The Role Of Cleopatra In The Waste Land By T.S. Eliot

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T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is oft-described as a poem of fragmentation. In the wake of the first World War, Eliot was left to contend with a civilization in pieces: he felt that Western culture, chiefly his adopted England, was in a state of moral decay and artistic stasis. The people of this culture are “dying/ with little patience”, left only with Eliot’s dizzying “fragments” — borrowed snatches of literature, colloquialisms, mysticism and religion — to “shore against their ruins”, or scavenge for meaning. The Waste Land is a response to a modern world bereft of apparent meaning. Through the development of the poem, Eliot borrows from England’s colonies. He exoticizes borrowings from North Africa and the subcontinent through lush description. This turn outside of Western canon is made more striking against the sheer volume of references to Greek and Roman tradition — including references to Apollo’s Prophet Tiresias and Ovid’s Philomel — and to English classics — Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Hamlet and Spenser’s Prothalamion. Eliot’s references to the ‘East’ are much less numerous and thus pique interest. In the second section of the poem titled ‘A Game of Chess’, Eliot describes a woman reminiscent of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen famous for her purported beauty and her lavish lifestyle. What purpose does this reference to the East serve? An examination of Cleopatra’s function in the second section of the poem will direct an effective investigation.

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In the opening of ‘A Game of Chess’ Eliot introduces a woman who sits upon a chair “like a burnished throne”. This descriptor is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra where the same phrase is used to describe Cleopatra’s barge upon which she travels to Antony. It may then be inferred that the unnamed woman described in the first half of the section is suggestive of, or is, Cleopatra. The parallels between Eliot’s verse and Shakespeare’s passage lend further support to this assertion. Shakespeare describes the vessel as “burning upon the water” and Eliot describes her chair as “glowing upon the marble”. The sails are “so perfumed” as to evoke Nature’s devotion in Shakespeare’s rendition and similarly, Eliot describes her perfumes as “drowning the sense in odours”. Other parallel imagery is in rich descriptions of color — gold and silver — and the adoring presence of Cupid or a singular Cupidon, a diminutive counterpart named by Eliot. Sonically, too, the two passages echo each other: Eliot and Shakespeare both utilize unrhymed iambic pentameter or blank verse in their description of the Egyptian queen. Given the likeness of the two passages, and Eliot’s own notes admitting the inspiration, one can assume, for the purpose of this analysis, that the unnamed woman refers to Cleopatra.

What role does the description of the famed Queen of Egypt serve within the landscape of Eliot’s verse? The hyperbolic splendor of the verse is reminiscent of Epic poetry: Eliot references and borrows from Spenser, Dante and Milton at various parts of his work. However, the result is “troubled, confused” like the abundance of perfume in the lavish chamber — instead of the triumphant tones and great forces that propelled Epics that acted as inspiration for The Waste Land, the sequence instead reads as fragmentary and sad. Eliot’s Cleopatra does not defy age itself like her Shakespearean counterpart does, nor does her person “beggar all description”. Eliot’s Cleopatra is no femme fatale. Instead, she is depicted as nervous and desperate, trapped with a lover too shell shocked and preoccupied with the trauma of war to speak to her. Despite the excess of the “glitter of jewels” and “satin cases”, the indulgence rings hollow. The perfume is “strange and synthetic” and the candle flames “fling…sad light”. This can be read as a commentary on the excessive consumerism of the modern age, spurred on by the introduction of mass production. The old classics will wither in the new society: Shakespeare is reduced to a fragmented portion of a Shakespeherian Rag. Cleopatra’s indulgence is hollow: for all her glamor she is as affected by the war as all the wandering masses of London. Her anxieties and failure to connect with her partner are demonstrative of this hollowness. Eliot may be using the figure of Cleopatra to signify the excess of Modernist society and the hollowness of this consumerism.

This analysis lends itself to another defensible explication. Reading Eliot’s Cleopatra as a symbol for excess further suggests that she stands for sin and the decay of civilization. We see Eliot’s preoccupation with decay in the following half of the section. One of the women looks prematurely “antique”, a false representation of something as older than it is, like the bombastic descriptions that opened the section. Her teeth have fallen out because of the abortion medication she has consumed. There is no regeneration or birth in Eliot’s landscape: only rot and decay.

While potentially satisfying analyses, reading the woman we understand to be Cleopatra as a commentary on excess or as a harkening of the collapse of civilization misses the essential discussion of the disparity between the colonizer and colonized. Following WWI, Europe’s cartography underwent major change — empires shifted, dissolved, and formed. However, the British Empire and its colonies were intact at the time The Waste Land was published. Eliot, as an American alien finding his footing in his adopted homeland, finds order and value in colonialism. The structure of the poem changes with the introduction of the colonial subject: the enjambment and disorienting meter, which previously oscillated between free verse and inserted heroic couplets, settle into blank verse that is sustained for most of the first half. Contrasting with the fragmented enjambment of the previous section, much of the description of Cleopatra is end-stopped and orderly. Not only does this suggest a vestige of form in an amorphous wasteland, it also feels like constriction at the level of form and meter. Eliot’s Cleopatra is different than Shakespeare’s for primarily this reason: Eliot distinctly Others her for his own gain. Eliot was not British, but he was not a colonial subject either — by defining the subject as such, and by differentiating them as a racial other, the colonizer is able to create a racial self-image. By differentiating himself from a subject, and placing himself in the position of the colonizer, Eliot not only assures himself a place in London society but also justifies his access to English and Western canon. Eliot’s use of Cleopatra is essential to his own identity and poetic authority

How does Eliot ‘other’ Cleopatra and to what end? Othering is the belief that the subject is not a human like the colonized but is rather a set of inferior or materialistic traits to be defined and quantified by the colonizer. Cleopatra is set apart in three ways: as a woman, as a consumer and as a racial other. She is reduced to either a glorified part of her body or completely as commodity. Cleopatra is defined and connoted by the material items that surround her: “glass”, “cases of rich profusion” and by “her jewels”. Unlike its Shakespearean counterpart, Eliot makes distinct references to the products of colonialism and trade. The woman sits among “vials of ivory”, especially notable given the references to Africa, and her silky “satin cases”. Despite her famed beauty, we are not privy to her physical form nor are we told her name; she is instead defined by the materials that surround her. She is not given a voice that will convey her interiority, she cannot speak with the same regal air with which she is introduced. It is instead her hair, a biologically dead part of the body, that “glows into words”. The materials that surround her are aesthetically pleasing to the eye but do not contain meaning. Even Shakespeare is reduced to a rag or song sung incorrectly. The colonized subject cannot access the English literary tradition, and thus cannot even successfully quote Shakespeare. In comparison, Eliot puts himself forward as anthropologist, who can maneuver both literary empires, whether sourcing Milton or Upanishads

The examination of Cleopatra’s role in the The Waste Land yielded multiple threads of thought: Cleopatra may stand for excessive consumption and its perils, she may stand for the sin and collapse of empire, or she may stand in for the colonized other. The final exploration incorporated ideas from the previous two and also probed into sociological contexts — of Othering Cleopatra through the description of her riches, by limiting her speech as the level of form and dialogue and by changing telling aspects of the source material. The insertion of ivory vials and satin silks, common images of colonial spoils, add merit to this reading. Eliot turns toward the East in search for meaning among fragments and in the process furthers his place in literary circles by pillaging Eastern image and tradition.

01 February 2021

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