Eliot opens this section with the image of a river, wind crossing silently overhead. We are on the banks of the Thames, and Eliot cites Spenser’s “Prothalamion” with the line: “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.” The river is empty; “the nymphs" of Spenser’s poem have departed, as have “their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors.” Eliot unspools imagery that evokes modern life – “empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends” – by describing what is not in the river. In other words, the Thames has become a kind of stagnant slate, devoid of detritus but also of life. The narrator remembers sitting by “the waters of Leman” –- French for Lake Geneva, where the poet recuperated while writing "The Waste Land" -– and weeping. His tears are a reference to Psalm 137, in which the people of Israel, exiled to Babylon, cry by the river as they remember Jerusalem.
Suddenly the death-life of the modern world rears its head. “A cold blast” is sounded, bones rattle, and a rat creeps “through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank.” Rats appear several times in "The Waste Land," and always they carry with them the specter of urban decay and death –- a death which, unlike that of Christ or Osiris or other men-deities, brings about no life. At this point, the narrator, “fishing in the dull canal,” assumes the role of the Fisher King, alluding to Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and its description of the Grail legend. According to this study, of critical importance to the entirety of "The Waste Land," the Fisher King -– so named probably because of the importance of fish as Christian fertility symbols -– grows ill or impotent. As a result, his land begins to wither away; something akin to a drought hits, and what was once a fruitful kingdom is reduced to a wasteland. Only the Holy Grail can reverse the spell and save the king and his land. A typical addendum to this legend involves a prior crime or violation that serves as cause for the Fisher King’s malady. By association, the rape of a maiden might sometimes lie at the root; hence Eliot’s allusion to the tale of Philomela in “A Game of Chess.”
The allusion to the Grail is doubled by a possible reference to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a version of the Percival stories; in this account, the brother of the Fisher King (Anfortas) tells Parzival: “His name all men know as Anfortas, and I weep for him evermore.” Eliot’s lines “Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / And on the king my father’s death before him” seem to combine the Percival legend with The Tempest, in which Ferdinand utters the verse: “Sitting on a bank, / Weeping again the King my father’s wreck.” (North, 11) Eliot has already twice quoted The Tempest – “Those are pearls that were his eyes,” in “The Burial of the Dead” and “A Game of Chess” –- and here he links Shakespeare’s fantastical drama, and the accompanying image of water racked by turbulent weather, with Grail mythology.
As the impotent Fisher King, Eliot describes the wasteland that stretches out before him. “White bodies [lie] naked on the low damp ground,” and bones are scattered “in a little dry garret, / Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.” This last line echoes verses 115-116 in “A Game of Chess”: “I think we are in the rats’ alley / Where the dead men have lost their bones.” In both cases, the setting is one of death, decay, a kind of modern hell. Eliot proceeds to allude to John Day’s The Parliament of Bees, a seventeenth-century work that describes the tale of Actaeon and Diana: the former approaches the latter while she is bathing, and, surprising her, is transformed into a stag and killed by his own dogs. Here Actaeon is “Sweeney” – a character familiar from some of Eliot’s other poems, and Diana is Mrs. Porter. It is springtime, suggesting love and fertility –- but also cruelty, in Eliot’s version -– and Sweeney visits the object of his affection via “horns and motors.” Again ancient mythology is updated, recast, and remolded. The stanza concludes with a quotation from Verlaine’s “Parsifal,” a sonnet describing the hero’s successful quest for the Holy Grail.
Next come four bizarre lines: “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug / So rudely forc’d. / Tereu.” We recall “Jug jug jug” from “A Game of Chess,” in which the onomatopoeia described the sound of Philomela as nightingale; “Twit twit twit” likewise seems to represent a bird’s call. So we have returned to the tale of the woman who was violated and took her revenge, and “So rudely forc’d” refers to that violation. “Tereu,” then, is Tereus.
“Unreal City” reprises the line from “The Burial of the Dead,” evoking Baudelaire once more and bringing the reader back to modern London. Mr. Eugenides, a merchant from Turkey (and probably the one-eyed merchant Madame Sosostris described earlier) invites the narrator to luncheon at a hotel and to join him on a weekend excursion to Brighton. In the stanza that follows, the narrator, no longer himself and no longer the Fisher King, takes on the role of Tiresias, the blind prophet who has lived both as a man and a woman, and is therefore “throbbing between two lives.” Tiresias sees a “young man carbuncular” -- that is, a young man who has or resembles a boil –- pay a visit to a female typist. She is “bored and tired,” and the young man, like Tereus, is full of lust. He sleeps with her and then makes off, leaving her alone to think to herself: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.” She plays music on the gramophone.
