Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (I)

Windy Run

The Potomac River was my friend. I walked along its shore frequently as a young boy and teenager. There were several routes I could take. I could cut through the Boykin’s yard, run across the George Washington Parkway and scramble down the steep hill. Or I could cut through the Connor’s yard down to Windy Run and follow the creek to the river. That was my preferred route, as it took me under the Parkway to a waterfall, which emptied into the Potomac. I spent hours and hours walking the trails, exploring the caves, or just sitting on a large rock on the shore and watching the river flow by. Looking back I am amazed at the freedom I was given by my parents. On two occasions my parents called the police to report me missing. On both occasions I was down by the river—once by myself, once with my sister who could not have been older than four or five years old at the time. I did not fear the world as I should have.

The First Movement

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.

I never thought of the Potomac as brown god, much less one to be feared. I knew enough not to go wading into it. I of course had heard many times the stories of the three sisters who had drowned in a boating accident. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes sat on top of Washington, D.C. for several days. The rain poured. Vast areas of the Mid-Atlantic states were flooded. A few days after the rain stopped, I walked part-way across Chain Bridge. I recall the Potomac rushing by, only eight or ten feet or so below me—at least so I remember. My recollection is vivid yet probably faulty. Even then I did not fear the river. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I had grown up along the Mississippi River, as did T. S. Eliot.

Living in an urban area it’s easy to forget the brown god. What’s important is crossing the river to get from one place to the next. Chain Bridge, Key Bridge, Memorial Bridge, the 14th Street Bridge—I have driven across these bridges countless times.  It’s easy to ignore the river that tranquilly flows underneath them. But then it rises up and manifests its destructive power, and we are again reminded of our impotence before the deity.

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.

Birth and death. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. The river embodies he primordial rhythms of the world. I find the poet’s chosen images curious, though. I do not understand their connection to the Mississippi or any river. His memories are not my own. But Eliot does not find comfort in them. They disturb him. At least that is what I first thought, in light of the preceding verses—but maybe I have misread the poem.

The nursery symbolizes fertility. The annual flooding of the Nile would bring rich black silt that would fertilize the land for the growing of crops.

Spring is a time of new life and hope, yet the ailanthus tree fills the air with its disagreeable odor. Is this a good or bad thing or just a powerful memory that came to the poet’s mind? The smell of Lowcountry pluff mud can hardly be described as pleasant, yet I miss it. There’s something very real, earthy about pluff mudd. So perhaps the ailanthus resonates positively with Eliot.

I also love grapes. When I was a young boy, I would eat them all the time. My mother got so worried she called our pediatrician. “Doctor Hobart, Little Al is eating too many grapes.” “Then stop buying them, Mrs. Kimel,” he wisely counselled.

I find the image of the gaslight in winter comforting. It evokes for me warmth and yuletide cheer. And all lovers of Narnia will immediately think of the lamp-post in the Lantern Waste.

Hidden within the cyclical movements of nature is a power that can overwhelm and destroy. We can construct our levees and dams; surround ourselves with protective technology; build our cities and empires. But we are never safe. Even the great Achilles may find that he must flee before Scamander.

(Go to next meditation)

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7 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (I)

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.” I wonder if Kipling’s story, “The Bridge-Builders”, was one of the things Eliot had in mind, here. Since I first read this poem, I’ve also gotten acquainted with early Christian (manuscript) art reusing Classical river-god imagery, with Lewis’s use in Narnia, and with Patristic exegesis of the Baptism of Christ. And, of course, ‘pontifex’ is taken over from Roman paganism to describe Christian Bishops.Is there an ecclesiological resonance here, too?

    I’m not sure it’s simply “clear that Eliot does not find comfort in them.” Even uncomfortable rankness could by part of a somehow comforting memory. (I’ve always been struck by the imagery of his earlier “Preludes”, in this respect – including “smell of steak in passage ways”, which can be a bit much, yet has an appeal that ‘smell of sprouts’ would not.) I wonder if the Ambonese “tree of heaven” etymology is at play, here…

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    After several re-readings of the first movement (and also thanks to David’s comment above), I have revised this meditation a bit.

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  3. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the meditation, Father. I’m a river-man myself. Grew up on the banks of the Ohio in Cincinnati. I know all about the brown god (although in Twain’s day, according to his wonderful book, Life on the Mississippi, the Ohio was clear and the Miss. was cloudy). TSE’s masterpiece has long been among my all-genre favorite works of literature, and especially Dry Salvages. By a fluke of personal history, I also happen to be intimately acquainted with the North Shore of Boston, where the rocks called the Dry Salvages are to be found. I find Eliot’s American landscapes to be compelling, as evidently he did to some degree, though not enough to keep him here. More of an English countryside kind of guy, I guess — rather like the Potomac, actually. It’s interesting, then, that I relate easily to his “brown god” while you find it a bit foreign. The Ohio is a lot like the Mississippi, except that the Ohio is better. Ontologically. This isn’t something that can be explained to people who aren’t from the Ohio valley, but I assure you it’s true.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Jonathan, for your comment. I was hoping you would read and comment upon this series of meditations.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      To chime in again, as an (old) Cincinnatian, my Dad was in the Withrow High School band and orchestra, and, at 17, went out in boats to entertain people displaced (if that not too mild a word) in the 1937 flood.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    I think that nature in the Dry Salvages as a whole is primarily disturbing to Eliot, if taken exclusively as a thing in itself. This not because it is dangerous and ultimately untamable, but because it is terrifyingly meaningless. Nature naturing is a writhing mess whose chief product, in the final tally, would appear to be extinction, death; there is no significance even in its dangerousness. There is maybe more a sense of this as the poem moves forward from its initial focus on the raw power and mysteriousness of natural forces. The brief prayer to Our Lady of Good Voyage (IV) is crucial (literally, I suppose) as the intrusion of transcendent faith into the extended meditation on what the earth and nature must be without such a super-cosmic framework. It is, if you like, Mary who makes the final movement’s “life of significant soil” significant. Otherwise it would be no more than the perpetual mindless repetition of birth and death, however much any part of that cycle might be celebrated or aestheticized.

    By the way, Our Lady of Good Voyage, as I’m calling her “whose shrine stands on the promontory,” is a church in Gloucester, MA near the Dry Salvages (though you can’t see them from Gloucester). It’s a beautiful church with azure cupolas that looks over the harbor. The building on which it is modeled is in the Azores, whence came the Portuguese fishermen who settled in Gloucester in numbers. The statue of Mary over the doors cradles not an Infant in her arms but a ship of sail.

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