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T. S. Eliot Consults the Oracle
The Sibyl and "The Waste Land"
by Christopher Dow
In his review, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” T. S. Eliot argues that “instead of narrative method, [writers] may [and should] now use the mythical method.”1 “The Waste Land” bears out this dictum, and in it, mythical people, places, and incidents abound. However, nothing resonates so fully in this arena as does the presence of the numerous prophets within the poem. Some, like Tiresias, are mythic in origin, and some, such as Buddha and Christ, come from religious traditions. Others, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, hearken to literary sources, and Madame Sosostris is of a definite modern cast. But the first prophet to appear, the Sibyl of Cumae, her aged and withered form suspended in a jar, is the most significant, for she provides a focus to define the roles of Eliot and “The Waste Land” within the mythic continuum.
The Sibyl of Cumae is an oracle of Apollo. She appears in the epigraph, quoted from The Satyricon by Petronius:
For I myself saw with my own eyes the Cumaean Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the boys said to her, “Sibyl, what do you want?” she would reply, “I want to die.”2
Her appearance, before the poem actually begins, both demonstrates and fulfills her role, which is at once symbolic and prophetic. In a great many mythic journeys, the traveler consults an oracle before beginning his or her pilgrimage through the wasteland of an unknown and alien wilderness. By calling on the oracle before the poem begins, Eliot, the poetic traveler, immediately invokes a resonance with the mythic by conforming to this well-established mythic pattern. Traditionally, the adventurer asks a question of the oracle, who presages particulars of the journey, its outcome, or both. In the epigraph, the Sibyl is asked a question by more than one boy, a significant point when the following epigraph to Ezra Pound is considered for, since “The Waste Land” was nearly as much Pound’s work as Eliot’s, this particular poetic journey is, indeed, being undertaken by more than one poet.
Prophets perform a duty within mythic journey that is more important than simply revealing highlights and outcomes. Often mythic journeys and the cultural and political changes they bring about are directly motivated by prophecies. The stories of Oedipus, Jason, Theseus, and Heracles are prime examples of journeys begun not simply by chance or by the intention of the traveler, but specifically because an Apollonian oracle directly inspired their undertakings. The idea that prophets actually impel mythic journeys has a strong relationship to the appearance of the Sibyl at the opening of the poem.
The epigraph, like the Sibil’s jar, is a self-contained unit, and both contain the Sibyl. In a sense, the epigraph is the jar. Prophets and prophecy are the entire world of the epigraph, just as they are the entirety of the jar. The conflation between the epigraph, jar, and prophecy suggests a relationship between the content and form of the epigraph that is focused by the question the boys ask. Notably, the question does not concern the boys, but relates to the Sibyl and asks how she feels about herself, indicating that the prophet is the real subject matter under debate. The Sibyl’s answer further turns the world of prophecy inward, for her reply also deals with herself.
Both question and answer indicate that the real subject matter of prophecy is prophecy itself. Thus, prophetic vision becomes, in a sense, both the entire world of the prophet and the force that motivates that world. Since the contents of the oracular reading are equivalent to its form, and since that form is equivalent to the prefatory words of the poem, the Sibyl’s presence in the epigraph effectively foretells the importance of prophets and prophecy as primary motivators of the poetic journey which ensues as well as the subject matter that journey pursues.
Further, prophets not only launch but continue to propel the very incidents and adventures whose ends they foretell. In many Greek myths begun with auguries by the Sibyl of Cumae or one of her pythonic sisters at Delphi, Gryneium, or Clarus, the prophetic function is either continued by the oracle or, just as often, is taken up by other prophets such as Tiresias. The continuation or assumption of the prophetic role from the Sibyl by others once the journey has begun is an obvious element in “The Waste Land,” as Madame Sosostris and Tiresias, himself, enter to foretell and redefine particulars of this poetic journey. More subtly, it is also an indication of the role of Pound, who takes the work begun by Eliot, and through a process of re-vision, refines and redefines it to its finished state.
Since the presence of the Sibyl conflates subject matter and form, and prophetic words both motivate and propel myth, the epigraph envisions the prophetic role within myth not simply as descriptive but as a unifying motif. There emerges from the epigraph a clear progression of unity that begins with the cohesive quality prophets bring to individual myths. Much of this has already been discussed with regard to individual myths, since most Greek myths and legends of distinction contain seers who appear and reappear to motivate and propel the journey or incidents. But the functions of motivation and continuation extend beyond the boundaries of particular myths.
