The Wasteland – Section Notes: Part III ‘The Fire Sermon’



In this section, T.S. Eliot preaches through a Buddhist sermon where people are encouraged to be free from earthly passions and things. The section makes various references to loveless sex and improper sexual relationships and shows an emotional wasteland. The section opens with a desolate and barren scene at the river Thames and sets a tone of decaying and desolation for the rest of the section.

  • First two stanzas show a world that is infertile and barren, with no signs of life except the rubbish that people have left. We also see death and destruction and the introduction of Mrs Porter who symbolises prostitution and immoral sex.
  • The third stanza brings us back to section 2 with the rape of Philomel and the nightingale’s song.
  • The fourth stanza depicts an invitation to Eliot to a lunch at a hotel with another man and has connotations of an illicit homosexual relationship.
  • The fifth and sixth stanza introduces the character Tiresias, a prophet, and shows him to be a character that unifies sexualities, male and female. He is an observer to the affair between the typist and the small house agent’s clerk and sees the meaninglessness of the relationship. The sexual relationship is seen to be loveless and empty and automatic and is Eliot’s attempt to reflect the state of our society.
  • The section then moves on to talk about the supposed illicit sexual relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Leicester.



Themes, motifs and connotations:

Empty and meaningless relationships

  • There are various references to sexual relationships that are immoral, meaningless and loveless.
  • Line 198 – Mrs Porter – a brothel owner in Cairo. Allusion to the use of prostitution and sexual immorality – first example of unrespectable sex.
  • Line 205 – “So rudely forc’d” – a reference back to Section 2 when we see Philomel’s rape – second example of unrespectable sex.
  • The sexual relationship between the typist and the small house agent’s clerk – third example of unrespectable sex. This relationship appears to be a purely sexual one with no emotions or feelings, and is seen to be repetitive and machine-like. Eliot uses this sexual-turned-automatic relationship to illustrate the state of our current society where things that are normally passionate and full of life have been drained of all emotion and meaning.
  • The forbidden relationship between Elizabeth and Leicester – immoral and improper sexual relationship – Line 294 – “Undid me” – could mean that she is undressed, or perhaps morally undone because of this relationship – fourth example of unrespectable sex.
  • All the situations depicting immoral and unrespectable sex (prostitution, rape, homosexual sex, loveless empty sex) emphasise the emotional wasteland that Eliot sees of our society.


Lack of communication

  • Line 181 – “Departed, have left no addresses” – This shows how there is no communication between people and how this breaking down of communication has led to a very empty and isolated society and because they have “left no addresses”, there is no way to bring back that life.
  • Nightingale’s song – This has been carried forth from the previous section and shows how the nightingale, previously Philomel, is still singing about her rape. This suggests that there is still no one listening and taking any sort of action towards the violent act and shows the lack of communication in society. It also shows the problems running through society when cries for help are perhaps ignored or thought of as less important than other things.
  • The sexual relationship between the typist and the small house agent’s clerk – Their sexual relationship is shown to be very business-like, or military-like: “Endeavours to engage her” (line 237), “assaults at once” (line 239) and “encounter no defence” (240). The man also “requires no response” (line 241), which suggests that he is purely interested in the sexual aspect of the relationship with no thought of the typist’s feelings.
  • Line 301-302 – “I can connect nothing with nothing” – This shows an inability to connect and gives a sense of isolation and emptiness and also desperation. This reflects the way Eliot perceives society, the breaking down of communication and the way this has led to the isolation of each individual.
  • Enjambment is also used at the end of this section, which makes the lines flow into one another, and this slightly disorientates the reader and creates a fractured, broken reading of the poem.


