Culture Corner: Hysteria, T.S. Eliot


An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …”

Hysteria, T.S. Eliot

If you want a moment to indulge on how miserably repetitive and suppressive society can be, T. S. Eliot is definitely the go-to man. In this excerpt from the short prose-poem Hysteria, drudgery is easily slid to the fore. An elderly waiter goes through the aged rigmarole of laying a checked cloth over a table, desperately trying to cover the table’s rusty ugly surface. In Hysteria being only a tableau of a few seconds, this elderly waiter is eternalised. He stands, trembling, spreading the table cloth forever. “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden” spills off his tongue over and over again, as he directs said lady and gentleman to their seats, to drink tea in white ceramic tea cups, and shower scone crumbs upon their napkinned laps.

In the full prose poem, this waiter exists only in the background of the narrator‘s mind, his peripheral actions executed by a peripheral him. The narrator’s mind tunes into the waiter as he attempts to distract his thoughts from the heaving of a woman’s breasts, as she raucously laughs. His mind must not be distracted, must harmonise with his predictable and monotonous surroundings.

We must not feel, this tableau narrates. The narrator cannot be alarmed by the movement of a woman’s body, in a moment of uncontrolled laughter. The waiter must lay the table before the lady and gentlemen attempt to sit at it. But only unspokenly, as if all just fell into place by chance.


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