III. THE FIRE SERMON
As mentioned above, the title refers to one of the Buddha's most famous sermons. In light of the death-by-water imagery, which is in contrast to the original form of salvation through the grail (the freeing of the waters), we can view this "Fire Sermon" as a call to drown out all desires, which are the root of pain. It is the desire for things--and not the actual need of them--which causes pain. One needs food; one desires lobster. One needs shelter; one desires a mansion. (Or, as is sung in "Finest Worksong"--"What we want and what we need has been confused.") This burning then must be releaved, ended, by freeing the waters, by drowning. But while the Buddha preached that one can achieve this freedom in this life, Eliot seems to say that only death will bring a release from this burning--a death by water. But as we see in this poem, even the water has turned polluted.
176. V. Spenser, Prothalamion. The refrain of this poem is as follows:
Against the Brydale day, which is not long:
Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.
177.-179.: We have images of trash floating on the Thames, contrasting with the earlier images of nymphs who inhabited the river, now departed, as their home is despoiled by the careless heirs of the rich. The waters are corrupted, polluted, unable to refresh the body and soul. The early Britons left offerings to the goddess Tamesis--gold and silver objects. Today, people throw in "cardboard boxes, cigarette ends."
182. Leman: first, it is an archaic word for lover. Second, it is a name for Lake Geneva, where Eliot was undergoing psychiatric treatment. Third, the line itself echoes the Bible, Rousseau's Confessions (Book IV, as he is walking by Lake Geneva), and The Tempest (of course):
Eliot: "By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .
Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion."
Confessions Book IV: "How often, stopping to weep more at my ease, and seated on a large stone, did I amuse myself with seeing my tears drop into the water."
The Tempest I.ii.: "Sitting on a bank, weeping again the king my father's wreck"
189-192.: These lines are the first to be spoken in the voice of the Fisher King as he sits fishing, waiting for Perceval to arrive. In the grail romances, the Fisher King often has at least one or two brothers, one who is a hermit, and one who is evil (and sometimes has died as a result of his sins).
192. Cf. The Tempest, I. ii. See above regarding line 182. The line is spoken by Prince Ferdinand just before Ariel sings the "Full fathom five" song. Also, in light of the lines before it--spoken as the Fisher King--let us not forget Archduch Francis Ferdinand, whose brother killed himself in the Mayerling Affair refered to in the beginning of section I of The Waste Land.
196. Cf. Marvell, To His Coy Mistress.
21.-22: But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
197. Cf. Day, Parliament of Bees:
When of the sudden, listening, you shall hear,
A noise of horns and hunting, which shall bring
Actaeon to Diana in the spring,
Where all shall see her naked skin...
The Parliament of the Bees is a wonderfully satiric poem about the necessity of greed and consumerism in order for society to function. This stands in contrast to the Buddha's call for a rejection of desire for objects.
Also, Actaeon was the only person in all of Greek mythology for whom Diana broke her vow of chastity. She saw the young shepherd sleeping, and fell in love with him.
198. "Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring." Sweeney is one of Eliot's recurring characters in his poems. He wrote a series of Sweeney poems and one verse play, the most famous being "Sweeney Among the Nightingales." Sweeney in Irish myth was a king who went mad after a battle, and took to living in the trees with the birds, until his wife was able to heal him and bring him home. The same story is told of Merlin in the Vita Merlini in which Merlin has gone mad after the Battle of Arthuret, and goes off to live in the woods. He is healed by his sister Guendolen and the bard Taliesin.
199. I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken: it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia. It's from an American song, "Red Wing."
202. V. Verlaine, Parsifal. "And, O those children's voices singing in the dome!
Parsifal is Perceval, the grail knight. Parsifal is also the name of Richard Wagner's opera on the grail quest, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th c. romance Parzival. Wagner's other Arthurian/Celtic opera--Tristan und Isolde--is mentioned earlier.
