The title of this, the longest section of The Waste Land, is taken from a sermon given by Buddha in which he encourages his followers to give up earthly passion (symbolized by fire) and seek freedom from earthly things. A turn away from the earthly does indeed take place in this section, as a series of increasingly debased sexual encounters concludes with a river-song and a religious incantation. The section opens with a desolate riverside scene: Rats and garbage surround the speaker, who is fishing and “musing on the king my brother’s wreck.” The river-song begins in this section, with the refrain from Spenser’s Prothalamion: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.” A snippet from a vulgar soldier’s ballad follows, then a reference back to Philomela (see the previous section). The speaker is then propositioned by Mr. Eugenides, the one-eyed merchant of Madame Sosostris’s tarot pack. Eugenides invites the speaker to go with him to a hotel known as a meeting place for homosexual trysts.
The speaker then proclaims himself to be Tiresias, a figure from classical mythology who has both male and female features (“Old man with wrinkled female breasts”) and is blind but can “see” into the future. Tiresias/the speaker observes a young typist, at home for tea, who awaits her lover, a dull and slightly arrogant clerk. The woman allows the clerk to have his way with her, and he leaves victorious. Tiresias, who has “foresuffered all,” watches the whole thing. After her lover’s departure, the typist thinks only that she’s glad the encounter is done and over.
A brief interlude begins the river-song in earnest. First, a fisherman’s bar is described, then a beautiful church interior, then the Thames itself. These are among the few moments of tranquility in the poem, and they seem to represent some sort of simpler alternative. The Thames-daughters, borrowed from Spenser’s poem, chime in with a nonsense chorus (“Weialala leia / Wallala leialala”). The scene shifts again, to Queen Elizabeth I in an amorous encounter with the Earl of Leicester. The queen seems unmoved by her lover’s declarations, and she thinks only of her “people humble people who expect / Nothing.” The section then comes to an abrupt end with a few lines from St. Augustine’s Confessions and a vague reference to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon (“burning”).
This section of The Waste Land is notable for its inclusion of popular poetic forms, particularly musical ones. The more plot-driven sections are in Eliot’s usual assortment of various line lengths, rhymed at random. “The Fire Sermon,” however, also includes bits of many musical pieces, including Spenser’s wedding song (which becomes the song of the Thames-daughters), a soldier’s ballad, a nightingale’s chirps, a song from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and a mandolin tune (which has no words but is echoed in “a clatter and a chatter from within”). The use of such “low” forms cuts both ways here: In one sense, it provides a critical commentary on the episodes described, the cheap sexual encounters shaped by popular culture (the gramophone, the men’s hotel). But Eliot also uses these bits and pieces to create high art, and some of the fragments he uses (the lines from Spenser in particular) are themselves taken from more exalted forms. In the case of the Prothalamion, in fact, Eliot is placing himself within a tradition stretching back to ancient Greece (classically, “prothalamion” is a generic term for a poem-like song written for a wedding). Again this provides an ironic contrast to the debased goings-on but also provides another form of connection and commentary. Another such reference, generating both ironic distance and proximate parallels, is the inclusion of Elizabeth I: The liaison between Elizabeth and Leicester is traditionally romanticized, and, thus, the reference seems to clash with the otherwise sordid nature of this section. However, Eliot depicts Elizabeth—and Spenser, for that matter—as a mere fragment, stripped of noble connotations and made to represent just one more piece of cultural rubbish. Again, this is not meant to be a democratizing move but a nihilistic one: Romance is dead.
The opening two stanzas of this section describe the ultimate “Waste Land” as Eliot sees it. The wasteland is cold, dry, and barren, covered in garbage. Unlike the desert, which at least burns with heat, this place is static, save for a few scurrying rats. Even the river, normally a symbol of renewal, has been reduced to a “dull canal.” The ugliness stands in implicit contrast to the “Sweet Thames” of Spenser’s time. The most significant image in these lines, though, is the rat. Like the crabs in Prufrock, rats are scavengers, taking what they can from the refuse of higher-order creatures. The rat could be said to provide a model for Eliot’s poetic process: Like the rat, Eliot takes what he can from earlier, grander generations and uses the bits and pieces to sustain (poetic) life. Somehow this is preferable to the more coherent but vulgar existence of the contemporary world, here represented by the sound of horns and motors in the distance, intimating a sexual liaison.
The actual sexual encounters that take place in this section of the poem are infinitely unfruitful. Eugenides proposes a homosexual tryst, which by its very nature thwarts fertility. The impossibility of regeneration by such means is symbolized by the currants in his pocket—the desiccated, deadened version of what were once plump, fertile fruits. The typist and her lover are equally barren in their way, even though reproduction is at least theoretically possible for the two. Living in so impoverished a manner that she does not even own a bed, the typist is certainly not interested in a family. Elizabeth and Leicester are perhaps the most interesting of the three couples, however. For political reasons, Elizabeth was required to represent herself as constantly available for marriage (to royalty from countries with whom England may have wanted an alliance); out of this need came the myth of the “Virgin Queen.” This can be read as the opposite of the Fisher King legend: To protect the vitality of the land, Elizabeth had to compromise her own sexuality; whereas in the Fisher King story, the renewal of the land comes with the renewal of the Fisher King’s sexual potency. Her tryst with Leicester, therefore, is a consummation that is simultaneously denied, an event that never happened. The twisted logic underlying Elizabeth’s public sexuality, or lack thereof, mirrors and distorts the Fisher King plot and further questions the possibility for renewal, especially through sexuality, in the modern world.