The third of the Quartets, “The Dry Salvages” appeared in 1941. The word “salvages” in the title should be pronounced, as Eliot mentions in a note to the poem, to rhyme with “assuages,” with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable. The Dry Salvages are a group of small, rocky islands with a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. Eliot presumably visited them or at least knew of them as a boy. This quartet departs from the pessimism and human ruins of the other three to consider humanity as a whole, as an entity with a unified subconscious and memory that produce mythic structures. Humanity is, thus, placed on a level with the natural world as something with a history and with cycles of rebirth and renewal.
The first section of “The Dry Salvages” makes an explicit comparison between a river and the sea as models for the unknowable. A river, while it may figure prominently in human mythologies, is something that can eventually be crossed and conquered, while the sea represents an endless reserve of depths and mysteries: Man can live with the ocean but he will never master it. The second section of the poem seems to signify a reconciliation with the human lot. The sea will never be either a blank slate or an easily circumscribed pond; “there is no end of it,” and man must always keep working in good faith. Time destroys but it also preserves, and just as there is no mastery there is also no escape. The third section of the poem ruminates on words attributed to Krishna, advising humanity not to “fare well” but to “fare forward.” This is an exhortation to give up aspirations—to stop seeking to do “well”—and to be satisfied with mere existence. Again Eliot uses a ghostly figure, in this case a voice from high in a ship’s rigging, to represent a level of awareness unattainable for the series of travelers he describes here. The fourth section is a prayer to the Virgin Mary, figured as a statue watching over the sea, asking her to pray for those who voyage on the sea and those who wait for them at home. Both the sailors and their loved ones stand in for all of humanity, faced with uncertain conditions and a lack of knowledge. The final section of “The Dry Salvages” at last offers something akin to hope. While man will always strive in vain to “apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time,” everyday existence nevertheless contains moments of only half-noticed grace—moments at which “you are the music / While the music lasts.” Moreover, “right action,” while it will never be entirely successful, is nevertheless almost the only way available to man to subvert the “daemonic” forces that drive him.
This quartet returns to some of the same easy music of “Burnt Norton.” Again, Eliot plays with words (“womb, or tomb”), and, particularly in the second section, there are moments in which the gravity of the ideas forces the poetry into a somber, prose-like mode. In general, though, Eliot uses far less repetition and circular language in this section, effectively lightening the tone. The poem also makes use of extended “landscapes”—the river and the sea— that allow Eliot to engage in flights of descriptive language free from the philosophical seriousness of the rest of the Quartets. Again, too, formal structures are borrowed from religious and philosophical sources, as in the prayer of section four and the Krishna material in the third section. In a way, Eliot is associating his poetic efforts with the other struggles for knowledge listed in the final section—astrology, palm-reading, animal sacrifices—and this leads him to take himself far less seriously, to look instead for the moments of hidden beauty in his language.
“The Dry Salvages” is interrupted at least twice by the ringing of a bell. In both cases it is a bell at sea, either on a ship or on a buoy. The bell is a human intervention that is meant to illuminate the vastness both of the sea and of mere existence and to point out the futility of trying to master it with anything as ineffectual as a bell. In both cases, the bell goes unheard: In the first mention, it is a bell on a buoy out to sea, which will be heard most likely only by those about to be wrecked on the rocks the buoy is supposed to mark. Placed there by man, the bell has nevertheless come under the control of the sea and has become irrelevant as a marker of human intention. The second bell is rung for the dead, for those lost at sea. They are where the sound of the bell cannot reach them; the bell, therefore, tolls not for them but for those left behind. This bell is mentioned in the exhortation to the Virgin Mary to pray for those lost and those still here. Like prayer, the bell represents an attempt to appeal to a higher power, to admit one’s own mortal limits. The bell directly refutes poetic endeavor, too: human-made, a bell’s ring is an attempt to communicate without words, an admission that words have failed.
Perhaps the most famous part of this poem is its opening, with the description of the river as “a strong brown god.” These lines are often coopted and used to describe the Mississippi and to talk about the mythological importance of rivers. Curiously, though, Eliot is actually demoting the river to the status of a false god, by pointing out its inferiority to the sea as an object for contemplation. Popular culture’s glorification of these lines indeed illustrates the very inanity of human action that Eliot describes later in the poem: Dazzled by the lines’ rhetorical force, we tend to attribute greater meaning to the language than is really there, while we ignore what is actually being said. In the second section of the poem, the river becomes a conduit for refuse and unpleasant memories, a shallow channel rather than a “strong brown god.” Just as we can neither escape nor romanticize the river, nor can we master the past.
The final lines of “The Dry Salvages” combine a resigned pessimism with a suggestion of hope. Couched in the beauty of the lines is a dark meaning: “our temporal reversion” is death, which is beneficial only if we can become “significant soil” that might nourish a tree. By hiding behind such flights of language, Eliot once again retreats into the refuge of the poet. He may not be able to master time and experience but he is master of the world that he writes into being. Futility does not diminish beauty.