The pursuit of materialistic and earthly things at the expense of human emotions

  • The first stanza describes a barren land, deserted by everyone, including the “loitering heirs of city directors” (line 180). This phrase gives the image of wealthy people that have no time for anything else besides trying to increase their wealth. The fact that they have “departed” and “have left no addresses” (line 181) shows how friendship and ties between people have been broken to obtain materialistic things.
  • Immoral sex – Mrs Porter and prostitution/the rape of Philomel/illicit relationships with homosexual connotations/the affair. These examples show how the desire for sex overrules human emotions and morals. The idea of paying for sex is not only unrespectable but also ethically wrong. The same could be said with the other sexual relationships. The rape of Philomel was quite violent and wicked and shows a lack of morality. This is also true for the illicit relationships. The various references to sexual relationships in this section of the poem do not appear to have any emotions or feelings attached to the relationship and this is clear in the affair between the typist and the clerk as he “requires no response” (line 241) from the typist when they are having sex. This results in a very automatic, emotionless, meaningless, loveless sexual relationship between them. All the above examples show how the longing for earthly desires transcends all natural human emotions and morals such as love.
  • Line 277-278 – “Weialala leia wallala leialala” – This is an allusion to a myth where a gnome gives up love to steal money from the nymphs; the nymphs sing the song when they discover they have lost their money. Eliot uses this to reflect the way society has lost its moral values in the process of pursuing materialistic wealth.




  • Line 178 – “Silk handkerchiefs” – Silk handkerchiefs have connotations of passion and perhaps secret affairs and could be a reference to something of the past, when there was romance and love. They were also used as contraceptives and that suggests immoral sex, or forbidden sexual relationships (e.g. Elizabeth and Leicester).
  • Line 216 – “human engine” – This gives a very mechanic and robotic image of a person and dehumanises them, removing any feelings and emotions. This image fits in with the description of the typist, as she appeared to be very automatic and indifferent to her affair with the clerk, as if she were bored of the mundane, repetitive routine that Eliot is trying to illustrate throughout the poem.




  • Mrs. Porter- Is the owner of a brothel in Cairo referred to in a vulgar soldier’s song. An establishment of this sort is explicitly used by Elliot to demonstrate the empty worldly pleasures that are chased my man.
  • Mr. Eugendies- The Smyrna merchant acts as an almost evil character who invites the speaker to the Cannon Street Hotel. As a merchant, ‘unshaven with a pocket full of currants,’ this man gives the impression that he is unclean and ‘demotic.’  The Hotel is a place of secular pursuits and this shows Mr. Eugendies to be symbolic of the worldly pleasures that tempt man. Suggestion of a homosexual meeting goes further, as it is un-natural and again brings to light Elliot’s call for man to return to a more acceptable way of life leaving behind worldly pleasures.
  • Tiresias- Part way through the firth stanza, the speaker claims to be Tiresias a figure from classical mythology who has both male and female features, shown with the phrase "Old man with wrinkled female breasts" He is blind but can "see" into the future. As he watches the promiscuous encounter between the typist and her lover, Tiresias is used by Elliot to show the fruitlessness of such a relationship. Tiresias, thus, becomes an important model for modern existence. Neither man nor woman, and blind yet able to see with ultimate clarity. Moreover, this characteristic shows barrenness and in turn emphasises the lack of emotion and true natural feelings behind the typist and her lover.
  • The Typist- Elliot presents this nameless character in order to create a link between her encounter and humanity as a whole. As a nameless typist, she can be seen to represent a generalization of the common poor women. Her promiscuous act in turn is Elliot’s comment on modern society where such behaviour has become common place and almost accepted. Further, living in so impoverished a manner that she does not even own a bed, the typist is certainly not interested in a family.  This critical view of the women’s exploits falls in line with Elliot’s call for humanity to become less barren through the pursuit fruitless worldly pleasures.
  • Clerk/ Bradford millionaire- This type individual is essentially Elliot’s comment on the development of man. A Bradford millionaire, at the time The Wasteland was written, would be considered part of the ‘new rich.’ As such they would be seen as less cultured and sophisticated. Elliot uses this and the clerk character therefore to show how modern man has become tainted and seeks secular, fruitless pleasures. The Clerk himself is described as carbuncular or ugly. He does not attempt to mask his intentions and “endeavors to engage her in caresses, which still are unreproved, if undesired.” Again, the actions of the clerk and the typist can be seen to lack meaning in Elliot’s eyes. Neither can be interested in family, only worldly pleasures.
  • The Fisher King / Elizabeth and Leicester- This reference to history forms a complex idea that links back to Elliot’s disapproval of modern society. Previous to the portion that deals with Queen Elizabeth, there is a reference to a fisherman’s bar where music is heard. The position of this reference points to The Fisher King who is a central character in The Waste Land. Eliot drew this from “Ritual to Romance”, a 1920 book about the legend of the Holy Grail. Traditionally, the impotence or death of the Fisher King brought unhappiness and famine. Eliot saw the Fisher King as symbolic of humanity, robbed of its sexual potency in the modern world and connected to the meaninglessness of urban existence.  For political reasons, Queen Elizabeth was required to represent herself as constantly available for marriage to royalty from countries with which England may have wanted an alliance; out of this need came the myth of the "Virgin Queen." This can be read as the opposite of the Fisher King. To protect the vitality of the land, Elizabeth had to compromise her own sexuality; whereas in the Fisher King story, the renewal of the land came through the renewal of the Fisher King's sexual lust. Elizabeth’s meeting with Leicester, therefore, is a consummation that is simultaneously denied, in other words the event that never happened. The twisted logic underlying Elizabeth's public sexuality, or lack thereof, compounded with the Fisher King plot,  further questions the possibility for renewal, especially through sexuality, in the modern world. This behavior clearly was looked down upon by Elliot.




