T.S. Eliot's Fire Sermon: Analysis & Explanation

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  • 0:01 The Fire Sermon
  • 0:54 Style
  • 1:27 Summary
  • 5:36 Analysis
  • 7:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

This lesson covers ''The Fire Sermon,'' the third section of T.S. Eliot's long poem ''The Waste Land.'' Read a summary and analysis. Then take a quiz to test your comprehension.

The Fire Sermon

Picture yourself, for a moment, stranded on the side of the highway. Your cell phone battery is dead because you haven't had the chance to charge it after a long day at the office. The hood of your car is smoking, and try as you might, you can't seem to flag down anyone from your lonely perch on the litter-strewn freeway shoulder. Countless commuters fly past at deadly speeds. No one stops. No one cares.

Not caring, or the inability to care, is a big theme of T.S. Eliot's long poem The Waste Land, published in 1922. 'The Fire Sermon' is the third of five sections of this famous modernist poem. In it, Eliot offers a dark critique of modern life, inhabited by individuals who have somehow lost the capacity to care about their fellow human beings.


In 'The Fire Sermon,' as is the case with The Waste Land in general, Eliot experiments with the poetic style. For example, you as a reader often encounter abrupt changes of voice and point of view, a characteristic of much of the modernist literature of the period between the two world wars. It's hard to be sure just who is speaking in any given line of the poem. This difficulty is compounded by Eliot's frequent use of allusions, or references to outside literary texts and historical events.


The structure of 'The Fire Sermon' is best described as a series of vignettes, or short scenes, depicting the moral abyss into which modern people have fallen. In the first, the poem's speaker stands along the banks of the River Thames in London. The imagery invoked is that of death and decay: 'The river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind / Crosses the brown land unheard.' The 'Sweet Thames,' which had provided inspiration for centuries of great poets and artists, is here reduced to a bleak sewer. The telltale signs of modern living are strewn along its banks: '… empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends.'

But this dire depiction of humankind's apathy for Mother Nature merely sets the stage for Eliot's main concern throughout 'The Fire Sermon,' which is the destruction of human relationships. The transition between human apathy for the natural world and the uncaring way we treat others takes place at line 208 of the poem. Eliot recalls an Unreal City, an image from the first section of The Waste Land, titled 'The Burial of the Dead.' The city that the poet pictures here is the modern metropolis, whose inhabitants have lost connection with the things that matter most. This Unreal City features people living under a 'brown fog' and concerned with nothing but purchasing silly trinkets and worthless goods.

Even in the early twentieth century, Eliot recognizes that modern folks are addicted to commodities. 'Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant' carries around 'a pocket full of currants' and asks the speaker to join him for lunch at 'the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.' He has apparently received the currants via the early twentieth-century version of Amazon.com: 'C.i.f. London documents at sight.'

The following stanzas pick up where Eliot left off in 'The Burial of the Dead' and in the stanza involving the Unreal City in 'The Fire Sermon.' You are met with a series of vignettes deriding what has happened to the traditional romantic relationship in modern times. At this point, the speaker of the poem changes to the figure of the prophet Tiresias, a character from Greek myth who was changed from a man to a woman by Hera, Zeus's wife, in the wake of an argument the two had over the question of which sex experienced the most pleasure during sexual intercourse. Tiresias claimed that men experience pleasure exclusively through the penis, which angered Hera, who changed the seer into a woman. Tiresias, then, knows how to live life as a man as well as a woman. So he/she is the ideal prophet when it comes to what is wrong with modern relationships.

In the next vignette from the 'The Fire Sermon,' you get a better idea of why Eliot was so disenchanted with modern romantic relationships. For Eliot, as you will soon come to see, men and women had lost all passion for each other. It was a sign of the times, after all. Just as people had stopped caring about the beauty of the natural world, they ceased caring about the people around them. Nowhere was this more evident, for Eliot, than in the scene that follows.

We are met by a 'typist home at tea-time.' She invites a clerk into her home for a romantic tryst, and although she is 'bored and tired,' she consummates the relationship with less-than-satisfactory results. The clerk leaves after the deed is accomplished. All the typist can say is, 'Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over.'

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