To my mind at least, Part IV of the poem, “Death by Water”, is the most beautiful. It is composed of only ten lines, divided into three stanzas. As is so common in Eliot’s poetry, there is a huge amount of allusion, primarily to Phlebas, the Phoenician Sailor. As a mythological character, he seems to have influenced authors across the ages, including Shakespeare in his writing of The Tempest; Phlebas as a character is comparable to Alonso.
The most meaningful element of Phlebas’s character however is the way in which he died; he dies as a result of drowning. T.S Eliot uses water as a subliminal metaphor throughout the poem, representing fertility and the ability to resurrect; the dry nature of the waste land as described represents the importance of water. Phlebas’s death therefore is representative of a deeply spiritual death; something that is lacking throughout the poem. There are numerous references to meaningful, spiritual deaths throughout literature; again here, we can consider Shakespeare. Hamlet’s Ophelia drowns herself, her final words having already been mentioned at the end of Part II.
Eliot makes reference in this passage to the idea of wealth, and material happiness, the very idea of which he attacked in Part III. “Forgot the profit and loss” is very striking, and contains a kind of ethereal quality; this feeling of floating continues in the second stanza of this section; “he rose and fell”, for example. The idea of a spiritual death adds a feeling of gracefulness to the passage, instead of the previously decadent and yet acerbic tone that precedes this section. This passage really compounds the feeling of change that has been, slowly, creeping into the poem; the change of descriptions occurs very slowly, creating something comparable to a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The final line of this part is perhaps the most important however, almost serving as a warning for how people are living; how they are neglecting their spiritual lives, and how they are no longer as human as they once were. They are being degraded and being eroded.
“Consider Phlebas, who was once as handsome and tall as you.”
Eliot’s warning reverberates in the air here, it is perfectly clear, and unlike Eliot’s usual style, it is not a riddle; it seems clear that Phlebas is the example; an example of a lack of spirituality, and what becomes of those who waste themselves. Eliot tended to feel as though society was, as a whole, neglecting it’s duty to a God.
And so it seems that we are coming to the end of our little exploration through The Wasteland; the final part, Part V, “What the Thunder Said” compromises the last piece of the puzzle.