Sunday, 11 May 2008

Considering Phlebas

Of Phlebas the Phoenician (a fortnight dead) Elizabeth Gregory has this to say: 'Phlebas ... alludes to Philebus, Plato's dialogue on the nature of pleasure' [Quotation and Modern American Poetry, Texas Rice University Press 1996, p.52]. Really? Isn't it more likely that Eliot knew that phleps (the genitive is phlebos) is the Greek for a vein? It is derived, suggest Liddell and Scott, from phleo, 'to flow'; a whispery, almost onomatopoeic word ('A current under sea/Picked his bones in whispers'). In what, in other words, is Phlebas drowned? Seawater, we think; although mightn't it be possible that he has slipped into another form of salty water, into the whirlpool of his own bloodflow? We all drown in that, in the end.

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