Here’s my performance of the concluding segment of “The Fire Sermon” portion of “The Waste Land” which I presented for this year’s National Poetry Month celebration. If you want to hear the earlier sections, they’re all here along with over 300 other audio pieces presenting a variety of poetry combined with original music.
The middle of the “The Fire Sermon” is one of the few times in “The Waste Land” when who’s speaking identifies themselves, and where they are allowed to speak more than a single line or so, but as “The Fire Sermon” concludes here, it’s once again altogether confusing who’s talking. Eliot identifies who’s speaking in his footnotes for the poem as the three Rhinemaidens/river nymphs, who had been singing non-words in the previous section—but without the footnotes* I’d have never guessed that.
The Rhinemaidens are from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. However, when I hear Rheingold, I think of the New York beer.
Even more so than the Typist/Man Carbuncular coupling or the subtle come on from Mr. Eumenides earlier in “The Fire Sermon,” this is the dirty-book section of the poem. A speaker tells of having sex, flat on their back in a canoe** and furthermore (this may be another speaker/river nymph) tells of another sex act with their “heart under [their] feet.”***
This ends in tears and a question that many who’ve suffered from depression cannot answer from within their hall of dark mirrors: “What should I resent?”
If Eliot’s footnotes are saying it’s just the river nymphs talking, it soon gets specifically personal. The next stanza (“Margate Sands”) refers to the off-season resort where Eliot was taking one of those “rest cures” for his own depression. It wasn’t enough, he next went to a psychiatric hospital “By the waters of [lake] Leman.”
The final stanza (“To Carthage then I came”) is made up of quotes from St. Augustine, who as a teenager traveled to the famous African city to battle his own demons of human sexuality and spirituality, mixed with a refrain from the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon” which says that all things are burning, consuming any constancy in desire and wanting. Joking doesn’t change what it’s about and what’s at stake: the wheel of suffering. But joking, if observed correctly, is also a demonstration of earthly things passing from significance.
John Fahey. Il miglior fabbro.
I performed this seriously as a solo acoustic guitar piece in Sebastopol tuning, using what I once absorbed from the playing of John Fahey, another man who had both demons and angels to laugh at. To hear it, use the player below. If you’d like to read along as I perform it, the whole poem, including this year’s part “The Fire Sermon” is here.
*At last, I get to write a footnote on the footnotes! Oh, pedant’s delight! Eliot wrote extensive footnotes for the poem that appeared when an American publisher agreed to print a book containing the poem. These footnotes have always been controversial. Ezra Pound said they were only included to pad out the size of the book. Eliot himself said he originally wrote them to properly cite all the literature that he’d sampled in this extensively collaged work of text, and he sometimes expressed regrets at allowing the notes to be published with the poem, making “The Waste Land” seem some scholarly treatise instead of an anguished cry.
**As the joke goes. “Q: Why is drinking American beer like having sex in a canoe? A: Because it’s f…ing close to water.” Note “The Waste Land” was written by a serious poet, who was seriously depressed by the world and his life, and in this section he’s using sexual exploitation as image for that. How serious was he? Eliot took lay religious vows which included a vow of chastity just six years after this poem was published. This footnote is included for scholarly purposes only and you shouldn’t laugh at it.
***Class, if we turn to our Kama Sutras that’s page 112, where the person on the bottom is on their stomach and their legs are bent upward so that their feet are over their thorax. Also, there’s the connotation that one’s heart is being stomped on. More pedantic or podiatric joy: a foot note that’s a note on feet.