The Fire Sermon: by T. S. Eliot || Summary and Analysis

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       Introduction : The title Fire Sermon is borrowed from the sermon of Lord Buddha wherein he said that the world is on fire, "burning with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation, with birth, old age and death, sorrow lamentation and misery, grief and despair". All these are on fire. The pith (essence) of this section is that lust burns up life. One can conquer lust by suffering and pain, by passing through the fire. This is opposed to modern idea that sex should be enjoyed without any regulation. Oscar Wilde puts it thus: "The only way of resisting temptation is yielding to it."

The title is borrowed from the sermon of Lord Buddha wherein he said that the world is on fire, "burning with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation, with birth, old age and death, sorrow lamentation and misery, grief and despair". All these are on fire.
The Fire Sermon

Summary :-

      Sex orgies : Tiresias describes the scene on the river Thames in the autumn season. The river is now deserted. There are only vestages of summer parties, when rich businessmen held picnics on the river banks. The pollution of the river stands for spiritual degeneration of the modern man and his civilization. As the protagonist stands on the river bank, he hears the merry sounds of London crowds and the sounds of motor horns, calling girls to their lovers. London is an unreal city full of sexual perversion. The man of business and commerce Mr. Eugenides has come to London. He is interested in enjoying sex relationship in the hotel.

      In the evening, when the typist girl comes home from the office, she waits for her lover. He comes after dinner and enjoys with the girl. The girl is indifferent but feels relieved after the sex act. It is the kind of animal-like sex which modern young men and women have.

      As Tiresias moves through the streets of London, he hears music coming from a tavern. Here the fisher-men and sailors are having a good time.

      Sex on the river : Along with oil and tar there is sex on the river Thames. In earlier days Elizabeth and her lover had pleasure excursions on the river. Now the daughters of Thames give stories of their seduction. the three girls-first from Richmond, the second from Moorgate and the third from Margate sands tell their stories of rape. Such people have nothing to complain as this is a common occurance on the river and its banks.


      Scene at the river bank (Line. 173-186) : The holiness of the Thames river has come to an end. The last leaves of the autumn season fall on the bank and sink into the water. The wind blows over the brown coloured land unheard. The nymphs who used to play on the river bank, have gone away. The poet addresses the sweet Thames and requests her to flow softly, till he finishes his song. At the time, the river does not carry empty bottles and sandwich papers and silk handkerchiefs and card-board boxes and cigarette-ends or any other remnant of the picnics held on summer nights. The young girls have disappeared as also their friends and lovers who are the wandering successors of executives of city firms who will not come again to the river I sat down by the waters of the dirty river-Leman and wept. Sweet Thames, run softly till I finish my song. Sweet Thames, run gently; I shall not speak either loud or long. At my back the cold wind which blows, brings to my ear the sound of the bones and the coarse laughter from people nearby. (Tiresias hears the shouts of Londoners and their fitful laughter).

      Vulgarisation of business (Line. 187-206) : A rat moved softly through the grass dragging its dirty belley on the bank, while I, Tiresias, was fishing in the stagnant water of the canal, on a winter evening behind the gas house. I was reflecting upon the fate of the King mentioned in The Tempest and on the king who was my father. I began think of the white body which was lying naked on the low damp ground and the bones of skeleton thrown in a little low garret, which were disturbed by the foot of the rat from year to year. Now I hear from time to time sound of horns and motors at my back, which is the signal from Sweeney to Mrs. Porter for meeting in the spring. The light of the moon shows brightly on Mrs. Porter and her daughter. They wash their feet in soda water in place of natural water. At this time, I hear the song of Verlaine which mentions the purity and holiness of children's choir singing of the Holy Grail. I also hear the song of Philomela turned into a nightingale. Her pathetic story is presented as a case of barbarous rape.

      Vulgarisation of industry and commerce (Line. 207-214) : London is a commercial city under the brown fog of a winter noon. Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, comes unshaven with a pocket full of dried grapes. He also carries business and shipping documents. He asked me (Tiresias) in French slang to lunch at the Cannon Street hotel to be followed by a week-end of enjoyment at the Metropole hotel.

