Each April, as part of National Poetry Month I’ve been recording a performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and presenting it here in serial fashion. This year we’re performing the third section of the poem, “The Fire Sermon.”
When we last left “The Fire Sermon” we were by the not-so-sweet Thames river where (as elsewhere in the poem) voices and diction were constantly changing. We don’t know who, or how many “whos,” were speaking in that segment, but the narrator in today’s section identifies himself as Tiresias. As we’ll soon see, Tiresias is as shape-shifting in body as the poem has been in voices.
Tiresias’ has many characteristics in the various mythological tales told of him. He’s able to predict the future, and he does this by studying birds (augury) and in particular by studying birdsong.* He’s blind but is able to perceive things anyway through second sight and acute hearing. He’s said to have been given the gift (or curse) of an extra-long life. He also has the ability to talk to the dead, and in some stories talk to the living after his death. But perhaps the most remarkable part of the Tiresias story is that he was transformed from a man to a woman, and back again.
Tiresias as he is transformed into a woman by Hera because he killed a female snake.
We open not with Tiresias introducing himself, but with his encounter with a merchant, who seeks some kind of meetup with the narrator. There are some who tell us the meetup locations suggested indicate that the narrator is being propositioned for a homosexual tryst. If so, this would be consistent with the closing song in the “Sweet Thames” section, referring to heterosexual prostitutes and that section’s opening in some kind of any-affiliation “after the party” ennui by the river. And so the theme is set: “The Fire Sermon” is going to talk about sex and what passes for love.
Now Tiresias introduces himself, and his sexual fluidity, as he begins to tell what seems at first a straightforward story: a typist has come home to her small apartment. Hers is a low-paid job in the early 20th century business/bureaucracy, one often filled by the new “working woman.” She’s taking care of after-work household necessities, including collecting her drying laundry scattered across the room’s couch (which also serves as her bed), and fixing a meal.
Tiresias tells us he already knows what’s going to happen, and since mythologically he’s told the fortunes of kings and heroes, he’s sort-of over-qualified to tell this story.
And sure enough, Tiresias tells us a young man (carbuncular, i.e. covered with zits) arrives. He’s another wage slave, a clerk, who affects a silk hat that he thinks makes him look like a wealthier man. The typist and the clerk have a meal the typist has cooked and then he, hurriedly, unromantically, and with no real consent, jumps her bones.
And here Tiresias tells us he’s not just seen this all before (in both senses of the phrase, as someone who can predict the future, but also as a demi-immortal for whom this story only changes costumes and scenery as it repeats) but that he’s experienced it as both genders.
And then it gets weirder. That back-story of Tiresias’ own history with sexual exploitation is told in a long compound sentence in parenthesis. Today’s section then ends with an unstated someone who “bestows one final patronizing kiss, and gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” out of the apartment. Is that the young man carbuncular, or Tiresias, or are they one in the same? And for that matter what of the woman, the typist?
As they used to say in serials, tune in tomorrow, as our story continues. To listen to my performance of this segment of “The Waste Land” use the player below.
*And birdsong acts as a bridge between our first segment of “The Fire Sermon” and this one.
**There are a great many interpretations of “The Waste Land” and its sections. Mine is far from the most learned. I could use footnotes to try to explain every reference and connection in the poem—at least until my learning and research ran out—but I’m choosing to resist cataloging all the connections and references, so that we can appreciate the poem as an impressionistic, imagistic, musical suite of scenes, voices, and songs. If you’d like to read along, here the whole poem.