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Swarming the Endless Plains:

Journeys in The Cantos and The Waste Land

Jeff Grieneisen, State College of Florida



We all know that Eliot acknowledged Ezra Pound as “il miglior fabbro” (the better maker) in The Waste Land, and that Pound provided significant edits to the poem he referred to as “possibly the finest that the modern movement in English has produced.” They borrowed from one another, discussed poetics, and overall influenced each other. In a close reading of The Waste Land and Pound’s “Canto I” and “Canto XVII,” I would like to draw together thematic similarities between the works, as each represents a kind of quest, specifically, a quest that utilizes prophets to foretell the possibilities of earthly happiness or order. There are other details of similarity that help to reinforce the notion that these works, while not parroting one another, are certainly overlapping. My contention is that Eliot and Pound utilize Greek prophets so that they have deities that might answer their questions or direct them toward that ever-elusive paradiso that they seek on earth. To merely pray to a Christian God is not to seek answers, but rather to plead with a divine being who does not respond, except in some symbolic way that must be discerned from mere chance. And so the prophet, namely Tiresias, becomes essential to the works in their respective explorations of structure and order, of truth and beauty.

In Eliot’s “Waste Land,” we find what Steven Helmling calls “a rewrite of ‘Prufrock,’ but this time with Western civilization as the protagonist [that] similarly pictures a world vacillating between the comfortable narcosis of deadness and the frightening challenge of coming back to life” (139). Despite the ambivalence that Helmling attributes to Eliot, we see the reach for meaning, the search for order, and we see this through the use of clairvoyants and prophesy. As he continues, Helmling notes “the power to which the Sybil and Madame Sosostris both lay claim, the power of ‘prophesy,’ of potent utterance in a demoralized world, is a power that Eliot as poet, and The Waste Land as poem, clearly aspire to” (140). Ultimately, he claims that the aspiration and ambivalence are most evident in the footnote about Tiresias:

Tiresias of Greek legend was turned from man to woman when he interrupted two snakes in the act of copulating. He lived then as a woman for seven years, the spell broken only when he again struck those snakes, eight years later, as they copulated again. Because Tiresias had lived as both man and woman, the gods Jove and Juno put to him the task of settling a dispute; namely, does a man or woman get greater pleasure out of sex? He answered, woman, to which Juno angrily condemned him to eternal blindness. Jove then gave him the power of prophesy to overcome his lost eyesight.

As we look to the facsimile edition of The Waste Land, in Burial of the Dead, it is suggested, perhaps by Vivienne, that Eliot replace “the man with three staves” with first “King fishing” and then “fisher King” in the lines “Here is the man with the three staves, and here the Wheel, / And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card” (lines lines 51-2). That change was not taken into the final version, as appears in the Norton Anthology of American Literature (8th ed.) that is taught to so many upcoming scholars, but it shows the interest in fortune-telling through these tarot cards as a way of seeing into the future and gaining necessary insight. Ultimately, there are many stories of the Fisher King, but all include the concept of a wound to the leg (or groin) which must be healed by a magical incantation (asking the right question). As the King suffers, the land suffers, becoming a wasteland. Thus, Eliot seems to present a speaker who is much like the Fisher King—symbolically wounded and seeking that answer to restore order to the world, a way to “shore up” these fragments.

          Tiresias appears in “The Fire Sermon” as the speaker of that section:

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,

Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see  

At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives  

Homeward, and brings the sailor home from the sea”     (lines 218-21).

He follows with an account of everyday, ordinary workers returning home: the typist hanging tidying up and laundry, the evening follies of a successful  businessman, a “Bradford millionaire” unable to get his wife to return his affections. Tiresias ends that segment in a parenthetical statement: “

And I Tiresias have foresuffered all

Enacted on this same divan or bed;

I who have sat by Thebes below the wall

And walked among the lowest of the dead.”     (lines 243-46)

In this way, the prophet Tiresias becomes an everyman, unlucky in love and living in a fragmented world. Indeed, the gift of prophesy might be a curse, in that sitting by Thebes has allowed him to “witness the tragedies of Oedipus and Creon” (footnote) yet without the power to change those  actions.

