The Fire Sermon Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.
- In these lines, Eliot vividly paints a picture of someone sitting on the bank of the famous Thames River in London. Leaves have fallen and have "s[u]nk into the wet bank" (174). That's what he's referring to the river's tent's being broken. There are no longer any leaves overhead, acting as a canopy.
- The overall tone, as you might expect, continues to be pretty dreary. But there's a lot of wetness in this scene, compared to the dryness and drought-like quality of earlier sections with all those shadows and red rock.
- The most significant part of these lines comes with the phrase, "The wind / Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed" (175). The nymphs he's talking about are probably the Naiads, or nymphs of the river, according to Greek mythology. This line tells us that the magic is now gone from what used to be a very magical place, a place that inspired poets to write about love and beauty.
- Now, you've just got an empty wind in an empty place.
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 night. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
- Allusion alert. The line "Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song" is a line from a poem called "Prothalamion" by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) that celebrates marriage along the Thames.
- Eliot is suggesting to us, though, that Spenser's Thames was very different than the one of Eliot's time, which is polluted with "empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends" (177-178).
- Yeah, we know: Eliot says, "the river bears no [litter]" (emphasis added), but that's actually a sarcastic remark, meaning that all the litter is there now, but wasn't in Spenser's time. That Eliot's a confusing guy.
- But he's not so confusing that he's writing a poem called "The Waste Land" about a river that's...clean.
- The people who've left this stuff behind aren't just the riff-raff, either, but are probably the "heirs of city directors" (180), meaning that even people of privilege have turned to slobs in the 20th century.
- And along with the litter replacing the scenic riverbank, the nymphs have been replaced by these city directors, who sound way less awesome, seeing as how they make the river all polluted and gross.
- Welcome to the Modern World, everyone. Wear close-toed shoes, please.
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
The rattle of bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
- Eliot's speaker claims, "By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…" (182), which might hint at the weeping that the Hebrews did when they stopped by the rivers of Babylon and remembered Zion, the homeland they were exiled from. Check out Psalm 137 for more.
- But Lac Léman, or Lake Geneva, is also a very important lake western Switzerland, so Eliot could be alluding to that as well, although we don't know what anyone in Switzerland has to weep about. They've got great chocolate.
- If you want to go the more general route, this line could also just be the speaker of this poem being really depressed about the world. The use of ellipsis (…) at the end of this line also contributes to the overall lack of closure that you get throughout. The speaker is trailing off, unsure of where he's going.
- After this, you get the line from the Spenser poem repeated twice, followed by a sudden mention of "But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear" (185-186).
- There's something super creepy about these lines, as though some violent person is standing right behind the speaker, ready to do something awful, and enjoy it. Yikes.
- And there's also something eerily familiar…but we'll get to that in just a bit.
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
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.
- A disgusting, slimy rat crawls into the Thames while the speaker is fishing and thinking about "the king my brother's wreck" (191).
- While the rat provides the pitch-perfect image for the decay that's going on in society in Eliot's time, we're more interested in this wreck.
- It turns out that this line refers to an early scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, in which the magician Prospero summons an insane storm to wreck his brother's ship. Prospero takes revenge because his jealous brother marooned him on an island twelve years earlier so that he (the brother) could be king.
- This reference conveys the sense of being stranded, just as Eliot feels stranded and without hope in the modern world.
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.
- The "White bodies naked on the low damp ground" (193) could refer to the people killed by Prospero's storm, or actual dead bodies lying along the bank of the Thames.
- Then you hear about the bones that are scattered in a "low, dry garret" somewhere, a garret being a little attic.
- These bones mostly just gather dust, and are disturbed by "the rat's foot only, year to year" (195). So in case you haven't gotten the point yet, Eliot really wants you to know that the Thames and London is no longer the awesome beautiful place that some poets have made it out to be. Now it's got litter and dead bodies. Lovely.
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
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole!
- Allusions abound! Let's break 'em down.
