"Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi
in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα
τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω."
For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro.
That's right folks. Eliot starts this poem off with an epigraph that might as well be Ancient Greek to Shmoop. Oh wait, it is.
Actually, it's in Greek and Latin, and it refers to a very famous, very old text—Petronius' "Satyricon." The poem refers to an Ancient Greek oracle, Cumaean Sibyl, who was granted immortality by Apollo, for whom she was a prophetess. Eventually, she really really really regretted this wish (immortality is almost never as awesome as it sounds), because she just grows older and older and never dies. So in this quote from the poem, the speaker asks Cumaean Sibyl what she wants most, and she says that she wants to die.
Yikes. Now there's a hint of what's to come, right? In a poem that's all about the spiritual and cultural death of the Western world, it only makes sense that we would begin with the life of an oracle that is utterly without meaning. And the classical allusion reminds us that we're about to read a library's worth of references to the greatest hits of Western literature. The epigraph's telling us to buckle up.
And that last part, about il miglior fabbro? That's a dedication to the poet and critic Ezra Pound, who help Eliot edit this poem within an inch of its life, until it became the masterpiece that you're reading today.