Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tristan & The Wasteland: A Foot-Note

Near the beginning of T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, two quotations from Tristan And Isolde are used to bracket some cryptic lines about a young woman and a hyacinth garden. Here is how it goes:

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?

'You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
--Yet when we came back,late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed' und leer das Meer.

The first lines ("Fresh blows the wind/ Homeward bound/ My Irish girl/ Where are waiting?") occur at the beginning of Wagner's opera, as Tristan's ship is bringing Isolde back from Ireland to Cornwall, to marry King Marke, Tristan's uncle and stepfather. One of the sailors is singing this song, which Isolde (an Irish princess) can only hear with bitterness, having fallen in love with Tristan--who has, almost unbeknownst to himself, fallen love with her. His efforts to resist are thwarted by the intentions of others, beginning with Isolde who asks him to seal a pact of atonement with her since they both have crimes to atone for (don't ask me to explain). Isolde, in her desperation, really intends to poison them both and Tristan, guessing her intention, agrees to drink with her. Her handmaid, Brangwen, doesn't like this idea and gives them a love potion instead of poison. As you might expect, the effects are the same; it just takes a little longer.

Naturally, these two adulterers are discovered. Tristan is mortally wounded and carried off to his home island by a faithful friend and retainer. He thinks that Isolde will come to heal his wound and keeps asking if her ship can be seen coming into the harbor. "Empty and barren the sea," says the lookout. We never hear what happened to Isolde; no doubt she drinks that poisonous draught. Tristan, happily self-deceived, dies dreaming not only that Isolde has come to heal him but that King Marke has followed her in order to forgive them both.

The question is--I invite comments--what is the connection between Eliot's lines about the hyacinth garden and girl, and Wagner's opera?

Here is what I think:

Eliot's lines, bracketed as they are by those lines from Tristan would seem to be about impotence and failure. The phrase "heart of light" also occurs in a later poem, "Burnt Norton", which is about possibilities never realized, a rose- garden that was never entered, children that were never born. Eliot's own marriage was a disaster. "Empty and barren the sea." Why the lover (so to speak) in these lines is looking helplessly into "the heart of light, the silence" instead of at his hyacinth girl is anybody's guess. Wagner's tragic opera is about passion, betrayal, delusion on a grand scale; Eliot's lovers seem diminished by the implied comparison.


  1. What is the connection between Eliot's lines and Wagner's opera? The fact that one has to ask the question shows what the connection is: neither Wagner nor Eliot had enough courtesy to write words that could be understood.

    Wagner may have been the first in a series of creative artists whose works said: If you work hard enough, maybe you can become sufficiently worthy to appreciate me.

  2. What is the connection between Eliot's lines and Wagner's opera? Surely that the german words at the start and end of the section come directly quoted from the Opera?

    Here is what I think: Hyacinths are associated with Rebirth - therefore the hyacinth girl is Isolde, who revives Tristan earlier in his life. Eliot's lover is not different from Wagner's: he IS Wagner's - Tristan here is the speaker, looking across the sea and waiting for Isolde to come and heal him again. His delirium as he is unable to know reality and whether she has come or not, as well as his own obsession with light and day, and life and death, are the meaning in the lines from "I could not speak" to "I knew nothing", and the "heart of light, the silence" is the scene where Tristan comments that the light of day is blessed (for once) as it guides her to him. But there is only silence and the desolate and empty sea. He loses his mind as he hangs on the edge of life "I was neither living nor dead", and eventually of course does die. Eliot imagines Tristan's confusion of knowledge and his despair and madness at his own inability to see reality. This is as much another epistemological argument as it is another reference to great artistic creations to the past in The Waste Land.