Throughout The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot utilises clothing, jewellery, and perfume as a catalyst to drive and connect moments of characterization, violence, and sense. Inherently, clothing, jewellery, and perfume all employ sense (visual or olfactory) to convey an identity associated with its beholder. T.S. Eliot applies clothing and jewellery (or the lack thereof) to communicate performance, disguise, and vanity. However, these points interconnect with the heavy theme of gender within the poem. When referencing clothing on men, T.S. Eliot portrays it as a disguise often used violently; a man dressed as a false prophetess and the man in a silk hat both end up assaulting women. When women wear clothing, it becomes a contradiction. Clothing acts as a barrier between the female body and the male gaze: a form of armour. However, more often than not, clothing and jewellery are used in excess to paint opulence and luxury. In this sense, vanity becomes seduction, a twisted invitation to the male assault. On the other end of the spectrum, women in the absence of clothing represent vulnerability. The woman becomes a prize to be hunted by the man, naked rather than nude. This nakedness also plays with Adam and Eve: the knowledge of sin. Perfume, similarly, has a role in both seduction and repulsion. The flower’s strength lies in its aroma, attracting insects to propagate. Similarly, perfume diffuses throughout the poem, representing a powerful stench that repels visitors or a welcoming smell that pulls men in. Perfume flirts with the theme of water within The Waste Land as well. Perfume, in its basic form, is also liquid. However, when released, smell assaults the nose. People “drown themselves in perfume.” While they may seem mundane on their own, clothing, jewellery, and perfume are important pieces in the larger scheme of the poem.
“But at my back from time to time I hear / The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring / Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.” (196-198).
The quote from line 197 makes a direct reference to The Parliament of Bees by John Day. Eliot writes “the sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring,” a variation of Day’s “A noise of Hornes, and hunting, which shall bring Actaeon to Diana in the spring.” In this quote, Day is referencing the story of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where Actaeon, a man, comes across Diana, a goddess, bathing. Diana is so enraged that she turns him into a deer to be killed by his own hounds so that he may never tell what he saw. Some argue that because Actaeon did not intend to violate her privacy, her punishment was unjust. However, Day highlights that the action of hunting is what “brought” Actaeon upon her, speaking to the intersection of sexual violence and the act of hunting. The mere act of seeing a woman naked, without her consent, is thus compared to the act of killing. When considering killing as taking away the body from the soul, rape and sexual violence have the same effect. Thus, the clothes can be thought of as armor for women against this violence. The line from The Parliament of Bees is followed by the line “Where we all shall see her naked body.” Using the word “we”, John Day includes any reader of his text in this violation of Diana’s body. No longer is Actaeon the only one seeing her, it is everyone.
The title of the section from The Waste Land in which the Parliament of Bees reference is found references the Buddhist “Fire Sermon”, where the individual is encouraged to end their suffering through detachment from the conscious mind. The action of stripping back one’s senses and emotions, or in the words of the text, “creating an aversion” to all the extra feelings that come with being a human, brings the mind to enlightenment, and raises it above the limitations of the material world. It is interesting that this process is thought of as “stripping” the mind of consciousness, and that Eliot references nakedness in this passage, as if the way clothes function for the body is the same as how consciousness functions for the mind. When considering how women use clothes as protection from the male gaze, and that without male violence, such protection would not be necessary, men are associated with the material world, and women (especially their body) with divinity and enlightenment.
Several moments in the “The Fire Sermon” present instances in which clothing has been denied. Eliot describes “White bodies naked on the low damp ground”; moreover, the act of sexual violence enacted against the typist depends fundamentally upon her nakedness. Though not explicitly referenced in Eliot’s poem, John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed” also describes an erotic scene that approaches something coercive and nonconsensual. In his attempt to seduce his mistress and convince her to undress, the speaker uses vaguely pious sophistries. He compares women to “mystic books” to advance his affected piety, suggesting that a divine truth, normally obscured by the presence of dress, is revealed by her nakedness. In fact, only “busy fools” occupy themselves solely with a woman’s external appearance. Describing her “girdle”, a form-fitting undergarment worn by women, as “heaven’s Zone glistering”, the man “dresses” his sexual desire in the language of cosmology, elevating the baseness of his instincts into something more dignified. Much like how clothing functions as a kind of trickery, Eliot’s obscurity also disguises his underlying sermon, making his indictments of society more palatable to a wider audience.
