As I turn now to a poem from the year 1941, I can hear some of you saying, “But wait, James, the whole point of these year-driven poems on Fridays is that you’re immersing yourself in the year of the Pulitzer-winning novel you’re reading, and right now you’re still in 1940 with The Grapes of Wrath! You can’t move on yet, can you?” Well, first of all, thank you for your continued visits here on Fridays for poems—I like the chance to share poetry with you and hear what you think. Secondly, I was feeling the same way you were about moving on, but then I realized two critically important things: A) The Grapes of Wrath is incredibly long and I’m starting to run out of poems from 1940 that I feel have something useful or interesting for me to reflect on right now, and maybe more importantly, B) there was no Pulitzer-winning novel in 1941, so if I stick with the current Poetry Friday schedule, I’ll have to leap over all the poems of 1941.
Not only does that seem like a bad idea in principle, but in actual fact it would pose a major problem for us, since you and I have been making our way slowly through T. S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets, and the third of them, “The Dry Salvages”, came out in 1941. So I’m throwing aside my scheme for a week or two, and as I finish up John Steinbeck‘s immense and engrossing novel, I’ll hit a couple of the poems of 1941, starting with Eliot’s piece. Two little pointers: the poem is named for a group of islands called “The Dry Salvages” off the coast of Massachusetts, and the last word in the title is pronounced to rhyme with “assuages” or “enrages”. With that said, let’s dive into an excerpt from the first section of this five-section poem:
“The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite,
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.
The sea howl
And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The distant rote in the granite teeth,
And the wailing warning form the approaching headland
Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
Rounded homewards, and the seagull:
And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
Whem time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The whole of this third of the four poems is consumed by water—the theme of time that Eliot maintains, bobbing like a pennant in the wind as it weaves above and then inside the verses, is fused here with a really elemental interest in water. The first section opens with a contemplation of the river as a strong brown god, forgotten by humanity, neglected and overlooked but there beneath our great cities. What I really like about the excerpt I chose, then, is how that image of the divine and moving water is immediately fused with us—Eliot and you and me—and it takes us back in time to these primitive creatures of the deep and a lost world that resonates with some of the symbols and images he’s been playing with since the beginning of “Burnt Norton” several years ago. The sea is incredibly powerful—it gives back what we have lost (but these things return to us shattered, irretrievably changed), it grabs material things like earth and rock and the rigging of ships and uses them as a means to project its voice, its unceasing motions sound the buoy-bell and mark out time, but not our time. That fascination with time continues here in “The Dry Salvages”, and I think it’s really fruitful for Eliot here.
He is pulling apart time into many pieces—what kind of time does the sea have; what does it have to do with us?—and I love the idea of one time being older than another, as in the case of the young time kept by the watch and the clock (which seems fairly obvious) but then stretching out to remind us that time has ticked away since before there were human beings to lie awake in it and worry. The association of time with anxiety is really powerful there, and I like it—how much of our anxiety has to do with time, after all. Will we be too late? Will we have the money we need before the day the bills are due? Will I live to see another sunrise, to see another Christmas? And the brilliance of Eliot, for me, is that he unpacks all our words about time and forces us to wrestle with them. What is that time between midnight and dawn, the fretful passage where we cannot trust our memories or believe in the future we hope will come to us? That time that, as he says so simply and yet so truly, stops and is never ending. He captures the experience I feel I’ve had so many times—the lying-awake and feeling like a person out of time, someone trapped in a moment and also languishing there for lifetimes. And then ringing the section to a close is that bell, moved by the swelling wave that Eliot ties into the primal waters, the seas over which the Spirit moved when all else was without form and void. A stirring beginning to the piece.
As usual, I’ve only shared a short portion of the poem, and I’m hoping you’ll track down a copy and read the rest of it—Eliot digs deep into the ideas he begins here, asking what it means for some things to be endless (is there such a thing?) and tying that reflection into his musings on death and mortal finality. He weaves in, over and over, imagery of the sea and the shore, the feeling of traveling by water and how it changes us. He reaches out more explicitly to religious imagery: to God, to the Queen of Heaven who protects the sailors, to Krishna who urged all journeyers onward to their end. Ultimately, again, Eliot is considering how all these things—material being and mind and time—intersect in us and in the idea of incarnation. “The Dry Salvages” ends with him nudging us further towards an answer. He is still talking about only “half-guessing” at the realities he describes, but it’s clearer and clearer that he doesn’t mean to stop at that. “Little Gidding”, which is only a couple of years away from us, will bring these themes together and allow Eliot to emerge more directly and tell us what he means.
Unaddressed by me, I should note, is the passage of actual time and its relationship to the poem—Eliot began this poem in a pre-war Europe, but this particular section is written while England is besieged and on the verge of being overwhelmed. I don’t know how much of Eliot’s feelings about the future of the world (from the vantage point of England during the Battle of Britain) play into his statements about time and mortality, but I think there’s a lot of ground for fruitful speculation there.
I’m hoping you’re enjoying this slow walk through Eliot’s long poem—I certainly am. It’s making me more aware of sections I’d neglected in previous reads, and making me more in love with the poem than I originally was (and I liked it a lot, initially). I think this particular section works especially well for me in reminding me of a lot of the philosophical passages in Melville’s Moby-Dick, where Ishmael makes a lot of symbolic sense of the ocean and the sea creatures and humanity’s relationship to all of it. I hope it works for you on some level, and that you’ll speak up about your thoughts.