Syncopation and Order

We’ve talked quite a bit this semester about disruptions to and inversions of the natural order in The Waste Land: children pay the debts of their parents, spring is cruel while winter keeps the war dead warm, sex is infertile, etc. Eliot’s appropriation of “That Shakespearian Rag” in “A Game of Chess” further reinforces this sense of disorder. One of the most prominent characteristics of the ragtime genre is its use of syncopated rhythms, in which accented notes are placed between downbeats and upbeats. On – I’m going to be a bad student here – Wikipedia, it says that syncopation is a “disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm.” Ragtime music defies a listener’s expectations and makes him uncomfortable by disrupting the established order of a song.

In “A Game of Chess,” we see, fittingly, that the “regular flow” has been disturbed. The formatting becomes chaotic at line 115. The lover of the shell-shocked veteran is anxious, not knowing what will happen next. “What shall we ever do?” she asks (Eliot 135). Even the lyrics from “That Shakespearian Rag” seem abrupt. Significantly, Eliot places these lyrics in the middle of two allusions to The Tempest, which, as we’ve talked about, has much to do with the restoration of order. “Those are pearls that were his eyes” points to Arial’s song from the play, while “And we shall play a game of chess” evokes the image of Ferdinand and Miranda (Eliot 125, 137). The disruption of order, we see, is not a harmless fad as it is presented in “That Shakespearian Rag,” where Shakespeare’s “syncopated lines… fit any song that’s now a hit.” In The Waste Land, an inversion of the natural order results in sinfulness, infertility, and loss.



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