Global References in the Fire Sermon

I considered the transatlantic questions Drouin posed to us over “The Wasteland.” I couldn’t come up with much. I am reading from the The Poems of T.S. Eliot Volume 1 which has included a wealth of annotations that include commentary. I scoured the pages—I found little to nothing about a transatlantic exchange of ideas. The sources Eliot is pulling from seem to be European (transnational, yes, but in Europe not across the Atlantic). There is the fact that Eliot himself is an American writing in England/Europe, and that Pound, a major editor, is an American in Europe who is editing Eliot’s work. It’s tough to read that in the poem. I guess what I was trying to do initially was find some sort of Americanness in the text. I didn’t succeed.

I did find, however, a more globalist text in that there were references and source material pulled from different non-European places. (This embodies the intercultural exchange inherent to transatlantic modernism, yeah?) Beyond the European locales and Euro-derived source materials, there are a few references that emerge from a global context. The war, though destructive, created a space of intercultural exchange; and Eliot quotes a song which was “reported to me from Sydney, Australia” (Eliot qtd., Ricks et al 655): “O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter/ And on her daughter/ They wash their feet in soda water” (WL 199-201). Eliot positions this quote between the Thames riverbank description and the appearance of Tiresias (who details a sex scene in “The Fire Sermon”). This section is incredibly auditory, beginning with sounds of the city that is at the narrator’s “back,” the sound of birds, Mr. Eugenides “demotic French” (WL 212). Mr. Eugenides embodies another “global” reference as a Syrian (?) merchant bringing exotic objects (i.e. currants) into the London, into the poem. The interconnecting sounds bring together foreign shores to create a global context. Like the references to water that lace the poem, sound serves a similar function—the liminal space/connection between different locales.

What do these few lines (199-214) do for the rest of the section? These two global socio-cultural markers bring to an especially localized scene a sense of the world around, in a similar way that Tiresias brings to the poem a widened perspective/vision of time. They interrupt the narrator’s musings over Shakespeare’s The Tempest on the banks of the Thames and preface a decidedly (?) modernist rendering of intimacy, “indifferent” and detached with hints of violence and passive responses to that violence. Eliot shifts perspectives here, yes, but also asks us to reconcile their messiness and incongruency. As Eliot writes in The Metaphysical Poets, “When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” (125) By the end of the section it seems as if the gramophone recording put on by the woman leaves the apartment and finds its way to the streets of London, and thus to Eliot himself by the end of the section. Through these chains of association, Eliot sews together a complex series of stimuli and cultural flotsam that begins and end with concrete, local experience.