Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (II)

Sestina—a fixed verse form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each, normally followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotated in a set pattern. The form is attributed to a 12th century troubadour, Arnaut Daniel, and was occasionally employed by Dante Alighieri. It made its initial appearance in English poetry in the 16th century, fell out of popularity, and then enjoyed a revival in the 20th century.

The Second Movement

T. S. Eliot adapts the sestina for the second movement of “The Dry Salvages” but departs from the original structure in three ways: (1) instead of repeating the last word of each line in the subsequent stanzas, he chooses words that rhyme (except for the concluding stanza); (2) instead of a rotating order, he maintains the order established in the initial stanza (a-b-c-d-e-f); and (3) he omits the concluding envoi.  Thus:

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?

There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable
And therefore the fittest for renunciation.

There is the final addition, the failing
Pride or resentment at failing powers,
The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,
In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,
The silent listening to the undeniable
Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation.

Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind’s tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.

Why does Eliot adopt the sestina at this point in the poem? The three commentators upon whom I have been relying (Thomas Howard, John Booty, and Kenneth Paul Kramer) do not address this question, unfortunately. Yet Eliot’s structural choice can be neither accidental nor arbitrary.

Llanbeblig_Hours_f._2r..jpg~original.jpegEliot concluded the first movement of “The Dry Salvages” with the solemn tolling of death, with wives and mothers anxiously awaiting the return of their seafaring men. He continues his meditation on death in the second movement, announcing three annunciations: the calamitous annunciation (the death of the body), the final annunciation (the death of the psyche), and the one Annunciation (the death, and rebirth, of the person through surrender to the will of God, historically embodied in the Virgin Mary).

Might Eliot’s choice of the sestina intimate God’s victory over death and chaos in Jesus Christ and the divine re-ordering of time?  And that Eliot should also repeat the words from the first stanza in the sixth stanza gives the sestina a sense of wholeness, a beginning and end—the reconciliation of past, present, and future? Another, I think superior, conjecture: the repetition of the a-b-c-d-e-f structure in each stanza itself embodies the inescapability of death. “There is no end of it.” The routine may change but it is only a rhyming, not a real change; the pattern monotonously continues: a-b-c-d-e-f; a-b-c-d-e-f; a-b-c-d-e-f.  If redemption is possible, it is only by means of “the hardly, barely prayable / Prayer of the one Annunciation”—fiat mihi.

(Go to next meditation)

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4 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (II)

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Laying in bed this morning, trying not to wake up, another explanation for Eliot’s choice of the sestina came to me. I have included it in the last paragraph.


  2. Jonathan says:

    Well, here’s my two cents, a couple of points about sestinas in general:

    It’s traditionally a form of complaint or elegiac.

    It’s a virtuosic form.

    I think the second point is worth dwelling on a bit. The lyric poetry of medieval Europe, particularly in the south, was decidedly virtuosic. It was also very public. Poetry was still largely a performing art in the days when the sestina and sonnet were invented. In calling the sestina virtuosic, I want to emphasize the root of the word, i.e. virtue. The word means power and is related to the Latin for a man or hero: vir. Now, TSE, for all his “humility is endless” and “shabby equipment always deteriorating” modesty about the power of language, was fundamentally and by his own admission a “classicist in literature”, which is to say that he believed in the *power* of artful letters. He was a poet committed to virtuosity, nowhere more so than in the Four Quartets. As they grew, these poems came to include a sort of tally of the great lyric forms which were among the cultural ruins that the poet had lamented and pastiched a generation earlier in his Waste Land. What you see in the Four Quartets is the poet swinging back around and reasserting the power of aesthetic form to embody — incarnate — reality, and now a reality whose givenness, whose realness, is an object of faithful conviction for the poet.

    When I say that Eliot writing a sestina (or whatever other difficult lyric form in the Quartets) is being virtuosic, I don’t mean that’s he’s being puerile or senile. I mean he’s being virile. These are all terms from Roman words for the stages of a man’s life. The puer is the boy, the senex the old man. Yes, TSE was an old man when he wrote the Quartets. But as an artist he was at the height of his powers — and, I’d dare to add, as a man of faith at the height of his faith, though the world seemed to be ending around him. He was thus mature, a poetic vir in classical terms, or in artistic language a virtuoso. It’s a shame I have to use that term, because we no longer hear the association with virtue (heck, we no longer give a crap about virtue or know what it is), never mind with the maturity of the Roman vir, the grown man on whose strength and endurance and prudence the res publica is understood to rest. Yet I believe all of this comes together in the poet’s consummate exercise of his craft, which is like all crafts fundamentally social, communal, civic and civilized. Craft and civilization cultivate; they also tame. Even the specter of death and madness can be civilized through aesthetic form. It is astonishing to me that Eliot could not believe this in 1922, but could in 1942. That is what I call profound faith.

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    • Jonathan says:

      I take back that quip about not caring about or knowing virtue. There are all sorts of notions of virtue out there, as Alasdair MacIntyre would remind us. It’s just that the particular kind I was honing in on via etymology, and which I think for historical reasons underpins TSE’s aesthetic practice, is relatively ignored these days; and where it appears it is disparaged as ‘patriarchal’ or whatever.

      I guess I like the Roman idea of virtue, or the Greek areté, because I’ve studied them. Other ideas are compelling as well, though, such as the Taoist’s virtue (Te). In any case, the point is that formal poetry, as we now call it, asserts something about language in its capacity to shape and order — even, in a sense, to constitute — reality. It also asserts something, whether it means to or not, about the nature of that reality. The Quartets can be read as TSE’s repudiation, through the exercise of artistic virtue, of the despair he so ably articulated, by means of a different (and much newer) kind of artistic virtue in The Waste Land.

      That is interesting, that both the early and the late poem should be virtuosic, yet differently so. At root, the idea of virtue is the idea of having power to live or speak in harmony with The Way Things Really Are. Circa 1915-1920 TSE believed things were one way, and twenty years later he believed they were another way.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “I take back that quip about not caring about or knowing virtue.” It’s certainly good to know about the etymology to understand the ‘chronologically better part’ (so to put it) of English-language history and culture, and indeed (as far as I know) of all Latin-indebted history and culture.

        Somehow, the first example that springs to my mind is:

        There is no rose of swich vertu
        As is the rose that bare Jhesu.

        It is also interesting to read Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia in this context.


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