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
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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:
portion follows the section entitled ‘A Game of Chess’ where Elliot sets forth
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.