A Game of Chess Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of the sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
- "A Game of Chess" opens with a description of a woman sitting inside a really expensive room. The "burnished throne" in line 77 is a reference to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which heightens the queen-like sense of the room the speaker is describing to you.
- Line 78 mentions marble, line 79 gives us "fruited vines," line 80 describes a Cupidon (or one of those little cherub guys), and 82 talks about "sevenbranched candelabra," or a candle holder with seven holes to fit candles. Finally, the mention of "the glitter of her jewels" (84) fills out this description of luxury that seems like it could come out of an ancient Greek play. This lady's living the life. We'll see how long that lasts.
- Also, Eliot chooses to open this section of the poem with unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse, which is a pretty classic, common meter in English poetry—recognizable enough to seem stable and easy to follow.
- It's only later in "A Game of Chess" that this fragile sense of order starts to break down. Which makes sense, because society's undergoing a bit of cultural and spiritual breakdown in the modern world. Or at least that's Eliot's take.
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered or liquid—troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring a pattern on the coffered ceiling.
- These lines continue the description of the lavish room, telling us that stinky perfumes are oozing from vials and up to the ceiling (laquearia refers to a fancy, paneled ceiling. Yeah, we watch HGTV).
- We don't know about you, but we're starting to notice that everything sounds kind of fake and tawdry, too: "In vials of ivory and coloured glass / Unstoppered, lurked their strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid" (86-88).
- Yeah, we don't like the word unguent, either. But it's the word "synthetic" that especially seems to point to the unnaturalness of modern chemicals and even modern beauty.
- When the speaker suggests that the smell of these things "drowned the sense of odours" (89), it could mean that modern products are just too much sometimes, too overwhelming. You know what we're talking about: haven't you ever been stuck in an elevator with a dude who's wearing too much cologne?
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.
- The speaker follows the smoke from the candles to the room's ceiling, and find that it is made of "sea-wood fed with copper" (94), which makes it burn green and orange. As weird as it sounds, in the wayback days, a lot of ceilings were copper, so the image isn't all that strange.
- The speaker finds that in the room's "sad light a carvèd dolphin swam" (96). This line really shows how the room has taken the image of something natural and vibrant—a dolphin—and turned it into a dead carving. It's like the room wants to remind everyone of nature (it's trying really hard!), but it can only do this in a superficial way, not, ahem, unlike the modern world.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.
- These lines describe some sort of painting or tapestry that's on the wall of the lavish room, which depicts the transformation of the mythical heroine Philomela into a nightingale, which takes place in a "sylvan scene." That phrase is an allusion to John Milton's Paradise Lost, where he uses the phrase in Book IV, line 140.
- The transformation of whom into what? Here's the scoop:
- The myth of Philomela, which is featured in the poetic Metamorphoses written by the Roman named Ovid (just one name, kind of like Cher) around the time of Christ, tells the story of Philomela, who was raped by her sister's husband, King Tereus. He then cut out her tongue so she wouldn't tell on him (yes, those ancient Greeks and Romans loved their gruesome stories).
- As the story goes, Philomela managed to tell her sister the truth by weaving her story into a tapestry. Then the two of them iced Tereus' son and fed the boy to Tereus without the king knowing. After Tereus found out, Philomela escaped by transforming into a nightingale, which is a handy trick when you're in a bind.
- As these lines suggest, we can still hear Philomela's voice in the songs of nightingales, but because we don't study classical stories anymore, this song just sounds like "'Jug Jug' to dirty ears" (103), a.k.a. uneducated ones.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.
- When the poem speaks about "other withered stumps of time" (104), it's probably talking about the withered stump that was left after Tereus cut out Philomela's tongue. Much like Philomela, modern people don't know how to truly express themselves in beautiful ways, so we're all dumbly silent in our own way.
- Or you might read it saying that these tapestries are like fragments, or "withered stumps" from the past that are "told upon the walls."
- Whatever the case, the figures in these tapestries are leering at the lady sitting on her throne. They're surrounding her. Eliot uses personification in these lines to describe how from all around the tapestry on the wall, other objects and carvings "Lea[n] out," meaning that other stories and artifacts from our past are just dying to be heard. Too bad we don't have the classic education to hear or understand them.
- The scene concludes with an image of the woman of the room brushing her hair into "fiery points," which seem to have something to say. They "glowed into words" after all. But then they're still, so whatever story they had to tell, we're not going to hear it, because someone's coming on the stairs.
