It seems like a long way back to the beginning of National Poetry Month this April. One long tradition I’ve followed here for Poetry Month is to perform parts of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” accompanied by original music I write myself. I started doing this back in 2017, performing just two and a half minutes of the great poem’s “April is the cruelest month…” opening, and this year I’ve been tackling the poem’s longest section: “The Fire Sermon.”
Now April, cruel or not, is nearly over and we’re near the end of that section. “The Fire Sermon” started by the side of a dirty urban river, London’s Thames, and the poet asked the river to flow softly until he’d finished his song. And so today we’re back where “The Fire Sermon” started, with an unnamed narrator viewing the river. Even when “The Waste Land” isn’t shifting voices or shapeshifting who the narrator is, it’s likely to be drawing from it’s great mixtape of references to just about anything, and that’s pretty much what happens in this section. The busy commercial Thames circa 1920 that opens the poem gives way to brief singing by river nymphs,* who we were told had departed when “The Fire Sermon” opened—but they’re in earshot now, at least in the narrator’s imagination. And their singing gives way to—what!—Queen Elizabeth moving down the river on the royal barge.
No, not that Queen Elizabeth, the other one, the one before Roman numerals were necessary—but if there’s to be a barge sailing down the Thames connected with some royal jubilee, I was hoping for the Sex Pistols in my small r republican heart.
Either/Oars: the Elizabethan royal barge the first time. The Sex Pistols on their Thames barge trying to drown out Elizabeth “The Deuce’s” Diamond Jubilee with their river nymph song.
Elizabeth is with her most constant suitor on the gilded royal barge, the Earl of Leicester, but historically the “Virgin Queen” never married. Some point to this couple as a continuation of “The Fire Sermon’s” main topic: the corruption and inconstancy of sex and love, but my reading of this barge episode is more at a vision of the passing of glory. Elizabeth and Leicester may not have been a fulfilled relationship, but it’s a great contrast to the man carbuncular and the poor typist from earlier in “The Fire Sermon,” and an Elizabethan gilded barge is a contrast to the commercial barge traffic of Eliot’s time.
When I first looked at this section this spring, for some reason I thought I’d try to do something musically referencing one of my favorite rock bands, Television. That’s not how this turned out. I can still see tiny bits of that idea in the chord sequence and the melodic top line I played on electric guitar. Instead, the arrangement developed as I worked to sonically depict passing glory.
Want to hear how it turned out? The player gadget is below.
*The nymphs’ song is from the Rhinemaidens in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the start of his epic Ring Cycle, something I’m not very familiar with. Themes of water, fire, and the renunciation of love are present I’m told, and if so, that fits in well with the overall themes of “The Waste Land”.
In the department of coincidence, Wikipedia says the Rhinemaiden’s song melody is Eb, F, Ab, Bb and C, and the cadence in the main part of my music here is Eb, Ab, C, Ab, Db, Eb.
Still, the Dick Wagner I’m more au fait with would be the guy who played guitar on Lou Reed’s Berlin and Rock’n’Roll Animal records.