The Waste Land – Eliot’s Chess Game

At the library I work at, I am helping facilitate the lending of a couple of items for a T.S. Eliot exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame here in St. Louis in May. They have asked for a couple of items whose editions would have likely been ones Eliot was familiar with or even read himself.

This whole situation of course made me want to revisit The Waste Land…

While Preludes is my favorite Eliot poem, and has remained so for years, I certainly appreciate the Waste Land more now than I did ten or so years ago when I first read it. 

Honestly, I hated it the first time I read it. 

But several readings later, and this latest the first in several years, I found a couple of places in section II: The Chess Game moving and thought-provoking:

Here the word “unguent”: a fantastically uncomfortable word that really affectively develops a discomfort and distaste for the reader. The word trips over the tongue, and any attempt to say it feels similar to when heavy perfumes not only arrest the nose but somehow assault the taste buds and get into the throat:

"From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carvéd dolphin swam."

And here: I love the conflict of thought and word, the dichotomy between begging for thought, which implies not speech, and begging for speech which would imply thought has already happened. But here the speaker begs for speech then thought, but beyond that, wants thought but admits never to be able to know the other’s thought, but demands they think even when the thought can not be known to them or, at least, is not revealed to them.

‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.’

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