A little wile ago I posted an impromptu mid-American lit assignment-reading of the first part of “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot, and just for the fun of it, I’ve decided to make this into a mini series. The post, where I discuss why I really like this poem and read the first part can be found here, so in this post I think we’ll talk a bit more about the second part on its own!
“II. A Game of Chess” is where Eliot’s fragmentation really starts to show: this is not only where his character voices start to blur and go hazy, but where the shape and format of the poem starts to change.
The first part of the second part (okay, hang tight, this might get a bit confusing) sketches a noble woman taking in her surroundings, questioning her life and her everyday. In this part, Eliot’s use of imagery is exquisite and exuberant – you as the reader can almost feel yourself revelling in satin fabrics and lush candle light. The noble woman’s thoughts are disjointed and fragmented, however, and her existence is not a happy one, no matter the jewels and riches she owns.
The second part of the second part (told you this was gonna get bad) is a disjointed conversation between two speakers, neither of which we know the identity of, but whose state of mind we know is anxious, paranoid or at the very least strongly uncertain. This is one of my favourite stanzas of the poem, if only for the line “I think we are in rat’s alley / where the dead men lost their bones.” Normally lines like this don’t really get to me, but this one is just so wonderfully creepy and kind of stands out starkly from the rest of the poem. This is also where Eliot quotes Shakespeare for the second time in about 5 stanzas, saying “those are pearls that were his eyes”, and thus writing himself into the literary historical canon, changing the meaning of that sentence to no longer be about 15th century ships but to now pertain to desperate back alley abortions. Awful subject matter, wonderful poetic implementation.
The third part of the second part (nearly there!) is The Gossip’s part, and this is also delightful. This part is another one that starkly contrasts the rest of the poem, but to be fair, that’s kind of the point of the whole poem, isn’t it – to just be one big contrast, conveying a conflicting set of confusing emotions and situations. In this last part of “A Game of Chess”, we meet a woman in what seems to be a pub, dishing out the gossip on another character whose husband has been away fighting in the first world war. The story gets more and more into the dark secrets and life of the woman not present, Lill, it feels like it is told on a single breath with half a pint recklessly clutched in an eager hand, and it is only occasionally interrupted by the bar keep or pub owner shouting “HURRY UP PLEASE, IT’S TIME”. Time to close the pub down, no doubt, time to get the gossips out, but as a reader you’re inevitably left wondering “time for what else, though?”
Gosh, I love this poem and all its strange features and characters.