Chess Is the Game Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of the King: The Metaphor of the Game of Chess in T.S. Eliot's the Waste Land

By Fornero, Caterina | Yeats Eliot Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Chess Is the Game Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of the King: The Metaphor of the Game of Chess in T.S. Eliot's the Waste Land


Fornero, Caterina, Yeats Eliot Review


The metaphor of the game of chess, which T.S.Eliot crystallised in the final version of The Wasteland, functions as a structural node that coordinates the dynamics of meaning within the poem. By substituting the original title and subtitle of section II "He Do the Police in Different Voices (part II)" and "in the Cage" with "A Game of Chess" Eliot shifted the focus from a mode of inter-textual discourse to an intra-textual model of significance, given by the synchronic network of relations holding between the fragments in a de-centred literary circuit.

That T.S.Eliot was a keen chess player is in no doubt. Games of chess are documented as early as 1916 in a letter which Eliot, who was then living in Crawford Street in London, addressed to his mother on 6th September 1916. In this letter he enclosed chess games for his father in a long-distance game which father and son played by post across the Atlantic (1).

But how the game of chess worked its way into The Waste Land and came to be elected as a structural metaphor was a matter of substitutions in the permutations that took place between the original manuscript and the final version of the poem.

In the original manuscript the title and sub-title of section II were "He Do the Police in Different Voices (part II)" (2) and "In the Cage" (3) and there were two references to chess: one in line 62 ("and we shall play a game of chess"), and one in line 63 ("the ivory men make company between us"). Only line 62 survived the joint pruning of Eliot, Pound and Eliot's first wife Vivien. In the final version the title of section II became "A Game of Chess", which replaced both the previous title and sub-title, and line 63 was eliminated, at Vivien's request.

The impact of these substitutions was twofold. First, by eliminating the various voices of "He Do the Police in Different Voices" and "In the Cage" he abandoned the idea of a "central intelligence" (in the Jamesian phrase) that coordinated inter-textual echoes and introduced the idea of echoes that regulate themselves according to intra-textual rules, like in a game of chess, where moves are never directed from the outside, but are always determined by the contingent network of relations holding between the pieces on the chessboard at any given time. Second, by crossing out line 63 "the ivory men make company between us" he shifted the focus from an anthropomorphic, mimetic and substantial description of the pieces on the chessboard to a functional notion of the game as a system of relations. Thus, "A Game of Chess" became the only non-referential title in the poem, entrusted with the structural functioning of the spurious components making up the work.

Although Eliot hurriedly and inaccurately attached a note to line 138 instead of line 137 in the final version to trace the phrase back to Middleton's Women Beware Women (4), Eliot's game of chess does the opposite of what Middleton's play stages.

In Middleton's game of chess--both in Women Beware Women and in a later play called A Game at Chess--there are mimetic links between the signs (the chess moves) and their referents (the actions of seduction and the English / Spanish politics respectively), so that the game of chess can be read as a parodic framework.. Eliot's game of chess, instead, is there to prevent parody and claim the right to intra-textual autonomy.

The Waste Land in fact cannot be read as mimetic representation, because the linguistic signs no longer reflect the referents they were welded together with in the literary products they have migrated from. In its act of freedom from the constraints of mimesis the poem suggests a different notion of significance: the notion of value which the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure had developed in his Cours de linguistique generale, which was published posthumously in 1916.

De Saussure employed the image of the game of chess to illustrate the three characteristics of the linguistic sign: arbitrariness, oppositional negativity and differentiality. …

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