by Jonathan Vold

Friday, December 2

TWL, Lines 424-426: The Fisher King

424 I sat upon the shore
425 Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
426 Shall I at least set my lands in order?

425. THE FISHER KING: Eliot: “V. Weston, From Ritual to Romance; chapter on the Fisher King.”

The fisher king sitting on a river bank, and the allusion of one who was gravely injured and, with his entire country, desperately in need of healing, is a prevailing image in this poem.  See Weston, Ritual to Romance 9: 117, 129:

“...he was called the Fisher King because of his devotion to the pastime of fishing ...If the Grail story be based upon a Life ritual the character of the Fisher King is of the very essence of the tale, and his title, so far from being meaningless, expresses, for those who are at pains to seek, the intention and object of the perplexing whole.”

But the image of this fisherman keeps reappearing in different shades and colors. See him weeping at lines 182-184, then sitting alongside a rat in the mud at lines 185-189, then musing upon the king’s wreck at lines 190-192. Later, fishmen are lounging at noon at line 263. Eliot directly compared the Fisher King to the Tarot deck’s three-staved merchant who stands on a seaside cliff and watches ships pass by (see notes 46 and 51), and he also imagined the fisherman as a sailor coming home from the sea in the evening (see note 221). Finally, at line 425, with the dry land behind him and the water in front of him, the Fisher King considers whether it might be time to set things right.

See Isaiah 38:1: 

“Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.”

This was Isaiah’s counsel to a mortally sick King Hezekiah, which led the king to weep.

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