My squib today is about the epigraph to The Waste Land, which I had forgotten refers to the Sybil of Cumae, about whom more below. I’ve read the epigraph (and its translation) many times in the Norton Anthology and more recently in The Oxford Book of American Poetry and elsewhere, but only this week was I reminded by the composer Thierry Lancino--who had included a few lines of Eliot in a recent composition—of the wider resonances of the reference. (Again, apologies, if this is old hat.)
First, there’s the epigraph to Eliot’s poem, taken from Petronius’s Satyricon:
Here is the translation: “For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked the Sibyl, ‘what do you want?’ she answered 'I want to die.’”
The story the Sybil of Cumae (quoted off the Web) goes something like this: “During the seven years when the Theban prophet Teiresias had been a woman . . . he was said to have had a daughter, Daphne, radiant as the day. It is no surprise that she caught the attention of a god, Apollo no less, who granted her the gift of prophecy and anything else she asked for. She grabbed up a handful of sand and demanded to live as many years as there were grains of sand in her grasp, but neglected to ask for eternal youth. When she spurned Apollo’s love, he refused to grant the omitted boon, and she was fated to grow old. She became the Sybil of Cumae, in Italy, and continued to age, withering away until she was hung upside down in a bottle, saying only that she wished to die.”
The allusion gives particular poignancy to Eliot’s poem, not least of all when Teiresias speaks in the third section, The Fire Sermon:
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun's last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest--
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with a bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired
Endeavors to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defense;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .
The Sybil was a transitional figure between the religion of the ancients and Christianity. She is said to have foretold the coming of Christ and is alluded to in the Dies irea:
Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla:
teste David cum Sibylla.
(That day of wrath, that dreadful day, / shall heaven and earth in ashes lay, / as David and the Sybil say.)
Another interesting resonance, I suspect, to Eliot’s masterpiece! The sly Possum.