Lowry refers to Phlebas in Chapter 3 of Ultramarine during a long internal dialogue by Dana Hilliot as he muses after his drunken drift through the red light district of Dairen; "Proceed, Phlebas, to the forecastle head, binoculars in hand!" (Pg. 111). The allusion is to T.S. Eliot's character in section IV of the poem The Wasteland. As a mythological character, he seems to have influenced authors across the ages, including Shakespeare in his writing of The Tempest; Phlebas as a character is comparable to Alonso.
IV. Death by Water
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The character Phlebas the Phoenician who dies by drowning best symbolizes the chance of renewal in The Wasteland. Although Phlebas appears in the shortest section of the poem, “Death by Water”, his seemingly small role in death represents a greater picture of bringing life back to the Wasteland.
Throughout the poem water is a very prominent symbol. Water usually is used to symbolize baptism, rebirth, relief, and regeneration. In The Wasteland, however, it brings both life and death. It cleanses the Earth but also leaves behind the raw imperfections of humanity.
When Phlebas drowns, he seems to forget all his worries and cares from his mortal life, “Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, / Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/ And the profit and loss.” (2054) His death is simple. It is not profound or even all that tragic. It is simply just death. It happens. It also was foretold in the first section of the poem by Madame Sosostris when reading the tarot cards, “Here, said she, Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,” (2046) It was expected to happen so really, why should it matter? Why should you, the reader, care? There obviously is a significance in Phlebas’s death because the narrator directly addresses the reader and says, “Gentile or Jew/ O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” The narrator wants the reader to stop and think about what this really means. One interpretation of Madame Sosostris’s reading is that there can be hope in his death. “(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)” This line, explained in the footnotes, is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Tempest when Ariel sings of Prince Ferdinand’s father’s death as “something rich and strange.” (2046) Death comes with sorrow and despair but death can also bring the chance of gaining something good and treasured. By dying in water, it can go back to the whole baptizing thing. Sins are washed away in the moment of death and the soul is clean and pure for the afterlife in heaven. It also can be related to regeneration and rebirth in that when the soul is cleansed of impurities, it is ready for a new life after death with God. It is almost like a second chance. It relieves the soul of mortal suffering and imperfections so that the focus is on the faith in God. But then Madame Sosostris goes on to say, “Fear death by water.” There always has to be a catch. She is saying that although this kind of death can be looked at as positive, one should beware things that seem too good to be true. It’s like the only way to escape the Wasteland and to have a better life, you have to end it. Depending on the strength of one’s faith, there might not be a promise of another life after death. Death could be absolutely final with no chance for the soul to pass on and T.S. Eliot tries to express throughout the poem that that is what truly makes a Wasteland.
It seems like in order for things to begin to bloom again in the Wasteland, the people there, and actually just people in general, need to be strong and have faith in something, whether it’s in God or in each other. Phlebas’s death definitely draws attention to this and demands that one stops and thinks about where their life is headed and what their purpose in this world should be.American Lit
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]. Another suggestion is 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." Europrogovision