Summary of T. S. Eliot’s The Fire Sermon

The Fire Sermon is the third section of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. The title is taken from the famous sermon of Lord Buddha in which the world is shown burning with lust and passion and hatred and thousand other evils.


The section begins with the poet (or Tiresias) pointing out that the tent, formed over the river Thames by the trees on the opposite bank meeting at the tor in the spring season, is now broken because, with the coming of autumn, the trees have shed their leaves. The last few leaves that look like fingers clutching each other, are also gradually falling on the wet banks of the river. The wind is blowing over the land covered with brown leaves, but there is none to listen to it. The river banks are desolate, for the ladies who had thronged them in the spring are no longer there. They have departed. The poet (or Tiresias) remembers the lines from Spenser’s Epithalamium, and asks the river Thames to flow on gently till he ends his song. The river no longer carries on its surface empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, card-boxes, cigarette ends, and other such evidence of picnic that were held on its bank in the summer season. The ladies have all departed, and so also have departed their friends and lovers, the good-for-nothing heirs of rich directors of business concerns in the city of London, They have gone away even without leaving their addresses (with the ladies whose company they had enjoyed). It is all animal-like copulation and at this degeneration Tiresias weeps again, as he once wept long ago when he sat by the lake Lemon. He asks the sweet river to flow on till he ends his song, and he promises that his song would neither be long, nor shall it be sung loudly. He would soon end his song, for when a cold gust of wind blows behind him he hears the rattling of bones, and a chuckle so loud that it seems to come from a mouth open wide from ear to ear and the sounds terrify him).

Once long ago on a cold winter evening, Tiresias, the all knowing, was fishing in the dull canal behind the gashouse. He heard the sound of a rat’s creeping softly through the vegetation, it dragged its dirty, slime-covered belly with great difficulty along the banks of the river. As he sat fishing, he thought of his brother, King Fisher, who had become a cripple and also of the death of his father before him. Next, he saw in his imagination white bodies lying naked on the low damp ground, and of bones lying in a little low dry garret, rattled by the rats’ feet year after year (all these are images of ugliness, squalor and spiritual barrenness). But he could hear behind him, from time to time, the sound of horns and motors, carrying Sweney (a lustful person) to Mrs. Porter (a woman of loose character). The moon shone brightly on Mrs. Porter and her daughter who wash their feet in soda- water to make them look fairer still and so attract more customers. Tiresias is reminded of a line from Paul Verlaine’s opera Parsifal, “Oh, these children voices singing in the choir,” suggesting the degeneration of the modern waste landers whose lust is aroused even by children.

The next passage of four lines refers to the rape of Philomela and her transformation into a nightingale, the bird with the golden throat. She was rudely raped by her brother-in-law, King Tar, but suffering transformed her into the nightingale. But her song is mere meaningless “Twit, twit, twit”, or Jug, Jug for the modern waste landers. They fail to understand its real significance.

Modern cities, like Paris, London or any other, which even at noon are covered with a brown fog are hot beds of corruption and sexual perversion. Syrian merchants, like Mr. Eugenides, come to these cities with their pockets full of currants, and with documents showing that cartage and insurance is free on goods bought by them, if payment is made at sight. They are degenerate and shabby, homo-sexuals. They speak vulgar French, and once Tiresias himself was invited by one of them to have lunch with him at Cannon Street Hotel, and then pass the week-end with him at the Metropole (Both these places were much frequented by homosexuals and other such perverts).

Next, Tiresias narrates an episode from lower middle class life. The typist works all day in her office, and at dusk her eyes and back turn upwards from her desk, i.e. she looks up as the office time is drawing to a close. She is compared to a human engine, throbbing and waiting like a taxi. Says Tiresias that now he may have grown old and blind but in his life he has seen and experienced all. He has had experiences both as a man and a woman. Now he is an old man, but he has also the wrinkled breasts of an old woman. The time of dusk is the time when all return to their homes, it is the time when even the sailors return home from the sea. At this time the typist also returns home. He sees her in her home. First she removes the breakfast plates etc., from the table, next she lights her stove to prepare her evening meal, and serves her food in empty tin boxes. She then takes out her clothes spread out on the windows so that they may be dried up by sun and heaps them up on the divan which is also her bed for the night. Her stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays are all placed on the divan. Tiresias, the old man with wrinkled breasts, sees the scene, and can easily foretell the rest, for he himself had waited as the typist was then waiting for the arrival of her lover.

The guest soon arrived. He was a youngman with a red face. He was a small house-agents clerk, and he had a bold stare. He was one of those mean and vulgar people, who try to look self-confident but who are as awkward in their movements as a Bradford millionaire with his silk hat on his head. He at once guessed that the time (for sexual advances) was favourable, the meal had ended, and the typist was bored and tired. He tried to engage her in love-making, she did not rebuke him, but remained indifferent to his love- making, thus indicating that she did not desire it. He was drunk and determined, and at once proceeded to have sexual-intercourse with her. His hands explored her body so to say, and she did not stop him. This was sufficient for him, for he was not vain, and did not wait for any response trom her side. She was indifferent, and he welcomed her indifterence (Tiresias comments that he himself has had such experience on similar divans or beds, he who has sat below the walls of Thebes and walked among the lowest of the dead). Having had his fill of sex, the youngman kissed her for the last time in a patronising manner and groped his way down the dark stairs.

The typist turned and looked for a moment in her mirror. She was hardly conscious of the fact that her lover had gone away. Only one halt-formed thought passed through her mind, “well now that is done, and I am glad that it is all over.” She was a lovely woman and she had stooped to folly. But now she walked up and down the room, smoothed her hair automatically and unconsciously, and then put a record on the gramophone (so that its music may make her forget it all).

The music of the gramophone reminds Tiresias of the music which he once heard as he walked on the banks of the river Thames. He went along the Strand, the London street which leads to the locality where the poorer people live. He heard it as he went down the Queen Victoria Street, close to the river Thames. London is a degenerate city. There he has sometimes heard in lower Thames Street the pleasant, but plaintive music of a mandoline coming out of a public bar mixed with the sound of clatter of vessels, the chatter of fishmen dining and resting there at noon. There is situated the well-known church of Magnus Martyr with its walls splendidly decorated with silver and gold, but nobody cares to visit the church. (Rather, it is suggested that the church be demolished).

In the modern-age, the river Thames has been made dirty by oil and tar which is carried by ships sailing on it. But there was a time (in the age of Queen Elizabeth) when well-decorated barges sailed on it. They were driven by the tides of water or by the wind which filled their beautiful red sails. They sailed in the direction in which the wind blew. But now the ship carry along with them logs of wood, drifting on the river, towards the Greenwich lake or pool of water, opposite to which is situated the Isle of Dogs (The river has been completely commercialised and polluted).

There was a time when Queen Elizabeth and her favourite Earl of Leicester used to sail on the river in their beautiful barge. Its front was golden, and it was all coloured red and gold. It sailed briskly as the South- west wind filled the sails and there was swift current in the water. As they sailed down the river, the could hear the sound of bells coming out of the white towers of the prison situated nearby.

Now all this is changed. The London streets close to the banks of the river have dusty trees and trams run there with their smoke and ugly noises. The speaker, the first of the three girls, who live near the river, say that she was ruined in the two river-side holiday picnic spots called Richmond and Kew. There she was raped in a narrow boat. She was forced to lie flat there, and raise her feet. The second Thames daughter says that she was ruined in Moorgate locality in the eastern part of London, where poor people live. She felt much humiliated. After the event, the person concerned wept. He promised a new start, that he would change his ways, but the poor girl made no comments on what he had done or what he said. She is so poor and insignificant that it is futile for her to resent anything ( the absolute helplessness of the poor is thus stressed). The third Thames daughter says that she was ruined on Margate sands, a picnic spot on the Thames. She does not remember anything. She was so dazed and bewildered. Her life, and the life of the humble people, who are her parents, friends or relatives, is as worthless and insignificant as broken finger-nails. They are entirely helpless, and expect nothing (but suffering and exploitation).

The poet is reminded of the words of St. Augustine in his Confessions; To Carthage them I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about my ears.” The entire modern waste land is burning in the fire of lust. Only God can pluck them out of this fire of lust and save their souls. As it is, they are all burning in this fire. To whatever section or strata of society they may belong, they are equally lustful and degenerate. They are all burning.

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