T.S. Eliot reminds us that the answers to our soul’s depravity are all around us, in our collective culture—the books we read, the places we inhabit, the music we listen to—but also that culture can only survive if we remember it and keep it alive…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Nayeli Riano, as she considers the importance of memory in T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon.” —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
“These things I do within, in that vast chamber of my memory”:
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.
T.S. Eliot’s remark above, his note to line 309 of The Waste Land, describes his intentional reference to St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon. These two works offer a solution for the social and cultural problems that Eliot expresses in his poem. After the human soul is introduced in a natural state of depravity, Eliot creates his own “fire sermon” in Part IV of The Waste Land to explain how memory can remedy this flaw, an inherently spiritual problem, by leading men towards salvation. The Christian theologian and Buddhist ascetic’s texts are weaved together as Eliot alternates between them in what are short and seemingly disconnected phrases. These loose references and allusions, however, are prominent insofar as one bears in mind their contextual origin. It is through reading these texts in full that Eliot’s understanding of memory is elucidated. But in order to understand the role of memory, the reader needs to understand why it is that without memory the human soul is left alone and depraved. This essay will look at Eliot’s understanding of memory and the relationship between memory and salvation by focusing on two prominent references in “The Fire Sermon.”
The last five lines of “The Fire Sermon” read as follows:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
These few words contain much more context than meets the eye. The first, third, and fourth lines above are references to St. Augustine’s Confessions, while the second and fifth lines refer to Buddha’s Fire Sermon. Eliot presents St. Augustine and Buddha as the exemplars of asceticism for their particular religious culture, but the texts from which he quotes require a separate reading if they are to be understood within the context of “The Fire Sermon” and of The Waste Land, and if the reader is to glean why Eliot emphasizes memory as the bridge over our soul’s depraved void.
As the note to line 309 indicates, Eliot’s choice to enumerate his references should not be considered a mere matter of literary or scholarly citation. Striking a tuning fork for those whose ears are not attuned to time, T.S. Eliot’s notes throughout The Waste Land help the reader notice his diverse allusions to texts, stories, thinkers, works of art, places, and even songs. Yet, interestingly enough, Eliot never does the work for us by explaining the meaning of his references or of his text. Both with the testimony of his poem itself and with his various cultural references, Eliot is contributing to the role of memory as an active and continued conversation with the past. The reader, therefore, is expected to read the works just as he did, and prompted to re-discover them if he is familiar with them already, in order to interpret the poem within a broader cultural and literary milieu, and thereby keep those works alive in our tradition.
To answer the primary question about the relationship between memory and the human soul, it helps to explore what becomes of the soul when it lacks a sense of remembrance. One consequence is that of uncontrolled passions. Eliot alludes to Buddha in order to point out that sensory experience without spiritual guidance is what ignites passions. The title of Part III itself, “The Fire Sermon,” is a direct reference to a sermon in which Buddha, wandering with a congregation of priests, eventually turns to them and says the following:
All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are all these things which are on fire? The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire… The ear is on fire; sounds are on fire;… the nose is on fire; odors are on fire;… the tongue is on fire; tastes are on fire;… the body is on fire; things tangible are on fire;… the mind is on fire; ideas are on fire;… mind-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the mind are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the mind, that also is on fire…
And with what are these on fire? With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are they on fire. (The Fire Sermon, translated from the Maha-Vagga)
Buddha’s solution is complete and total aversion not only of our senses but also of worldly possessions (he calls them “things tangible” elsewhere in the sermon). Buddha expresses how fire is both a cause of vice and a solution for it: fire acts as a creator and a destroyer of passions, which generates a cyclical nature of life: while mankind’s problems start with the burning of our passions, they can also end with the burning away of them.