There are more direct parallels between Donne’s elegy and The Waste Land. Eliot’s assaulter “[explores] hands [that] encounter no defence”, while the man in “Mistress Going to Bed” asks the women to “Licence my roving hands, and let them go, Before, behind, between, above, below.” While the latter quotation seems to serve as an appeal for permission — the speaker requests authorisation to use his hands for licentious purposes — the former quotation eschews this formality. In doing so, the assaulter makes no pretence of courtesy, but acts directly in alignment with his intention; though both men share similar sexual desire, only one announces his willingness to breach consent—Eliot’s line, in other words, is the “undressed” version of Donne’s.
Donne’s elegy also contains hints of androgyny that recall the figure Tiresias from The Waste Land. The man’s statement that “until in labour, I in labour lie” betrays an effeminacy. The word “labour” is used to exaggerate the toil suffered by the speaker; it also imagines the man engaged in some sort of act of parturition. Effectively, he co-opts the experience of motherhood for rhetorical purposes, as a means of establishing the magnanimity of his endeavour. He also implies that until his sexual demands are obliged, he is forced to tolerate privation. The obvious irony here is that only the mistress, following their liaison, is vulnerable to the experience of labour/childbirth. The poem continues to develop this conceit: the man implores the woman to expose her nakedness to him “As liberally, as to a Midwife”, once again exploiting female experiences to service himself. There is something quite frank, even vulgar, about these explicit references to giving birth — not because he refuses to sentimentalise it, but because he is overtly defiant of social mores that served to protect women, for whom the consequences of unmarried sex were much more serious. The narrative of Tiresias is also inseparable from the assumption that women are inherently sexual creatures — hence why Juno curses him. Eliot, however, does not grant Tiresias the same impunity that Donne’s speaker receives. Tiresias himself admits the duality of his androgyny: he too, like the typist, “foresuffered all Enacted on this same divan or bed”.
Despite describing “white robes”, evoking associations of virginity and chastity, Donne’s speaker ultimately perceives clothing as a veil for the authentic spirituality that lies underneath; simultaneously, his rhetorical appeal is likewise duplicitous, purporting pious values for the sake of disguising the obscenity of his underlying desire. Ultimately, Eliot does not glorify the naked body, but presents it as a discarded thing, diminished from its once great stature in our aboriginal imagination.
Perfume, as a sensual experience, acts as a source of disruption and conflict within TWL. Straying away from the foreseeable cycle of life and death and the details of a mundane human nature in “The Burial of the Dead,” In this quote, Eliot literally moves from water (drowning) to smell (odors). While perfume typically has a good aroma, “odour” connotes something pungent, as if the unknown “she” that is acting in this stanza is concocting something that releases powerful scents.” Eliot heavily parallels his descriptions with those by Charles Baudelaire’s, “A Martyred Woman.” “In the midst of perfume flasks, of sequined fabrics … of marble statues … and wearing precious jewels,” writes Baudelaire. These images clearly align with the “glitter of her jewels” and “strange synthetic perfumes” that Eliot describes. This parallel is testament to the equally sensual experience created by perfume in Baudelaire and Eliot’s respective works. The opening images of his poem seem to be dominated by the “perfume” which parallels the “synthetic perfume” and “odors” in TWL. What connects these to aromatic images is the presence of power. The “burnished throne” is a kin to some position of superiority or reason for praise which is a central theme in Baudelaire’s “A Martyred Women.” The difference lies in the fact that in TWL the dominance/presence of this power is “drown[ing]” the sense in odurs’ ‘ as if there is an excess of power. In Baudelaire’s focus on dead women, Eliot’s allusion to his work seems to be suggesting that there is an overbearing/whelming stench or. “odour” (in both a literal and metaphorical sense) of death.
“Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours” – TWL
“In the midst of perfume flasks, of sequined fabrics/ And voluptuous furniture/
Of marble statues, pictures, and perfumed dresses/ That trail in sumptuous folds” – Baudelaire, “A Martyred Women”
In Act II, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes Cleopatra’s royal barge as a “burnished throne”.
“You must not think I am so simple but I know the
devil himself will not eat a woman: I know that a
woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her
not.” – Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra