There are not many poems which offer such a wide range of possible perspectives for an interpretation as T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, a cycle consisting of five parts. A deep and thorough knowledge of his whole work, life and influences is necessary to provide a somewhat reasonable interpretation of all elements of the poem. Additionally he uses the feature of intertextuality very often, which means that one must know all the sources he uses and alludes to.
In this paper I will just briefly describe Eliot’s life, and the main sources of intertextuality of “The Fire Sermon”, which is the third part of “The Waste Land”. Then I will try to analyze “The Fire Sermon” focusing on the role of nature in the poem.
I have divided the poem into the three parts Water, City and Fusion. This labeling is reflecting the elements, which I consider as most important for each of the three parts of the poem. I will look at each part separately. Water and City are quite clear distinct main elements, which I will examine. Fusion means all important elements of the poem fusing together.
Finally, I will try to answer the question if there is a clear ecological concern transmitted through the poem.
2. T.S Eliot- a brief biography
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents were Henry Ware Eliot, a brick manufacturer, and Charlotte Stearns Eliot, who was a poet in her own right.
Having finished primary school, Eliot attended Smith Academy in St. Louis. There his first poems appeared in the Smith Academy Record in 1905, the year of his graduation. Afterwards he spent one year at Milton Academy, a private prep- school in Massachusetts, and then entered Harvard University in 1906 where he earned a master’s degree in English literature in 1910.
Awarded a traveling fellowship for the academic year 1914/1915, he intended to study in Germany, but the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 forced him to leave the country after only several weeks. He went to London, England, which would become his home for the remaining fifty years of his life.
There he met Ezra Pound, who would have a great influence on the development of his work and his literary career and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he married two months later. In 1917 Eliot’s first collection of twelve poems, Prufrock and Other Observations was published.
Between 1917 and 1925, Eliot earned his living as a teacher, a bank clerk and as a writer of literary reviews. In 1925 he joined the publishing house of Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber) to have a financially secure job. Exhaustion because of over-working and matrimonial stress led to a nervous breakdown in 1921.
During his recovery at a sanatorium in Lausanne, he finished writing The Waste Land. It was published in 1922, after Eliot had adopted Pound’s recommendations. It immediately became the most famous example of new poetry. But there was not only applause: Conservative critics denounced it as impenetrable and incoherent, because of its rapid shifts of settings and speakers and its allusions and quotations.
In his last two decades changes occurred in his private life. In 1933 Eliot divorced. His wife was brought to a mental institution and died in a nursing home in 1947. In 1956 he married his secretary at Faber& Faber, who was more than thirty years younger than him. He became a controversial figure because of his outbreaks of undisguised anti-Semitism.
His last major work Four Quartets (1943) consolidated his reputation, so that in 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. After several years of declining health, he died of emphysema at his home in London on January 4, 1965.
3. The Fire Sermon
“The Fire Sermon” is the third part of “The Waste Land”. The title is derived from a similar named work by Buddha, which T.S. Eliot himself considered corresponding
“…in importance to the sermon of the mount…” (Eliot 1971: 148).
In addition to the title, at the end of the poem Eliot also refers to this work.
The structure of the Fire Sermon is not easy to analyze. The poem does not have a straight rhyme scheme or rhythm. Its main structural element is variation. Therefore I would suggest seeing the whole poem reflecting the image of a river.
This is done on various levels: the actions and places described in the poem merge into one another, the transitions are flowing (cf. line 255 -257, where first the record is put on the gramophone and then although there is a shift in place and speaker it says “This music crept by me upon the waters”), and also the rhythm and rhyme scheme are constantly changing, so speed and intonation of a reader have to be adapted, just as a river runs sometimes faster and sometimes more slowly.
There are parts with much more regular rhythm and rhyme scheme. Especially the part from line 218 “I Tiresias…” until line 256 “And puts a record…”). This reflects on the one hand the monotony of the relationship (“love” would not be suitable here!) of the described couple and on the other hand this is the part, which is most clearly set in the inner city. We could now assume that if a river runs through the heart of a city it would be much more regulated as if it ran for example through the outskirts or through open land. So this also fits the picture of a river.
Concerning the “storyline” of the poem I do not consider it very useful to try to summarize it by repeating every event in chronological order. I can easily confirm, tha
“It is useless to ask such questions as the following: who is speaking, what is the point of the narrative…” (Donoghue 2000: 120)
because of the rapid changing of speaker, place and time. This poem does not intend to tell a “story”, but functions on different layers. A concept which is also often used concerning this poem is the musical one (cf. Pinion. 1986), where the whole work is compared to a piece of music, with various motifs and strands which are combined together into a poetic song. This matches together with my intended image of a river, since there are some similarities between appearing and disappearing of musical motifs and the course of a river.
Another important feature of the poem is intertextuality. By taking lines out of their original context and matching them together with new ones, or slightly changing them Eliot not only often mocks the original intention but also creates completely new if not exactly the opposite meaning. This is done for example with the allusion to John Day’s “Parliament of bees”, where it says: “A noise of Horns and Hunting, which shall bring/ Actaeon to Diana in the spring.”
This is alluded to in line 197 and line 198 “The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring/ Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring”. Through the changing of the names from characters of Greek mythology to Sweeney, a lustful character taken from Eliot’s Poem “Sweeney among the Nightingales”, and Mrs. Porter, a character of a vulgar song, the connotation of the lines gets much more in the direction of a rude sexual encounter than in the original. The “horns and motors” indicate that for Eliot there is a parallel between the age in which we live (the age of “motors” rather than that of “hunting”) and the perversion of sexuality.
The intertextual sources are various. The following list should briefly cover the two most important ones.
As the title of the poem already suggests, religion and religious motifs play also a major role in “The Fire Sermon”. Not only does Eliot allude to the bible (line 182 “By the Waters of Leman we sat down and wept”), he also refers to St. Augustine, an ancient church philosopher, and to eastern mysticism. As I have already mentioned the title of the poem corresponds to a work by Buddha, which deals with the importance of bringing emotions (especially sexual ones) under mental control.
Another also partly religious motif, which is very important in the poem is the “Tale of the fisher king”, a part of the Grail legend. The title of the whole cycle “The Waste Land” is derived from this tale. According to this tale the Fisher King is eternally suffering from a wound until someone asks him a question. As long as he suffers all his lands are cursed with aridness and sterility. (cf. Smith. 1983)
* Classical Sources
Apart from the already mentioned poem by John Day, which was inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there are several other motifs of the Greek tales. The figure of Tiresias is most important. He is the most famous seer of the Greek Mythology. According to the tale he is the only human being who was both male and female during his live, a fact to which Eliot points very often too. Tiresias has a very special role in the poem, since he is the only clearly identified speaker throughout the whole cycle.
I want to offer my own interpretation of the poem because I do not want to just restate ideas of others. Besides I did not find very useful interpretations in the context of my idea of how to read the poem. Some meanings or possible interpretations of similes and quotations can surely be found also in already existing interpretations but I will try to put them together into a new context.
Therefore I will try to establish a new concept of how to read “The Fire Sermon” which will be related to the image of a river I have already mentioned above. I will now look at the content level of the poem in respect to that image. I divided “The Fire Sermon” into three parts which I will now explain and examine. These parts are Water, City and Fusion. I will analyze those parts always in respect of how their elements are linked to the overall topic of nature.
In the first lines of the poem (line 173 until line 195) the overall stress of the poem lies on water and nature, which are closely belonging together. One always has to have in mind that the concept of “nature” can not be seen as nature in the sense of “pure natural environment” but more as “surroundings with no traces of a human being, or an active society”.
A lyrical I describes a scene at a river, which is probably the Thames since it is directly referred to by the repeated quotation of the Prothalamion “Sweet Thames run softly…” (lines 176, 183,184). The quotation of this poem, which is in fact a praise of nature and is set in beautiful springtime, is interwoven with images of a torn and decayed “brown land”. The nymphs, who are alive in Spencer’s poem, are now “departed”. This mixing of different levels of reality and time has an alienating effect.
We learn that nature is nearly dead, and the only links civilization has to it are “cardboard boxes” or “cigarette ends”, which are in fact nothing but waste. And yet not even these links are tied any more. The river is empty; it has no signs of these human “attributes”. Nevertheless the picture presented to us is not an eidyllion but one of the transitoriness of life. Nature itself (or rather herself), personalized through the “fingers of leaf” does not want to go, but “clutches… into the wet bank” as if she wants to hold on to something.
Also the lines “But at my back in a cold blast I hear the rattle of the bones/and chuckle spread from ear to ear”, which refer to Marvell’s image of time as a “winged chariot”, deal with the passing of things. While in Marvell’s poem the “memento mori” lies behind, and is just used as a counterpart to life, expressed in the longing for love his poem is about, there is no such bipolarity in Eliot’s work: Death is everywhere.
It surrounds the place, which is described: before the speaker lies the dead land, behind him there is the rattle of bones. The chuckle spreading from ear to ear is a quite vivid simile of a grinning skull, a clear sign of death. There is no escape. The question remains, what kind of death is meant here. Is it death of nature, abused by modern Man? Or rather death of modern culture expressed through the absence of any living being, except the rats, the remnants and at the same time companions of every modern civilization?
Since the poem’s title is taken from a religious Buddhist work, and there are several other religious symbols, another reading of this part would be the “transcendent” one. This one is a little bit different because it would not perceive the state of nature as persistent. So the speaker could also be the Fisher King, whose lands are dead as long as he suffers from his wound, and who is forced to fish in “the dull canal”, which could also be read as “dead water”. At the end of the tale a savior (Parsifal, in the medieval version) arrives and cures the King, so the savior becomes the King’s successor and the lands are restored. (cf. Williamson. 1998)
All this bears resemblance to Greek mythology, where Demeter, goddess of nature, has to suffer half a year, because her daughter Persephone is with her husband in the underworld. During this time all lands are brown and the plants carry no fruit- it is winter. The other half of the year Persephone is with her mother, and nature rejoices again. All this can be interpreted as a general symbol for the changing of the seasons.
So it is possible that the poem describes not a permanent state but just a phase. This can be supported by the plenty of similes of “passing time”, I have already mentioned. In addition the scene described in the opening lines has many autumnal attributes like the falling leaves or the brown land. Thus we can assume it is in fact related to autumn, which is a season and therefore implies some changes of nature. So this nature does not necessarily have to be in a persistent state.
There is no real answer to the question of how to read this part, since all of these explanations are possible to apply. This is what is expressed by referring to the poem as “music of ideas” (cf. Pinion. 1986): the constant change of voice, and the chain of associations in different possible directions. This is also what I had in mind when I chose the river as an image for the poem’s structure. Water generally plays an important role, not only on the structural but also on the level of content.
The whole use of the concept of “water” in this part is not what one would expect. Normally we associate water with life. In the “Waste Land” in general and the “Fire Sermon” in particular, water has a much more ambivalent meaning. At the beginning, the water (the river) bears no signs of life in it. The nymphs, the water-spirits, are gone.
The leaves as a symbol for natural life vanish by sinking “into the wet bank”. Later on in the “Fire Sermon” we witness the “musing upon the king my brother’s wreck/ and on the king my father’s death before him” (lines 191 and 192), which are in fact quotes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, when Ferdinand mourns for his supposedly drowned father. In other parts of “The Waste Land” the image of drowning becomes more direct, as for example the part following the “Fire Sermon” is called “Death by Water”, and is about a drowned sailor. So in this part water is not a force of life but of death and mourning.
This idea is also supported in the line 182 “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept …”, which is an allusion to the Bible. In the King James Bible of 1959 it says in Psalm 137, 1: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” This Psalm deals with the mourning of the expelled people of Israel during their Babylonian exile.
Why Eliot used “Leman” instead of “Babylon” we can only guess. One explanation could be that when he wrote the poem he was in fact at the Lake Leman in a sanitarium at Lausanne, so this change could be a hint at his own situation. Another interpretation might be that “leman” is an archaic word which means “lover”. (cf. Williamson. 1998)
This together with the verb “weep” would already be a hint at the image of love and sexuality which is transmitted by the poem later on: a dull, rude and futile occupation.
Now the image of the river is useful again since the poem is about to leave the natural surroundings by shifting in focus from death and water to sexuality and city in a smooth transition. Once more there is the allusion to Marvell but this time it is not “the rattle of the bones” the speaker hears but “the sound of horns and motors”. I have already outlined the meaning of this line concerning its source as changing the classical meaning into a vulgar sexual encounter. At this moment life comes back into the poem. Other characters than the speaker appear, we are about to leave the river and enter the city.
But transitions are blurred. On the one hand the motif of sexuality, which is the central issue of the city, grows stronger. Alternatively nature is not completely banished in the next couple of lines (196 – 206). A good example for the smooth transition are the lines 203 and 204, where the onomatopoetic realization of a bird’s voice suggests a link to nature. However the “jug jug jug jug jug jug” is also a hint at Lyly’s Campaspe:
O ’tis the ravished nightingale
jug jug jug
tereu she cries”. (Hunter, Berington 1991: 86)
The verb “ravished” as synonym for “raped” has clear sexual (and violent) connotations. Another element which lies beneath this line is the story of Philomela and Tereus, which again hints at a male-dominated sexual relationship (which is later in the poem reflected again through the story of the typist and the clerk). Tereus rapes his sister-in-law Philomela and cuts out her tongue, so that she can not tell anyone. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Philomela is turned into a nightingale and all she can sing, is the name of the man, who ravished her: Tereu is the vocative for Tereus.
Additionally one could also argue that, since the sound is produced by a bird, it refers to a “ravished” nature, which is brutally abused by Man.
The City in “The Fire Sermon” is closely attached to sexuality. The motif of death is there throughout the poem. This part ranges from line 207 to line 256. Once again, it is hard to draw clear lines, since the transitions are very smooth. At the beginning we have the image of Mr. Eugenides, the merchant. He invites a lyrical I to a luncheon and a weekend at a hotel. All this has clear sexual connotations, and, if we consider a male speaker, even homosexual connotations, but one can not be sure of this.
On the one hand the speakers of “The fire Sermon” until that point have been male, but other speakers in “The Fire Sermon” are not and the later appearance of Tiresias as unity of both sexes (see below) could suggest that there does not necessarily have to be only males among the speakers until he appears.
As the poem turns to the description of the sexual encounter between the typist and the clerk, there is an important shift of voice. The first and only time in the whole cycle, we are told who is speaking: “I, Tiresias”. This is no coincidence. Tiresias is one of the most important figures in the poem, especially in the “Fire Sermon”. The “Old man with wrinkled female breasts…” (line 219) is uniting many motifs of the poem.
“Tiresias , is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.” (Eliot 1972: 148)
He is at the same time an emissary from the classic past as he is “throbbing between two lives” (line 218). Through the use of the verb “throbbing”, and beforehand the formulation of the “human engine” the connotation gets technical, industrial and thus modern. By this Tiresias unites both ages, and not only that but also both sexes since he is described as “man with female breasts”. He is the first sign of the third part of the poem where all the motifs begin to merge.
Through the repeated hints by Tiresias of having foreseen the described action, the whole incident is lifted to a more general level. The relation of the clerk and the typist stands as a pars pro toto for the poem’s concept of sexuality, which is a very negative one. There is no communicative interaction between the two, not even any trace of positive erotic tension. The act is one-sided; the clerk just wants to satisfy his needs, the typist is not involved. She does not care, she is indifferent.
From line 239 until line 256 there is a sudden striking regularity of the rhyme and meter. It is a nearly regular iambic pentameter and a regular rhyme scheme of abab. This also suggests that we deal with a routine action. Sex is not presented as life-creating but as a dull and automatic act. The city, which is the stage for all these incidents, is in the same way associated with death as unrefined nature before when in line 246 Tiresias tells us that he “walked among the lowest of the dead”. So again the element of death is brought into the poem.
And as a matter of fact the described characters do not act as if they had much life-force left in them. Especially the female part, the typist, is pictured as a nearly mechanical being. “She smoothes her hair with automatic hand, and puts a record on the gramophone” (lines 255 and 256). It may be her who is “among the lowest of the dead.”
