As the Second World War raged around him, T.S. Eliot composed the third of his Four Quartets. Conscious now that he was developing a series of poems, Dry Salvages continues his meditations on the nature of time and eternity. The visit of an old college friend (and suitable spouse) had prompted Burnt Norton—a poem of longing and regret, and a summer pilgrimage to the village from which his ancestor emigrated to the New World was the geographical connection for East Coker. While the bombs rained death on all, and Eliot wound his way into old age, his third poem launches back in reverie to his long-lost childhood and youth.Eliot uses the element of water as his main symbolic program in the poem, so the Mississippi of his boyhood in Missouri surges and flows in the first section. The river is like a “strong brown god,” a chthonic presence in the commercialized city. It flows like the lifeblood through the land and connects the quotidian life with the darker surges of the sea. Flowing seaward, the river, like the individual’s life, is part of a wider pattern and a deeper mystery. As the river flows to the sea, Eliot’s poem widens out and flows into the imagery of the changeless yet ever-changing ocean.
Eliot’s poetry is always illuminated by his biography. The Mississippi of his landlocked boyhood was complemented by the presence of the sea in the vacations his family would spend in Massachusetts. Eliot learned to sail in Gloucester Bay and the Dry Salvages, “presumably les trois sauvages,” were a group of three rocks with a beacon, and which were a hazard to sailors. Their presence in the poem not only evokes the dangers of seafaring, but their being “three savages” also produces a sense of foreboding as Odysseus might fear Scylla and Charybdis, the cyclops, or the sirens’ song. To be at sea is to be plunged into the risky adventure of life. As Eliot launched himself into the adventure of England, it is as if his sheltered boyhood on the safe banks of the river opened into the savage and dangerous sea.
Eliot’s best biographer, Lyndall Gordon, has shown that, during his time at Harvard, the young philosophy student was already reading widely in the spiritual classics of both Western Christianity and Eastern religions. A spiritual pilgrim, young Eliot was reading Dante, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, and the Baghavad Gita. From these readings, Eliot plays with the usual concept of time. The past and the future are not before or behind us. Instead, the prophetic poet sees that the nature of time is neither linear or cyclical, but momentary. Time is only real in the present moment, and every moment is captured in the crisis of death when all is harvest.
As he poked the vanity of the worldly ambitious in East Coker, so in the final section Eliot pokes the vanity of those who would, by superstitious and occult methods, attempt to foretell the future and take control of time. Time is conquered not by necromancy, astrology, or fortune-telling of any kinds, but through the mystical moments of contemplation in which time is suspended and the soul enters into the timeless through the immediacy of the present moment.
Can the boy from St. Louis, the sailor from Gloucester who went on a great adventure, find redemption and release from the regrets of poor personal choices and the bondage of time? This is the gift of Eliot’s Four Quartets. In the midst of the tumultuous trials of the modern age, and in a world as dangerous and unpredictable as the sea, Eliot offers a path of peace, and a road to redemption. It is through the rituals of religion and the disciplines of daily self-sacrifice, punctuated by moments of transcendence, that the soul survives, and man, the prisoner of time, achieves a final freedom.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Sunset over the Waves” by Mauritz de Haas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.