Through calling this poem ‘A game of chess,’ Eliot continues with the theme he starts in ‘The burial of the dead of people who are trapped in a wasteland and making no effort to escape it, so are therefore stuck like those in a check-mate during a real game of chess.
The title is also a reference to ‘Women beware women’ by Middleton, a story in which a mother-in-law is playing chess, unaware that each move she makes on the chessboard is matched by a move in the seduction of her daughter-in-law by the duke in the story. The reference to Middleton’s ‘Women beware women’ gives a depiction of passion and lust, which Eliot uses as a contrast in the poem.
In the first stanza, Eliot describes a room that is elaborately decorated and filled with beautiful items such as,
“Sevenbranched candelabra” and “Vials of ivory and coloured glass.”
Even though the room is decorated expensively, by listing the expensive items, he devalues them using bathos and parodying the woman’s efforts to create a room full of amazing items and end up devaluing them. He compares the lady’s room to Imogen’s bedroom in ‘Cymbeline’ through the mention of cupids, symbols of love. To stress that although the woman has them, they are not full of life like those in Imogen’s bedroom.
The woman in the room, a metaphor for people in the wasteland, is completely artificial, and Eliot shows us that he disapproves of this through his comparison of her with people, such as Cleopatra, who are symbols of true art and passion. He writes,
“The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne” in reference to the line from Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ that says,
“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne.”
By doing this, Eliot compares Cleopatra, described as being of ‘infinite variety, to the woman, which stresses the fact that she is both artificial and sterile. Also, in the lady’s room is an ornamental carv (dolphin which Eliot mocks as the dolphin was a medieval symbol of love and something Cleopatra used to describe Antony, yet the woman has it in her sterile room, which is empty of love.
Eliot feels that the woman’s existence violates that of those in myth. He shows this using references to Ovid’s story of Philomel. After her tongue was removed by her brother-in-law, king Tereus, a mythical woman who was transformed into a nightingale to prevent her from telling others that he raped her. He tells of how she cried,
But how it falls on “dirty ears” because people in the wasteland cannot understand and therefore continue to stay in their ways and therefore commit sins as bad as Tereus’ actions. Through the story, Eliot shows that true passion is not easy to obtain, and like Tiresias, Philomel had to be violated before she could receive an “inviolable voice”.
Not only is the room full of lifeless art, but it is also an eerie and disturbing place. We are told that the room is infused with colour as it mentions,
“Sea wood fed with copper.”
A chemical reaction that,
“Burned green and orange.”
The use of a chemical reaction reminds us that the room is very manufactured and unnatural. This idea is re-enforced by,
“Strange and synthetic perfume.”
All of these things create a stuffy atmosphere, almost blinding because of the bright colours. In addition, the presence of the chemical suggests a lack of fresh air and suggests that this woman would be having trouble breathing, another sign that she is barely existing and not truly alive.
The nightmare setting created in “A game of chess”, is an example of the world as Eliot sees it. A capitalist world filled with passionless people who he feels merely exist to fulfil their temporary and carnal desire. He criticizes the woman as rather than trying to escape, she masks the atmosphere with her perfumes.
He also makes references to “the Sylvan scene” from ‘A paradise lost’ by Milton accompanied with the,
“Standards wrought with fruit vines”
to show what seems like an effort made by the woman to try to turn the room from hell into a paradise. But tells that she fails, beginning her descent into madness shown later in the poem.
Eliot creates this room as a nightmare of the woman and then tells of how she is trapped in it, even though she tries to communicate with the outside world so desperately that even,
Spread out in fiery points,
Glowed into words,” revealing her desperation to communicate with the outside world.
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