Tireseas and other seers in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"

Term Paper, 2006

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The origin of the three seers
2.1. Sybil of Cumae in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and in Petronius’ Satyricon
2.2. Tireseas in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and in Sophocles’ The Three Theban Plays
2.3. Madame Sosostris

3. The use of stories from antiquity in modernists’ writing and in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

4. Foreseeing in The Waste Land
4.1. Preface to the poem
4.2. Madame Sosostris in The Waste Land
4.3. The Tireseas figure in the poem

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Modernist writers like Ezra Pound or James Joyce often wrote in fragmented style, used allusions instead of metaphors and broke with traditional verse and turned away from classical poetry. In many cases they did not use classical metaphors but rather wrote in allusions, which refer to something in a more indirect way than traditional images do. With their literature and style they tried to criticize modern society. Among these authors, T.S. Eliot is one of the most important modernist writers. “The Waste Land has come to be regarded as one of the chief exemplars of modernism in English literature.” (Reeves 1994: 3) According to this Eliot’s poem can be seen as a typical example of modern poetry.

In his long poem The Waste Land the author refers to a number of mythological images and stories. These are presented in fragments but make sense and seem to be well structured when one analyzes them deeper after several close readings and analyses. One of the most important personages in his poem is the blind seer Tireseas.

In his Notes to The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot points out that “[w]hat Tireseas sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem” (1971: p. 148). This substance of the poem, which was first published in 1922, is to be analyzed in this term paper. Tireseas, a blind seer, who appears in ancient Greek literature in the Theban Plays by Sophocles and in Roman literature in the Metamorphosis by Ovid, is used as a reflex of the author’s voice foreseeing human failures without being able to change them. In Greek mythology, especially in Sophocles’ Antigone, he appears as a reminder of traditions.

Apart from Tireseas, other voices of seers – the Sybil of Cumae and Madame Sosostris – are heard as well. These seers, who appear in Eliot’s The Waste Land, bring back unity to not only the fragments of the poem, but also to the alienated human society. In this term paper these theses will be analyzed and substantiated by first looking at the antique Roman and Greek origins of the Sybil of Cumae and Tireseas and the modern British and antique Egypt origin of Madame Sosostris to then examine the meaning of the three seers in T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land.

2. The origin of the three seers

2.1. Sybil of Cumae in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and in Petronius’ Satyricon

Before the analysis of the function of the seers in Eliot’s The Waste Land, the origin of these figures has to be worked out. The figure of the Sybil of Cumae appears in the epigraph of the poem and is therfore to be analyzed first. In his Notes to The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot stresses that he used Ovid’s Metamorphosis among other literature like several books from the Bible, Baudelair’s Fleurs du Mal or Dante’s Inferno for writing his long poem (ibid., 147ff). Because of this it is important to have a look at the stories of this book in order to analyze the ancient origin of some personages appearing in The Waste Land that are important for this termpaper.

In Greek and Roman mythology Sybils were seers. According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis one of these Sybils, the Sybil of Cumae, is adored by the god Apollo. She answers the questions her visitors ask her by writing them down on leaves. Half of the leaves are always blown away so that the questioner never gets to know the complete answer. When Apollo grants her one will, she wishes as many living years as she holds grains of sand in her hand. She then lives forever but since she only asks for an everlasting life and forgets to ask for everlasting youth, her body declines so that in the end only her voice is left over and, according to Petronius, kept in a bottle (Ovid 2001: 406f and Kleinstück, Müller 1958: 182) Furthermore, in the Metamorphosis and the Aneid both written by Ovid, she guides Aeneas through Hades, the Greek underworld nearby Cumae (Ovid 2001: 406f).

The epigraph itself in which the Sybil of Cumae appears is taken from the Satyricon by Petronius. Petronius himself is known to be an author of the antique decadence (Müller 1958: 284). This may explain the interest of Pound and Eliot in this Roman author. Social criticism taken from antiquity is combined with modern criticism. Petronius’ Satyricon deals with the decadence of Roman society. At a party given by a person called Trimalchio, he tells the story of two boys marking Sybil who is trapped in a bottle. When they ask her what she wants she responds that she wishes to die.

After these findings one can say that the Sybil of Cumae stands for the wish of both everlasting life and death. The image of death is also stressed by her leading Aeneas through the underworold. By being trapped in a jar she represents sterile life and hopelessness. These are some basic ideas Eliot states in The Waste Land when criticizing modern society as we see in an upcoming analytical chapter of this termpaper.

2.2. Tireseas in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and in Sophocles’ The Three Theban Plays

The following analysis of Tireseas in Ovid’s Metamorphosis is based on a German edition of the book. Eliot states, as already pointed out, that he refers to a chapter of the Metamorphosis. According to Ovid, Tireseas is the son of the shepherd Everes and the nymph Chariclo. He unites both sexes within himself after having seen and afterwards hit two snakes loving each other. He is then turned into a woman by a nymph. Tireseas therefore knows the lust men and women feel when having sex. Juno then takes his eyesight after having lost a fight with Jupiter, who claimed that women felt more lust than men. Tireseas agrees with Jupiter. He then gives the blinded the ability of foreseeing. Before dying after having drunk water from a spring, Tireseas foresees the deaths of Narziss and Pentheus (Ovid 2001: 567).

In two earlier writings Tireseas also appears as a blind seer. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King he is announced by the chorus as “the man of god.” (l. 339) Furthermore the chorus says of him that “[t]he truth lives inside him, him alone” (l. 340). He does not see but feel the truth of Oedipus being the murderer of his father and the former King Laius (“I say you are the murderer you hunt.” (l. 413)). At first, Oedipus does not believe him. In the end, Oedipus gets to know the truth by a shepherd who has kept Oedipus as a child. So one can say that Tireseas feels and knows the truth but is not believed. This is true in the first play of Sophocles’ trilogy, too.

In Antigone Tireseas tries to warn Creon who refuses to bury Antigone’s brother. He says that


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Tireseas and other seers in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"
RWTH Aachen University
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T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Tireseas, Madame Sosostris, The Three Theban Plays, Metamorphosis
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Patrick Trapp (Author), 2006, Tireseas and other seers in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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