“For I once saw with my own eyes,” states The Waste Land’s ominous epigraph, “the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you
|The Cumaen Sibyl (c.1400) by Andrea del Castagno|
want?’ she answered, ‘I want to die'” (North 3). With a sole sentence taken from the first century A.D., Eliot sets the eerie tone of his disconcerting masterpiece. Eliot shows off his propensity for classical mythology by presenting the passage in two dead languages; the Sibyl’s words are given in ancient Greek while the rest is in Latin, as though a Roman narrator were displaying for us the conversation as it might actually have happened. The original passage, in fact, is taken from an story being told to a Roman crowd in Titus Petronius’s Satyricon, one of the few extant examples of a Roman novel. Our attention in the passage is drawn to the Cumean Sibyl (also spelled Sybil), a mythical prophetess cursed to live as many years as there are grains in a handful of sand. This brief yet bleak image, a pitiful creature begging for death, welcomes us into the waste land like the warning printed above the gates of Dante’s hell. Just as the Sibyl of mythology predicted the future, the Sibyl of Eliot’s epigraph foreshadows what is to come in the rest of the poem. The epigraph perfectly shows Eliot’s adroitness for connectivity as he chooses a figure that can trickle through the text and latch herself to the rest of the poem. Eliot unifies disparate elements—a Roman text, the Fisher King, clairvoyants—through shared thematic functions. The Sibyl is the first of many images of a decrepit figure reduced from glory to impotence, she anticipates the many prophets that will appear later in the text, and she embodies the struggle between the life and death at the core of the poem.
Much of the imagery of the poem involves decline from power, with the Sibyl being the first instance of this. The similarities between the Sibyl and the Fisher King, a decrepit and sickly monarch whose malaise is a reflection of his barren kingdom, are quite clear. One can imagine the impotent despot, ruling over a kingdom of ruin from a throne that looks almost comically oversized from his weakened stature, and next to him the once respected Sibyl, her ashen remains contained in a glass jar—her prophetic vision counting for nothing. Both were figures of power and veneration, a king and prophetess, now brought down to utter despair. They are as feeble as the “heap of broken images.” Another figure that may remind us of the Sibyl is of Phlebas, the Phonecian sailor first mentioned by Madame Sosostris. “Consider Phlebas,” part four declares, “who was once handsome and tall as you” (l. 321). His tragic drowning and Eliot’s address to the reader ( “as you”) are both a stirring statement about mortality and an echo of the Sibyl, the downfall of the living.
The Sibyl is also the first of several prophets who will appear in the text. Madame Sosostris, who predicts the fate of Phlebas in part one, is the second. Wielding a “wicked pack of cards,” Madame Sosostris draws cards that correspond to personae who appear later in the poem, including Phlebas (“the drowned Phoenician sailor”) and the Fisher King (“the man with three staves”).
Perhaps the most chilling words of the poem’s epigraph are “I want to die,” not only for the pathos of her despair, but because her suffering is so intense that death would be a relief. Much of the poem explores this liminal state: The threshold where death becomes more desirable than life. Most of The Waste Land’s inhabitants, however, are delicately treading this line, living a sort of death-in-life they don’t want to escape from: “The Waste Land . . . pictures a world vacillating between the comfortable narcosis of deadness and the frightening challenge of coming back to life” (Helmling, 139). It is worth comparing the Sibyl’s age, equal to the number of grains in a handful of sand, to the famous line of the poem, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” If we think of this line as an allusion to unfortunate request, being granted longevity without youth, then it becomes a warning to the reader, one that prophesies the life-in-death to come. Although this state is most visible in the Sybil, it can be seen throughout the poem, in both characters and scenery. For Eliot, who made a daily trip to Lloyd’s of London where he worked, the London commuters to the financial district epitomized this zombie-like existence in the real world, an existence that he wrote into the poem: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many./Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (ll. 61-65). And above this solemn procession sits the clock tower of Saint Mary Woolnoth, which “kept the hours/With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (ll. 67-68). The poet is just as careful with his adjectives, “dead” and “final,” as he is to note the time on the clock, the start of the work day. Eliot’s indictment of these workers is an indictment of the culture that they crawl through; a modern city too populated to be personal and too mechanized to be human.
The Sibyl functions as a warning to those who might wish to rise beyond their physical limitations but also as a metaphor of the decrepit society Eliot saw around him. The tragedy of her story is that she got exactly what she asked for, and suggests that the other characters have had their wishes come true, but to disastrous results.
Helmling, Steven. “The Grin of Tiresias: Humor in The Waste Land.” Twentieth Century Literature. 36.2 (1990) : 137-154. Web. 15 Fed. 2011.
North, Michael, ed. The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.
Created by Greg LaLuna