Click here to read the passage from The Waste Land to which this essay refers.
Below are the cards that are mentioned in reference to Madame Sosostris’ tarot reading in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The blank card is not shown. Images are from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Corresponding lines are listed below the cards.
Ten of Swords: “Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor.”
Queen of Cups: “Here is Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.”
Three of Wands: “Here is the man with three staves…”
Wheel of Fortune: “…and here The Wheel…”
Six of Pentacles: “And here is the one-eyed merchant…”
The Hanged Man: “I do not find The Hanged Man.”
Madame Sosostris’ Tarot Reading in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: An Annotative Essay
When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes. (Eliot,Essay on Hamlet, 1917)
In 1922, T.S. Eliot published his long poem, The Waste Land, one of the most influential literary works of the 20th century. His use of fragments of literature, myth, and everyday experience differs from the traditional narrative structure that had been employed by writers of the past. He does not rely on the assumption that his audience has a common cultural background or experience to connect with his work; instead, he writes with a multiplicity of voices that eventually form a unified whole. He accomplishes this feat by what he calls the “mythical method.” When writing about Ulysses in Ulyssess, Order and Myth, 1923, he admires Joyce’s use of myth, in his ability to manipulate “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.” He uses this method himself to structure and give meaning to what he calls “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
In the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” he introduces his method of collaging “fragments [he] has shored against [his] ruin”(430), fragments of experience and culture to give our lives meaning. He also starts to bring together the overarching theme and mythical background of the whole work. He mines the ancient myths of renewal that were used to celebrate the coming of spring, focusing especially on the legend of the Holy Grail. This legend is the story of the quest for a means of renewing the waste land of ordinary existence through the healing of the maimed Fisher King, whose wound represents the illness of his realm. The poet twists these myths and other historical and literary allusions to show that something has gone wrong in modern times, that our world is sick and longing to be healed.
Although Eliot is quite explicit in his copious notes to The Waste Land about his feelings of despair about the modern world, the poem itself offers some hints that there might be a possibility for hope of regeneration, at least for individuals. This is especially apparent in the stanza of the first section which describes a tarot reading, although at first sight it may not seem that way. The epigraph of the poem refers to the Cumaean Sybil, the ancient Roman oracle who guided heroes on their quests. According to myth, she was granted eternal life by Apollo, but not eternal youth, and she becomes a dried up crone in a cage, begging for death. Having established the decay of the oracular power the Sybil represents, Eliot introduces “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante”(43) as a parody of the ancient myth, a contemporary mortal woman with a “bad cold,”(44) who is the “wisest woman in Europe with a wicked pack of cards.”(45) While some critics think the poet is making a reference to Mme. Blavatsky with this character, she is hardly a sybil, with her self important attitude towards clients displayed in her insistence on delivering a horoscope herself, “one must be so careful these days.”(59) But the substance of her reading, as she reveals the cards one at a time, has power and meaning all the same, using the same myths and symbols that Eliot employs throughout the poem.
The first card of the reading, the “drowned Phoenician sailor,”(47) is past hope of life or rebirth, even though he is immersed in water, which appears as a symbol of life and renewal in other parts of the poem. In parentheses, Madame Sosostris adds, “Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!” (48) This is a line from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which in that work is followed by:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (I.sc.ii)
Although the line in the poem seems final and hopeless, Eliot’s method of using allusion to enrich his work yields a depth to the card’s meaning, implying that a “sea-change” will come, that there is hope of a “pearl” even after drowning in the sea of despair that the modern world has produced. Eliot admits that this card is not actually one of the official cards of the standard tarot pack, but the image on the 10 of swords seems appropriate to represent the theme that Eliot gives this card, perhaps even the ambivalence of its meaning, represented by the darkening or lightening sky, depending on the perspective of the reader.
Next, “Belladonna” appears, the “Lady of the Rocks, the lady of situations.”(49) Again there is a possibility of two different readings; Belladonna could refer either to a beautiful woman or to the seductive but deadly nightshade plant. If we use Eliot’s clues, the Queen of Cups fits this card. This Queen holds out a Grail in seemingly benevolent way, and yet she is cut off from the seeker of her gifts by water and rocks. Again Eliot gives us a chance of renewal, but in a way that is fraught with peril. The next card, “the man with three staves,”(51) is identified by Eliot in his notes as “an authentic member of the tarot pack,” (Notes to The Waste Land)and he notes that this card signifies the Fisher King to him. In the 3 of wands, a man stands looking out at a waste land, longing to be healed and to see his land come to life again, but he can only be regenerated through the quest of the hero who searches for spiritual truth and feels compassion for others. Eliot may tell us that there is no hope in the future, for the king or for us, but the card itself holds fragile buds of life in the wands the figure has planted in his waste land.
