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Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages

by T. S. Eliot

Section I

A prefatory note says: "(The Dry Salvages—presumably les trois sauvages—is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages. Groaner: a whistling buoy.)"

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

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 from 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
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.

---- 1941

Numinous Time:
Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages

Section I (The first of five sections of The Dry Salvages)

T.S. Eliot in 1934T. S. Eliot was the most important modern poet writing in English in the twentieth century. The technique of fragmentation that he popularized in English language poetry -- of juxtaposing elements of a poem in unexpected ways -- can be heard in the work of other poets down to today. Eliot used the technique in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and brought it to fruition in The Waste Land, which was edited by another poet, Ezra Pound, and which is the most influential poem in English in the twentieth century.

In Eliot's later Christian mystical poem, Four Quartets, the technique is used in a more restrained way than in The Waste Land. But it is still a central literary device that helps make Four Quartets a true masterpiece.

In all of these poems, the speakers are estranged from the world. They are estranged from nature, from other people, from society and typically from themselves. The Waste Land takes this sense of estrangement the farthest. Among other things, it uses the technique of juxtaposing fragments of poetry to portray Eliot's perception of an absurd and disjointed world, with humanity caught in the currents of history.

While Four Quartets also expresses estrangement from life, now there is an escape into "the still point of the turning world" -- the timelessness of eternity -- which can be glimpsed in moments of revelation. It is this, for the later Eliot, that is the true reality, not what he considers the illusion of the past and future.

You can see a number of these themes in the excerpt above, which is the first section of part three of Four Quartets. In the first part of the excerpt, Eliot uses the imagery of a river -- presumably inspired primarily by the Mississippi River of his youth -- to represent primal forces of the natural world, including time, that we can never tame, and that we are alienated from. Eliot makes the river's role as a primal force of nature explicit when he says that its rhythm is present in the seasons (with a word added in parenthesis by me):

His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus (tree) of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

But, he says, as technology has made us stronger, we have begun to pay little attention to the river and, by extension, to the truth about nature. It is, however, the stuff we are made of, and it is "watching and waiting," and will presumably have its day again.

The second part of the excerpt moves to Cape Ann, which Eliot was also familiar with growing up. Here, the sea is depicted as embodying an even greater mystery (as discussed in a SparkNotes excerpt below), and a far greater threat to humanity. It is the primal depths of the world in which the distant past continues in the present, throwing onto the beach, "hints of earlier and other creation:/ The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone." Unlike with the river, we can't even create the semblance of conquering the sea, which,

...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 sea, like time and nature, is a constant threat we navigate, which may be what leaves "anxious worried women / Lying awake, calculating the future," waiting to see if husbands, sons and fathers who fish its depths will return home. In later sections of this same third part of the poem, the sea's victims will be referred to again, as sailors "whose bodies / Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea," and we will be told about "the drifting wreckage, / The bone's prayer to Death its God…."

But, finally, having described humanity as thoroughly alienated from nature, the excerpt above culminates in references to time that are filled with contradictions, as the sense of time's coherence is lost:

Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.

As noted, for Eliot, what is ultimately real isn't time or patterns we might see in it, since it is an ocean filled with "the drifting wreckage" of our lives and deaths. Instead, what is real for Eliot is the timelessness of eternity. But, throughout the poem, Eliot is stuck offering paradoxical descriptions of time because, as he says elsewhere in the poem, "Only through time time is conquered." '

This is clearly a poem by someone who feels trapped in time, and nature, and who yearns for the release that he believes is offered by eternity. To convey that sense to us, he turns nature into a poetic device that refers back to his vision of the world, which was shaped by Christianity, Indian mysticism, and other sources. And yet his descriptions of nature make it a vivid presence, and heighten the sense of its reality. All of which can give you a sense of the depth of vision, richness of language, and poetic complications that make Four Quartets a masterpiece and a very different kind of poem from the others we have looked at.

