RE: Sex and Violence, Something Lost

Considering Ovid’s stories in comparison to The Waste Land it occurred to me that Eliot’s poem seems to make a progression from the personal in the first three sections, to the universal in the fifth section. The personal and the universal, or mythic, are certainly interspersed throughout the poem; but in first three sections Eliot gives us individual characters and stories to latch onto, such as, “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king” and “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives” (99, 218). Both examples are not quick allusions, but stories that continue for several lines of the poem. In the first example, Philomel’s rape and metamorphosis is summarized in 5 lines, and is referenced later by Eliot; in the second example, more than a page is taken to adapt Tiresias’ story for the modern age. As both Xandra and Caleb point out, these stories by Ovid and The Waste Land’s use of them concern sex and violence. Along that line of thought, I believe that much of Eliot’s poem, if not the main theme, is the problem of vengeance or reparations. Caleb pointed to violence’s “irrevocability” in his post, and I agree that the violent acts in these stories cannot be changed or reversed, which is why the characters’ must undergo metamorphosis, and why vengeance is important to Ovid, and as we will see, peace to Eliot.

I believe that the broad scope and universality of “What the Thunder Said,” supports my claim. We do get language that hints at the individual — “I,” “you,” “my” (360, 365, 430) — but these vague characters are cast within a story of larger magnitude, and their stories are not specific, but take place in a mythic continuity that carries through the entire section. Lastly, towards the end of the poem, Eliot reminds us of Philomel — “O swallow swallow” (428) — and in the third to last line says, “Hieronymo’s mad againe” (431). My interpretation of this is that both the personal aspects of sex and violence, and their universal implications, are presented by Eliot as an endless cycle, “mad againe,” and that the only way to break from such a cycle is not vengeance, as the ancients like Ovid would have us think, but through “Shantih,” which translates as, “The peace which passeth understanding” (433). For Eliot, this has both a personal and universal context — his breakdown and the first world war.


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