The Sibyl of Cumae, being an oracle of Apollo, becomes, in essence, all Apollonian oracles since all speak with Apollo’s voice. The voice of Apollo is what is significant, not the vocal cords of an individual oracle. Because of this, it is important to consider the overwhelming effect this one voice has had on Greek mythology. Nearly every significant Greek myth detailing the rise of Greek civilization and culture owes either its existence or its continuation to Apollo and his oracles. Century after century, the voice of Apollo, coming from the lips of his oracles, represented here by the Sibyl of Cumae, ordered and manipulated not only the inception but the growth and flowering of Greek culture. From myth to myth through a millennium, no other single force has played a more significant role in creating Greek culture, and more importantly, sustained that culture sufficiently enough to allow it to become the foundation of modern civilization in general, and Western literature in particular.
Thus, the idea of mythic unity established by prophecy extends simple cohesion within individual myth into a sense of cultural continuation. Prophecy is not simply the root, but the tradition that flowers from that root, making the Sibyl of Cumae an important image with which to begin the poem. Of all the prophets mentioned in the poem, the Sibyl not only represents the single most pervasive cultural voice in human history, she is, personally, by far the oldest and most individually continuous of Apollo’s vocalists. But the idea that prophecy empowers and is empowered by a tradition that extends to the beginnings of time delineates more than the primordial nature of prophecy. Prophecy, being as old as creation, is a gift from the gods. The fact that the Sibyl is a primordial being whose life and influence extends across several millennia and whose power is, in fact, the actual voice of a god, suggests that the ancient and lasting quality of prophecy makes that art a continuing and pervasive influence directly connecting humanity to universal principles.
Traditionally, all the functions enacted by prophets can be ascribed to the poet. The word “poet,” from the Greek, means “maker,” implying that poets produce material which contains new thoughts and new modes of expression. They are, in other words, motivators of culture. In addition, as Robert Graves and others have made equally clear, poetry is an ancient and time-honored occupation that continually carries the substance and tradition of culture. And poetry, like prophecy, is strongly associated with transmission of absolute and eternal knowledge and understanding. Finally, the words of all classical prophets are transmitted through the medium of poetry, the creators of which have helped fix myth and legend into a tacit historical continuum that forms the basis of Western tradition, culture, and civilization.
Clearly, Eliot sees poets in the same light as prophets. Both are creators, motivators, and maintainers of cultural knowledge and tradition, and both unify the integrity of a particular myth and cement myth to myth. And last, both provide vital links between worldly human actions and universal truths and constants. Just as clearly, Eliot sees himself as a member of the poeto-prophetic clan. Prophecy concerns times of change, and mythical prophets always warn of danger in times of transition. In the same way, “The Waste Land” is a prophetic polemic of Modernism, and Eliot is the modern prophet warning the twentieth century, poised between the worlds of Tradition and Progress, of the potential dangers that lie before it.
By invoking the Sibyl of Cumae, Eliot immediately establishes a direct link between his poem and a continuous tradition so ancient that it is primordial. This connection is ideal for Eliot, who purports, through production of writings in the mythic tradition, to be the modern embodiment, carrier, and transmitter of tradition, for it allows him to claim the Apollonian voice as his direct and most ancient antecedent. And, by placing himself within that same chain of tradition, Eliot justifies the idea that he embodies a link in the chain of being which connects humanity to the higher realm of universal principles and truths. This connection, due to its mythic nature as well as to its universality, further legitimizes Eliot’s claim to the importance of his pronouncements and their right to immortality.
In the last analysis, it would seem that Eliot received, or created for himself, an auspicious divination by invoking and consulting the Sibyl.
1 T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” The Dial (November 1923).
2 Translation from: Donald McQuade, Robert Atwan, Martha Banta, Justin Kaplan, David Minter, Cecelia Tichi, and Helen Vendler, The Harper American Literature. (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) 1884.
Eliot, T. S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial (November 1923).
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” The Waste Land and Other Poems. San Diego: HBJ, 1934. 27-54.
McQuade, Donald, Robert Atwan, Martha Banta, Justin Kaplan, David Minter, Cecelia Tichi, and Helen Vendler. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Graves, Robert. Greek Myths. New York: Doubleday, 1981.