T.S. Eliot * The Wastelands * The Fire Sermon (III)

The chapter is simply about sexual intercourse. The title of this chapter, The Fire Sermon, is a sermon given by Buddha. In this sermon, he encourages people to stay away from earthly passion – free themselves from the fire of lust. This is a rather ironic reference that Eliot made because in this chapter, that is exactly opposite of what people do – they cannot resist lust or earthly passion. In the first stanza, Eliot gave description of the Wasteland, a place with brown land, wet bank, and no humanity. He did this by taking away symbolisms of water, which is hold as a valuable treasure to many religions and cultures. He also criticized the manner and behavior people treating each other: jealousy, anger and sexual desire.

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Eliot, in the voice of Tiresias, a blind prophet, talks about the squalid nature of sex, the sin that all humankind is stained with, our road to damnation and hell. Tiresias can see from both perspectives; men and women because he was turned into a woman for seven years.

With a quotation from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the reader is transported back into the City of London. Here the reader visits a fishermen’s bar, the interior of St. Magnus- the- Martyr, then back to the Thames. The Thames-daughters from Spencer’s poem sings a nonsense chorus, and the scene shifts to Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester, and the queen is unmoved by her lover’s declarations, and thinks of her people. At the end there is a reference to St. Augustine’s Confession and a simple allusion to Buddhist Fire Sermon.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.  175
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;  180
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear  185
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

“The nymphs are departed”, is in many ways a condemnation of the modern era. The “nymphs” function as a canary in a coal mine, so to speak, and represent the epic spirituality, tradition, and history of humanity before the industrial revolution. With the industrial revolution, the nymphs are gone, and instead we get images of workers trudging silently to work in a thick fog in an “unreal city”, awash with the blandness of modernity.

* Leman is the French name of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman); the reference is to the convalescent leave from Lloyd’s Bank that Eliot spent in Lausanne, on the shores of the lake, in order to receive psychological treatment. A large part of The Waste Land was written in this time.

A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse.  190
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.  195
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter  200
They wash their feet in soda water
Et, O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

Water for T.S. Eliot is changing – from the lovely and sweet Thames to a dull and un-interesting body. The sanctity of water used during a baptism in going away as the soda water is unclean. Instead of clearing sins, it maybe adds more.

Fishing in the lakes and streams close to his castle is the only activity that give the King peace. In Arthurian Legend, the Fisher King is in charge of keeping the Holy Grail. However, he is injured and unable to move on his own. When he is wounded, his kingdom also suffers with him. The Kingdom, was once a fertile land, is now turns into a Wasteland. The Kingdom is very similar to Europe. Before the king wounded – before the wars begin, Europe was once a powerful and wealthy continents. However, after the war, Europe was nothing but a wasteland.

“And O those children’s voices singing in the dome!”

This is a quotation from Verlaine’s Parsifal. The poem about a knight named Parsifal who has resisted all lust and desire so he can drink from the Holy Grail. His action is exactly what Buddha’s Fire Sermon is about – free yourself from the fire of lust. Perhaps this is a sarcasm twist that Eliot intended to criticize people of the modern time. People are too susceptible and vulnerable to temptation; they do not have resistance or dignity, which can be the reason why a fertile land such as Europe can turn into a Wasteland.

Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.  205
Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants  210
C. i. f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back  215
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
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  220
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,  225
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.  230
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,  235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;  240
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall  245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…

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At the end, when the house’s agent clerk leaves, he paid the female typist a final “patronizing” kiss. Which also reflect the inequality between men and women. The kiss that the house’s agent clerk gave the typist was meaning that he’s better than her. And at the end, there is only the typist; alone in her room, listen to music.

This part is kind of like he reflects how men think about their women. They think that men are more important, and women are just something for them to satisfy their sexual needs. So I think that is why for women, sex is like a duty that they have to do to please their men. So it means nothing to them. It was just a plain thing, even when they don’t like it, but they still don’t or can have a response to it.

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;  250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,  255
And puts a record on the gramophone.


“This music crept by me upon the waters”

Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?
It sounds no more: and sure, it waits upon
Some god o’ the island. Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the king my father’s wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have follow’d it,
Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone.
No, it begins again.
ARIEL sings

“This music crept by me upon the waters” is an allusion to The Tempest Act I, Scene III when Ferdinand found himself on the island and Prospero ordered the servant spirit Ariel to lure him towards Prospero and Miranda. The allusion is meant to be a transition transporting the reader to a different destination, Queen Victoria Street. The “waters” appear once again as a common theme of fertility.

“This music crept by me upon the waters”
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City City, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,  260
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.  265


The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails  270
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach  275
Past the Isle of Dogs.
            Weialala leia
            Wallala leialala
Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars  280
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores  285
South-west wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
            Weialala leia  290
            Wallala leialala

Elizabeth I has to present herself as constantly available for marriage to royal countries that England might have an alliance with. This came with the myth “Virgin Queen.” This is the opposite from the Fisher King Legend. Elizabeth has to use her sexuality to maintain the vitality of the land. In the case of the Fisher King, the resurrection of his land,, means renewal for his sexual potency. She has a tryst with Leicester, but sexual intercourse was always out of the question. The image of her sexuality, or lack of sexuality, mirror and twisted the image of the Fisher King. This leaves a question whether revival, though sexuality, is possible in the modern world.

“Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.“  295
“My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent?”
“On Margate Sands.  300
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.”  305
      la la
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest  310

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Carthage and referenced to Augustine’s journey to overcome his secular life and abandon the pagan world. O Lord Thou pluckest me out is in the Book X of Augustine’s Confession. Burning burning burning burning is an allusion to the Buddhist “ Fire Sermon,” in which Buddha preaches about abandoning the fire of lust and other passions that destroy people. Both Buddha and Augustine warn against the physical urges as prevent people from achieving higher lives and freedom. According to T.S. Eliot, the reason for having both these two characters is to represent the Western and Eastern ascetism. The next section of the poem, “Death by Water,” in which there is no ressurection after death, Eliot somewhat mocks these two individual’s faith in a higher power. The last “burning” was meant to say that all struggle in life is futile, and eventually leads to death.

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