20th C Poetry / Books and Stuff / Lit Crit / Poetry / Twentieth Century

‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head? : The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

This is the second post in my series on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). It’s a poem that I never managed to study, but which has always intrigued me. These posts are a record of my attempts to get to grips with one of the most revolutionary poems of all time.

Click here for section one, The Burial Ground.

  1. A Game of Chess

The original title for this section was ‘In a Cage’. This explicitly evokes the theme of entrapment which prominent throughout the section. The title as it stands now is one of many references Eliot makes to Jacobian drama (it refers to two plays by Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women, and A Game at Chess).

WOMEN-BEWARE-WOMEN-royal shakespeare company.jpg

A scene from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Women Beware Women

This part of The Waste Land is often referred to as a poem of two halves. The first focuses on a wealthy woman surrounded by luxury and her conversation with a lover, the second a reported conversation between two working-class women in a pub in the East End, London. I have split this posts into two sections to deal with these different styles united by female suffering.


Eliot opens with a nod to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, his first line, ‘The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne’ mimics a line describing Cleopatra, ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne’. The opening is a kind of parody of this scene as our woman is not royal, she is on a ‘Chair’ not a throne, she is isolated and we know something is wrong by the fifth line in which a cupidon ‘hid his eyes behind his wing’ (81).

Cleopatra is one of three or four references in A Game of Chess to women who killed themselves because of a failed or frustrated love.

The description of the room in which the high-class woman is waiting is overwhelming in its luxury and decadence.

…the glass

Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines

From which a golden Cupidon peeped out….

Doubled the flames of seven branched candelabra

Reflecting light upon the table as

The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it.

Many commentaries point out that nature is evoked but is always fake e.g. carved vines and ‘a carvèd dolphin’ (even the fact that Cupid is gold and not the sun). This reflects broken bonds between humanity and nature. The word ‘synthetic’ in line 87 strikes an uncomfortable note also. Possibly because the description sounds like it’s from an ancient play, the ‘synthetic perfumes’ are a rude reminder that Eliot is writing about the modern world.

Other references:

  • The disturbing story of Philomel (raped and mutilated then turned into a nightingale) is displayed on the walls. This could be included to emphasise a lack of communication. It adds another trapped woman to our growing list.
  • John Milton’s Paradise Lost is nodded to by Eliot’s use of the phrase ‘sylvan scene’ from the 4th book of Milton’s poem.
  • According to the notes Eliot provided for the publication of the poem, his use of the word ‘laquearia’ in line 92 is a reference to Virgil’s The Aeneid. The word means a fancy ceiling. I can’t see much point in Eliot making this reference explicit unless it is to evoke the story of Aeneas and Dido, more ill-fated lovers. Dido kills herself by flinging herself on a fire as Aeneas leaves. I think this story is connected to the nameless woman a few lines later as ‘under the firelight, under the brush, her hair/ Spread out in fiery points’ (108-109). Others have linked these lines to Medusa.
  • In line 118-19 the woman asks her lover about a noise which he says is ‘The wind under the door’. This is a reference to another Jacobian drama, John Webster’s The Devil’s Law Case. This play is a tragicomedy but the happy-ending event we might expect – the marriage of the main female protagonist – is absent.
  • Line 128 ‘O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag’ could refer to a popular jazz song by Irving Berlin, ‘That Mysterious Rag’.
Scene from Philomel.jpg

Tereus and Philomela from Les Metamorphoses D’Ovid en Latin et Francois (1677)

Form-wise, this first half starts in blank verse, but, similarly to in The Burial Ground, breaks down.  We emerge from the richly claustrophobic space into what can only be called a conversation if you are very optimistic. The woman’s insistent statements and questions are given in quotation marks whereas the replies of her lover – which have very little relevance to her speech – appear without quotation marks as if they are merely thoughts. This creates a feeling of imbalance.

‘what are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’

I think we are in rat’s alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.

These last two lines probably refer to the trenches of the first world war but also don’t give a very positive view of the relationship. The man’s speech is characterised by death; he repeats the line used in The Burial Ground taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest ‘Those are pearls that were in his eyes’.

At the end of this first section (yes this is only the first half!) we get a line about playing chess (136). The lover and the woman play to pass the time ‘waiting for a knock upon the door’. Waiting for something to happen to give meaning to their lives.

The second half of A Game of Chess is mercifully void of cultural allusions. However, one commentator has described it as the most poetically experimental part of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot wrote the whole thing in lower-class British English vernacular. It primarily a string of phrases linked by ‘I said/he said/she said’. These repeated snippets give the lines an offbeat rhythm very different to the iambic pentameter said to mimic the natural rhythm of English speech.

The woman’s story – about telling her poor friend ‘Lil’ that she should get herself in shape and get some new teeth so her demobbed soldier husband would want to stick around when he got home – is interrupted by the bartender’s repeated refrain, ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’. This gives the section a sense of urgency that the narrator, happily meandering through her tale, seems unaware of.

The woman’s friend, Lil, complains that it’s not her fault she looks so crap, her body was messed up by a pill she took to ‘bring [a baby] off’ (have an abortion). Lil, with her five children, the youngest ‘she nearly died of’, is trapped by her fertility, trapped by her marriage, and betrayed by her body.

If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.

Other can pick and choose if you can’t.

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling

This section ends with a reference to female suicide with this event book-ending these two tales of misery. The last line of this section, ‘Good night ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night’ is taken from Ophelia’s last speech in Hamlet before she (we assume) drowns herself.


John Everett Millais’s famous Ophelia (1852) from the Tate Gallery collection

Both high-class and the low-class women are associated with canonical examples of women choosing death as the only way out of their misery. In this game of chess people have no control over their own lives, whether queen on a throne or a pawn.

*             *             *

This post is super long and I don’t really expect anyone to read through the whole thing! It’s more for myself, to collect and reflect on the information and analysis I’ve read. However, if you have read this poem please do let me know your thoughts on this section in the comments below!


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