Who is Tiresias, and what is his role in The Waste Land?

Tiresias is a blind prophet who appears in Greek literature, including the works of Homer and Sophocles. In The Waste Land, his world-weary, cynical voice connects the sordid present with the distant past.

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Tiresias is a blind prophet from Thebes who makes various appearances in Greek literature, perhaps most notably in Homer's Odyssey and Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone. In the two plays, his words are angrily dismissed, first by Oedipus, then by Creon, making it seem that, like Cassandra, he is fated to tell the truth without being believed. Tiresias was transformed into a woman for seven years, giving him an unusually wide range of human experience.

T. S. Eliot only mentions Tiresias by name during a single section of "The Fire Sermon," but he alludes to him obliquely throughout the poem. In his own notes, Eliot says that Tiresias is an important unifying figure in The Waste Land, and it is clear that this role is closely connected with Tiresias's union of male and female in his own person. He introduces himself in just these terms:

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts ....
Tiresias then describes a lackluster sexual encounter, entirely appropriate for the sordid, unromantic environment in which it takes place. The woman is unresponsive to the point of being inanimate, while the man is forced to make "a welcome of indifference." At this low point, Tiresias remarks in parentheses:
(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.)
In The Waste Land, there is often a contrast, if only implicit, between the grandeur of the past and the tedium of the present. Tiresias, however, shows that not everything in the past was grand. The world-weary sage has seen everything, including unenthusiastic sex, and he connects the past with the present in his cynical observations.
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Eliot's poems contain complex allusions that often point in multiple directions. Like many modernists, Eliot had a vast store of cultural and literary knowledge to refer to. The snatches of cultural allusions form something of a referential collage, not unlike that of modernist painters.

Eliot's references to Tiresias in The Waste Land point to the classical context of the prophet who recurs in Greek tragedy and Homer's Odyssey, as well as in Dante's Divine Comedy. Both the Divine Comedy and classical allusions were common in the work of modernists such as Eliot, Pound, and Frost. In canto 20 of Dante's Inferno, Tiresias appears among the Fraudulent, notably the soothsayers or diviners. In this context, Tiresias's prophetic ability is faulted for the way foreknowledge robs individuals of their ability to make an authentic choice. If one's ineluctable fate is foretold, one's ability to make choices that define one's essential self will be distorted. The knowledge of the future that soothsayers give entraps the listener in a seemingly stagnant reality. This sense of entrapment lurks beneath much of Eliot's poetry, which is often marked by a sense of languor and inevitability.

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Tiresias is a figure from Greek mythology and literature, the blind soothsayer who appears in Book xi of The Odyssey. Being the most renowned prophet of the non-biblical world and cursed by the gods to live a transgendered existence for seven years until turned back into a man, Tiresias was a useful figure to a wide variety of authors, both ancient and modern, including T.S. Eliot who identifies him (according to the author's own notes) as playing a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what feature of Tiresias allowed Eliot to incorporate Tiresias into his landmark poem of the early twentieth century? 

The answer seems to lie in his having been both man and woman. In other words, in his own self and in his own myth he served as a kind of bridge between the classical world and modernity - just the sort of thing Eliot was looking for.

The reader observes this in the section of The Waste Land where the clerk and the typist appear. In Section III, "The Fire Sermon", the unnamed typist goes about her life in a mechanical way, in a kind of bondage to the industrial god. The poet intends her to be an archetype of all modern women. In the same way, the clerk who in Section III arrives home to a supper of "food in tins", exemplifies the modern working man. Both the male clerk and the female typist inhabit the lowest place - not in terms of wealth or society, but in terms of their humanity. Later in this section of the poem, Tiresias recounts how "he has walked among the lowest of the dead", thereby establishing his connection with both sexes which have been rendered subhuman by modernity. 

Thus, reimagined in the poem, Tiresias serves as a unifying figure in The Waste Land, linking the ancient and modern worlds, rebuilding a myth of unity in the modern world. In The Waste Land, so full of despair and disorder, the reimagined Tiresias reactivates his ancient role - that of prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot appears to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual; it will give way to the great unifications of The Four Quartets.

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