The text of Verlain's "Parsifal" is as follows:
Parsifal has overcome the gently babbling daughters
Who'd distract him to desire; despite fleshly delight
That might lure the virgin youth, the temptation
To love their swelling breasts and gentle babble;
He has vanquished fair Womankind, of subtle heart,
Her tender arms outstretched and her throat pale;
From harrowing Hell, he now returns triumphant,
Bearing a heavy trophy in his boyish hands,
With the spear that pierced the Saviour's side!
He who healed the King shall be himself enthroned,
As priest-king and guardian of the sacred treasure.
In golden robe he worships that sign of grace,
The pure vessel in which shines the Holy Blood.
- And, o those children's voices singing in the dome!
It is interesting to note the mysogynistic element of the poem, which works with the later grail romances, though not Chretien's original version, in which not only does Perceval fall in love with a girl--Blancheflor--but it is sanctioned by the text. Moreover, it is a woman who bares the grail in most texts.
203-206.: These lines refer back to the story of Philomena, Procne and Tereus.
210. The currants were quoted at a price 'carriage and insurance free to London'; and the Bill of Lading, etc., were to be handed to the buyer upon payment of the sight draft.
Eugenides: in a sort of cosmic weirdness, the modern author Jeffrey Eugenides deals with hermaphrodites in his novel Middlesex. As far as I know, that is the author's birth name.
218. Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character', is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. The whole passage from Ovid is of great anthropological interest:
...Cum Iunone iocos et 'maior vestra profecto est
Quam, quae contingit maribus', dixisse, 'voluptas.'
Illa negat; placuit quae sit sententia docti
Quaerere Tiresiae: venus huic erat utraque nota.
Nam duo magnorum viridi coeuntia silva
Corpora serpentum baculi violaverat ictu
Deque viro factus, mirabile, femina septem
Egerat autumnos; octavo rursus eosdem
Vidit et 'est vestrae si tanta potentia plagae',
Dixit 'ut auctoris sortem in contraria mutet,
Nunc quoque vos feriam!' percussis anguibus isdem
Forma prior rediit genetivaque venit imago.
Arbiter hic igitur sumptus de lite iocosa
Dicta Iovis firmat; gravius Saturnia iusto
Nec pro materia fertur doluisse suique
Iudicis aeterna damnavit lumina nocte,
At pater omnipotens (neque enim licet inrita cuiquam
Facta dei fecisse deo) pro lumine adempto
Scire futura dedit poenamque levavit honore.
This is Dryden's translation of the above passage:
'Twas now, while these transactions past on Earth,
And Bacchus thus procur'd a second birth,
When Jove, dispos'd to lay aside the weight
Of publick empire and the cares of state,
As to his queen in nectar bowls he quaff'd,
"In troth," says he, and as he spoke he laugh'd,
"The sense of pleasure in the male is far
More dull and dead, than what you females share."
Juno the truth of what was said deny'd;
Tiresias therefore must the cause decide,
For he the pleasure of each sex had try'd.
It happen'd once, within a shady wood,
Two twisted snakes he in conjunction view'd,
When with his staff their slimy folds he broke,
And lost his manhood at the fatal stroke.
But, after seven revolving years, he view'd
The self-same serpents in the self-same wood:
"And if," says he, "such virtue in you lye,
That he who dares your slimy folds untie
Must change his kind, a second stroke I'll try."
Again he struck the snakes, and stood again
New-sex'd, and strait recover'd into man.
Him therefore both the deities create
The sov'raign umpire, in their grand debate;
And he declar'd for Jove: when Juno fir'd,
More than so trivial an affair requir'd,
Depriv'd him, in her fury, of his sight,
And left him groping round in sudden night.
But Jove (for so it is in Heav'n decreed,
That no one God repeal another's deed)
Irradiates all his soul with inward light,
And with the prophet's art relieves the want of sight.
So Tiresias says that women derive more pleasure from sex than men do. This echoes Verlaine's poem, in which women attempt to lead Perceval astray by losing his virginity--women are sexual beasts, devouring, a tool of the devil. They are driven by the fire Buddha speaks of, by this reasoning.
Let's call a spade a spade. Eliot didn't exactly have the best relationships with women, and had a lot of sexual hangups.
221. This may not appear as exact as Sappho's lines, but I had in mind the 'longshore' or 'dory' fisherman, who returns at nightfall.
