Eliot’s ‘Game of Chess’
“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
“What is that noise?”
The wind under the door.
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag —
It’s so elegant
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
“I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
“With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
“What shall we ever do?”
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
‘A Game of Chess’, in Eliot’s The Waste Land, captures the neurosis of modernity, through the image of the bourgeois woman, conceit of chess, and motif of regenerative mythology.
Eliot maintains an irresolvable tension between past and present: there is an invitation to interpretability, but underneath remains a tradition of interpretation to be read through. There is some underlying mythology of the Grail, which amidst the pangs of war and modernity, is reconstructed, à la Pound’s ‘Make it New’, yet remains underscored by a pessimistic tone. This is what confronts Eliot, a total fracturing of order and meaning. Eliot offers a modern universal, fractured language, reconciling mythology, connecting the Western canon with Sanskrit, reflecting the intertextuality of the poem, and modernity itself with the corresponding multiplicity of narrative voices. This multiplicity is seen in the form itself where we have the reassurance of the man to the neurotic woman, where the man’s reassurances are askew. However, thereafter, this fragmentation becomes manifest not only in their interpersonal dialogue, but in her inner dialogue: her ‘Do’, and ‘But’, the marks of enjambment, become unaligned with the rest of the poem, a structural distortion which reflects her deterioration.
The section begins with unrhymed iambic pentameter, a blank verse- ‘My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / “Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak’- but this, like the woman, disintegrates, reflecting that of modernity, coming to its ultimate conclusion in the nonsense song, even debasing the master of iambic pentameter, Shakespeare, in allusion to The Tempest: ‘But O O O O that Shakespearean Rag — / It’s so elegant / So intelligent / “What shall I do now?[”]’ Thus, the poem becomes irreducible to any one meter, and, like modernity, becomes jarring, difficult to make sense or rhythm of. By this, one remains ‘waiting for a knock upon the door’, and its familiar rhythm, for the imposition of meaning, for the big Other to return. Accordingly, the neurotic woman fills in this nothingness with excursions and chess. The section is, however, loosely held together by this underlying conceit of the game of chess, an allusion to Middleton’s A Game at Chess, which represents the moves one makes in seduction. Life becomes this game of competition, goal-setting, strategy, which fills in nothingness.
Material reality is illuminated in the juxtaposition of the ‘rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones’, an allusion to the miseries of modernity, the trenches of the War, bereft of allusion, with the bourgeois scene, in which Eliot’s purveyance of the Western canon persists, but here it has become, like the woman, artificial, surrounded by ‘synthetic perfumes’, ‘undead’ in the Dostoyevskian sense: ‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’ And in this imagery, Eliot continues to allude to The Tempest, in which a drowned person’s eyes turn into pearls: ‘I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes’. This unsettling image of pearls for eyes is the ultimate expression of modern alienation from Gattungswesen, with these artificial object-images unable to reinvigorate the barrenness, and this is Eliot’s pessimism.
Eliot employs a repetition of ‘What shall I do?’, ‘What shall we do?’ and eventually, ‘What shall we ever do?’, for she personifies the emptiness of modernity. One does not know what to do with their time in modernity, nor what is meaningful. This is seen in the woman’s paranoia over the wind in the doorway, an allusion to Webster’s The Devil’s Law Case, to which she is reassured that it is just the wind: ‘Nothing again nothing’. This repetition of ‘nothing’ reflects the enveloping nothingness. And this, for Eliot, is due to a loss of religion and spirituality in modernity, a barrenness, like the the Fisher King who seeks regeneration, as reflected in the language, turned over from elsewhere in the poem, like the tilled field, and the juxtaposition in class persists: ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’ (45), ‘Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year’ (195).
And the woman’s neurosis concludes with the final imposition of ordered rhyme: ‘And if it rains, a closed car at four. / And we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.’ This is the last breath of this classical culture before giving away to modernity, its fin de siècle, but also marks a partial return to stability through rhyme, although meter has vanished, the converse of the beginning of the section, and poetry hitherto. Thereafter, the structure collapses into the proletarian dialogue at the bar, uniquely bereft of the allusions to mythology, and meter.