I, Tiresias

Tiresias is a prophet whose prophecies no one wants to hear, and as such has become a character that is used by many poets

Tiresias is a prophet whose prophecies no one wants to hear, and as such has become a character that is used by many poets to call in the modern age, referenced by Tennyson, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as frequently appearing in modern novels. The voice of Tiresias seems to echo across the last two thousand years.

There are many versions of the original myth of Tiresias, the first of which is that he sees the Goddess Athena bathing, and as a result is struck blind, but in his blindness gains the gift of foresight. In the more complicated stories, Tiresias, for varying misdemeanours, is punished by the Gods and changed into a woman, marries and lives with a husband for seven years before the Gods turn her back into a man again. At various points in these stories, the Gods give Tiresias both the gift of prophecy, and the ability to understand birdsong.

It is common, in Greek Literature, for prophets to be cursed by the failure of those who hear them to understand the truth of their words. The most famous case of this is the foresight of Cassandra, who is cursed with the gift of prophecy by Apollo, and who therefore appears to be mad. Tiresias appears repeatedly throughout Greek Literature, especially the tragedies, taking on the role of the prophet doomed to predict the collapse of the city, or ‘polis’. His two most famous appearances are in Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy, as he takes on roles in both ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Antigone’

Is it so? Then I charge thee to abide
By thine own proclamation; from this day
Speak not to these or me. Thou art the man,
Thou the accursed polluter of this land. 

Vile slanderer, thou blurtest forth these taunts,
And think'st forsooth as seer to go scot free. 

Yea, I am free, strong in the strength of truth.’ – ‘Oedipus Rex

Tiresias’s prophecies in these plays often contain within them threats that seem to resonate across time, his criticism of Oedipus as a ‘polluter of this land’, and the threat of the degeneration of the ‘nuclear family’ structure, seem far more modern than ancient. Similarly, Creon’s criticism of Tiresias performing prophecy for money, as having ‘trafficked in [him’], and made [him] their merchandise’, also rings true of an approaching sense commercialisation and industrialisation felt in the twentieth century.

‘Old man, ye all shoot your shafts at me, as archers at the butts;-Ye must needs practise on me with seer-craft also;-aye, the seer-tribe hath long trafficked in me, and made me their merchandise. Gain your gains, drive your trade, if ye list, in the silver-gold of Sardis and the gold of India; but ye shall not hide that man in the grave,-no, though the eagles of Zeus should bear the carrion morsels to their Master's throne-no, not for dread of that defilement will I suffer his burial:-for well I know that no mortal can defile the gods.-But, aged Teiresias, the wisest fall with shameful fall, when they clothe shameful thoughts in fair words, for lucre's sake.’ – ‘Antigone’

T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both writing in the 1930s, draw on this image of Tiresias as someone caught in the ‘in-between’, simultaneously both ancient and modern, and able to witness the turning point between the two.

‘I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.’ – ‘The Wasteland’, T.S. Eliot

The sailor and the typist are joined together, across time, by Tiresias’s vision. Similarly, the events of Pound’s ‘Canto I’, though unmistakeably classical, are also disconcertingly joined to our sense of the poem, alive and writing in the twentieth century, by his use of the first person, ‘me’.  His reference to the ‘dead’, also makes it seem as though the men that crowd him are simultaneously real, and also ghosts from the past, approaching him in the modern world.

‘These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.’ – ‘Canto I’, Ezra Pound

For these poets, writing in a time caught between two wars (the bulk of both poems were written in the 1920s), Tiresias allows them to both look back, and to look forwards. Thus, this character is synonymous with a way of thinking which allows them to pivot between the new and old, to both accept and rebuild a new order from the chaos of the First World War.

Tennyson’s poem, ‘Tiresias’ is therefore both classically, or traditionally minded, and also far ahead of its time. Perhaps not only in its subject matter, but also, as Tiresias always seems to be, in its prophecies.

‘And as it were, perforce, upon me flash’d
The power of prophesying—but to me
No power—so chain’d and coupled with the curse
Of blindness and their unbelief who heard
And heard not, when I spake of famine, plague
Shrine-shattering earthquake, fire, flood, thunderbolt,


    Who ever turn’d upon his heel to hear
My warning that the tyranny of one
Was prelude to the tyranny of all?
My counsel that the tyranny of all
Led backward to the tyranny of one?
    This power hath work’d no good to aught that lives
And these blind hands were useless in their wars.’ – Tiresias

Also see A-Z of Tennyson's Poems

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