A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’

A reading of the fourth part of The Waste Land – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Death by Water’ is by far the shortest of the five sections of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land. The section which precedes it, ‘The Fire Sermon’, is 234 lines – over half of the entire length of the poem. Why is ‘Death by Water’ so short? We’re going to attempt a brief summary of this section of the poem here, along with some words of analysis. You can read ‘Death by Water’ here.

Any analysis of ‘Death by Water’ must contend with the question: how come this fourth section is so much shorter than the other four which make up The Waste Land? Well, it wasn’t originally. In [The Facsimile of the Original Drafts] (a must-read for any serious student of Eliot’s poem), we discover a much longer draft involving a crew of men at sea and the ensuing shipwreck, culminating in the description of the dead Phoenician sailor, Phlebas, which is the only surviving part of the original draft of ‘Death by Water’.

This is because both T. S. Eliot himself and his friend, Ezra Pound, took their red pens to the original drafts of The Waste Land, cutting down a poem of nearly 1,000 lines to the 434-line poem we now read. Pound, in particular, was critical of the long section involving the shipwreck, and advised keeping only this short section about Phlebas the Phoenician. But what is the meaning of this short lyric?

death-by-water-phlebas-the-phoenicianIt’s easy enough to summarise ‘Death by Water’. First, it looks back to the warning from Madame Sosostris the Tarot-reader in ‘The Burial of the Dead’: ‘Fear death by water.’ We are told that Phlebas, a Phoenician sailor, is drowned: that much is plain. Phoenicia was an ancient Semitic region in the eastern Mediterranean, roughly where modern Lebanon and Syria are now located, though the Phoenicians had trade routes spanning much of the Mediterranean.

Trade and finance loom large in The Waste Land: it is a highly economically aware poem, which is what we should perhaps expect from a poet whose day job, at the time of writing The Waste Land, was as clerk in Lloyds Bank in London. As well as poor Phlebas the Phoenician, there is the one-eyed merchant from Smyrna who propositions the speaker in ‘The Fire Sermon’, the reference to the ‘Bradford millionaire’ (also in ‘The Fire Sermon’), and numerous other financially significant allusions.

One particularly intriguing one is the poem’s reference to Mylae and Carthage, which critic Eleanor Cook interpreted in terms of economist John Maynard Keynes’ criticism of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI, as a ‘Carthaginian peace’. It is sensible to assume that Phlebas, belonging to the Phoenicians as he does, is a trader too: note in ‘Death by Water’ how one of the things he forgets in death is the ‘profit and loss’. You can’t take it with you, as the saying has it.

Profit and loss: life and death. The abridged lyric we get in ‘Death by Water’ turns on pairings which are joined by ‘and’ or ‘or’, as if to suggest the bobbing of the waves: up and down, up and down. As well as ‘profit and loss’ we get ‘rose and fell’, ‘age and youth’, ‘Gentile or Jew’, all pairs of opposites, or differences, which death renders immaterial. ‘Death by Water’ is only ten lines long, though in fact, given that the lines beginning ‘A current under sea’ and ‘Gentile or Jew’ complete the line above them, it is almost as if ‘Death by Water’ is an eight-line unit that has become fragmented and parts of it have begun to drift away from each other. Not unlike the remains of a shipwreck, we might say.

Is Phlebas healed through his death by water? Is his drowning a blessed release, a sort of belated baptism or spiritual immersion, or a tragedy designed to show the futility of trade and empire-building? In the last analysis it is both, although in Eliot it is often the fire that performs the spiritual purging and renewal of the individual – baptisms of fire rather than water. Nevertheless, water will play a central part in the final section of The Waste Land, ‘What the Thunder Said’.

The best student edition of Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which comes with a very helpful introduction, as well as contextual information and major critical responses to The Waste Land.

About T. S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.

Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.

Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.

He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

7 thoughts on “A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’”

    • Thank you! Glad you liked our analysis. WordAds place some ads at the bottom of our posts, but we’re not aware of others covering up the actual content. I think they experiment with different formats, so it may be just a technical glitch, but we’ll keep an eye on it :)

  1. I came up with this theory a short while ago that this piece is written as a chiasmus. There are two halves that echo each other, but the second half is changed by the main event at the centre of the piece. There, to back this reading up, we find that ‘as he rose and fell’ line 5 is reversed in ‘age and youth’ of line 6.
    In this way we get pairings, one notorious one being the short lines: ‘profit and loss’ line 3, with ‘gentile or jew’ on the paired line 8. The choice of copula has a lot to tell: Eliot’s anti-semiticism, with its lower-case J as well, is an exclusion, here.


Leave a Reply

Discover more from Interesting Literature

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading