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.
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.