But Buddha ends his Fire Sermon with a proclamation that Eliot is not willing to make. Buddha stresses aversion to worldly things as the only path to spiritual enlightenment, which requires that we purge the senses that lure us to such vices. The solution, Buddha later states in his sermon, is that the “learned and noble disciple” reject all the things that are burning in order to become free. This freedom, according to Buddha, leads to self-knowledge which in turn leads to a holy life, resulting in a man that is “no more for this world.” Although Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” opens in a form that is parallel to Buddha’s sermon—because it presents a scene where the speaker is remarking on the physical and moral decay of the city by highlighting how it affects passions—Eliot’s solution to these vices is not entirely in accord with that of Buddha.
Eliot’s solution is encoded in the last five lines of”The Fire Sermon.” Buddha’s suggestion to reject the senses and the physical things of this world is an act that is antithetical to what Eliot does in his poem: The Waste Land is a poem of memory that contains several lieux de memoires, enlivened through their relation to the senses, which are meant to tap the mind of the reader and remind him of particular places in time, and the emotions that go along with them. The poet in”The Fire Sermon” and in the broader “waste land” is as much dependent on sensory experience in order to recall and describe these places as the reader is dependent on his own ability to perceive that sensory experience and form an idea of the place that is being described. Eliot converges the physical place, a worldly creation, with sensory experience of past and present, and that in turn permits him to create his narrative. Even amidst the moral and physical decay of the Thames River that is depicted in the first stanzas of “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot juxtaposes one physical place, the ruined river, with another place, the church of Magnus Martyr:
O City city, I can sometimes hear
beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold. (259-265)
That Eliot is recalling an important church in London, the sounds associated with it (261), as well as the sights of the people that dwell there (263), is indicative of his strong attachment to senses and to memory. These seven lines are a brief digression from a section in The Waste Land that is dedicated entirely to describing the vices that are “on fire” in London as the consequences of excessive passions. But the few lines where the poet turns his eyes to Magnus Martyr display a shift in Eliot’s use of sensory experience: the senses, here, are used in a reverent way to remember and contemplate something transcendent of which the church is a vestige, even if the present use of Magnus Martyr no longer bears a connotation of Ionian splendor.
It is not the sensory experience itself that has changed, then, but rather the way in which sensory experience is understood and appreciated by the speaker. To put it another way, Eliot’s use of senses in these lines is different in that the effect of the place on the senses is reverential when experienced through memory. Rather than to feed carnal pleasures that result in moral and physical pollution, Eliot is able to use his senses to evoke a sense of salvation by contemplating Magnus Martyr for what it was, and to consider it in the present as such. Burning for Eliot, therefore, does not imply that man ought to purge himself of his senses absolutely, since it is through our senses that we form the entirety of our memory. Instead, Eliot is advocating for memory as a vital factor in spiritual salvation, and it is upon this foundation that he is able to introduce St. Augustine’s Confessions as his solution to society’s moral problem.
“To Carthage then I came” (307) is a reference to The Third Book of the Confessions. The Third Book is part of the first nine books in the Confessions, in which St. Augustine recounts his biography. In this particular section young Augustine describes the first time he arrived in Carthage and saw how it was filled with worldly vices. Eliot, however is only quoting the first line of an entire section of the work, and he does not mention if his reference is supposed to evoke the entirety of The Third Book, or if it is supposed to reference only a particular part of it, and if so, which. Between Eliot’s first reference to Augustine (307) and the repetition of “burning” (308), it is important to note that the first line is separated from the line that follows it by a space, which might suggest that Eliot is leaving a space to indicate the reading of Augustine’s third book as a whole before interpreting the repetition of “burning” in the ensuing line. Even if this is not the case, the reader unfamiliar with Augustine must do a close reading of the passages from which Eliot quotes in order to understand Eliot’s interest in Augustine.
The temptations that Augustine sees in Carthage echo what Buddha is advising against in his sermon, and he makes use of the term “burning” in the same way that Buddha used it in his Fire Sermon: as a negative way to describe the vices that pull on the soul and lead it to temptation and sin.
