A reading of the third part of The Waste Land
‘The Fire Sermon’ is the third section of T. S. Eliot’s ground-breaking 1922 poem The Waste Land. Its title is chiefly a reference to the Buddhist Fire Sermon, which encourages the individual to liberate himself (or herself) from suffering through detachment from the five senses and the conscious mind. You can read ‘The Fire Sermon’ here; below we offer a short summary of this section of Eliot’s poem, along with an analysis of its meaning.
‘The Fire Sermon’ opens with the River Thames, and a description of the litter that was strewn across its surface until recently: during the summer, the Thames was full of empty bottles, cigarette ends, and even, it is hinted, contraceptives (that ‘other testimony of summer nights’). The ‘nymphs’, we are told, ‘are departed’. The meaning of this is ambiguous: on the one hand, Eliot is saying that the modern world (with its litter-strewn Thames) has lost its magic and spiritualism (where the rivers of the ancient world were populated by nymphs, the modern Thames just has rubbish); but on the other hand, ‘nymphs’ can be read as a euphemism for ‘prostitutes’. This latter meaning becomes clearer with the reference to the heirs of City Directors who have departed without leaving any addresses: the implication is that these rich bankers’ sons have been putting a bit of business the way of the prostitutes who ply their trade down by the river, but now the summer holidays are over, these rich men have gone (they haven’t left their addresses so they cannot be tracked down, should the prostitutes fall pregnant).
This description of modern-day decadence, where sex is sold cheap and is no longer viewed as a spiritual union sealing the holy rite of marriage, is juxtaposed with a repeated line from Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion (1596), a poem written to celebrate the double marriage of two noblewomen. In his poem, Spenser commands the ‘Sweet Thames’ to ‘flow softly, till I end my song’. Spenser’s poem was written in honour of the holy union of marriage; the only unions going on near the Thames in Eliot’s own time are those between the ‘nymphs’ and the bankers’ sons. This is not the only possible analysis of ‘The Fire Sermon’, but such an interpretation is borne out by the numerous references to sexual encounters in this section of the poem.
But this meditation is interrupted by a ‘cold blast’ which shakes us back to the waste land and moves from the river to a canal, where the speaker of these lines is fishing – reminding us of the Fisher King myth that is so central to the poem. He is musing upon his brother’s shipwreck and his father’s death, which could partly be another allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The references to rats conjure up the rat-infested trenches of the First World War. We are then treated to more signs of modern decay when we hear the sound of car horns signalling the arrival of Sweeney, a latter-day Neanderthal figure – a modern caveman in a suit who features in several of Eliot’s other poems – who is coming to ‘Mrs Porter’, probably a brothel-owner. The ensuing reference to soda-water is taken from an Australian drinking song of the day, and, again, takes us back to prostitutes. But Eliot once again cleverly juxtaposes this scene of contemporary decadence – where sex has lost its deeper meaning – with an allusion to an earlier poem, John Day’s ‘Parliament of Bees’:
When of the sudden, listening, you shall hear,
A noise of horns and hunting, which shall bring
Actaeon to Diana in the spring …
It’s worth analysing the significance of any allusion in The Waste Land, and this one is no different. Actaeon was torn apart by his own hounds because he dared, Peeping-Tom-like, to gaze at the naked body of the beautiful goddess Diana while she bathed. In this classical myth, even gaining sexual gratification (however nascent) from the sight of a beautiful chaste woman (a divine one, no less) was enough to get you executed in the most horrifically violent way. Contrast that view of sexual chastity, Eliot seems to be saying, with what we have nowadays: if you want to look at naked women (or even do more than look), all you need to do is bring your wallet with you, like Sweeney. In case we’re in any doubt about what Eliot is driving at here, he ends this particular passage with a quotation from the French poet Verlaine and his poem Parsifal: ‘And O the voice of the children, singing in the cupola!’ (A cupola is a little round tower, such as is found in palaces.) Parsifal (or Perceval) was, in some versions of the Arthurian legend, the one who went to find the Holy Grail – but only the pure and chaste would be able to find it. Perceval, like Michael Palin’s Galahad in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, must forgo all sexual temptation and keep himself pure if he is to find the Grail. But even he is finding it difficult: the seductive song of the children is even enough to distract him from his task!