- The speaker says that sometimes, he hears the sound of horns and motors, which will bring someone named Sweeney to someone named Mrs. Porter in the spring.
- These lines pretty directly allude to a play called Parliament of Bees by John Day. The lines in the play describe Actaeon stumbling upon Diana bathing in the woods, drawn there by a noise of horns and hunting. Only here, Sweeney is figured as a modern-day Actaeon, and instead of Diana, we get Mrs Porter, who's bathing in soda water, rather than, you know, a lovely river.
- But the phrasing here is also a nod to a very famous poem, "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, which has a line in it that goes, "But at my back I always hear / Time's wingèd chariot hurrying hear." Plus, it's an echo of line 195.
- Sweeney is a not-so-likeable character from an earlier Eliot poem called "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," and Mrs. Porter is from a popular song that was sung by Australian troops during World War I.
- Lines 199-201 are taken from this song, and once again they show a sort of mediocre stupidity that keeps ruining or drowning out the things in the world that are truly great.
- More than any other section of the poem, "The Fire Sermon" includes bits of popular songs to showcase how low culture has sunken, just like leaves into the filthy banks of the Thames.
- Line 202 is written in French, and translates as "And O those children's voices singing in the dome!" This comes from a work by French poet Paul Verlaine about a knight named Parsifal, who has to resist all sorts of sexual temptations so he can drink from the Holy Grail. This line might ironically symbolize the fact that modern people always give in to temptation; they have no resistance or dignity, and this is one of the reasons the world's been ruined.
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd
- These lines go back to the story of Philomela, which Eliot alluded to way back in lines 99-103.
- That brings us back to the idea of sex as something horrible and violent, as you can see with the repetition of "so rudely forced" (205).
- And Philomela's nightingale song continues as well, with a few new notes, too—"twit." To be fair, the "twit" sounds might also refer to the moronic twits who populate the modern world. Or maybe that's just Shmoop's take.
- In any case, it's clear that the modern world, with its crappy, polluted rivers, is no place for a beautiful song. So instead of the high notes, we get ugly the ugly onomatopoeias of "twit" and "jug."
- Formally, this sudden fragment also has the effect of refrain, because it's a phrase that Eliot returns to so he can remind us of the fact that beauty might still be around us, but we're unable to see or hear it (i.e., just as we don't realize that the nightingale's song is actually Philomela trying to be heard).
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
- We return to the idea of the phony, superficial "Unreal city," which is covered by a filthy "brown fog of a winter noon" (208).
- We hear a story about some merchant (remember the merchant from the tarot deck?) from Smyrna (a port city in modern-day Turkey, now known as Izmir) who is "Unshaven" and keeps a bunch of dried fruit in his pockets. Guess he's a snacker.
- This man asks the speaker in terrible "demotic French" if the speaker would like to join him for lunch at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole" (213-214).
- These two places were notorious in Eliot's time for being secret meeting places where men would hook up with one another sexually. In all likelihood, the puritan Eliot found this kind of sex request disgusting, and is using it here as yet one more sign of how awful Western culture has gotten. There's also a strong hint of racism in the representation of this guy from Turkey.
- Needless to say, we're not meant to look too kindly on this guy.
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
- These lines set up the coming scene with the blind prophet Tiresias by talking about the hour when people look up from their desks and are just "throbbing" to get home from work.
- In this instance, you really get a sense of what beautiful poetry Eliot can write. He uses cadence here to help this image flow off the page, rather than relying on more obvious tactics like alliteration or meter.
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
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
- Enter Tiresias, a prophet from Greek myth whom Eliot calls in his notes "the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest."
- As the story (which you can find in Ovid's Metamorphoses) goes, Tiresias was walking along one day, and after he saw two snakes having sex in his path, he hit them with a big stick, which turned out to be a huge oh-no-no. The goddess Hera didn't like that so much, so she transformed him into a woman for seven years. Awkward.