The fourth card to be revealed is The Wheel (of Fortune), another card that offers a spectrum of meanings. In Eliot’s interpretation of the world as full of “futility and anarchy,” the wheel turns round and round, like the “crowds of people walking in a ring”(56) that Madame Sosostris sees in her vision. To Eliot, we are like the king of Greek myth, Ixion, who was punished for his sins by being condemned for eternity to spin through Tartarus, lashed to a fiery wheel. But the card itself also carries the possibility of chance and change, of spinning the wheel to move to new opportunities. Instead of spinning in a fixed position, repetitively and without direction, The Wheel can take us on a ride that spirals upward, taking us to new heights and vistas.
Eliot now presents us with the “one-eyed merchant,”(53) a card not strictly defined as a member of the deck. However, inspection of the 6 of pentacles shows a figure who does indeed fit that description. This card shows the merchant holding scales and distributing coins as charity. In part III of the poem, Eliot depicts this character as Mr. Eugenides, the “unshaven” merchant who sells currants, a denizen of the grey, bleak, and greedy “unreal city.”(207-211) But the image of the card, while ambivalent, offers the possibility of compassion and balance, of putting the merchant’s coins back into circulation. Like the motif so prevalent in the poem, of stopped up water that needs to be released, this card shows the possibility of allowing our human connections to flow again as well.
Madam Sosostris now tells her client that she is “forbidden to see”(54) what the merchant is carrying on his back, represented by the “next card, which is blank.”(53) Since Eliot was using the RWS deck (as evinced by his description of the 3 of wands as the “man with three staves,” RWS being the only deck in circulation at that time to have that image), it is reasonable to assume that he was thinking of the blank card which came with the deck. He gives no explanation, but it is possible to think of what the merchant “carries on his back” as some kind of treasure or boon that he will distribute to his community, like the coins he hands out to the beggars. And it is tempting to find a comparison of the blank card to the blank stone that comes in a set of runes, which can show not only what is hidden, but also the opportunity of creating one’s own fortune, one’s own destiny.
Eliot ends the reading with The Hanged Man, whom he associates with “the hanged god of Frazer,”(Notes to the Waste Land) who, in his great work on mythology, The Golden Bough,” uses the same motif to describe the vegetation rites that ancient people performed to keep their lands fertile and safe. But instead of presenting the card in a way that completes the ritual of rebirth and regeneration to which the poem has been leading, Eliot has Madame Sosostris say that she does “not find The Hanged Man.”(54-55) He indicates that there is no renewal for us, that the traditions and religions of the past have been lost, and we have only “ruins” of what is left from which to cobble together a personal meaning for our lives today.
Eliot clearly felt that our traditions and beliefs had been smashed and torn beyond repair. But the images and themes he presents in this tarot reading can take on a story of their own. Although he notes that he is “not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards,”(Notes to the Waste Land) his choice of cards reveals that he knows enough to structure a story that can still have different ending from the doom he feels is ahead. This “heap of broken images”(22) that we wander through in our own waste land can still be brought together and made whole by the creative, visionary mind, for “in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes.” Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor, is ready for a sea-change. The Queen of Cups holds out the Grail to the seeker who perseveres in his quest to heal the Fisher King. We can still spin The Wheel of Fortune for a chance at a new life, while compassion and connection to others is in our grasp if we balance our lives and share our gifts. Our own destiny is still to be written on the blank card, and if we search for The Hanged Man, we can right him and accept his blessing and wisdom.
If you are interested in reading more about T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land, here are some sources you might find interesting:
The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, T.S. Eliot, 1980. Includes The Waste Land in its entirety, with Eliot’s own notes.
T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems, Derek Traversi, 1976. An excellent critical study of Eliot’s major works of poetry.
eliotswasteland.tripod.com This is a hypertext site of The Waste Land with complete annotations.
The Golden Bough, A Study of Magic and Religion, James Frazer. There are many editions of this groundbreaking work, some abridged, some illustrated. Eliot relied heavily on it for the mythical background of his poem.
From Ritual to Romance, Jessie L. Weston, 1920. Eliot incorporated into The Wasteland Weston’s theory that the rituals of the ancient vegetation religions were encoded in the tarot.