      Mechanical sex relations of a working girl (Line. 215-256) : In the evening, when it is time for offices to close, the girl-typist rises from the seat and gets to leave the office. She is like a taxi, throbbing and waiting. I, Tiresias, though blind, hovering between two lives, and old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see in the evening, how people go homeward, the sailor coming home from the sea and typist returning to her room at tea time. She clears her breakfast table (which she has not cleared in hurry in the morning), lights her stove and prepares her meal out of the tins of food-stuffs. Out on the window are spread her under-garments touched by the sun's last rays. On the divan which she uses as her bed at night are heaped stockings, slippers, and embroidered bodices and brassieres. I, Tiresias, an old man with shrunken breast, surveyed the scene and forecast what was to follow. I too, had once awaited for the expected guest. A young man with a pimpled face arrives at this place. He is a house-agent's clerk who is adventurous but rather self-confident. His assurance and firmness appears like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire. The young man knows that he has come at the right time. The typist-girl has finished her dinner. She is bored and tired. The boy starts making love to the girl and his advances are not rejected, though not desirable. Getting greatly excited and passionate, the boy decides to perform the sex act. His excited hands meet with no defence from the girl. The boy feels happy because the girl is indifferent and his vanity is also not injured. (I, Tiresias, have suffered all this on the same divan or bed. I have sat by Thebes below the wall and walked amongst the lowest of the dead.) The young man gives one final kiss and finds his way through the unlit stairs out of the house. The typist girl turns her head and looks for a moment in the mirror. She is hardly aware of the departure of the lover. Her brain is busy in one half-formed thought. Now that the thing is done; she is glad that it is over. When a lovely woman stoops to folly (this is a line from Goldsmith's The Vicar Wakefield), she must realise the consequences. The typist-girl walks in the room again all alone. She smoothens her hair with her hands and mechanically puts a record on the gramophone.

      Varieties of entertainments (Line. 257-265) : This music crept by me upon the waters-(a line from Shakespeare's The Tempest) and along the busy Strand upto Queen Victoria street. Oh London city! I can sometimes hear a different type of music (different from the gramophone record) the pleasant tune of a mandoline beside a public bar near Lower Thames street, disturbed by the clatter of forks and the conversation of fishermen relaxing themselves in the pub at noon. Nearby stands the church of Magnous Martyr which has beautiful paintings in white and gold on its walls.

      The song of Thames (Line. 266-278) : The water of the river is covered with oil and tar. The barges move with the turning tide; the red sails swing on the heavy span (mast or pole), towards the sheltered side. The arges wash drifting logs of wood down towards Green-wich, pass the isle of Dogs as the music of Wagner's Opera comes from the river bank. 

      Elizabeth's cruise on the Thames (Line. 279-291) : Queen Elizabeth and her lover the Earl of Leicester row a pleasure boat on the Thames river. The stern of the boat had the shape of a shining shell of red and gold colour. The brisk waves produced ripples on both the banks of the river. The South west wind carried the boat down-stream. The sounds of the bell could be heared from the white towers situated on the river bank. The music from Wagner's Opera comes from the houses situated on the river bank.

      Sex exploitation in low society (Line. 292-311) : The girls who live on the banks of the river Thames, relate their sex experiences. The first daughter of the river Thames was born at Highbury which is full of trams and dusty trees. She visited Richmond and Kent which are picnic spots on the bank of the river. At Richmond, she was criminally assaulted by a man while she was lying on her back on the floor of a small boat.

      The second daughter of the Thames was ravished at Moor-gate. After the act, the man felt repentant and wept. He promised to reform himself. The girl has no regrets. This is a part of her life.

      The third daughter of the Thames was ravished on the Margate sands. She does not remember anything. She compares herself to the broken finger nails of the dirty hands which are useless. Her parents are poor and expect nothing. A tune from wagner's Opera can be heard on the river bank. The section ends with five lines from St. Augustine's Confessions where he refers to his visit to Carthage. The city was burning with lust. In his grace, God saved him. The idea is that prayer and God's grace can alone save the modern man from the fire of lust and evils of modern civilisation.

      Conclusion : Lust and rape are responsible for corruption and decay of modern society. This kind of degeneration prevails in all classes of society - the upper class, middle class and lower class. The poet prays to God to save the modern world from spiritual decay and death.

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