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.