A summary of a classic Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Air was the loose elemental theme of ‘Burnt Norton’, earth the element of ‘East Coker’. In ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, we find ourselves among a different element: water. The Dry Salvages, as Eliot’s note tells us, is probably derived from the French les trois sauvages, and is a small group of rocks off Cape Ann in Massachusetts. (‘Salvages’ should be pronounced ‘sal-VAY-jiz’ rather than ‘SAL-vi-jiz’.) In this poem, Eliot further analyses and explores a number of themes including Christianity and divination, the future and the past, using water as a chief symbol. You can read ‘The Dry Salvages’ here.
We begin the first of the five sections of ‘The Dry Salvages’ with what we might style a comparative analysis of the river and the sea. The ‘strong brown’ river, the Mississippi, which is ‘untamed and intractable’, and has served as a frontier and as a conduit for commerce. But unlike the river, which is within us, the sea is all about us. The river is a ‘god’, but the sea has ‘many gods’ and ‘many voices’: a polytheistic force of nature.
The first half of the second section of ‘The Dry Salvages’ constitutes one of the most virtuosic movements in the whole of Four Quartets, written as a variation on the sestina form where the same rhymes are used across all six stanzas. Life is hard, and the sea – in a possible nod back to the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’, a poem which Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound translated – becomes a symbol for the hardships of all human life. Life is all hardship, and death awaits us all at the end: we are all destined to be bones, sharing the fate of Phlebas the Phoenician in another Eliot poem, the ‘Death by Water’ section of The Waste Land. But unlike Phlebas’ death in that earlier poem, in ‘The Dry Salvages’ there is hope in the form of the Annunciation – that is, in the Virgin Mary and in Jesus Christ.
The second half of this second section then contemplates the past, and rejects the Whiggish idea that the only purpose served by the past is as a means to get to the present – to progress and evolve, in other words. Often, when remembering something from our past, we realise that it contained meaning and significance which was hidden from us at the time – and the memory takes on a new form as a result.
In the third section, Eliot turns to consider the Hindu god Krishna, who teaches that the future and the past are the same – the future is, in a sense, already past. Eliot concretises this notion in the image of an old book that has never been opened: its pages have decayed and yellowed, and remain to be opened at some point in the future, but the book already belongs to the past (hence ‘yellowing’). When we depart on a voyage, we are not the same people who left the harbour or who will reach their destination. This is a return to the idea, first outlined in ‘Burnt Norton’, of living in the present moment.
The brief lyric that makes up the fourth section of ‘The Dry Salvages’ takes the form of a prayer, or ‘angelus’ – a Catholic prayer commemorating the Incarnation (when Jesus was made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary). As with the ‘Annunciation’ in the second section of the poem, this angelus is an attempt to heal the wound of life’s hardships: all those who are at sea and suffering. ‘Figlia del tuo figlia’, or ‘daughters of your Son’, are Jesus’ children.
The fifth section concludes ‘The Dry Salvages’ by reeling off all of the ways in which mankind has attempted to divine the future: to ‘haruspicate’ is to attempt to tell the future by examining the entrails of animals, while analysing the tomb is necromancy, and analysis of dreams is oneiromancy (recently given a new twist by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, which Eliot seems never to have given much time). So long as the world remains confusing and unpredictable, and the future uncertain, such acts of (attempted) divination will continue. (This is something that preoccupies the characters of Eliot’s The Waste Land too, with its sibyls, clairvoyants, prophets such as Tiresias, and bankers and merchants endeavouring to predict the financial future on the stock markets.) But no: Eliot concludes by saying that, like the saint, we need to step outside of time and the temporal and gain a sense of the eternal and timeless.
‘The Dry Salvages’ concludes with the intimation that such knowledge may be beyond most of us, who simply live without ever having attained this sense of the eternal, before dying and nourishing the earth – a nod back to ‘East Coker’ and those simple peasants who lived, married, died, and fed the earth with their remains. We might ask, twisting Gerontion’s lines: before such knowledge, what forgiveness? As ever with Eliot’s poetry, especially his later work, there can be no easy answer to this question.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: An aerial view of Cape Ann in Massachusetts (picture credit: Doc Searls, 2008), via Wikimedia Commons.