Monday, March 5, 2007

GM Eliot?

T. S. Eliot's modern poem The Wasteland has been called the greatest poem of the 20th century. It is divided into five parts, the second of which is labeled "A Game of Chess". In this section of the poem, we encounter two frightened, obsessively neurotic people hiding from life's storms. It is interesting to note that Eliot's original title for this segment was "In the Cage", which gives a psychological insight into the characters' frames of mind. Eliot's friend Ezra Pound suggested the present title.

Quite literally, a storm is going on, at one point, outside the house where the man and the woman are taking shelter. One of them says: "What shall we ever do? A hot bath at ten./ And if it rains, a closed car at four./ And we shall play a game of chess,/ Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."

Just before these lines are uttered, Eliot makes one of his typical witticisms. One of the characters remembers the lyrics to a song:"O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag."

Now, if it had been any other poet than Eliot, I might be inclined to think that the use of four consecutive O's is mere coincidence. However, anyone who is familiar with Eliot's Prufrock and its veiled allusions "en passant" to Hesiod, Dante, Shakespeare, and Homer - to name a few - can not dismiss "O O O O" so lightly.

Obviously, it reminds one of the chess notation for castling. And this is the perfect metaphor for what is going on in "A Game of Chess". Both the man and the woman find refuge at home, or in their castle if you prefer.

{This article originally appeared in Atlantic Chess News in 1986}