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“The Fire Sermon”: The Depiction of Detachment in The Waste Land

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Detachment in terms of societies emotions from reality as manifested in the disconnect between sex and marriage and a different kind of disconnect between the London of the past and the London as represented in the poem.

Rough thesis: Through the shifting allusions and unidentified speakers present in “The Fire Sermon,” the motif of detachment reveals the detached nature of post-war London as T. S. Eliot sees it. Published in 1922, The Waste Land explores a London society in the years following the extensive devastation incurred during the First World War. With over two million soldiers killed or injured throughout the course of World War I, the population in Great Britain suffered greatly in terms of both the physical and the mental well-being of their citizens (Tate).

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Particularly pervasive in British society after the war was a feeling of detachment – between soldiers and civilians, pre-war and post-war sentiments, and emotion and reality. In an essay describing a soldier’s return to the “stir of London” after the war, the disconnect between the soldier and his familiar yet somehow distant surroundings is described as “an abyss of dread” between the “old self and the man they see. A young officer brought this essay to the attention of T. S. Eliot in a letter, which Eliot subsequently sent to the editor of a magazine called The Nation. In the letter to Eliot, the anonymous soldier describes the apparent “complete indifference” with which men return from the frontlines. The author of the letter also maintains that this indifference is actually a “screen” made to shield the soldiers from the civilians that “cannot even approach comprehension” of what the soldiers have experienced. Eliot expresses this detachment encountered by society in London throughout The Waste Land, and particularly in “The Fire Sermon.”

The motif of detachment in “The Fire Sermon” becomes evident from the title alone, which references the Fire Sermon given by Buddha to a gathering of his followers. The essence of the sermon aimed to instruct the listeners to assume “an aversion for things tangible” (Buddha), advising detachment from the persuasion of the senses. The senses are described as all-consuming fires that can only be escaped through the disconnect of the mind from the passion of the senses. In direct contrast with the fiery imagery suggested by the title of this section of The Waste Land, the images in the first few lines fixate specifically on water. This juxtaposition again indicates a kind of detachment in the poem, which only intensifies as “The Fire Sermon” continues.

The symbol of the nymphs juxtaposed with the allusion to Prothalamion by Edmund Spenser emphasizes the emotional disconnect between sex and marriage as Eliot views it in post-war London society. The “departed” nymphs represent prostitutes that find clientele in “their friends, the loitering heirs” but the speaker encounters neither group as he sits by the river. While the absence of these characters from the area surrounding the Thames may be seen as indicative of a decent society that does not overtly engage in the practice of sex work, the more probable explanation is that the “nymphs” and the “heirs” are actually off together engaging in prostitution. Thus, the absence of these sexually deviant characters from the scene actually implies their activity in society.

An allusion to Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion immediately follows this description of prostitution. Prothalamion was written to praise the institution of marriage (Prothalamion), so the placement of this allusion directly after the implied sex work reveals the emotional detachment in post-war society of sex from marriage. The explicit establishment of this detachment as taking place in London, specifically along the “Sweet Thames” reveals the omnipresent nature of the detachment as being inescapable. The ironic allusion to Prothalamion, a poem which extols marriage, in direct contrast to the portrayal of sex work, illustrates the disconnect that post-war London society has experienced that Eliot wishes to highlight throughout “The Fire Sermon.”

An ominous tone and disturbing imagery as the poem continues unveil the growing disconnect of London from a moral society to its transformation into a city of increasing degeneracy. In a letter to his cousin, Eleanor Hinkley, written in September of 1914, T. S. Eliot comments on the “moral earnestness” that he perceives in the population of Great Britain and in the populations of the other countries involved in the war. By the time The Waste Land is published in 1922, this display of morality and dignity appears to have wholly disintegrated into the depraved society depicted in the poem.

The ominous “cold blast” (185) at the back of the speaker contrasts with the setting of a summer night, constructing another image of detachment from reality. Then the disconcerting and “slimy” (188) rat enters the scene, representing the moral decay that society has undergone since the start of the war and the descent from “earnestness” (letter) into a nation detached from moral decency.

The allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest implies a more literal detachment between individuals and the society as a whole, focusing on the theme of isolation. In The Tempest, Prospero summons a storm to wreck his brother’s ship, evoking feelings of abandonment and isolation. This abandonment reflects the speaker’s loneliness as he sits “musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / and on the king my father’s death before me” – though he does have the rat to accompany him. The perpetuation of this watery imagery continues to contrast with the fiery symbolism that one might expect based on the title of this section, and this inconsistency serves to further emphasize the disconnect between expectation and reality. The speaker feels emotionally isolated from society and this disconnect invokes an image of physical isolation through the allusion to The Tempest. A feeling of hopelessness and emotional detachment from society thus permeates the poem as a result of the more literal image of isolation.

