Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" (Commentary)


The brown river is the Mississippi, the river that Eliot saw in his boyhood in St. Louis. The opening lines of the poem are almost an overview of American history in precis -- wilderness, frontier, commerce, and industrial technique.  But the river has not been entirely tamed.  It can still rage out of control.  The river is representative of the rhythms of life -- in spring, summer, autumn, and winter. (1-14) [An ailanthus is a flowering tree.  The word translates as "the tree of heaven".]

The poem moves to the sea off Gloucester, Massachusetts, a large fishing community and port.  The sea is representative of the variety and ravages of time. [Seine is the breast.]  Its many voices suggest the variety of human struggles.  The women who try to "unweave, unwind, unravel/ And piece together the past and future" recall Penelope's unweaving of the death shroud for Laertes in The Odyssey.  The tolling bell, from East Coker, reminds us of death which operates on a different kind of time -- an older sense of time which is opposed to modern, clock-time and progress.  It is God's time, which, like Christ, "is and was from the beginning." (15-53)


There seems no end to the onslaught of time and death on humanity, its bones a kind of silent prayer.  The sea is full of destruction and wasting.  The fishermen and their endless work become symbols of all human life.    The line "Only the hardly, barely prayable/ Prayer of the one Annunciation" is subject to two opposed readings: 1) the line simply repeats the two earlier references to death as an annunciation, or 2) the line speaks of the Annunciation to Mary of Christ's conception and birth, and thus it stands in opposition to all the meaningless of time's ravages. In either sense, it does foreshadow sections four and five. (54-89)

Eliot rejects a linear notion of the past (one found in beliefs of progress and evolution) which permits a dismissal of what has come before as out-moded.  Instead, he recognizes a sense of the past in which we look back in retrospect, thereby enlarging its meaning.  Looking back to EC V, he revisits the theme of past generational experience.  As we even recall the "primitive terror" before "recorded history," we recognize that agony is a permanent aspect of life.  Ironically, it is this continuity that makes "Time the destroyer" also "Time the preserver."  Like the river and the beacon rock, it endures all of life's fury -- it remains a constant. [It is also possible that the rock here is as partial reference to the Christian church.] (90-128)


If such continuity is the case, then Krishna, the Hindu god who is one of the possible incarnations of Brahman, is right to think of the future as already faded and past, for it is all one thing.  The heraldic emblem of the Royal Rose is a symbol of this -- its meaning stresses continuity with the past. (It also points back to the roses of BN, as well as looking forward to the rose imagery of LG.)  The fresh, new lavender spray will preserve dresses packed away in drawers.  The book, so new it has never been opened, represents the future that is already full of the yellowed, aging pages of the past.  Eliot returns to the subway image of BN and EC. Passengers, who relax on the train (or on an ocean liner) because they think they have left behind their departure point and are surely on their way to their destination, are wrong.  Time offers no such escape.  Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita had appeared to the warrior Arjuna to instruct him in how to do his duty and not incur bad karma.  The warrior, Krishna suggests, should do his duty with complete disinterestedness.  The man of right action, or discipline, will carry out his duty without any personal motives or regard for future consequences. Eliot's singing voice invokes this theme -- that we are will one thing continually in the continual experience of renunciation and death; only this can come to fruition in others.  Death is the past/present/ future for all voyagers in this life. (Here Eliot may also be invoking Charles Baudelaire's "The Voyage" with its stress on the trap that life as continual movement offers and the resulting need for an escape into eternity.) Scholars are divided over whether this passage should be read as one more variation of the theme of negation in The Four Quartets or whether it should be read as the depressing consequences of time seen without the perspective of eternity. (129-174)


As section four of BN invoked the light of God the Creator and section four of EC looked to Christ the wounded surgeon (and as section four of LG will look to the Holy Spirit), so this section offers an Angelus, a prayer to Mary in commemoration of the Incarnation of God in Christ.  She is asked to pray to God for all humanity adrift on this sea of time and especially for those who died without anyone to note their passing.  Eliot quotes part of Bernard's prayer to Mary in Dante's Paradisio "daughters of your Son." (175-188)


Eliot recounts an epic catalogue of mistaken attempts to uncover the future or past. [A haruspicate is a Taoist method of fortelling the future by the examining animal entrails. Scry is the act of gazing at a shiny stone, mirror, or crystal ball. Sortilege is the casting or drawing of lots.] [Edgware Road is in London and thus represents a nearby, local place.] (189-200)

It is only here that we begin to be offered some kind of hope in response to this powerful world of time and death.  The saint must move outside of time to apprehend eternity.  What the saint, in true selfless love, apprehends is the Incarnation of Christ. For the rest of this, this is only hinted at in the "unattended/ Moment." Eliot weaves together imagery from BN (the shaft of sunlight and the unheard music) and from EC (the wild thyme and the winter lightning) to suggest this timeless present experience.  The Incarnation is where time and eternity meet, where movement and repose meet, where freedom and duty meet.   Only in our incarnation of Christ's Incarnation can this true freedom be found, and for most of us, this is more a life of trying than achieving.  As such, we can be content to let our bodies in their death nourish the earth. (201-234)

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding