“Dry Salvages” is Eliot’s “Water Quartet.” To the extent that the first two “Quartets” take place anywhere, they take place on land—often in a dry and barren land, sometimes in an equally barren and desolate urban landscape. But at the beginning of “The Dry Salvages,” landscape changes to riverscape and then to seascape. This is the poem of time and the water: of fishermen, sea sounds, debris—both flotsam and jetsam—, driftwood and seashells on a beach or shore. The first section introduces two quintessential symbols of flux and permanence—a river, and the ocean—but observes their different characteristics: “The river is within us, the sea is all around us.” Let’s talk about rivers first.
Eliot writes: “I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god…” Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Eliot, by his own report, was moved by the power of a big river. As he wrote to a St. Louis newspaper in 1930:
“…and of course I have spent many years out of America altogether; but Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world.” (quoted in F.O. Matthiesen’s essay “The ‘Quartets’,” reprinted in “Four Quartets”: A Selection of Critical Essays, Bernard Bergonzi ed., (Macmillan Press, 1969), p. 96)
Rivers: always flowing, always different, though seemingly permanent—a perfect metaphor for Eliot! This rings true for me, because I realize that, where we live, in this part of central New Jersey, we can hardly go anywhere without having to cross a river (rivers that are also estuaries, where ocean tides flow into and ebb from these rivers). When I take the train to New York City, I cross the Raritan River and always look to see, whether it is high tide or low tide. When I drive to New York City (rarely!), or head for New England, I drive over the Verrazano Bridge or the Tappan Zee and see the power and feel the history of the Hudson River. When I drive to Pennsylvania, I cross the Delaware River on the Scudder’s Falls Bridge and remember that this river is an important border. In choosing the river as a major metaphor, Eliot seems to draw on the philosophy of Heraclitus, who argued that flux and change are the very essence of the natural world. In the dialogue Cratylus, Plato refers to a saying of Heraclitus’s that has become famous:
“Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.”
The river you cross today is not the same river you cross tomorrow. It flows constantly, and no stretch of water is exactly the same even a minute later, and this river, Eliot posits, is “within us.” Our lives move in a certain direction; we are mortal, our life is a journey in space and time. But every moment of that flow is different, changing. There is, he seems to be saying, something of divinity and deity in a river… and in us.
Now, the ocean, Eliot’s second major water metaphor. The sea acts as both a border to and definition of the land. It both hides and reveals the creatures who live in it and work upon it. It throws up onto the land evidence of past life—“…the torn seine,/The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar/And the gear of foreign dead men.” The bell of a buoy measures a person’s time, but the constant motion and swell of the ocean measures a different, vaster, older sort of time. This sets up Eliot’s meditation in Part II of the poem on the pointlessness of human life without a sense of the divine, specifically of the miraculous moment of Jesus’s conception.
Part II is, well… in two parts. The first section is a somewhat different version of a traditional poetic form, the sestina: six verse paragraphs, each with six lines, the end words of the six lines appearing in a different patterned order in each successive stanza, with a three-line coda, or envoi, using all six words. Eliot, however, varies his sestina. He uses the same six rhymes, though not always the same six words, in strict sequence in each stanza, and forgoes the envoi. The poetic effect echoes the question he asks at the beginning—“Where is there an end of it,…There is no end, but addition.” Those same six rhymes repeated in sequence in all six stanzas has the effect of constantly beating waves, or of an ocean swell rising and falling, always the same, always slightly different, repetitious, inexorable–lulling and numbing at the same time. The middle stanzas beautifully articulate the purposelessness of human existence, the “breakage” of long-cherished beliefs, for example, or “…a drifting boat with a slow leakage,” or an ocean “littered with wastage.” The fifth stanza brings this home in human terms, as Eliot describes the hard, repetitious, and unprofitable life of fishermen off the coast of Massachusetts.
But Eliot varies the pattern of the poem to end on a note of hope. The first stanza ended by asking, almost rhetorically:
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?
If the drowned sailor or sea creature, whose bone has washed up onto the beach had prayed at the “calamitous” moment of his death, there are no prayers for him now, only the grim reminder of his end. But at the end of the poem, by capitalizing the last word, Eliot identifies a faint glimmer of hope, the difficult and almost unhearable message that God will become incarnate:
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
The second part of this section, by contrast, reads like a conversation between an old, tired, philosophically-inclined uncle and his nephew or niece. The old man meditates on how one’s notion of the past changes with age. What is permanent? What persists in the fact of the onslaught of living in the modern world? For him, the past is no longer “mere sequence”—just a remembered series of events—; it is not “development”—an orderly, purposeful movement toward a future form or outcome–; and it is not “evolution”—a scientifically driven process of development. These are the means, he says, of “disowning the past,” of disregarding the value and meaning of what has come before the present. An individual’s past is “covered by the currents of action,” he observes; living in the present erodes the sense and meaning of the past, like water erodes a beach or a shoreline. Only in the collective pain of the human condition since the Fall, the agony of losing Eden and falling away from God, do we remember who we are and where we came from. And at the end, river and ocean come together:
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
The Dry Salvages are, then, symbols of a worn and tattered Christianity, a beleaguered faith often obscured by fog. Christianity has been many things, just as the rock, with its beacon, plays different roles depending on the weather:
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the somber season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
Surely there is a sly reference to the Trinity just under the surface in the name of the rocks off the coast of Massachusetts. As the headnote to this Quartet coyly puts it: “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.” A group of three rocks (“you are my rock, and my Redeemer”; God the Three in One), with a beacon (“Jesus the light of the world”). In a world of flux and death, in a world that “disowns the past”, something permanent does exist, and it persists, like the rocks of the Dry Salvages. That something, as section five of the poem will shortly tell us, is the holy moment of The Incarnation.