
Similarly, while a prominent source of dissolution in The Waste Land seems to be Eliot’s presentation of the relations between man and woman, typified in ‘The Fire Sermon’ by the clerk’s ‘assault’ and siege of the typist, Tiresias’ presence and first-person control of the narrative paradoxically unifies both the male and female elements in the poem. Tiresias, as a mythological figure, has lived in male and female bodies and consequently feels himself to be ‘throbbing between two lives’, the word echoing from the life-affirming desire earlier in the poem, ‘throbbing waiting’. This transgender and sexual connection allows him to oversee the ‘game of chess’ played between man and woman, having ‘foresuffered all/ Enacted on this same divan or bed’, and experience the suffering between man and woman on a universal, all-encompassing scale. Tiresias’ descriptions of the typist, for example, ‘bored and tired’, ‘alone’, ‘automatic’ are meticulously balanced against those of the clerk, whose actions are ‘undesired’ and who expects no more than ‘indifference’. In this way, his observations highlight the dissatisfaction experienced on both sides, and perhaps, therefore, encourages the reader to view this interaction, and that of man and woman in ‘A Game of Chess,’ in a more detached, less gender-driven way. A unifying effect is thus created by Tiresias’ voice, as the male and female characters are aligned by his observations, and the transcendent, objective view he seems to advocate. The sonnet form woven by Eliot into ‘The Fire Sermon’, from lines 235-248, lifts Tiresias’ voice into a knowing satire: the romantic poetic form is inverted and misused to convey something vulgar and abusive instead. The beauty and regularity of the form highlights the corruption in their relationship, and the sense of resolution which he represents is emphasised, as ‘And I Tiresias have foresuffered all’ appropriately falls on the volta, and Tiresias mercifully draws back from the consummation of the scene. The failure to sustain a rhyming couplet at the end demonstrates the collapse of the sonnet, and Tiresias’ recognition of its ironic unsuitability for the incident described, rendered more poignant by the emphatic ellipses. In this way, Tiresias’ significance is highlighted by his judgmental position in the poem, and by consequence, the characters which seem ‘below’ him, lose their distinction, and seem to merge into one.
Furthermore, Tiresias’ omniscience as an oracle allows for his significant, connective role in the text. Deep in his sordid account of the typist and clerk, Tiresias breaks off from the ruthless depiction to state that he has ‘foresuffered all’ and has ‘walked among the lowest of the dead’. Here, Tiresias suddenly lifts the reader above the intimate view of their dreary union, instead addressing human suffering on a philosophical scale. Eliot’s use of the word ‘all’, could truly be viewed as encompassing everything here; as a ‘prophet’ he perceives and understands all, paralleling his witnessing of this little private ‘folly’ to the tragic scale of when he ‘sat by Thebes below the wall’, recalling the ignorant lust which turned it, too, into a waste land. It is suggested that the disillusioned Tiresias knows the secrets of ‘the waste land’ both of the past and future, and can thus see his way out of it. Perhaps, then, the figure of Tiresias is representative of the internalised power which the poet possesses, to progress from the personal emotional ‘waste land’ which Eliot is often interpreted as facing in ‘The Fire Sermon’. Indeed, while his memory of being ‘among the lowest of the dead’ reflects the nihilistic mood of The Waste Land, the insistence of his pluperfect verbs ‘have foresuffered’ and ‘have sat’ emphasise that Tiresias eventually has progressed, bridging the gap between past suffering and future resolution, thus unifying the fragments of the text and offering Eliot a promise of resolution in the final two poems.
Thus Tiresias’ importance as a character in the poem is arguably most clearly conveyed by the recurrent image of ‘the violet hour’ in which he is set. This motif opens the first stanza Tiresias narrates in ‘The Fire Sermon’, an image alluding to twilight, a transitional period between day and night, and therefore symbolic of the figure of Tiresias himself. ‘The violet hour’ is a liminal space, a bridge between two points of time and indeed Tiresias embodies this transformative time period; his form flits between male and female, and his mind’s eye between past and future. This emphasises Tiresias as the key figure in the poem: he is the only character who seems to have access to this transitional space; he is not stagnating in the elemental settings of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ or ‘Death by Water’, or the claustrophobic inner spaces of ‘A Game of Chess’. He both perceives and embodies the liminal space of progress and so Eliot, emphasising through his use of anaphora and pleonasm, writes that Tiresias can see ‘the violet hour, the evening hour’: fate, the driving force of inevitability that powers our world. Tiresias can see the end of ‘the waste land’ whatever it may be, a twilight role that permits him to transcend the cacophony of fragments and voices in the poem, giving the reader a new perspective on the collective voice of ‘the waste land’. In ‘What the Thunder Said’, this violet imagery returns, in a destructive, but paradoxically restorative scene: ‘Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air’. The polysendetic, emphatic phrasing evokes a potent image of a simultaneously explosive and reconstructive scene, with the hope of ‘the city over the mountains’ seemingly implying the future escape from the waste land. In this way, Tiresias’ intrinsic link to the violet imagery underlines his transformative significance to the poem, and his status as a unifying figure: ‘the violet hour’ which Tiresias represents summons the essential hint of resolution in the text, supplying it with a final, though implicit sense of fusion and restoration.
Perhaps above all, Tiresias’ significance lies in the argument that his prophetic sight makes up the matter of the poem, as conveyed in Eliot’s notes: ‘What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem’. His vision is the singular source of all the many fragmented voices and characters, whose dialogue, thoughts and memories are conveyed; indeed, this transcendent sight is what allows the many characters to ‘melt into’ one another, creating a unifying effect. When viewed in this manner, it appears as if the entirety of the poem is the prophecy of Tiresias- therefore, it could be argued that he is the overall speaker throughout. Certainly, Tiresias is the sole personage in the poem who appears to be self-aware, as demonstrated through the repeated ‘I Tiresias’, especially when juxtaposed with the almost babbling monologues of the other characters such as ‘Marie’ in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, who is even only named indirectly: ‘and he said, “Marie, hold on tight”’. Similarly, the distinctive use of parentheses to pinpoint Tiresias’ reflections seems to elevate them from the surrounding narrative, highlighting the authority of his ‘seeing’ in comparison to the activity of other characters. However, Eliot’s notes are not necessarily to be taken at face value; arguably, they are just as much a part of the poem as the poetry itself, and as cryptic. Perhaps, more simply, Tiresias is a dispassionate ‘fragment’ of Eliot, looking upon both the state of the western world as well as his own life and personal struggles, presenting them in the way which they appear in his mind: fragmented. Indeed Tiresias seems to represent the internalised understanding of the speaker, which Eliot is fundamentally attempting to seek out.
Each man, arguably, is his own prophet, and seemingly ‘the waste land’ is a state of mind, the essence of which is conveyed to the reader by the destabilising and disorientating mixture of allusions, images and voices. It is through the prophetic omniscience of Tiresias that this is communicated; thus he is the figure at the heart of the poem, at once bridging the gap between male and female characters, as well as connecting the present state of ‘the waste land’ to the future, foreseeable resolution and recovery. Whether he is viewed as the mythological prophet, the metaphorical voice of Eliot, or the embodiment of every character in the poem, it is evident that the text would seem disunited, and purposeless, without his presence.
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