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Her cries aroused the dastard tyrant’s wrath, and frightened him, lest ever his foul deed might shock his kingdom: and, roused at once by rage and guilty fear . . . he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless, and cut it with his sword

—Ovid on Philomela, 8 CE

CHIRON [to Lavinia] Nay then, I’ll stop your mouth. [Grabs her, covering her mouth.]

—William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, 1594

I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth

—Christine Blasey Ford, “Opening Statement,” NPR, 2018

Some stories are told and retold: they seem to strike a profound chord and to resonate in new ways. The story of Philomela, for example, reappears in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline when Imogen has fallen asleep while reading Ovid’s tale. Imogen’s bedroom is described—by a creepy Iachimo as he watches her—with details similar to those in “A Game of Chess.” Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is also raped and her tongue cut out. Titus compares her to Philomela, but the assault is even worse: her hands are cut off so that, unlike Philomela, she can not even weave a tapestry of her story. Today the story reappears in commentary and art: The Colby College website account claims it “provides a powerful warning to those who would silence their victims” because, as it does in Ovid, “the truth will out!”  Paisley Rekdal retells it to expose the demand for a story. In the Margate exhibition recalling Eliot’s recuperation there, it appears as a graphic image of sorrow.[1] For the #MeToo generation, the story of Philomela, a recurrent allusion in “The Waste Land,” provides an intense articulation of our own experiences.

Image from an Attic wine cup, circa 490 BCE, depicting Philomela and Procne preparing to kill Itys. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 1. Image from an Attic wine cup, circa 490 BCE, depicting Philomela and Procne preparing to kill Itys. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I have been interested for some time in the effect of contextualizing allusions within their full stories to rethink how they function. Traditional definitions emphasize how allusions can import meanings and connotations by a word or image or brief phrase that may evoke intense feeling, but that may also displace meaning from the immediate scene to a larger and more abstract idea. Megan Quigley, in her introduction, describes her own experience of being directed “away from Philomel to Nightingales and Keats.” Yet the massing of allusions in “The Waste Land” has often had the unfortunate effect of presenting the poem as a kind of puzzle to be solved rather than an immense and rich experience of many scenes and voices. Notes and citations send us to slight summaries and sources carrying little emotional weight. Notes to “The Waste Land,” for example, typically summarize Ovid’s Tereus and Philomela, explain the connections to Shakespeare, comment on “jug, jug” as a conventional representation of bird song, and add a comment on the image as one of violated innocence. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd edition (in use when I was a graduate student) says she was “ravished,” an archaic term meaning to seize and carry away by force but not necessarily even including rape.[2] These notes remain detached facts about Eliot’s method, the ironic contrast or comparison of past and present. But in many cases the full stories evoke passionate intensity from directly known or partially known experience, what is, in fact, understood and felt. Perhaps the most telling change we could offer students reading “The Waste Land” today would be placing it back in its many complex historical and cultural contexts, rather than studying only brief notes and summaries of sources. Students who learn to analyze original sources on their own can discover the fascination of archival research. In a recent modernism seminar, for example, a Classics major told me with excitement that “The Waste Land” sent her off in many new directions: she had independently made new—and revealing—links with the Aeneid.

“A Game of Chess” opens with an ironic allusion to Cleopatra on her barge, both gorgeous and artificial. Dido, Queen of Carthage, appears in “laquearia,” the roof of her palace in the Aeneid as Aeneas tells his life story and she falls in love (line 92). Cleopatra and Dido are great monarchs who rule their countries. Both fall in love and, abandoned, rage—then commit suicide. In both Shakespeare’s play and Virgil’s epic, the women are blamed for distracting great men from war and conquest; when both men abandon them to return to war, their deaths are a final silence. A third queen appears in an allusion to sexual violence appearing repeatedly in the poem, the story of Philomela and her sister Procne, wife of Tereus and Queen of Thrace. The image of Philomela, raped, her tongue cut out, and her transformation into a nightingale with an “inviolable” song, was for long—and in some accounts still is—read as symbolizing purity and idealism, once valued but lost in the modern world though her song lives on: “‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears” (line 103).

But the story is much bigger and more disturbing than Philomela’s brutal rape and mutilation. Trapped and guarded, she weaves her story and a servant sneaks it out to Procne, who, also stunned into silence by rage, frees Philomela. Together they plot a horrific revenge: as her own son by Tereus weeps and cries to her, Procne lops off his limbs; Philomela cuts off his head; and together they chop him to bits, cook him, and feed him to Tereus. When Procne, “curst with joy” reveals that he has eaten his son, they flee his rage.[3] All are turned into birds: Philomela a nightingale, Procne a swallow, and Tereus a hoopoe, which, unlike the songbirds, is fierce and has an odd cry. Though Procne is not named in “The Waste Land,” Eliot adds her at the end of the poem—“Quando fiam uti chelidon” (“When shall I be as the swallow”) a cry also in the end of the “Pervigilium Veneris,” ironic origin of  “Prufrock’s Pervigilium” (line 429). So the backstory of this violent rape adds a mother who slaughters her own son, cannibalism, and metamorphoses into voices that have been read traditionally as positive transformation.

I was astonished, on rereading Grover Smith’s commentary from 1956, framed in the then-standard account of the poem as paralleling the Grail legends: he identifies the opening upper-class woman speaker with Belladonna and “a burning Dido, wronged perhaps, but faithless to her household gods.” She has, he acknowledges, been a victim—“in one sense”—but the real victim is “the quester” of the Grail legend, who has become the Fisher King (and also here the male narrator): “it is he who has been silenced . . . through a failure symbolically equivalent to the crime of Tereus.”[4] Smith’s claim of equivalence is unclear and not developed, yet it moves us further and further from the scene itself. And for Smith, the narrator of this passage finds himself with a “neurotic, shrewish woman of fashion” as a wife (T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays, 79). It is the man who suffers. I was more astonished that I had also, decades ago, accepted the idea of the nightingale’s song as representing a past with “at least an ideal which transcended time and was acknowledged.”[5] I do think that was wrong, but in the time of #MeToo, it is simply untenable.

Reading “A Game of Chess” today calls for a new context--one in which women are not simply individual images from many ancient tales but a series of the silenced. The scene opens with Philomela and three queens who are betrayed, of whom two are initially great monarchs and passionate lovers driven to suicide by their love for great warriors, and one who takes a violent revenge before becoming a bird: “O swallow swallow” (line 429). Only Philomela, a virgin, innocent and trusting and destroyed, is affirmed. The queens, seldom studied, are powerful women equally silenced but not mourned or idealized. As an obscure allusion to Ovid in Eliot’s notes, briefly summarized and explained as about “ravishing” or the silencing of Tereus, Philomela’s story can seem merely an academic exercise in demonstrating irony and overall unity. As a story, told and retold, of women raped, abandoned, silenced, it takes on the passionate intensity of genuine felt experience and fear, a profoundly ambiguous tale of recognition, evasion of women’s experience, and the motivation for #MeToo. For students of this generation, it takes on a depth, power, and complexity grounded in but moving far beyond summary notes.


[1] At the Violet Hour was an exhibition from February 3–March 11, 2018, at the Nayland Rock Hotel, Margate.

[2] T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd edition, ed. Alexander W. Allison, Arthur M. Eastman, and Arthur J. Carr (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), 1001–1012, 1004n8.

[3] Ovid, “Tereus and Philomela,” Metamorphoses 6, book 6.

[4] Grover Smith, T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 80.

[5] Nancy K. Gish, Time in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot: A Study in Structure and Theme (London: Macmillan, 1981), 56.