234. Bradford millionaire: nouveaux riche. Eliot did not approve. And not without reason in some cases. Think nouveau riche = yuppy.
245. Thebes: Tiresias was also the one who revealed to Oedipus, king of Thebes, that he had killed his father and married his mother.
246. Dead: In the Odyssey IX, it is Tiresias' shade alone which still retains reason in the underworld.
253. V. Goldsmith, the song in The Vicar of Wakefield.
When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy?
What art can wash her guilt away?
257. V. The Tempest, as above. Again, Ferdinand's speech before Ariel's song.
264. The interior of St. Magnus Martyr is to my mind one of the finest among Wren's interiors. See The Proposed Demolition of Nineteen City Churches (P. S. King & Son, Ltd.).
266. The Song of the (three) Thames-daughters begins here. From line 292 to 306 inclusive they speak in turn. V. Götterdammerung, III. i: The Rhine-daughters. Yet another Wagnerian opera.
I have also seen some books call attention to the openning paragraph of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness:
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
This is significant, as Conrad's novella of an expedition into the Congo by one Marlowe in order to reach the mad Mr. Kurtz is also recalled in the openning of Eliot's "The Hollow Men."
Now, many have noted that Conrad's novella can be read as a version of the grail quest: Marlowe as Perceval has been sent by the Company (Arthur's court) to find Kurtz (the Fisher King) who has gone mad in the jungle (waste land). This idea is expanded upon in Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now, which sets the story in Vietnam insead of the Congo. Coppola saw the similarities, and makes much use of Eliot's poetry in the film, as well as shots of From Ritual to Romance, the Bible, and The Golden Bough on Kurtz' desk as he reads from "The Hollow Men" (IIRC). The theme of the sacrificial king is also prominent in the original ending of Apocalypse Now, though not as prominent in Conrad's novella.
It's also worth noting that Coppola, like Eliot, uses Richard Wagner's music, namely "The Ride of the Walkyries" in the famous scene with Lt. Col. Kilgore. ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning")
azzer's w/u under Apocalypse Now points to more references to Eliot's poetry in the film.
279. V. Froude, Elizabeth, vol. I, ch. iv, letter of De Quadra to Philip of Spain:
In the afternoon we were in a barge, watching the games on the river. (The queen) was alone with Lord Robert and myself on the poop, when they began to talk nonsense, and went so far that Lord Robert at last said, as I was on the spot there was no reason why they should not be married if the queen pleased.
Robert, Earl of Leicester was the lover of Elizabeth, but, well, things didn't exactly work out (go see the movie Elizabeth).
289. "White Towers"--London, before the use of coal turned everything dirty. Also, the White Tower is Tower Hill in London, the location (whether or not Eliot knew this, I can't say) of the burial of the original Fisher King Bran.
293. Cf. Purgatorio, V. 133:
'Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fe', disfecemi Maremma.'
"Siena made me; the Maremma unmade me" spoken in Purgatory to Dante by Tolomei of Sienna. As Albert_Herring pointed out to me, this would be a reference to the idea of in marriage, a woman giving up her identity, and of going off to live in the boonies.
307. V. St. Augustine's Confessions: 'to Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about mine ears'.
308. The complete text of the Buddha's Fire Sermon (which corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount) from which these words are taken, will be found translated in the late Henry Clarke Warren's Buddhism in Translation (Harvard Oriental Series). Mr. Warren was one of the great pioneers of Buddhist studies in the Occident.
309. From St. Augustine's Confessions again. The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.
St. Augustine is famous for having indulged in the flesh (he would have made a Roman emperor proud) before converting to Christianity, at which point he took up the mantle of neoplatonic and manichaean dualism (while denouncing neoplantonic and manichaean dualism) by declaring the body evil and the flesh a temptation (of course, he wasn't the first to do so, but he was the most eloquent of those who did). He also originated the concept of purgatory, by which a soul must have all impurities burned out of them in order to enter heaven--a sort of temporary hell. This, in a way, reverses the meaning of fire found in Buddha's sermon--here fire is a purifying thing.
(turn the page)