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Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot: Wikipedia
Four Quartets: Wikiquotes excerpts
"T. S. Eliot reading the third of the four quartets - The Dry Salvages."
Dissonance and Harmony: T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"

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Here are two excerpts from: Time, Eternity, and Immortality in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets by Terry Fairchild, who is listed as an Assistant Professor of Literature at Maharishi University of Management (which is based, I believe, on Transcendental Meditation):

In his earlier opus The Wasteland, water, of course, represents life and spirituality, but also “death by water” and, when polluted, the spiritual corruption of modern existence.

Apparently from his earliest days, water had left a strong impression on Eliot. Not only did he play as a child among the Dry Salvages on the Atlantic sea coast, he also romped on the beaches of the Mississippi which rushed along the west bank of St. Louis where he was raised, and it is these two great natural forces from childhood, the river and the sea, that buoy up the imagery that washes throughout the poem. The poem’s first lines undoubtedly refer to the Mississippi, “Useful, untrustworthy, . . . a conveyor of commerce,” but they also suggest the two other great rivers in Eliot’s life, London’s befouled Thames of The Wasteland and, in the phrase “strong brown god,” India’s holy Ganges of the Bhagavad-Gita....

But the river is not simply destructive; untamed and elemental, it is also the antithesis of “the dwellers in the city” who have forgotten the primal font from which all life springs.

The river, over the eons, has been  crystallized by philosophers and poets into a metaphor for time, as the sequential flow of past, present, future, and unfathomable eternity, and Heraclitus’ stream that cannot be stepped into twice, that encompasses all the changes of sequential time, including Eliot’s progression of “the nursery bedroom,” “the April dooryard,” “the autumn table,” and “the winter gaslight.” “The river is within us, the sea is all about us,” Eliot informs: individuality and eternity, the one an expression of the other, the individual river a tributary of the vast encompassing sea. The river and the sea, the drop and the ocean, are simultaneously different and the same....

For Eliot, all oppositions are found in the image of water itself. Containing all temporal states within it, the eternal sea is a primeval intelligence which litters the beach with “hints of earlier and other creation: / The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone.” It also tosses up the wreckage of humanity’s disparate and desperate endeavors, containing within its “many voices” the woeful sounds of time.... 

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Here is what SparkNotes says about this section of Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages, by Eliot:

The third of the Quartets, “The Dry Salvages” appeared in 1941. The word “salvages” in the title should be pronounced, as Eliot mentions in a note to the poem, to rhyme with “assuages,” with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable. The Dry Salvages are a group of small, rocky islands with a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. Eliot presumably visited them or at least knew of them as a boy. This quartet departs from the pessimism and human ruins of the other three to consider humanity as a whole, as an entity with a unified subconscious and memory that produce mythic structures. Humanity is, thus, placed on a level with the natural world as something with a history and with cycles of rebirth and renewal.

The first section of “The Dry Salvages” makes an explicit comparison between a river and the sea as models for the unknowable. A river, while it may figure prominently in human mythologies, is something that can eventually be crossed and conquered, while the sea represents an endless reserve of depths and mysteries: Man can live with the ocean but he will never master it. The second section of the poem seems to signify a reconciliation with the human lot. The sea will never be either a blank slate or an easily circumscribed pond; “there is no end of it,” and man must always keep working in good faith. Time destroys, but it also preserves, and just as there is no mastery, there is also no escape.

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This excerpt offers a nice summary of The Dry Salvages in Four Quartets: 

"The Dry Salvages
I, III, IV, V, light; II darkness
Time present and time future past.
More horizontal than vertical
Short theme: Where the ocean of experience meets the river of meaning.
Signature quote: "The river is within us, the sea is all about us."

(The link to this page is no longer live.)

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Four Quartets Study Guide from BookRags, which charges for more:

"Four Quartets explores the nature of time in relation to theology, history, physicality and its effect on the human condition. In Burnt Norton, the meaning of time and its relationship with human beings is explored. Time present and past are contained in time future. All time is eternally present and unredeemable. Humans are submerged in time and movement, but they are unable to perceive the source of the movement. Freeing oneself from worldly attachments is the only way to redeem time and give a value to one's actions in time. The poem ends as the narrator concludes that time is a sad waste. In East Coker, the beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning; the narrator takes a circular view of time."


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