The music seems to transport the narrator back to the city below. “This music crept by me upon the waters” is another quote from The Tempest, and Eliot proceeds to describe a bustling bar in Lower Thames Street filled with “fishmen.” This account paves the way for another vision of the river itself: sweating “oil and tar,” a murky, polluted body replete with barges and “drifting logs.” Eliot quotes Wagner’s Die Gotterdammerung, in which maidens upon the Rhine, having lost their gold, sing a song of lament: “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala.” A quick allusion to Queen Elizabeth’s boat-ride with her suitor the Earl of Leicester, described in James Anthony Froude’s History of England, contains references to the rich woman of “A Game of Chess” (“A gilded shell”) and another description of the sounds of the city -– “The peal of bells / White towers.”
Finally, one of the “maidens” raises her own voice, recounting her proper tragedy. “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me”: in other words, she was born in Highbury and lost her innocence in Richmond and Kew. Bitterly she recalls how the man responsible promised “a new start” afterwards; as it now stands, the maiden “can connect / Nothing with nothing.” The stanza ends with references to St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon –- in each case to a passage describing the dangers of youthful lust.
The central theme of this section is, to put it simply, sex. If death permeates “The Burial of the Dead” and the tragically wronged woman -– be it Philomela or Ophelia -– casts a pall over “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon” is in essence a sermon about the dangers of lust. It is important to recognize that Eliot culminates this passage with an invocation of both Eastern and Western philosophy; he even says so himself in his notes. “To Carthage then I came” refers to Augustine; “Burning burning burning burning” recalls Buddha’s Fire Sermon, in which “All things, O priests, are on fire.” Both Augustine and Buddha warn against purely physical urges, as they must inevitably serve as obstacles or barriers to true faith and spiritual peace. The image of fire, familiar from countless representations of Hell in Christian art, is here specifically linked to the animal drives that push men and women to commit sinful acts.
Of course, to interpret Eliot’s poetry this moralistically is to miss much of its nuance and wit. While recalling the strictest of religious codes, Eliot is at his most literately playful here, spinning Tempest quotations into odes to Wagner, littering Spenser’s Thames with “cardboard boxes” and “cigarette ends,” replacing Actaeon and Diana with a certain Sweeney and a certain Mrs. Porter. There is a satirical edge that cuts through this writing -– and perhaps real indignation as well. Much has already been made of the episode involving the typist and the carbuncular man. What is particularly fascinating about it is the way in which Eliot mixes and matches the violent with the nearly tender: the young man’s first advances are “caresses” and he is later described as a “lover.” At the same time, however, “he assaults at once,” his vanity requiring “no response.” It is close to a scene of rape, and the ambiguity makes it all the more troubling.
Eliot offers a voyeuristic glimpse of a young woman’s home, her sexual liaison with a man, and her moments alone afterwards. Ironically, he presents this Peeping Tom’s account from the narrative perspective of the blind Tiresias: the “Old man with wrinkled female breasts.” The decrepit prophet who once lived as a woman recalls his encounters with Antigone and Oedipus Rex (“I who have sat by Thebes below the wall”) and Odysseus in Hades (“And walked among the lowest of the dead”) while witnessing a quintessentially modern bit of business. That Eliot resurrects ancient tropes and characters within such a vulgar scene is an act of audacity that was shocking in 1922, and still packs a punch. Readers today are perhaps less surprised by the episode, but it is hard not to be moved; quoting from Oliver Goldsmith’s eighteenth-century novel The Vicar of Wakefield, Eliot describes the post-coital woman pacing about her room: “When lovely woman stoops to folly.” An image of potential perfection has been spoiled; all that is left now is a mirror and a gramophone.
It was surely this kind of scene that so stirred John Dos Passos, and it does indeed find numerous echoes in Manhattan Transfer. Eliot’s poem was a crucial inspiration for Dos Passos’ epic portrait of New York. An American transplanted to Europe, Eliot's narrator floats through London in “The Fire Sermon,” beginning by the Thames and returning there to listen to the cry of the Rhine-maidens as they bemoan their fate: “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala.” Whether quoting older sources or capturing the rhyme and texture of modern life, Eliot is dealing in sadness; a sense of loss imbues the writing, bubbling to the surface in the maiden’s account of her lost innocence. Just as the narrator “knew nothing” when looking upon the hyacinth girl, so is the maiden faced with “nothing”: “I can connect / Nothing with nothing. / The broken fingernails of dirty hands. / My people humble people who expect / Nothing.”
From the typist to this last suffering woman, lust seems to portend sorrow, and that sorrow seems in turn to be an integral feature of the modern world. The typist is never named because she is ultimately a "type," a representation of something larger and more widespread. Eliot is diagnosing his London and his world with a disease of the senses, through which sex has replaced love and meaningless physical contact has subsumed real emotional connection. Ironically, the Fisher King’s impotence then results from an excess of carnality. The image of the river sweating oil recalls a Biblical plague, and the “burning” at the end of the section brings Hell to mind. Through it all the river courses, carrying history along with it. All the poet can do, it seems, is weep.