Since 1868, the great bell of Nashotah House has rung out the Angelus thrice daily—three triplets, followed by a long pause, concluding with a peal of eighteen strikes. It can be heard for miles. No matter where we were on the seminary grounds, at the first strike we would stop whatever we were doing, make the sign of the cross, and quietly say the appointed prayers. Activity would resume when the peal began. I recall one day sitting in an ethics class taught by Fr Robert Cooper. The Angelus began. We all stood. When the peal began Fr Cooper remarked, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the silence went on forever.”
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory, / Pray for all those who are in ships, those / Whose business has to do with fish, and / Those concerned with every lawful traffic / And those who conduct them.
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of / Women who have seen their sons or husbands / Setting forth, and not returning: / Figlia del tuo figlio, / Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and / Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips / Or in the dark throat which will not reject them / Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s / Perpetual angelus.
A prayer for humanity—we are those who confront the dangers of the sea and are left behind in fear and doubt and eventually end our journey “on the sand, in the sea’s lips / Or in the dark throat.” This is the inescapable given of our existence. And so, in faith or desperation, we surrender our living and dying to Eternity.
The poet frames his prayer as invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she who “is at the point where land and sea, time and eternity meet” (John Booty, Meditating on Four Quartets, p. 41). Her shrine stands upon the promontory. Years later Eliot would share that he had in mind Notre Dame de la Gard in Marseilles, but surely he also had in mind Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Gloucester, upon whose roof stands a statue of the Theotokos. She looks over the harbor, her right hand raised in a gesture of blessing. In love and compassion the Holy Mother intercedes for her children. She too journeyed on the sea and knew the bitter sorrows of life and death. Enthroned as Queen of Heaven, she shares in the priestly advocacy of her Son.
The line “Figlia del tuo figlio” comes from Canto 33 of the Paradiso, where St Bernard beseeches the prayers of the Theotokos on behalf of Dante:
Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
humbler and loftier past creation’s measure,
the fulcrum of the everlasting plan,
You are she who enobled human nature
so highly, that its Maker did not scorn
to make himself the Creature of His creature.
In your womb was the flame of love reborn,
in the eternal peace of whose warm ray
this flower has sprung and is so richly grown.
For us you are the torch of the noonday
of charity; below, you are the spring
of ever-living hope for men that die.
The lyric of the fourth movement is structured as three stanzas of five lines each. In the background, I am sure, Eliot intends us to hear the ringing of the Angelus, one stanza for each triplet. Contrast the primaeval tolling of the buoy of the first movement, measuring “time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers.” The tolling evokes the deep rhythm of being, ancient and indomitable but also impersonal, pitiless, indifferent. Not so the Angelus.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.