The depiction of casual gay sex in “The Fire Sermon” provides another example of the detachment of sex from the institution of marriage in a continued representation of moral depravity. A character by the name of Mr. Eugenides proposes to the speaker that they attend a “luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole”, which were well-known hotspots for homosexual sex in and outside of London in the early twentieth century (Bayley). The use of the word “demotic”, meaning colloquial, in describing the language of Mr. Eugenides emphasizes his casual and indifferent attitude toward sex. This further separation of sex from marriage includes sex set in specific locations – the Cannon Street Hotel in London and the Metropole in Brighton – illustrating with precision that this indifference toward sex has permeated society.

In another possible reading of this section of “The Fire Sermon” depicting gay sex, and of The Waste Land as a whole, the poem laments the passing of a male lover of Eliot. This viewpoint was put forth by John Peter in an article published in a journal called Essays in Criticism, in which Peter maintains that the entire poem concerns a past gay relationship that Eliot had with a man named Jean Verdenal (Peter). While this interpretation of the poem may possess some evidence of authenticity, the overall theme and tone of the poem appear to be much more related to the post-war society’s emotional detachment from sex rather than a particular past sexual relationship of Eliot himself. Eliot decisively disputed Peter’s claims, even threatening to sue him for libel (Menand), which can be interpreted either as him trying to hide the truth from society or as protecting his reputation from the disgrace of false claims.

The poem suddenly pivots after the portrayal of the state of casual gay sex to an account of a sexual encounter between a man and a female typist as told by Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek myth. The indifferent tone and vile imagery prevalent in the description of the encounter, which ends in the man raping the woman, serves to advance Eliot’s perspective of the emotional detachment and moral atrophy of London society. The man is described as an “expected guest”, but not one whose arrival elicits any feelings of excitement or hopeful anticipation, merely an indifferent expectation. The disturbing imagery of the man as a “young man carbuncular” creates an account of physical repulsiveness to be followed by a similar ugliness in his actions.

Despite his unappealing physical appearance and his opportunistic attitude in believing that “the time is now propitious” as “she is bored and tired” after her meal, the woman treats him with the ultimate apathy and does not reject his sexual advances even though they are “undesired”. The woman, unfeeling and detached from her emotions, must remain so in order to continue to function after this assault. Because his advances are unwanted, this scene clearly depicts a rape, and the man “makes a welcome of indifference” from the woman. This welcoming of apathy appears very sinister and the man’s abhorrent actions continue as he “bestows one final patronizing kiss”, but the indifferent tone of the woman remains as she looks in the mirror and thinks “‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over’”.

Even this thought, however, is only “half-formed”, revealing the extreme level of indifference at which this woman operates. The woman, so passive and emotionally detached from reality that she is “hardly aware of her departed lover”, is also detached from herself, as evident from her nonchalance as she looks in the mirror and thinks to herself. She then, “smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone”. This “automatic hand” is particularly upsetting and reveals her passive and detached state at its zenith. The apparent indifference and detachment with which the woman in this account endures a sexual assault exposes the extent to which morality the post-war society has deteriorated.

The poem then shifts back to a description of London, and the industrial imagery coupled with an allusion to Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung display the degradation of London’s allure and a disconnect between its past and current state. “The river sweats”, no longer the “sweet Thames” as it was once represented. The visual similarity between the words sweet and sweat accentuates this change in characterization of the river from enticing to unsavory. The inclusion in the description of the Thames of “oil and tar” and “barges” illustrates the contamination and pollution that accompany industrialization. Then, with an allusion in the lines “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala” to Götterdämmerung, the decline of the river in terms of cleanliness and appeal becomes even more apparent. Götterdämmerung, an opera by Richard Wagner, describes women sitting by the Rhine and is saturated with beautiful imagery depicting the river (Götterdämmerung). The juxtaposition of the “oil and tar” with the implied beauty of the river in the past underscores the detachment of present-day London with a London of the past.

An unidentified speaker enters the poem and, with an informative tone and an allusion to Dante’s Purgatorio, reveals one possible means of achieving detachment from society – through loss of virtue. The speaker, in a matter-of-fact tone, conveys the message that “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me”. These lines directly parallel Dante’s Purgatorio, in which the speaker declares where she was born and where she was killed (Purgatorio). Thus, the connection between death and the undoing of virtue becomes evident, and the specificity of the neighborhoods in which her undoing took place situate this detachment from virtue explicitly in London. The speaker further discloses how she became undone, explaining that “By Richmond I raised my knees / Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe”. Richmond and Kew are both riverside districts in London, and with the description of the canoe, an even more definitive relationship appears between the river and the loss of the speaker’s virtue. The association of loss of virtue with specific areas in London indicates the same depraved society that Eliot portrays in the city throughout the poem and here reveals that the city itself can catalyze the detachment of its own citizens from moral decency. Allusions to St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon conclude the motif of detachment in “The Fire Sermon” and reiterate the idea of detachment from the senses.

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