In T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (which you can read online), the "Phoenician Sailor" (an image on a tarrot card) is described as having pearls for eyes in lie 48:

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

This detail is presumably important, because it is repeated later on in the poem on line 125:

You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
           I remember
                     Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Any insight as to what this means?


7 Answers 7


It's an allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act I, scene ii. Ariel sings to Ferdinand, in order to deceive him into thinking his father has been drowned in a shipwreck.

ARIEL sings

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Burthen Ding-dong

Hark! now I hear them,--Ding-dong, bell.

  • 3
    This is a great answer; I just upvoted it. However, I'm looking for an answer that explains what Eliot was trying to accomplish by including this phrase in the poem, and why the phrase was repeated twice. So I don't plan on accepting this answer as it is currently written.
    – user111
    Jan 20, 2017 at 21:29
  • @Hamlet fair enough. I'll see what I can do to add to this over the weekend, but encourage anyone to post an alternative answer....
    – Kevin Troy
    Jan 21, 2017 at 4:22
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    @Hamlet, been going through a bunch of questions on the site, and I find it interesting that here you ask "what Eliot was trying to accomplish" whereas most other answers to questions you've asked/commented on, you decry the significance of authorial intent.
    – cottog
    May 1, 2017 at 18:12

Here is a quote from Xenophon, something said by the pilot's mate on a perfectly ordered Phoenician trading ship:

“There is no time left, you know,” he added, “when God makes a tempest in the great deep, to set about searching for what you want, or to be giving out anything which is not snug and shipshape in its place. God threatens and chastises sluggards.
Xenophon, The Economist VIII.29, translated by H. G. Dakyns.

The mate knows perfectly how the ship is organized and states that he is ready for anything that might come his way. The ship itself belongs to a rich Phoenician merchant and carries "an endless quantity of goods and gear of all sorts".

So the association with Xenophon's The Economist provides one possible way to read the two lines by Eliot. There is a perfectly organized ship with an impeccably organized mate - the Phoenician Sailor - and it has drowned. This is bitter irony (the impeccable mate failed after all), and it is the "I" of the poem who has supposedly suffered this fate. And since the Phoenician ship is the ship of a rich man, filled with endless goods, one might think that the pearls instead of eyes is a figurative expression of being blinded by concern for wealth.

The mate of the ship also talks about God making a tempest. And Eliot's second line is a direct quote of The Tempest by Shakespeare:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Eliot manages to establish a direct link between Xenophon and Shakespeare:

  • there is talk about being ready for a tempest by a Phoenician in Xenophon's The Economist,
  • there is singing about a shipwreck and pearl-eyes in Shakespeare's The Tempest,
  • and both are conjoined in The Waste Land, where it is the Phoenician Sailor who has pearls for eyes because he drowned.

We might see this as a powerful way of speaking of the modern Waste Land by associating the Classics and the Renaissance ("rebirth of the classics") to write of contemporary distress.

  • I'm not exactly sure how this relates to pearls in the sailor's eyes. I can see you're trying to get at something, but could you clear it out more? Jun 29, 2018 at 17:38
  • I tried expanding on it, hope it's more clear-cut now
    – Paulius J
    Jun 30, 2018 at 9:02
  • Very interesting connection!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 2, 2018 at 6:21

My sense is it relates to the theme of "profit & loss", and commerce/banking, that is developed later in The Burial of the Dead:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
The Wasteland

We have a church (religious symbol) associated with the financial center of London which is a juxtaposition of commerce and the spirit.

Death here can be a living death of of the office worker's life (think Shawn of the Dead, where it takes people a while to realize the dead are walking because everyone is so "zombified";) For Eliot, who had to work in a bank for a time to support his literary pursuits, this would have been a kind of living death.

  • Pearls for eyes can be a signifier of visions (dreams) of wealth

An aquatic theme, which runs through this poem and the Four Quartets, connects this idea to ruin and the death of the spirit.

In The Fire Sermon you have river barges & fishermen (commerce). In the Quartets Eliot has a passage about fishermen not always returning to shore, an indicator of the peril, not only of pursuing wealth, but of the "daily bread".

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.

Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.
The Dry Salvages IV

Reading the entire text of The Dry Salvages will shed more light, but this passage is particularly salient:

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone's prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation. The Dry Salvages IV

Eliot indicates the vanity of pursuit of wealth in East Coker III:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
East Coker III

This brings us back to the Wasteland with the fate of a sailor.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The Wasteland IV "Death By Water"

The lead up to this passage is all tied up with dreams of lost wealth, the "inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold." The final line is surely a reference to Ozymandias:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
Ozymandias (Shelley)

This idea is established early in the Wasteland:

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

The poem's title, "The Waste Land", is specifically meant a critique of the emptiness of modern life, which is related to the ultimate vanity (impermanence) of the material world. The languishing/death of the human spirit brought on by the pursuit/emphasis of worldly things is a theme that runs throughout Eliot's poems (see the Hollow Men, et al.)


The line has a different context in the two sections of the poem. In the first, it is primarily about death, the physical changes of the body and the cold blankness of the eyes. The second section is describing a woman laden with jewellery and the narrator thinks again of the "pearls that were his eyes" as he gazes at the jewels surrounding her. As the woman is described using the same phrases as Shakespeare uses for Cleopatra, the reference to pearls may also be meant to recall Antony sending Cleopatra a pearl as a gift. (There is rather a lot of Shakespeare in this poem.)

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    Good answer. Could you elaborate on the "second section" "describing a woman laden with jewellery"? Why does Eliot allude to Shakesphere in this section? Is Eliot also alluding to the reference between pearls/eyes/death that he established in the first section? This answer would probably also read better if it included some longer direct quotes from the poem.
    – user111
    May 14, 2017 at 23:42

The first reference of the Phoenician sailor comes from Socrates' dialogue with Ischomachus in Xenophon's book, Oeconomicus. The dialogue was about orderliness and the Phoenician sailor is referenced as a man who kept his ship in perfect order, with every tool in its place.

I figure T.S. Eliot was very familiar with classical literature like Xenophon.

Maybe he is saying that Order as such has drowned in Modern times.

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    Interesting point. Could you link to your source (or quote it, if possible)? Also, is there any mention of pearls in the source?
    – auden
    Jun 27, 2018 at 3:41

In the first instance of 'pearls for eyes', Eliot probably relates to the blind enthusiasm for the war at it's beginning in 1914. With the glory of victory seemingly at hand, young men willingly joined and become soldiers, as if they had pearls for eyes, oblivious of their fate to become 'shadow under this red rock'.

The tarot card given by Madame Sosostris is a description of things to come. The drowned Phoenician Sailor is to the image of the Imperial Army and Navy at the time, ship-shape and ready to go to war. But though ready and fit, the sailor drowns, and the following card < Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks, The lady of the situation > is the reality of the carnage setting in, suggesting even the land itself is poisonous.

In the dirty grey, cinder-like landscape, the eyes of the dead probably seemed like pearls indeed, especially at night when lit by floodlights from the trenches...


Since Elliot was said to have been suffering from mental distress when writing The Waste Land, I would say many of the poem's images were his own perceptions that symbolized the moor's barren-like quality of life during WW1 and afterward, At least to him, the author.

I'd entertain the idea that referencing "the pearls that were his eyes" is to convince the reader of the dire state of the the times, just as when Shakespeare's Ariel in the Tempest sings the same to convince Ferdinand of his father's death.

Also the allusion of the connotative value of wealth in all of its contexts, i.e. life/death, and material wealth.

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