I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
One of the most famous lines of the poem, later alluded to (along with the Tennyson quotation: see below) in the title of Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust.
The line evokes the fear of dying: “dust to dust,” as in the Book of Common Prayer. The specific line in the The Order for the Burial of the Dead section of the Book of Common Prayer reads:
Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the body by some standing by, the Priest shall say,
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;(…)
An alternative order even immediately follows the above with the line:
And we beseech thine infinite goodness to give us grace to live in thy fear (…).
An interesting sidenote is that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches use a similar quote in their burial services, Genesis 3:19 :
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.
All these mentions of dust refer to the Biblical meaning of Adam’s — the first man’s — name, which is “made of adamah (earth)” or “red” (as the earth).
Eliot probably also has in mind these lines from Tennyson’s Maud: A Monodrama:
Dead, long dead,
And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head…
In the context of the poem, Eliot may be getting at a more metaphorical kind of death, the “death in life” that is profound grief or burnt-out sexual passion.
It could also be an allusion to the Cumaean Sybil. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Sybil is awarded as many years of life as she has corns of sands in her hand, but only the years, not the youth, causing her to fade and shrink into frailty.
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