TO CARTHAGE I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares. For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God…For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense… For I was both beloved, and secretly arrived at the bond of enjoying; and was joyfully bound with troublesome ties, that I might be scourged with the burning iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and strife. (St. Augustine, Book III, Ch. 1 p. 1, emphasis added)
Carthage is a place that produced the worldly temptations to which Augustine fell prey, and he recognizes that his initial acceptance of these temptations was but a manifestation of a deep, spiritual crisis. Augustine states that these vices only served to distance him from his true desire: salvation through the search for God. Later on in his confession, Augustine eventually alters the way in which he uses the word “burning.” The sensation that was originally described as the effect of the soul that seeks passions—its misdirection towards worldly object—is, in reality, a lingering and inherent desire for God:
How did I burn then, my God, how did I burn to re-mount from earthly things to Thee, nor knew I what Thou wouldst do with me? For with Thee is wisdom. But the love of wisdom is in Greek called “philosophy,” with which that book inflamed me. Some there be that seduce through philosophy, under a great, and smooth, and honourable name colouring and disguising their own errors… (St. Augustine, Book III, Ch. 4 p. 8, emphasis added)
Burning as used by Augustine becomes an ardor that pushes man towards God, but, much like Eliot, he begins with the secondary explanation of burning as a soul pointed in the wrong direction towards vice before he can render it into something as complex as a spiritual crisis. The senses, once guided by a spiritual compass, can be used to recognize a religious calling.
After the “burning burning burning burning” cadence (308) that follows the reference to Book Three, Eliot makes another reference to the Confessions:
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest (309-10)
Eliot is now referencing The Tenth Book, which is the part of the Confessions that marks St. Augustine’s transition from the autobiographical part of his work to a more philosophical part that begins to delve into the larger implications of his spiritual journey. Once Augustine has established the importance of religion, namely Christianity, for spiritual salvation, he elaborates in the rest of the books in his Confessions on how to achieve salvation. The Tenth Book discusses the importance and power of memory throughout several of its chapters, but Augustine introduces a new facet of memory in the eighth chapter, titled, “Of the Nature and the Amazing Power of Memory:”
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea, and whatever I can think upon in them, besides those which I have forgotten. There also do I meet with myself, and recall myself—what, when, or where I did a thing, and how I was affected when I did it. There are all which I remember, either by personal experience or on the faith of others. (Book X, Ch. 8 p. 14. Emphasis added.)
It is interesting to note that Augustine does not limit his memory to himself. He understands that his own capability to remember is inadequate, and he explains that his ability to analyze and learn from his past is an action that he can do not only thanks to the matured wisdom that comes from experience, but also from “the faith of others.” This faith of others’ experiences creates a collective memory that Augustine is able to use to strengthen his faith because he knows the two to be connected. Religion cannot survive without memory because with memory comes a sense of reverence; this was a fact that Eliot also recognized all too well.
Augustine then adds another layer to the power of memory. Right after his aforementioned lines from chapter eight, he explains the relationship that a collective memory has with time as a coalescence of past, present, and future:
Out of the same supply do I myself with the past construct now this, now that likeness of things, which either I have experienced, or, from having experienced, have believed; and thence again future actions, events, and hopes, and upon all these again do I meditate as if they were present… Thus speak I to myself; and when I speak, the images of all I speak about are present, out of the same treasury of memory; nor could I say anything at all about them were the images absent. (Book X, Ch. 8 p. 14. Emphasis added.)
Memory, to Augustine, serves a greater purpose than mere recollection. Memory is grounded on experience formed through the senses, and his memory of the past is what permits St. Augustine to contemplate his past and future actions “as if they were present.” This concept might sound familiar to those who have read Eliot’s ethereal Four Quartets, where he expands on the philosophy of time and salvation to a greater length, but it is no coincidence that the book from which Eliot quotes St. Augustine for The Waste Land explores a very similar idea.