The section opens with a desolate riverside scene.  Rats and garbage surround the speaker, who is fishing and "musing on the king my brother's wreck."  The river-song begins in this section, with the refrain "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song." This section vividly describes the ultimate "Waste Land" as Eliot sees it. The wasteland is cold, dry, and barren, and covered in garbage. Unlike the deserts which Elliot includes in previous portions, the river does not change and gives no hope. Even the river, normally a symbol of renewal, has been reduced to a "dull canal." The ugliness stands in implicit contrast to the phrase "Sweet Thames.” While sitting on the bank of the river, the speaker is tempted by Mr. Eugenides. This one eyed merchant was pictured in Madame Sosostris's tarot card pack. Eugenides invites the speaker to go with him to a hotel known as a meeting place for homosexual rendezvous. By opening this portion of poem with such desolation and immoral temptation Elliot’s intentions become clear. That is to say modern man has become like the river Thames, dirty and tainted.


Following the opening backdrop of the filthy river, the speaker claims to be

Tiresias watching as poor common women prepares for her coming lover, a dull and slightly arrogant clerk. The woman allows the clerk to have his way with her, and he leaves victorious and abruptly. Once again, Elliot comments on the new modern society which indulges itself in fruitless, secular and immoral pursuits.


A fisherman's bar is then described, followed by a beautiful church interior, then the Thames itself. By placing the bar along with the beautiful church interior, Elliot effectively attempts to bring to mind the Fisher King.  Eliot viewed the myth of the Fisher King as representative of humanity, robbed of sexual energy in the modern world and as a connection to the meaninglessness of urban existence.


Finally, with the ending of the passage, the speaker makes reference to the city of Carthage burning. This city was destroyed by the Romans in retaliation for Hannibal’s rampage through the countryside of Rome. Therefore, it can be seen as suggestion by Elliot that humanity is destroying itself, like that of the Romans and the city of Carthage; one part of humanity devastating another in a fruitless existence.



Relation of part to whole:

This portion follows the section entitled ‘A Game of Chess’ where Elliot sets forth the two sides of what he sees as modern sexuality. While one side of this is barren, interchange, and inseparable from self-destruction, the other side of this is a rampant fecundity associated with a lack of culture and rapid aging.  In terms of the rest of The Wasteland, this portion is essentially Elliot’s strongest and possibly the most explicit attempt to depict his view of a decaying and hopeless humanity. Further, through characters like the typist and the clerk and references to Queen Elizabeth and the Fisher King, Elliot expresses his notion that such purists of secular and worldly pleasures are unrewarding. “Death by Fire” which comes after this ‘sermon’ portion, rebuts ideas of renewal and regeneration.  In effect, through these segments, Elliot shows that there is a lack of hope for humanity if the pursuit of worldly pleasures is not ended.