So there is the city as the complete absence of nature, but the presence of human beings. Beforehand it was precisely the other way round. Death is the only consistency between the two parts, but the way of perceiving it changes. In nature it is the water, which brings death whereas in the second part the sexuality is closely attached to it. So in both cases there are symbols connected with death which normally do have positive connotations.
In the line 257 the transition into the last part of the poem already starts. The music takes us back to the water. It is definitely not Tiresias any more, who speaks but more probably Ferdinand from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” since the quote is taken directly from the play. We are again at the river but still in the city. Religion is another important element of the last section, brought in by mentioning Magnus Martyr. Now everything comes together to create something new.
Until now, there have been two sides of the same coin: water and sexuality as symbols for death, nature and city as stages for action. In the last part of the poem the symbols and the stages merge, and a new third strong concept, the idea of religion is stressed.
The beginning of this part is quite distinguishable. There is again a sudden change in meter and length of line. At the same time the sentences become elliptic. Short thoughts are added one after the other, a chain of associations.
It starts again with the river. Apparently we are on it now, and there is movement indicated, because the poem speaks of drifting barges and “beating oars” (line 280) . At the same time different places and directions (“down Greenwich reach” in line 275 and others) are mentioned, from which we can assume that there is a journey going eastwards out of London to the sea.
But the river now is not lifeless and abandoned as before. It sweats “oil and tar” (line 267), which is a clear simile for industrial activity. So nature is introduced into the city again. Even the “spirits” are back: Eliot himself indicates in his annotations that
“The song of the three Thames-daughters begins here. From line 292 to 306 inclusive they speak in turn” (Eliot 1971:148)
These Thames daughters are in fact a reference to Richard Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”, where the “Rhine Daughters” are mourning over the loss of the river’s beauty because the Rhine Gold was stolen. Eliot even quotes their refrain of the opera song in lines 277 and 278. So there are water spirits lamenting the loss of the beauty of a river because it “sweats oil and tar”. Although the intruding of civilization is not welcome, the process goes on. In addition to the city there comes sexuality. First slightly hinted at with the line 279 “Elizabeth and Leicester” , but then again with the rather drastic line of one of the Thames daughters “By Richmond I raised my knee/ supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.”(lines 294,295)
The journey ends, the lyrical I reaches Carthage, which is an allusion to Augustine, who tells us about his sinful youth in Carthage. The last lines of the poem indicate the catharsis: the lines “oh lord thou pluckest” (lines 309 and 310 ) are again taken from Augustine and intermixed with the repetition of the word “burning” which is an allusion to Buddha’ s “Fire Sermon”. Both are longing for control over their bodily needs.
So every element of the poem, the water and the sexuality as antagonists on the level of content and connotations, the Nature and the City as concepts of earthly places are combined and dissolved into the merging of eastern and western religion.
This merging of the religions is not a hopeful one but it is just summing up the main idea of the poem: The cry of a torn individual for salvation.
In this paper I tried to analyze “The fire sermon” by T.S. Eliot in respect to elements of nature. To read and analyze the poem I took the image of a river as a simile for its structure. By this I divided the poem in three main parts: Water, City and Fusion which I analyzed. I have shown that every part is linked somehow to nature. In the first part nature plays an essential role in the setting and the similes whereas in the second part nature is more referred to through the strong emphasis on its counterpart, which is the city.
Now I will just briefly return to question if there can be seen a clear element of ecological concern in the poem. It is true that the overall mood is negative and the depiction of nature as brown arid land could be read as a kind of ecological concern, but I do not consider this element as consistent enough.
There are several sentences in the poem where it is very easy to interpret a fear of ecological collapse and waste. Ecological concern is a feature we can easily imply today, but I doubt if T.S. Eliot really had this in mind when he wrote the poem. I tend more to think of the use of the devastated nature as an allegory for a devastated and disillusioned society.
This fits better into the whole poem and the time when it was created. Nevertheless it can be stated that nature plays a very important role in the poem- as an important element but it is not like death or sexuality a motif. It is rather an important setting, a stage for events which is described to give the right frame to the things that happen.