Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Dry Salvages

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships...

During the T.S. Eliot Summer School group’s trip to Little Gidding, Denis Donoghue made a casual comment that he considered “The Dry Salvages” to be the least successful of the Four Quartets. Whether one believes this or not, I think “The Dry Salvages” accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish: representing a period of spiritual stagnation and overcoming that stagnation in an honest way.

For me, the landscape symbolism of the river and the sea in “The Dry Salvages” is just as powerful and evocative as the symbol of the garden in “Burnt Norton” and the darkness in “East Coker” – perhaps even moreso, because these symbols of “death by water” have been present throughout much of Eliot’s poetry (most notably in The Waste Land and “Marina”), thereby giving them additional layers of meaning. They are a part of the poet’s identity, and of his American identity in particular.

“The Dry Salvages” begins on the Mississippi River, near Eliot’s birthplace in St. Louis, and then moves to the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the poet spent his summers as a boy. As the poet himself later pointed out, “The Dry Salvages” begins with his beginning and ends where he hopes to end (at East Coker). The substance of the poem is his human weakness – his reluctance to move forward, toward the inevitable end. (The full loop – “in my end is my beginning” – is held off for the final quartet.)

I have seen the Mississippi River only twice. The first time was three years ago, when L. and I drove across the country. We crossed not in St. Louis but in Rapids City, Illinois, where the river was calm, blue and surprisingly narrow. The second time was one year ago, when I flew into St. Louis during the 2008 Midwest floods. From the air, I saw that the river – now brown, “sullen, untamed and intractable” – had overrun its banks. It was hard to tell where the land ended and the water began. Fields had become vast lakes, and only the tallest structures were visible above the water – like those deadly rocks known as the dry salvages, at low-tide in Gloucester harbor.

I visited Gloucester in the summer of 2006. I tracked down the former Eliot home, just north of Gloucester Point, then went looking for the dry salvages. I didn’t find them, but I did climb among the rocks on the eastern shore in the bright summer sun and stare out at the sea for a while. Somehow, the view of the Atlantic Ocean stretching on forever, never gets old. When I was growing up, my grandparents lived near the ocean and so my family usually spent our summer vacations at Virginia Beach. After I graduated college, I went to live there. During my first summer, I visited the oceanfront every morning, while trying to figure out where I was headed in life and what the future held for me. I could see nothing ahead – no certainties and no limitations – and so I simply stayed put for a while... intimidated by seemingly endless possibilities.

In 1928, Eliot wrote: “Not to have the frontier in one’s blood makes emotional understanding of the United States impossible.” In “The Dry Salvages,” completed in 1941, the poet is trying to communicate that sense of life on the frontier. The poem expresses Eliot’s American-ness – perhaps not quite to his own satisfaction. At various points, Eliot pays homage to other American writers: Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and especially Ralph Waldo Emerson (a favorite of Eliot’s mother) – whose vaguely eastern philosophy of Transcendentalism is a pervasive influence on this third quartet.

Eliot once wrote to his mother that he disliked Emerson’s imprecision of thought and language, but here he seems to have embraced and absorbed that writer’s style and substance along with the New England landscape – combining passages from The Bhagavad Gita (a major influence on both Emerson and Eliot) with the workaday mentality of Gloucester fishermen, who live always at the mercy of the sea. For them, as for the reluctant warrior Arjuna (in the Gita) – and for the pioneers who settled the American West – thoughts of the frontier between life and death are not debilitating. They know that the only cause of true defeat is surrender... and so they never stop fighting, facing the sea, or moving west into the unknown. Eliot, a pioneer by blood, echoes their mantra: “Fare forward, voyagers!”

The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

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