- After Tiresias changed back, Hera made a bet with Zeus about who enjoyed sex more, women or men. Tiresias said that women did, and Hera totally freaked out and struck him blind. Zeus felt bad about this, but his hands were tied, so he tried to make up for it by giving Tiresias the power of prophecy.
- Weird story, right? So why did Eliot pick this dude as the most important personage in the poem? It's probably best to hear it from the horse's mouth, so here's what Eliot had to say about his inclusion of Tiresias in "The Waste Land": "Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees in fact, is the substance of the poem."
- So Eliot uses Tiresias in this poem as a sort of removed observer who can see visions from all over the world and see how awful the world really is. He's a universal kind of guy. In fact, it's totally possible that the speaker of this entire poem is actually Tiresias, but that's just one going theory.
- Tiresias is "throbbing between two lives" because Eliot portrays him in this poem as a hermaphrodite, a person who is male and female at the same time. This is what makes him an "Old man with wrinkled female breasts" (219).
- Of course that "throbbing" at the "violet hour" is a call back to lines 215-217, allying Tiresias with these average Joes at their office desks (it's also the hour that Sappho writes about in her poem "Hesperus, you bring back again," to which Eliot alludes here). He's really the everyman of the poem.
- And he can see something. What, we're not sure, so we'll have to keep right on reading.
The typist home at teatime, 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,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
- Tiresias offers us one of his/her visions, and talks about a young woman being home from work at teatime and "Lay[ing] out her food in tins" (223), while her laundry dries out the window.
- Seems like an everyday image—woman, home, and doing chores. But there's something oddly depressing about it.
- For one thing, she's alone. And for another, she's a bit of a slob (she left her breakfast out? and her underwear is lying around?).
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
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.
- Just to up the uncomfortable ante, Tiresias makes sure to mention his wrinkly old breasts again before telling us that he already knows what's about to happen in this young woman's apartment. This might be because he's a prophet (thanks, Zeus!) or because the scene is painfully predictable.
- Strutting through the front door, "the young man carbuncular arrives" (231). Carbuncular is a fancy word for really pimply, which means this guy's probably not all that much to look at. He doesn't have a very high-paying job, but he's got a "bold stare" (232) and is way more self-assured than he's got reason to be.
- This seems to be another pet peeve of Eliot's: people with no real achievements in life thinking they're totally awesome. For realsies, thank goodness this man did not live to see the days of reality TV.
- At this point in the poem, you also find a pretty strong return of rhyming in Eliot's poem. This might be because Eliot is satirizing the scene as an example of "modern romance," and using a traditional sense of rhyme to show how pathetic and gross the scene actually is.
- It certainly isn't rhyme-worthy, that's for sure. The idea here is that the young man carbuncular fancies himself a classic sexual conqueror (and is as self-assured as a millionaire, even though he's basically a secretary), but he's just a pimply-faced kid with a pathetic job and a boring girlfriend.
- The ugly young man decides that it's time to make his move on the girl, since she's probably tired and sluggish after eating her meal. Yeah, super romantic.
- Moving in, he "Endeavours to engage her in caresses" (237). The girl doesn't really want to have sex with him, but she basically says "meh" and doesn't really put up a fight.
- As you can probably tell, Eliot doesn't think much of modern romance. It's all just a bunch of poor, uneducated people having their ugly sex. Hey, he said it, not Shmoop.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
- The guy goes ahead and "assaults at once" (239), loving the fact that the girl doesn't care one way or the other, as long as he gets what he wants.
- The rhyming of the lines is as consistent as anywhere in the poem, allowing Eliot to really satirize the fantasy of heroic masculinity that the young man has made for himself.
- Clearly this guy thinks he's the cat's meow, and since this typist lady couldn't care less, there's no one around to tell him any different. So Eliot makes it clear that this guy's actually a schlub with his ironic use of end-rhymes.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit …
- The gist here is that Tiresias wishes that he didn't have to watch this sex scene as it plays out, but his "gift" of visions isn't something he can turn on and off.
- Tough break, buddy.
