So, today I continue my wander through T.S Eliot’s poem, after a short hiatus, and a busy period of reading. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times was simply screaming for my attention. Part III of the poem then, is perhaps the pivotal point; the point at which the meaning within the poem shifts, and begins to take on a more complex one, moving beyond simple descriptions of degradation and corruption, to a kind of death; a death of the spirit. The title itself, “The Fire Sermon”, is inspired by the Buddhist scriptures, something that Eliot himself was very familiar with, because of his excellent understanding of Sanskrit.
The beginning of this section very much focuses on sexual degradation, a theme that began to emerge in “A Game of Chess”. There are some hidden references to the lifestyles of “the bright young things”, for example, “the loitering heirs of City directors,”; they lived lives of such huge excess, based around material happiness. This crisis of human nature emerged in the aftermath of the First World War; these young men saw their fathers and brothers die terribly, and in huge numbers, causing a crisis of character, to a certain extent, and therefore their indulgences can be seen as a social reaction in their memory; making up for lost time, even.
The following stanza contains more obvious references to the trenches and battlefields across Europe; an example of this is “White bodies naked on the low damp ground”. Alongside the references to rats, there is a feeling of damp, dank, desperate places. The graveyards of the First World War are somewhere that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. However, juxtaposed against this rather dark image, is the reference to prostitution; this returns the theme of the poem to sexual degradation, positioned against the images of the Great War.
At this point however, a drastic change of pace occurs, because alongside the reference to the secretary (at the time, a secretary was a lower class worker, subservient essentially to all authorities), there is the influence of mythology, and Tiresias, a mythological character caught between two genders. This detracts from the distinct realism of the passage, and gives it an almost divine quality; a shift from the obvious ramifications of promiscuity towards the spiritual ramifications, something Eliot was supremely concerned by.
The passage is classically full of allusions; we have allusions from Greek mythology, The Tempest, Baudelaire, and the allusion to Tudor England. The allusion to Tudor England is significant in that Queen Elizabeth I was a virgin queen; she allegedly never engaged in any kind of sexual activity, because decisions were entirely political, even the business of love and marriage. Therefore Eliot returns to this period as a kind of juxtaposition; the Elizabethan’s also lacked the spirituality he coveted, but in an entirely different way to the twentieth century. They were simply mercenary, not necessarily corrupt.
The final stanza instigates the beginning of the theme of death, in order to resurrected; the word “burning” is constantly repeated, and the speaker in the poem asks “pluckest me out” of God. This is significant due to the strong theme of realisation; it is as though he has realised the importance of the social change happening around him. The finality of “burning” is also a reference to the Buddhist practice after a death; cremation is said to release the soul, into another life. By destroying this shattered world, there is space for it to be rebuilt. At this point, this part ends, leaving us on something of a cliff hanger, waiting to see what the outcome of this burning really is.
I hope you’re enjoying the series so far; Part IV to follow!