Thwarted Lovers


The motif of thwarted lovers is employed by Eliot throughout the Wasteland to echo the absence of spiritual and emotional love that he sees in the modern world, as a result the love that Eliot usually presents us with in the poem is barren and impotent or in some way crude or base. The first indication of this can be seen in the Hyacinth girl in the Burial of the Dead and the faltering and fractured conversations between the male and female figures in A Game of Chess. However, the clearest example that love has been replaced by lust can be found in the meaningless sexual relationship between the secretary and the carbuncular young man in ‘The Fire Sermon’, the allusion to the Rape of Philomel and the references to prostitution in the song about Mrs. Porter.


Some commentators have argued that Eliot’s disillusionment with love is a result of the death of Jean Verdenal, a friend of Eliot’s who perished in the trenches at Gallipoli in World War One. Verdenal and Eliot met at the Sorbonne and the two are sometimes thought to have shared a homosexual relationship. Whether or not this biographical reading is accurate, there are at least three other clear references to thwarted love that surface at different parts of the poem.


Tristan and Isolde:

In the Wasteland Eliot alludes to Wagner’s operatic version of the story of Tristan and Isolde. The plot is briefly as follows: Tristan, having lost his parents in infancy, has been reared at the court of his uncle, Marke, King of Cornwall. Marke wants to marry Isolde, the daughter of the Irish King, and he sends Tristan to Ireland to win Isolde over and bring her back to Cornwall. However, while in Ireland Tristan and Isolde fall in love with one another, although neither admits it.


Wagner’s opera opens on board the boat which is bringing Tristan and Isolde back to Cornwall. Believing that her love for Tristan is unrequited she determines to end her sorrow by drinking a death-potion; and Tristan, feeling that the woman he loves is about to be wedded to another, agrees to share it with her. However, Isolde’s maid substitutes a love-potion for the poison and after drinking it the two lovers are no longer able to resist one another. When Marke discovers Tristan’s betrayal, he attacks and wounds him and as Tristan bleeds to death Isolde enfolds him in her arms and dies of a broken heart.


Dido and Aeneas:

On his way to Italy from Troy, Aeneas’ ships are blown off course and he lands in Carthage where he meets the beautiful Queen Dido. They fall in love but their romance is short-lived and eventually Aeneas leaves Carthage to carry on with his journey to Italy. Heart broken, Dido builds a pyre of Aeneas left over belongings and immolates herself on it as he sails away.


Anthony and Cleopatra:

Mark Antony, one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire, spends his time in Egypt, living a life of decadence and conducting an affair with the country’s beautiful queen, Cleopatra even though he is already married. In his absence Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, his fellow rulers, condemn Antony for neglecting his duties as a leader in order to live a decadent life by Cleopatra’s side. This is obviously reminiscent of the sordid, sexual and materialistic lives that we are living in the modern wasteland.


Eventually, Anthony’s first wife dies and he returns to Rome where it is agreed that he will marry Octavius sister, Octavia, to cement the relationship between the three rulers. After the wedding Anthony leaves Octavia for Cleopatra which enrages Octavius and prompts him to wage war on Anthony and Cleopatra. Anthony and Cleopatra are defeated in battle and their relationship spirals out of control swinging between protestations of love and accusations of betrayal. At one point Anthony threatens to kill Cleopatra for her treachery and, in order to escape, Cleopatra pretends that she has committed suicide. Anthony, wracked with guilt, decides to commit suicide himself and falls on his sword. Bleeding to death he is carried to where Cleopatra is hiding where they meet one last time before he dies. Following this, Cleopatra kills herself by laying two poisonous snakes to her breast. Once again we see that love breaks down as a result of an absence of trust. It is thought that Eliot used the story of Anthony and Cleopatra as inspiration for the first part of ‘A Game of Chess’.


The Rape of Philomel:

In the ‘Metamorphosis’, Ovid tells the story of the two sisters Philomel and Procne. Procne was married to King Tereus but he also desired her sister. Unable to control his passion and lust, Tereus raped Philomel and in order to prevent her from telling anyone about his terrible crime, Tereus cut out her tongue. Ultimately Philomel weaves the story into a tapestry to tell her sister the awful truth and in order to revenge her sister, Procne kills Tereus; son and feeds him to Tereus who does not know what he is eating. When Tereus finds out what has happened, the two girls flee and Tereus pursues them and the Gods help Philomel to escape by transforming her into a Nightingale. The legend goes that today the nightingale, the bird Philomela was transformed into, cries “Tereu, tereu,” to let the world know the name of her assailant.


The allusion to rape may be meant to act as condemnation of lust and how it has taken place of the love that he should have had for his wife. Perhaps Eliot wants to show the lack of restraint and lack of sense of responsibility that Tereus had by betraying his wife, which would parallel the lack of restraint and responsibility that he sees around him in post-war Europe.