When T. S. Eliot was ten years old his father built a summer home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and from that point on Eliot spent the summers of his youth there. He and his brother were taught to sail by an experienced mariner and learned how to navigate the ocean off of Cape Ann, with its hazardous reefs and currents. Like sailors before and after him, he learned to use the Dry Salvages, a rock cluster belonging to a reef about 500 yards long, as a navigational landmark. At high tide only the Dry Salvages are visible.
The salt is on the briar rose, / The fog is in the fir trees.
The sea (nature, eternity, God—pick one or all or none) is all around us, penetrating into every crevice. In our civilized sensibility we may fail to observe its presence, but the signs are there—the salt on the briar rose, the fog in the fir trees. Here, I think, is the heart of Eliot’s mysticism. Perhaps we might appropriately describe it a sacramental mysticism. “The world,” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” “Grandeur” may be too strong for Eliot’s quiet mysticism, but nonetheless he points us to the intersection of transcendence and temporality. We have already met the rose several times in the Quartets. In “Burnt Norton” we began our journey in a rose garden. In “East Coker” the poet spoke of frigid purgatorial fires, “Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.” The rose will reappear in “Little Gidding.” Whatever may be its symbolic significance, here it simply seems to be a rose—but one touched by the sea.
The sea howl / And the sea yelp, are different voices / Often together heard: the whine in the rigging, / The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water, / The distant rote in the granite teeth, / And the wailing warning from the approaching headland / Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner / Rounded homewards, and the seagull: / And under the oppression of the silent fog / The tolling bell / Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers, older / Than time counted by anxious worried women / Lying awake, calculating the future, / Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel / And piece together the past and the future, / Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception, / The future futureless, before the morning watch / When time stops and time is never ending; / And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning, / Clangs / The bell.
We are sailing with Eliot. We hear the many voices of the sea: the sea howl and the sea whelp, the unique sound of the rigging as the wind blows through it, the music of the waves, the seagulls; but it is the bell buoy that catches the poet’s attention. Its clangs come to us through the heavy fog. The buoy tolls in unison with the undulations of the sea. This is a tolling not according to our man-made clocks. Eternity has its own transcendent movement. We cannot measure it, cannot grasp or fathom it. The great theme of the Quartets is the relation between eternity and time. How is past, present, and future reconciled and redeemed?
The buoy tolls. Wedding bells do not toll. Easter bells do not toll. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls …” The sea confronts us with the horror of our mortality—the death of family and friends, the death of the self that loves and is loved. Death is horror, sorrow, grief; death is the enemy.
The sea is full of life and opportunities for life—and also myriad dangers. Human beings have long voyaged the ocean to fish its depths and explore its mysteries.
So is the great and wide sea also;
wherein are things creeping innumerable,
both small and great beasts.
There go the ships, and there is that leviathan,
whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein.
Anxious mothers, wives, sisters, girlfriends count the days, awaiting their men to return. When were they due home? Why are they late? Was their ship capsized by a storm or swallowed up by a great serpent? Fear confounds all of our calculations. Time seems to stop in an agonizing timelessness. We try to make sense of it all, to “unweave, unwind, unravel / and piece together the past and the future.” No meaning can be found. Clocks fail us. The sea keeps its own primordial time. There is only “the groundswsell, that is and was from the beginning, / Clangs / The bell.”