Listening to "Dry Salvages"
T.S. Eliot protested at the critics’ tendency to interpret literary works through the lens of the writer’s biography, but hypocritically, Eliot’s own work is more personal than many other writers’. In his early work the personal dimension is buried beneath layers of allusion, cryptic references, and obscure images. It is as if Eliot is deliberately blowing smoke and manipulating mirrors. The younger Eliot wears masks and assumes voices.
In Four Quartets the mask begins to drop. The poet was fifty years old in 1940, when the poem was written. At the age of fifty the life cycle begins to turn. A crisis is faced. A milestone is reached. At fifty we pivot into the second half of life. It is a time to reconsider, a time of regret, but also a time of reconciliation and re-direction. Dante was a great model and mentor for Eliot and the Italian’s great work was also written when the poet was in his fifties. It is no mistake that Eliot’s great masterpiece was also composed during the years of the poet’s turning.
With “Dry Salvages” Eliot is consciously compiling a four part composition. “Burnt Norton” was a single meditation on time and “what might have been.” “East Coker” continued the meditation on the nature of time by delving into the roots of Eliot’s ancestry. In the third poem he explores his own boyhood and adolescence in America and contemplates the future.
As he does, he moves into a new confidence and clarity. The masks drop. The arcane symbolism begins to evaporate. The artificial voices are silenced and we are at last face to face with the poet himself, and a new level of emotional interaction is experienced. We sense a new vulnerability and with the new honesty comes a touching humility. In “Dry Salvages” we meet the sensitive and somewhat sickly Tom Eliot from Missouri, the reserved Harvard intellectual and the young expatriate.
The three tools we used to explicate the first two poems apply here too. They are the theological underpinnings of the poem, the poet’s biography and the geographical references which ground the abstract thought in solid reality.
Taking the last of the three first, “Dry Salvages” begins in Eliot’s boyhood city of St. Louis, Missouri. You can still see the Eliot family home just a few blocks behind the cathedral, and a visit to the city’s great arch will bring you to the banks of the “strong brown god” of the Mississippi. The rhythms of the seasons reflected in the river are “present in the nursery bedroom.” Memories of childhood are prompted by the sense of smell. “The rank ailanthus” and “the smell of grapes” mingle with nostalgic images of a secure, turn-of-the-century American family: the “April dooryard,” the “Autumn table,” and the “evening circle in the winter gaslight.”
The rest of the first section and the rhyming and rhythmic second section follow the river down to the sea. As it does we follow the boy Tom to the family’s New England vacation home. Returning to their roots in Massachusetts, the youngest, and only boy in the family, Tom spent the summers of his adolescence sailing. As the preface to the poem points out, the Dry Salvages (les trois sauvages) is a group of rocks with a beacon on the Northeast coast of Cape Ann. The turbulent and threatening sea evokes the gathering storm within the poet’s early adulthood as he is cut off from his family by his own choice and tossed into the maelstrom of a terrible marriage.
The river and the sea summon up Eliot’s boyhood and adolescence, but they also provide the springboard for another meditation on the nature of time and memory, experience and destiny. Eliot’s nostalgic and somewhat bitter reflections are summed up in the lines, “People change and smile, but the agony abides.”
In the third section Eliot moves from a contemplation of the past to a consideration of the future. He uses allusion to illustrate his theological and philosophical position. He connects us with a classic scene from the Hindu scriptures—the Bhagavad Gita. The young warrior Arjuna is reluctant to enter battle. Out of compassion and dismay at the prospect of killing he turns away. But Krishna encourages him with the thought of a permanence that is greater than the temporal mode of being. There is a destiny that transcends our limited concerns and temporal decisions. The future and the past should be considered with an equal mind.
Instead of a further philosophical explanation Eliot turns in the short fourth section to a theological and devotional answer. The fisherman and those who go down to the sea in ships are a metaphor for all human kind on their voyage through life, and the ship’s bell rings as a “perpetual angelus”—the great prayer extolling the Virgin Mary and the eternal incarnation of her son. The answer to time’s riddle is the Blessed Lady and the incarnation—the sacrament of the present moment.
In contrast to the beauty and peace of this theological and devotional answer, Eliot shows us the shallow and pointless attempts to make sense of life’s mystery through occult beliefs and sorcery. Astrology, cryptozoology, the paranormal, and all sorts of fortune telling, drug induced dream therapies, New Age practices and shamanism attempt to satisfy man’s curiosity about the future. Eliot eschews them.
The only answer is contemplation. “To apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint—no occupation either, but something given and taken in a lifetime’s death in love, ardor and selflessness and self surrender.” In another attempt at explanation Eliot rhapsodizes about the contemplative state. It is the transcendent moment. It is incarnation. “Here the past and the future are reconciled.”
The new clarity in “Dry Salvages” is evident in this final section of the poem. Moving from the abstractions of philosophy and the wordless condition of contemplation, Eliot insists that this solution is a practical one. It is accomplished not only through prayer, observance, and discipline, but also through “thought and action.” The union of the abstract and physical is made real and “right action is freedom from the bonds of past and future.” So Eliot ends on a practical and encouraging note—full of confidence and full of hope.
From Reluctant Allies
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A graduate of Oxford University, he is the Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, in Greenville, SC, and author of twenty books, including Immortal Combat, The Romance of Religion, The Quest for the Creed, and Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. He contributes to many magazines, papers, and journals, including National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and The Stream. His latest book, Beheading Hydra- A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, is published by Sophia Institute Press. Visit his blog, listen to his podcasts, join his online courses, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.