I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.
In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock, after having admitted to himself his own insignificance, looks ahead to his inevitable aging and death. He envisions himself walking by the sea. Here, as in all his major poems, Eliot uses the sea to represent death and eternity. The line “I do not think that they will sing to me” remains ambiguous. Since mermaids lure sailors to their deaths, Prufrock might mean that he will never go to sea and hear their siren songs. Or perhaps Prufrock knows the mermaids don’t need to sing because he’s already on his way to join them.
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passed the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Part IV of The Waste Land consists of one short poem, “Death by Water.” The speaker might be Madame Sosostris, who draws the card of the drowned Phoenician Sailor in “The Burial of the Dead,” or Tiresias, the blind prophet in “The Fire Sermon.” The poem connects mortality to the sea, to time, to the Classical past, and to the impersonal forces of nature. The image of Phlebas whirling back into time suggests reincarnation rather than personal resurrection. The turning wheel symbolizes the cosmos as well as the ship of life that sails over seas filled with the dead.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips Or in the dark throat which will not reject them Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s Perpetual angelus.
According to Eliot’s notes, the third of the Four Quartets, he named “The Dry Salvages” for “a small group of rocks with a beacon” off the coast of Massachusetts. The poem tells about the lives, and especially deaths, of those who live beside and upon the sea. Here in section IV, the poet addresses a “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory” and asks her to pray. In this poem, twenty years after writing The Waste Land, Eliot continues to explore the theme of death by water. Here, however, he appears, at least, to have some faith: He responds to the mystery of mortality with prayer.