- He talks about how in the days of ancient Thebes, he used to prophesize by the marketplace's wall and "and walked among the lowest of the dead" (246), which may be an allusion to the Odyssey or the Inferno, in both of which Tiresias shows up in the underworld to help a brother (both Odysseus and Dante in turn) out. And did we mention that Tiresias was also given seven lives by Zeus?
- At this point, he gives us one last look at the pimply young man and his roll in the hay with the typist. Now that the young man is finished with his business, he gives the girl a meaningless "patronizing kiss" (247), and just like the blind prophet, "gropes his way" down the stairs because the light is out.
- Tiresias is able to see what's going on anywhere in the world, and as Eliot shows us, this is mostly what it is: bad sex between bad people. A little harsh, don't you think? Well, Eliot didn't seem to think so.
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
"Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
- Aw, did you think Eliot was done? No way, he's just getting started.
- Now that the pimply dude has left, the girl "turns and looks a moment" in her mirror, "hardly aware of her departed lover" (249-250). Calling the guy a "lover" in this scene is Eliot's way of sarcastically demolishing the idea of modern love, which in his mind is disgusting.
- The girl is not all that bright, and her brain only "allows one half-formed thought to pass," which is " 'Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over'" (252). Gee, how romantic.
- Eliot is trying to tell us that this girl has no deep thoughts of any kind, and she doesn't even have enough intelligence to resist sex that she doesn't want. She's completely passive in every way, blowing through life like a shopping bag in the wind.
- In line 253 Eliot quotes from Oliver Goldsmith's novel The Vicar of Wakefield by quoting a song in which the main character sings of being seduced and then ditched. Turns out it's a bit of a bummer.
- And that corresponds pretty well to our typist's situation. Now that she's alone again, the woman just sort of walks around the room without thinking, "smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone" (255-256).
- The gramophone (or record player) hints at the idea that popular culture is part of what makes the girl's life so passive and superficial.
- If Eliot wrote this poem today, he'd probably have the girl throw on an episode of Chopped: All Stars.
"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,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
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.
- The Tempest strikes again. Finally finished with the young man and woman, Tiresias quotes another line from Shakespeare's play, which is from a scene of mourning (this whole poem is sort of about mourning for Eliot—mourning for a better time, now lost).
- Tiresias goes on to talk about how he often hears music coming out of bars and "the pleasant whining of a mandolin" (261), which comes with the "clatter and chatter from within" the bar.
- It seems here that Eliot is giving us a vision of the better time in history he often hints at. In this world, the fishermen enjoy their music within a world held together by religious belief, as Eliot goes on to talk about Magnus Martyr, which is a church with "Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold" (265).
- The ornament of this church is a testament to classic beauty, and Eliot suggests here that even uneducated people are perfectly capable of participating in this kind of world, as long as they are humble and god-fearing, not full of themselves like the young man carbuncular.
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.
- In these lines, Eliot takes a song from Götterdämmerung, the last opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle and replaces all the German references with English ones.
- Here's the deal:
- The song is about women by a river, and in the Wagner version the river is the Rhine, and the song is all about beauty.
- In Eliot's version, though, you're back to talking about the Thames, and how "The river sweats / Oil and tar" (266-267), which is not so beautiful.
- Yep, the motif of pollution that Eliot constantly uses to talk about the moral and spiritual pollution of the modern world has reared its ugly head.
- And before you go thinking our speaker has gone totally around the bend with lines 277-278, we should tell you that the "Weialala leia" part is from Wagner's original.
- It's also worth noting that the form has taken a sharp turn for the short—line, that is. We'll see that trend continue for quite a while, so you might want to think about the effect of that change.
Elizabeth and Leicester
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towersWeialala leiaWallala leialala
- These lines talk about a scene from the life of Queen Elizabeth I and her "lover," Lord Robert, the Earl of Leicester. The scare quotes around "lover" are necessary because it's well-known among historians that this was a bit of a go-nowhere relationship for the Queen, just as the young typist's relationship with the pimply guy is going nowhere.