Of course, Tiresias retains his gift of prophesy in the underworld, and that is where we meet him in Pound’s Cantos. “Canto I” is Pound’s adaptation of Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey. In this, Odysseus, after living for a year with Circe, herself the goddess of magic, prepares to find the way home for him and his men. The poem begins in medias res: “And then went down to the ship,” and traces the plot of Odysseus and his men loading up for the journey, including boarding sheep which they will sacrifice to Tiresias according to custom. They sail until they find the ocean flowing backward, and there enter Hades.

Pound refers to The Cantos as his search for truth and beauty and as a poem containing history, and in it, one can find a lot of autobiographical references, even as Pound sets himself up throughout the poem as Odysseus, as Kung (Confucius), as a Jeffersonian agrarian, among many other personae. “Canto I” as the beginning sets the pace for this exploration, which again is similar to Eliot’s search for order, but differs somewhat in that the search for beauty might be more elusive.  Nonetheless, Tiresias’s prophesy is necessary to help Odysseus/Pound find his way home or to find truth and beauty, and that search for truth and beauty begins in hell, as we must start at the bottom.

The character of Tiresias, the blind prophet, offers Odysseus the opportunity to see more clearly. While searching the underworld for him, Odysseus encounters fallen comrade Elpenor, who had while drunk, fallen from a rooftop of Circe’s house and broken his neck. His soul outpaced Odysseus’s ship, and there, Elpenor implored Odysseus to return and bury him properly, and to espouse his story for all to hear. This is perhaps a way of confirming the importance of tradition and custom, of things being in their proper order.

In preparation to meet Tiresias, Odysseus had prepared the sheep (the “bloody bever”). The prophesy was that Odysseus would return “through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas. / ‘Lose all companions’” (lines 66-7), and in this journey, Pound wrestles with the competing personae of himself, Homer, and Odyssey translator Andreas Divas. The Canto trails away into myth as we watch Odysseus sailing away, past Sirens, and onward. The Canto evokes the myths of Aphrodite, Diana, and the Golden Bough. The final words of “Canto I” are “so that:” and just as the poem begins mid-sentence, so does it end.

We pick up in “Canto XVII”: “So that the vines burst from my fingers” and witness a magical transformation in stark contrast to Hades. This is the poem of Venice, “marble trunks out of stillness” (line 16) “chrysophrase” (line 20)  and Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, feeding his panthers. This would seem to be the paradiso that has been sought.  Of course, with a total of 116 Cantos plus fragments, we know this is not the ending. It is, however, the place where Tiresias has guided Odysseus/Pound. While Eliot ends The Waste Land with the Upinashadic chant “shantih” (“the peace which passeth understanding”), Pound has been led by Tiresias to this magical, enchanted land that, in part, recounts Jason’s voyage to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. It also sees Odysseus as Ulysses now, protected by gods Hermes and Athene who calm the sea for his return to Ithaca.

Within  “Canto XVII,” Pound also assumes the persona of Actaeon, a hunter Artemis turns into a stag to be devoured by his own dogs as punishment for seeing the goddess Diana bathing. Eliot also evokes this myth in “The Fire Sermon” in the lines “The sound of horns and motors” (197). In this myth, we see both ritual sacrifice, where Actaeon becomes the sacrifice, himself, which is important when seeking prophesy. Additionally, this story represents a man who becomes unrecognizable: Actaeon to his hounds, Eliot and Pound to what the world had become.

While we can in no way state that the poems are the same, examining the similarities allows a glimpse into the usage and significance of myth, particularly the concept of prophesy in the search for that which will render the world whole again.



Baym, Nina, editor. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol D. New York: Norton, 2012.

Eliot. T. S. “The Waste Land.” Baym 378-91.

Helmling, Steven. "The Grin of Tiresias: Humor in The Waste Land." Twentieth Century Literature. 36.2, (1990): 137-54. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “Canto I.” Baym 328-9.