"My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think."
- Hush up, the lady's talkin'. She is clearly not happy in this room. In fact, she kind of sounds like a neurotic crazy lady as she frantically questions whomever she's speaking to.
- Formally, here's where the structured iambics of "A Game of Chess" really start to go off the rails, which makes sense. It's not a stretch to say that this kind of neurotic behavior is way more common in modern times than it was in the past, as far as Eliot's concerned, and that neurotic behavior is reflected in the off-kilter meter of these lines.
- In a formal way, you can even say the structure of the poem experiences a breakdown the same way the character speaking seems to have a mental breakdown. Without tradition to help us structure our lives in meaningful ways, there's nothing to save us from mental and emotional collapse, which seems to be happening to the speaker in this instance.
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
- When the speaker suddenly says, "I think we are in rats' alley," he might be referring to one of the awful trenches that soldiers lived in during World War I.
- Military companies would often give morbid nicknames to these trenches, and this would explain why this is a place where "the dead men lost their bones."
- Whether the military reference holds up or not, though, we can tell that rats' alley is probably a very unpleasant place, and it continues the rat motif that symbolizes modern decay throughout this poem. Look for it later, in line 195.
"What is that noise?"
The wind under the door.
"What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?"
Nothing again nothing.
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
- These lines give us snippets of a conversation. And it's kind of a crappy one.
- Lines 117-120 show someone being really paranoid about he sound of wind coming through a doorway (which include another allusion to John Webster. This time, Eliot's referencing The Devil's Law Case, which contains the line "Is the wind in that door still?").
- Hey, it's just wind, buddy. We're thinking this is a return to the really stressed out neurotic person we were just hearing from in lines 111-114.
- Luckily, we've got the speaker of the poem to reassure this person. And when the speaker of the poem insists that it is "nothing again nothing," that line jumps out as being Very Important to Shmoop. The repetition of the word "nothing" might hint toward the overall nothingness of modern life with all its shallowness.
- This is followed by another set of anxious questions about whether or not the speaker of the poem actually knows nothing.
- As you can see with the placement of "Do" way inside the margin, the structure of the poem continues to get more wonky as it reflects the collapsing mind of the person speaking.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
"Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?"
- These lines again ask you if you know nothing, but they also splice in that line from The Tempest about a drowned person's eyes turning into pearls.
- Remember that from earlier in the poem—the Madame Sosostris exchange?
- Eliot would really hope his audience would get a famous Shakespeare reference like this, but many people might not have, which kind of proves his point about the whole modern-society-blows thing.
- This image of a hardened, dead soul leads back into the question of whether you (the reader) are even alive or not. This poem constantly brings up zombie-like images of the undead as a metaphor for modern life. For Eliot, our society has gotten so spiritually numb that we can't even really say if we're alive or dead anymore. Our eyes are too glazed and pearly from watching all those episodes of Love in the Wild.
- It's also worth noting that these lines are a callback to lines 37 and 48 of this very poem—remember the pearls-for-eyes sailor? And that existential crisis in the hyacinth garden? Yep, it's all going down all over again.
But O O O O that Shakespearean Rag—
It's so elegant
"What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
What shall we ever do?"
- After all the complaining the speaker has just done about how terrible the modern world and modern people are, the poem cuts in with a "But," which makes you think that we're about to hear something redeeming about ourselves.
- Not so fast. Instead of giving us this, though, the poem launches into a riff on a popular Irving Berlin song from Eliot's time. The song was called "That Mysterious Rag," only the speaker refers to "that Shakespearean Rag," perhaps alluding to his mention of The Tempest two lines above.
- In any case, the speaker sounds more than a little pretentious calling the song/play "elegant" and "intelligent." Yes, very astute. Anything else to add, Sherlock?
- This is followed by a repetition of the question "What shall I do?" or "What shall we do?" When this leads to the question, "What shall we ever do?" you get a strong sense that the people in this poem really don't know what to do with their time, since they don't even know what activities are worthwhile or meaningful.
- This section could also refer to the loss of religion and spirituality in modern life, which leaves people speechless when it comes to figuring out what to do with their lives.
The hot water 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.
- What shall we do? How about hot water at ten, a closed car, and a game of chess?
- These lines speak about how people wish to kill time in their lives, staying up all night and playing a game of chess. In this sense, maybe Eliot means that without spirituality, modern life is just a long game we play with ourselves, always competing, setting goals, and strategizing simply for the sake of "playing the game."
