The manner in which Tarot cards play a role in the work of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ Essay
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“Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.”
This is when tarot cards introduced in the work of Eliot ‘The Wasteland’ in first poem ‘ the Burial of the Dead’.
Tarot cards, undoubtedly, play a very important role as the cards. Various reasons account for this
1. The predictions in ‘the Burial of the Dead’ come true as the unfolding of consequences in the other poems in the collection namely ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Fire Sermon’, ‘Death by Water’ and ‘What the Thunder Said’.
It is a sort of introduction to the proceeding poems. Eliot intentionally calls the cards wicked since the cards go on to reveal all the misfortunate wicked state of the world- now a WASTELAND.
2. The five elements of nature seen in the cards are parallel to division of the collection into five parts with each part representing an element of the nature.
3. The cards signify the helplessness of the people, and they have lost all hope in themselves and thus have to resort to astrological means to attain hope.
4. It provides an insight into the events that take place. The world can also now be considered to be such a wasteland that in order to gain insight into certain happenings, or people, me must resort to superior divinatory powers.
5. As each card connects to the other in tarot i.e. a number of cards form one prediction, all the poems are interconnected. The drowned Phoenician sailor is introduced in the ‘Burial of the dead’, then in A game of Chess there is a line to the effect ‘Those are the pearls that were his eyes’ refers to the previous poem and eventually the final reference is made in the poem ‘Death by Water’ wherein he dies. Rats are a similar repetitive mystical element. In a Game of Chess they are supposedly in rat’s alley and in the fire sermon, ‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation’. Thus just as the cards have some feature common so are the poems intertwined.
Also the fact that Madame Sosostris was famous as a clairvoyant, and considered wise indicates the popularity of tarot at the time. The Wasteland as a collection of modern poems enjoys great popularity.
Before identifying similarities between both tarot cards and the works of Eliot, we need to understand what tarot cards are.
A deck of Tarot cards are seventy-eight in number. It is divided into two parts: the major arcana that have twenty-two cards and the minor arcana with fifty-six cards. The major arcana consists of figure cards that indicate that indicate that destiny has more control on the future of the person than the person itself. The minor arcana is similar to the conventional deck of cards with hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. However, here the suits are that of cups, swords, wands and pentacles. Swords signify tension or stress, cups cover the emotional aspects especially love, pentacles are the cards involving money and wands or stave with hard work or physical work. Each suit has fourteen cards from one to ten and the pages, knights, queens and kings. An introduction by a deck of tarot cards would be thus.
Not only do I know your fortune and your future,
I am the miniature universe; I have been given birth by nature.
In me lie the Wiccan elements of nature numbered four,
Earth, fire, water and air that make the cosmos.
Major and minor arcana, I am divided in two,
Swords, wands, cups and pentacles form my crew.
Minor arcana is what they are called,
In them fifty six numbers installed.
My first suit the swords is the element of air,
Associated with mental activity, trouble, strife and scare.
In the conventional deck it is the spade,
And also signifies masculinity, you can’t invade.
And next come the diamonds aka the pentacles,
Money, land and prosperity usually it brings.
It is the earth, one that is for survival is essential,
It may be sweet like a friend or bitter akin a rival.
The hearts are in me the almighty cups-
From it love is the lava that erupts.
It is the possessor of the essential water,
Do not underestimate it, it can get you slaughtered.
The last is the element of fire in the wand,
Often known as staves- with clubs it forms the bond.
Growth, enterprise and creativity it demands-
Hard work is for success it commands.
Moreover are the major arcana- twenty two,
That has amongst it the hermit, chariot, lovers and the fool.
All together I make seventy eight-
Called I am tarot- that informs you of your fate.
In the Burial of the Dead, Madame Sosostris is quoted as saying:
“Here is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are the pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves and here the Wheel,
Ad here is the one-eyed merchant, and this cards
Which is blank, is something that he carries on his back
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people walking around in a ring.
From this extract, many tarot cards do exist in reality. Their meanings are similar to the end predicted in the poems that follow.
1. A sailor: whom Sosostris calls A drowned Phoenician sailor: The sailor with the wand as a means of oaring the boat forward signifies the use of physical strength. It also shows the turbulent water.
In the poem ‘Death by Water’; ‘a current under the sea picked his bones’ shows that the water in which Phlebas, the Phoenician Sailor drowns was turbulent, it is quoted to be a ‘whilpool’.
2. Three staves; reportedly the man with three staves: The three staves represent opportunity, which if neglected due to pride, greed or arrogance will lead to hampering of the efforts. Phlebas, the man concerned obsessed with profit and loss i.e. greed eventually suffers.
3. The wheel: It is the Wheel of Fortune marking a change likely to come. It may hold unpleasant surprises. In Death by Water, the wheel of fortune has brought about a change in Phlebus’s circle-wheel of life, in which the ship’s steering wheel played a role.
4. The hanged man: calls for a temporary pause in life. Preaches cultivation of patience and sacrifice and shuns selfishness, manipulation and emotional blackmail.