- Eliot got this scene from a famous biography of the queen, The Reign of Elizabeth. The book, written by a famous British historian named James Anthony Froude, recounts a moment between Elizabeth and Lord Robert on a barge on the Thames in which they discuss a potential (but obviously impossible) marriage.
- And we all know what Wagner has to say about that: "Weialala," that's what.
- In these lines, Eliot parodies part of Dante's Purgatorio, and gives us a few images of the speaker acting lazy and lying down in a canoe as he floats through ritzy parts of London.
- The lines in Dante describe a figure named Pia Tolomei, who describes where she's from and how she was killed (on the orders of her husband, no less).
- But in Eliot's poem, the speaker is unidentified, floating, relaxed in a canoe.
- Whoever the speaker is, their tour of London sounds pretty awful. The raised knees on the floor of a narrow canoe, and the word "undid" seems to indicate that this tour was a sexual one, resulting in unsatisfying encounters with strangers all over modern London.
"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?"
- Our speaker—could it be Queen Elizabeth, transported to modern times?—continues her jaunt through London, although now she's at a modern subway station called Moorgate (it's also the name of a street). Whether she's on a street or in a tube station, her heart is under her feet, indicating that it's underground, trampled on, or maybe even in (gasp) Hell.
- She mentions some "event" (possibly sex) that happened and made someone else, maybe the Lord Robert, the Earl of Leicester, weep.
- Whoever this someone else is, he promises the speaker "a new start," but she just sits there silently (299). It's possible that Eliot is referring here to the discussion of marriage that supposedly happened between Elizabeth and Leicester way back on that barge ride they took together—according to Mr. Foude, of course.
- Yep, sounds like this romance is just as doomed as the one between the typist and the young man carbuncular.
- For Eliot, the idea of a "new start" was probably a cliché he'd heard enough of, since he believed that the modern world had very little interest in making a fresh start of anything.
- Another speaker talks about hanging out on a rich-people's beach near the mouth of the Thames (Margate sands), and says that when he's there he can "connect / Nothing with nothing" (301-302). Sounds like an existential crisis to Shmoop—kind of like the one the world is undergoing in Eliot's eyes.
- According to him, people have no ability to "synthesize" ideas anymore, or to think big. All you're left with is bits and pieces of thought, which are like "The broken fingernails of dirty hands" (303).
- This speaker then takes a moment to say that he comes from humble people and expects nothing. By this point, you might have noticed that the word "nothing" is repeated a lot in this poem. Which is fitting because that's exactly what Eliot though modern life had going for it—nothing.
- After another, almost unrecognizable snippet from Wagner, Eliot tosses another allusion our way: line 307, which reads "To Carthage then I came," is taken from the Confessions of St. Augustine.
- In the original passage, the saint talks about how much he lusted for sex when he was young. That's why he went to Carthage (an ancient city in modern-day Tunisia), which Augustine describes as a "cauldron of unholy loves" (Book III).
- In this line, Eliot talks about how the modern man, however humble, is tempted to an almost insane degree by the modern world, which throws sex in your face at just about every opportunity. Ever seen a rap video?
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord thou pluckest
- Eliot alludes to the Buddha's "Fire Sermon," which describes the burning of passion, attachment, and suffering.
- Then he takes a sharp left straight into Christianity, with an allusion to Augustine's Confessions. "Oh Lord Though pluckest me out" is taken straight from Book V, and they talk about the pain of hellfire that the saint sometimes feels doomed by.
- But why shift suddenly from Buddhism to Christianity? The answer might lie in Eliot's notes, which tell us that he thinks of the "Fire Sermon" as the equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. Eliot's bringing in Eastern traditions, too, to illustrate the decline of Western civilization in the modern world.
- In Eliot's words, "The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident." To put that more simply: squishing together Eastern beliefs on detachment and Western beliefs on the same was intentional. It means something to Eliot. Any theories?
- And with that, you've got the end of The Fire Sermon. Now that we've got that part covered, it's time to talk about water.