“I do not know much about gods.”
So begins Eliot’s third of four quartets, “The Dry Salvages.” Many have argued that this is one of Eliot’s weakest poems and the least effective of the Four Quartets. I can’t write as a literary critic, but I can as a person. I admire it more with every read, and I’ve been reading it for at least two decades.
The summation of my own thoughts on the poem: Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” is nothing if not extraordinary. Its equivalent in music would be the third movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It is the adagio, as there can be no beauty without first suffering. As with Beethoven’s 9th, 3rd movement, the adagio just makes the joy sweeter.
A subtle and complex piece of art, Eliot’s Four Quartets, at base, consider the history of the Logos from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (who first coined the term; or at the very least, was the first to associate the word with word) through the Christian Incarnation. As with the pre-Socratics, Eliot examines the primary Urstoff of existence and of the cycles of history: air (Burnt Norton); earth (East Coker); water (The Dry Salvages); and fire (Little Gidding). In the end, Eliot answers that fire and fire as understood through the Incarnation and purgation supplant the wise pagan guesses in Ionia, five centuries before the birth of Christ.
First published in the February 27, 1941, issue of the New English Weekly, Eliot also goes well beyond the philosophical and theological. As with much of Eliot’s work, the Four Quartets, broadly understood, also trace his own family history, England to Massachusetts to Missouri.
As Eliot had noted, critics often read too much into his poetry. In his famous essay, “Thoughts After Lambeth,” he explained:
Before leaving the not very remunerative subject of Youth, I must mention another respect, not unrelated, in which Youth of today has some advantage over an earlier generation. (I dislike the word “generation,” which has been a talisman for the last ten years; when I wrote a poem called “The Waste Land’ some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the “disillusionment of a generation,” which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.)
The same can be argued for The Four Quartets. In particular, the Dry Salvages is a spot off of the Massachusetts coast where his ancestors arrived from England.
The poem, however, contains so many insights–overwhelming, in fact–that the reader finds something new with each reading: the inability of man to dominate nature; the liturgy of the Church; the safety of Mary, Star of the Sea; the glorious diversity of each individual–forming a symphony in creation; the unrelenting appetite of Kronos; and the horrors of flirting with the occult.
Toward the end of the third Quartet, the author reveals the central idea.
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given.
Chronos can be conquered, but only through submission. That submission is made to God and His Grace. Anything else–any attempt to dominate grace or buy it through knowledge–leads only to confusion and, ultimately, death.
The Dry Salvages, however, the safe haven of all good men, appears everywhere, but only when we recognize that all love and truth resides in God, not in the gods.
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