- Also, the "game of chess" here is an allusion to the English playwright Thomas Middleton, who wrote a play called A Game at Chess. He also wrote another play called Women Beware Women, in which a game of chess represents all of the moves a man makes while cornering and seducing woman, which will come up later in "The Waste Land" in the story of the "young man carbuncular." Stay tuned.
- This whole time, though, the speaker is "pressing lidless eyes," which suggests a lack of sleep, and "waiting for a knock upon the door" (138), which could mean that he's waiting for something or someone to walk into his life and give it meaning. In this sense, modern life just seems like a long wait for something that never seems to come.
- Formally speaking, this is also the last little bit of ordered rhyme ("four" and "door") that you get before the structure of the poem totally collapses into the conversation at a pub. This could represent a last gasp of sorts of classic culture before it totally gives way to filthy barroom shenanigans. Or something.
When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear. I can't bear to look at you.
And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said.
- These lines (and the rest of "A Game of Chess") focus on one woman telling a story of a conversation she had to an audience of acquaintances at a bar.
- One woman is explaining how she told her friend to make herself look good because her (the friend's) husband was coming back from the war. Instead of saying, "go get yourself a nice dress," though, this woman tells her friend to get all of her gross teeth pulled out and to buy herself a new set.
- She then tells her friend the ugly truth: her teeth look totally disgusting. She caps off this amazing demonstration of friendship by saying that if the friend doesn't get herself together, some other woman's going to swoop in and catch her husband's eye. Wow, some friend.
- The phrase "HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME" is a standard thing for bartenders to say in the U.K. when the bar is closing for the night, and Eliot uses this phrase as a refrain to punctuate and interrupt the woman's rehashing of her conversation. It's a creepy refrain, adding a sense of urgency and desperation that this woman doesn't seem to feel.
Oh is there, she said. Something o' that, I said.
Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
If you don't like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can't.
But if Albert makes off, it won't be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
- We're still in this recap of the totally awkward conversation the speaker at the pub had with her friend Lil.
- At this point, the friend named Lil finally takes a shot of her own and accuses the first woman of wanting to sleep with her (Lil's) husband. This is what is means when she says "Then I'll know who to thank" and gives her friend "a straight look" (151).
- The first woman basically says "Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you," when the poem reads "But if Albert makes off, it won't be for lack of telling" (155).
- Finally, the first woman tells her friend that she should feel ashamed to look so old at thirty-one.
- We recommend that you don't try talking to your own friends this way.
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She's had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be alright, but I've never been the same
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children?
- Lil says that she "can't help it," meaning that she can't help looking so old. She's been really messed up by the pills she took "to bring it off" (159). The phrase "bring it off" in this case means aborting a baby. Basically, any pill from the 1920's that could make you abort your baby was going to have a pretty strong chemical reaction in your body.
- The first woman mentions at this point that Lil has had five babies already, and nearly died during one of her pregnancies. Lil then talks about how the pharmacist said the drug was okay, but she complains that she's "never been the same" since taking the abortion pill.
- The first woman doesn't relent at all, but just keeps hammering away and calling Lil a fool. It seems like Lil is not all that interested in having sex, but the first woman says "What you get married for if you don't want children?" In other words, Lil is trapped in her crummy life.
- In this scene, Eliot is really giving us a snapshot of how crappy things have gotten in English society. This is the type of conversation he might have overheard while living in England, and it reflects the theme of infertility that comes up over and over again in this poem.
- Just as the symbolic landscape of the world can no longer give life, you've got lower class women half-killing themselves to abort their babies.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight May. Goodnight.
Ta ta. Goodnight. Goodnight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
- That refrain is gaining strength as the woman in the bar wraps up her story. But she's not done.
- In these lines, the subject of the women's conversation completely changes to normal everyday stuff, like visiting someone's house and having a really nice ham or "hot gammon" (167). But that story will have to be finished another day, because the barkeep is practically yelling now. The scene ends with everyone saying goodnight to one another as though they're all very pleasant and polite. And we finally get to learn who these folks in the bar are: Bill, Lou, and May.
- The phrasing of "good night, sweet ladies" seems especially inappropriate, considering the type of conversation we just overheard, but hey, what's a little inappropriateness between friends?
- This final repetition of "good night" is also a reference to Ophelia, the young woman who drowns herself in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
- But you already knew that, right? Eliot definitely hopes so.