“The river’s tent is broken”: in the Fire Sermon calls for stagnation or a pause in life. Indifference has overcome man, as in the case of the typist who responds only by heaving a sigh of relief after sex, or Elizabeth who remains a virgin all her life after the betrayal by Leicester. Tiresias, is a deformed man unique like the hanged man.
“Old man with wrinkled female breasts.”
5. Death: A new beginning, with the end of an age. Here all that is good is dead as Jesus is crucified
Allusion in ‘What the Thunder Said’: ‘He who was living is now dead.’ The title ‘The burial of the dead’ is a further reference.
6. The star also called Water, as it is governed by Aquarius. The woman pours water from two pitchers. It provides understanding and hope for the future. In order to get rid of the hideous elements of the Wasteland, it is important for us to cultivate hope as seen in the poem ‘The Hollow Men’ written as presumably a summary of the Wasteland. Eliot write For Thine is the kingdom. Also the element of water here is very powerful. While an abundance of it in the life of Phlebas, the Phoenician Sailor kills him; a lack of water causes problem in the poem ‘What the Thunder Said.”
Eliot widely uses the four elements of nature in his poems. Tarot have four element’s of nature too, and the fifth element is seen in their divinatory powers. In each of Eliot’s poems, these elements of nature play a vital role.
In the Burial of the Dead there is line to the effect:
‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land’ and also
‘Winter kept us warm, covering earth in forgetful snow.’
IN the Game of Chess,
‘What is that noise? The wind under the door’
In the poem ‘What the Thunder Said’,
Water and earth are mentioned through lines
“Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road.”
Air is through the lines
“What is that sound high in the air”
“There is the empty chapel, only the winds home.”
Fire is brought in through the lines
“In a flash of lightening.”
The division of the collection of wasteland into five parts is due to the five elements of nature with the added element of spirit or the heavens. To this context, Eliot refer to Jesus in ‘What the Thunder said’
“After the frosty silence in the garden”,
When Jesus was apprehended at the Garden of Gethsemane as a consequence of Brutus betraying him and also the lines,
“He who was living is now dead,
We who were living are now dying”
A title ‘The fire sermon’ is with reference to a sermon by the saint Buddha. The collection of poems also ends with the words ‘Shantih, shantih, shantih’ and gives a message of Datta, Dayadhvam and Damyata i.e. give, sympathize and control.
This is significant as each tarot suit is also associated with an element of nature. Cups correspond to water, Swords to air, Wands to fir and Pentacles to earth.
A parallel can also be drawn between a tarot card and each poem that Eliot has written in Wasteland.
1. The Burial of the Dead: the five of pentacles- pentacles for the element of earth in the burial of the dead.
“Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow.” Winter is also the season associated with the element of the earth.
The poem is divided into five stanzas: as the card has five pentacles. The card talks of an undergoing phase of hardships. The central theme of the Wasteland is to highlight the hardships that the people are undergoing.
2. The second poem Game of Chess corresponds to the card of The Moon. The white moon in the black sky is similar to the game of chess. Even the three animals in the tarot: the wolf, the dog and the scorpion pint to the three classes in society; the rich, middle class and the commoners, by the presence of three different animals. It is the card of risk and perils. It calls for caution since the path is difficult. Lil is in this poem cautioned by her friends to ‘make herself smart’ for poor Albert.
3. The Hermit initiated the title Fire Sermon, a sermon by Buddha . It is a warning against thoughtlessness, and shuns impatience and loneliness. Experience stands out. In the poem, stagnation of the river as well as the beseeching “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song” calls for a pause in the humdrum meaningless life that needs the experience of a hermit. The element of fire with the word ‘burning’. This calls for imploring the need to be cleanst.
4. The Sailor is of course an appropriate card for Death By Water. He drowned in the turbulent rivers, and his wand signifying the physical effort that was put in but went in vain, with the death of Phlebus.
5. The Tower is card that can be closely related to ‘What the Thunder Said’. The element of air is coupled in the card as well as in the poem.
“There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings.”
The atmosphere of void is created thus.
The card signifies imprisonment in an unwanted place, restrictions imposed as in the love story of Elizabeth and Leicester, where Elizabeth died a virgin. To gain freedom from this unwanted place the Wasteland, we must follow the path of Datta, Dayadhvam and Damyata i.e. give, sympathize and control.
The syntax of the poems of wasteland have a sort of mystical element in it. The thoughts are fragments which do not reveal the whole truth. This can also be a resort to show that they are images of what the cards indicate by revealing only parts of history and the present circumstances.
Our life and worlds in today’s wasteland may be reflected back to us in the richly woven symbols of tarot that have some deep significant meaning other than the indicated one. The contemplating hidden truth behind each card is similar to a truth of life, each active today or dormant. Thus tarot can be concluded to be a wise being endowed with divine intelligence by nature itself. In spite of destiny having a great role in deciding the fate of a person, the ultimate outcome is a result of man’s action. This is the also what tarot cards specifically wish to convey.