We then have another reference (hot on the wheels of the allusion in ‘A Game of Chess’) to the violent crime committed by Tereus upon his sister-in-law Philomela. This raises further questions about the depiction of sex and violence in The Waste Land, and is another way in which the sanctity of marriage (and sex as a part of matrimony) can be lost sight of. This classical reference is followed by a proposition (probably sexual) made to the speaker by a Mr Eugenides, a merchant from modern-day Turkey (though once again, Eliot muddles the past with the present: Smyrna was an ancient Greek city). The speaker doesn’t tell us what he says, but we are to assume that he turns down this offer of a dirty weekend in Brighton.
Then we come to yet another example of sordid sex. (It’s only once you sit down and start to analyse ‘The Fire Sermon’ in detail that you realise how pervasive it is in the poem.) Tiresias, the blind seer (i.e. prophet) associated with ancient Greek myth, and particularly with the story of Oedipus (whose sex life got him into a lot of trouble), describes watching – as a sort of fly on the wall – a female typist have unsatisfactory sex with her beau, a young spotty house agent’s clerk. Tiresias is one of the first transgender figures in modern English poetry: the gods condemned him to spend seven years of his life as a man, then the next seven as a woman, and so on. Eliot recounts the uninspired lovemaking, which Tiresias blindly ogles from the side-lines, in jaunty tetrameter quatrains, ending with an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s song from The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel in which the daughter of the title character succumbs to the seductive charms of the novel’s rake character:
When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can sooth her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom—is to die.
But, with a sense of bathos of which Alexander Pope (an early influence on The Waste Land) would be proud, this modern-day ‘lovely woman’, after she has stooped to folly, simply smooths her hair back and puts a record on. Giving up oneself sexually to any man is no longer the life-wrecker it was in Goldsmith’s time.
From the typist’s gramophone we segue, neatly, to the words spoken by Ferdinand in (yet again) Shakespeare’s The Tempest; but the music that crept by him on the waters was enchanting and heard on a magical island. Britain is an island that has lost its magic. The river is so filled with oil and tar from industrialisation that the Thames appears to sweat the stuff; we are then transported once again back to the Thames of the days of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and Elizabeth’s long dalliance with her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The present analysis cannot interpret everything in ‘The Fire Sermon’, but we think it’s worth pointing out Elizabeth’s status or reputation as ‘the Virgin Queen’: she and Leicester never married, so she – unlike the typist or those nymphs or the women in Mrs Porter’s brothel washing their feet in soda-water – never surrendered her body (or so it is said) to a man she wasn’t going to marry.
But some women who did do just that – who ‘raised [their] knees’ and lay back and thought of England while in a canoe – now take over the poem: the ‘Thames-daughters’. Their voices are juxtaposed with the song of the Rhinemaidens from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (‘Weialala’ and so on). ‘The Fire Sermon’ then ends with a quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions (‘To Carthage then I came’), which returns us not only to the First Punic War (Rome against Carthage) at Mylae, mentioned in ‘The Burial of the Dead’, but also underscores the gulf between the spiritual and the physical: Augustine was the one who said, ‘Give me chastity and continence, O lord, but not yet.’ In other words, we might interpret this as follows: let me give way to my sensual passions first, and then renounce it all. Which is what the Fire Sermon is designed to enable the Buddhist to do, but also what Eliot’s ‘Fire Sermon’ is, ultimately, about.
Continue to explore Eliot’s poem with our summary and analysis of the next section, ‘Death by Water’.
The best student edition of Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which comes with a very helpful introduction, as well as contextual information and major critical responses to The Waste Land.
Image (bottom): Victor III Disc Phonograph (Gramophone) ca. 1907 (picture credit: Norman Bruderhofer), via Wikimedia Commons.