Death by Water: by T. S. Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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      In this section-Death by Water, Eliot shows the significance of water as a means of purification and re-birth. There are two associations-one from Shakespeare's The Tempest and the other from the ancient Egyptian myth of the god of fertility. The death of Phlebas, the Greek sailor, is an example of people who devote themselves to worldly pursuits. Their youth and strength ultimately will be consumed by death.


      The poet tells the story of Phlebas, a young and handsome sailor who was drowned after leading a boring business career. He was caught in a whirlpool and passed through various stages. There is no chance of re-birth for the sailor who represents the modern man, because there is no desire to follow spiritual values. The rejection of higher values is the cause of the inevitable decay of modern civilization.

There is no chance of re-birth for the sailor who represents the modern man, because there is no desire to follow spiritual values.
Death by Water

      Phlebas, the Phoenician who died a fortnight back, forgot the cry of sea gulls and the tide of deep sea and profit-and-loss account of his business. The under-current of the sea picked up his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell among the waves, he passed the stages of old age and youth till he was swallowed by the whirlpool of death. Jew or non-Jew, whoever you are, who turn the wheel and look for the wind on your voyage, remember the fate of Phlebas, the worldly merchant who was as hand-some and tall as you and who died without any hope of rebirth or resurrection.


      Phlebas the ... and tall as you (line. 312-321): Eliot gives the story of Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor who took to business and ultimately died on the sea. The moral is that all men are travelers subject to the lure of change, decay and death. The sailor has forgotten the cry of sea-gull, the roaring of the rough waves and his business affairs. His body rose and fell in the waves and ultimately he was sucked by the whirlpool of death.

      The first reference is to the song of Ariel sung to Prince Ferdinand about his father's death - "Full fathom five thy father lies." The drowned body has suffered "a sea-change into something rich and strange." The second reference, according to Miss Weston, is to the ancient ritual in Egypt, where an effigy of the fertility god was thrown into sea at Alexandria to indicate his death. The head was carried by the waves and was followed towards Byblos where it was salvaged and worshipped as the god re-born. There is a contrast between the drowning of the effigy and the drowning of Phlebas. There is no re-birth in the case of the above sailor because he has wasted his life in worldly pursuits. Salvation is possible for those who pursue the things of the spirit and have faith in God. This is a warning to the modern man that he must bear in mind the death of a drowned sailor, and take a lesson from him to devote his life to higher values. The last line sum up the morale of the section - 'Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." Beware, perhaps your fate may be similar to his.

      Death By Water is a symbol of purification and rebirth. In The Waste Land, water has become a source of death, because a man leads a life of the senses and in pursuit of wealth. Phlebas, the Phoenician sailor is an example of the modern businessman, caught in the whirlpool of activity and accounting, he meets his death. There is no re-birth for him because his life has no element of moral values.


L. 313. Gulls: The sea-fowls. Sea swell: tide.

L. 313 Forgot the sea swell The Phoenician sailor was very much acquainted with the cry of sea-bird and the tides of the ocean. After his death these things were of no significance to him.

L. 314. Profit and Loss: Being a sailor and a businessman, he was very careful in maintaining his accounts.

L. 316. His bones in whispers. As his bones moved on the waves and clashed, they seemed to whisper among themselves.

L. 317. He passed....and youth: The references is to the immersion of the effigy of god Osiris who passed the various stages of life in the reverse order i.e. he gets old as he rises and falls on the waves. Then he becomes a boy and finally he is re-born.

318. Entering the whirlpool: Swallowed by death.

L. 319. Gentile: Non-Jewish community.

L. 320. O windward. This is a warning to all mankind (both Jews and non-Jews) to beware of the materialistic life and worldly pursuits like turning the wheel and looking to the direction of the wind.

L. 321. Consider you: Reflect on the end and the doom of Plebas, the worldly merchant. The idea is that the people who devote themselves to worldly pursuits and accumulation of riches, will be punished and drowned in whirlpool of death. Their youth, strength and wealth will not be of any use to them. Deliverance from death can be achieved only through pursuit of moral values and practice of love of God.

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