This was going to be a quick blog entry, just to address the two short bits of text that appear before the main text of the poem: the epigraph and the dedication. But of course once I started digging I uncovered more and more things to say about these two brief tags. These are the kinds of things you can skip over very easily and yet I think they do add to the total reading experience. In any case, I’m the kind of reader who would be driven crazy by not understanding that Latin quotation. (I took four years of Latin in high school precisely because the habit of so many writers to throw out lines in Latin.)
The Latin (and Greek) of the epigraph translates:
I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, ‘I want to die.’
It comes from The Satyricon by Petronius a Roman work of fiction that survives only in fragmentary form (another fragment!). Wikipedia says: “The surviving portions of the text detail the misadventures of the narrator, Encolpius, and his lover, a handsome sixteen-year-old boy named Giton. Throughout the novel, Encolpius has a hard time keeping his lover faithful to him as he is constantly being enticed away by others.” At first, I didn’t think the greater story of the Satyricon was very important as the line Eliot quotes here is something of a conversational aside; but reading Wikipedia’s summary made me see another connection. It ties in with one of the poem’s major themes: infertility and wounded sexuality. The epigraph also introduces the themes of death and fragmentation.
The figure of the Sibyl here points us in several directions. First, the Sibyl was the guide who lead Aeneas through Hades in the Aeneid. When coupled with the dedication, which is a quote from Dantes’s Purgatorio, and the title of the first section, “The Burial of the Dead”, you get the general idea that we are meant to be thinking about death and journeys into the underworld. The Waste Land then is a type of the heroic journey to the underworld, a major theme in epic poetry. This theme which runs through The Waste Land is one of the reasons I think of it as an epic poem.
Death to the Sibyl, to whom Apollo granted long life but not youth, is not something to be feared but a release that she fervently longs for. For Aeneas visiting the realm of the dead is a means of accessing secret knowledge about the future of Rome. For the Christian death in baptism is a means of accessing eternal life in Christ.
An aside, it occurs to me that all the great epic heroes who venture into the realms of the dead are types of Christ, the true hero of the true myth and their epic journeys are echoes of his harrowing of hell after his death on the cross and before his resurrection on the third day.
Second, the figure of the Sibyl points to the theme of fragmentation. Her prophecies were recorded on loose leaves of paper which then had to be arranged by the reader. The arrangement obviously affected the interpretation of the prophecies. Again, this seems to be Eliot pointing to his method: the reader must piece together the prophetic message from the bits and pieces of various texts that form the poem. The Sibyl is not the only prophet or seer we will encounter in the poem.
Finally, I wanted to note that Eliot’s original draft has a different epigraph, from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Ezra Pound discouraged Eliot from using, saying that Conrad didn’t carry enough weight, wasn’t classical enough. The lines were from the end of the novel when the narrator, Marlow, has travelled up the Congo and found the dying Mr Kurtz:
Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—
‘The horror! The horror!’
Again, you see the theme of death. Interesting that here too you see Kurtz as a visionary, a sort of prophet. What he sees, we do not know except for his reaction: “The horror! The horror!” You also get the theme of a journey with Marlowe’s voyage up the river. The river plays a major role in Eliot’s poetic imagination, especially in the Four Quartets, but rivers are important in The Waste Land as well.
And then there’s the dedication:
For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro.
The Italian means “the better craftsman” or “the better poet”. The words were spoken to Dante by the spirit of a poet who was in Purgatory. Pound was very influential in the revision of the poem. Some major changes, the title not being the least of them, resulted from his commentary. I’m not a huge Pound fan myself; but I have to acknowledge that Pound’s revisions are what pushes the poem from good to great.
Evidently this dedication was not found in the first printing but Eliot dedicated a copy of the poem to Pound with these words and they found their way into a later edition. As I’ve noted previously the Italian is a quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It isn’t at all coincidental that a line from the Purgatorio should find it’s way to the beginning of the poem, Eliot clearly has DAnte in mind in several places in The Waste Land. My own theory about Eliot and Dante is that Eliot’s entire corpus of works when read chronologically seems to be thematic echo of the Commedia. The Waste Land certainly seems to take place in an infernal landscape, in the realm of the dead or of the spiritually dead, or of those who wish they were dead.
This “Exploring The Waste Land” site has a nice (if slightly outdated in terms of webpage design) presentation of the poem with several frames that allow you to see hyperlinked notes, definitions, translations, cross references, texts of works alluded to, commentary, and questions to the reader. It’s very handy and nicely laid out.