01 January 2016
2016 comes in with a roar
and ‘the deep sea swell’
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 passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
— TS Eliot, ‘Death by Water’ ( The Waste Land)
‘Death by Water’ is the shortest section of TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, yet its short ten lines comprise the most organised and structured of the five sections of the poem. Here the language is formal and structured, as if it were a parable with old, wise truths about pride that is being retold.
These 10 lines tell the tale of Phlebas the Phoenician, who was killed by water and has been dead for two weeks.
When Eliot says that the dead Phlebas “Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell And the profit and loss,” he suggests that the now-dead Phlebas no longer worries about worldly things such as banking and money-making.
But he is dead far longer than a fortnight, for his dead bones get picked clean by a current under the sea. As he entered the whirlpool, his whole life seemed to pass before him, from his youth through to this adult years. Perhaps he is trying to make sense of his life only after to find it is too late to do anything about it.
Is it only when we find ourselves on the edge or on the brink of death that we finally take stock of our lives and think deeply about the meaning of life? Is it only then that we find how shallow we have been?
Phlebas, “who was once handsome and tall as you” is a cautionary figure for anyone who walks around thinking I am awesome and unsinkable.
New Year’s Day is a good day to realise how we all stand on the edge, on the brink, and to take stock of the life that has passed before us, to make sense of it, and to realise that we all stand on the brink.
These thoughts came to mind this afternoon as I stood on the pier in Rush in north Co Dublin and looked windward, watching the waves from the south-east break against the seawall of the small fishing harbour and against the tiny cove of the beach. It was my first beach walk of the New Year.
There is an old proverb about March that says: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” Of course, when March starts it is still winter, and by the end of the month spring has begun.
But 2016 has come in like a lion this good year, and there is no prospect of the winter storms being tamed over the next few days.
There was no sunset to see this evening, and darkness fell suddenly on Rush before we left and drove on towards Skerries. There, the tide was in at the harbour, and although the harbour waters looked deceptively calm, it was soon clear that this was merely a deceit in the dark. On the other side of Red Island, the stormy waves were battering the South Strand, and even in the dark evening, looking out to sea, it was possible to see the white foam of the waves for long stretches.