The last line in”The Fire Sermon” is the single word “burning” (311). In light of Eliot’s reading of Augustine and of the way in which he makes use of his writing at the culmination of”The Fire Sermon,” we might interpret the ambiguous, one-worded conclusion in a new way. The previous cadence of “burning burning burning burning” (308) has now slowed down in tempo, and what was initially strong imagery of fire and purging becomes a dampened flame, singular and moderate. It is as though Eliot is signaling to his readers that an absolute rejection of our senses, as Buddha advocated, should not be the solution to our depravity. Instead, our senses should be aided by our memory and our innate disposition towards the divine, much like Augustine did in his search for God.
It can be said that The Waste Land is a poem about memory and the lack thereof in our modern lives. Eliot uses The Tenth Book of the Confessions, which is the book about memory, in the part of his poem that is heavily reliant upon sensory experience. But, as we know from Buddha’s sermon, our sensory experience is on fire with passions. Augustine mentioned that memory—that is, collective memory—can salvage us from depravity. Accordant as he may be with this idea, Eliot presents a challenge to Augustine’s emphasis on memory. Our modern society’s “collective” memory is neglected, and Eliot uses the parts of The Waste Land that precede “The Fire Sermon” to convey a lost sense of memory that has inhibited man from looking beyond his worldly pleasures: Solemn and nostalgic, Part I. “The Burial of the Dead” tells us that we only know “a heap of broken images,” (23); patient but ticking, “Part II. A Game of Chess” tells the reader how Philomel’s call to us is in vain because we are no longer able to make out her song—“‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears” (103)—and another speaker grows increasingly restless with the poet’s indifference—“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” (141, 152, 165, 168, 169).
Upon arriving at “Part III. The Fire Sermon,” whose violent title contrasts the previous two sections, the reader might expect that the language and the imagery will become powerful and chaotic like that of fire. This is not at all what happens: While in the first part of The Waste Land there was “no sound of water” (24) and in the second part the reader found himself in a room filled of worldly possessions (77-110) resembling Brueghel and Reuben’s Allegory of Sight, it is now a river—a long-standing representation of time and memory—that placidly greets the reader in”The Fire Sermon.”
But the river is polluted, the same way that Eliot believes our memory of the past to be sullied. “Part IV. Death by Water” follows the river out into the open sea where Phlebas’ bones are being picked by a current (312-16). He is lost to time and memory because he “forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/ and the profit and loss” (313-14) and instead only looked forward (320). The poet’s admonition in this section to those who “turn the wheel and look windward” (320) is to remember (“consider”) Phlebas and his fate. Still the solution is not to look back—which a sailor ought not do—but to look down into the water, and remember what is carrying us to our destination, lest we forget that the very waters that aid us can also destroy us.
The second and third stanzas of “Part V. What The Thunder Said” are replete with the word “water,” but the poet concludes by stating that there is none (358); “empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (384) are all that’s left. A journey along The Waste Land is bleak, and the ending to Eliot’s analysis of society is a harsh truth that we can only hope is not prognostic. Still there are places throughout the poem, namely in “The Fire Sermon,” that reveal a remedy, if not a hope, for our ailing society. By using St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Eliot is reminding us that the answers to our soul’s depravity are all around us, in our collective culture—the books we read, the places we pass and inhabit, the music we listen to—but that culture can only survive if we remember it and keep it alive in our tradition. Without a collective memory, all we have are fragments to “shore against” our ruins (340). Memory to Eliot, then, is the salvation that we need. As memory is what saves man from depravity and loneliness, so reading the texts of time helps to keep our memory (and therefore ourselves) afloat in a sea of unknowing. There is an effect that comes from reading that taps into our sensory experience, which permits it to echo into the chambers of our memory. The senses, after all, create our ability to remember, and it is this remembrance that can free us from becoming prisoners of present by opening our memory to the past, where we might again hear the faint call of a familiar nightingale.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2017.
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Editor’s note: the featured image is “Fluid Burning Fires Of The Underworld” by Mark Chadwick, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.