Study Guide

Four Quartets The Dry Salvages, Section 1

By Eliot, T.S.

The Dry Salvages, Section 1

Epigraph

The Dry Salvages—presumably les trois sauvages—is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, of the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages. Groaner: a whistling buoy.

  • At the opening of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker gives his only explanatory note of the entire "Four Quartets," telling us that "The Dry Salvages" is a rock formation off the coast of St. Ann, Massachusetts (where Eliot spent time as a child). In this sense, the poem gets a little more autobiographical than in "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker," and makes a more direct attempt to link to Eliot's personal past. Also, the speaker explains that a "Groaner" is a type of buoy, and not a terrible pun or a lame joke, which is pretty nice of him.

Lines 390-394

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 recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

  • The speaker thinks that the river is a type of "brown god" which is "sullen, untamed and intractable." The image of a river is appropriate, considering all the stuff the speaker has said about language and words not staying still in "East Coker." To clarify, meaning is like a river to the speaker, always flowing. Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote, "You can't step into the same river twice," which is another way of saying that time is always flowing and nothing is permanent. 
  • At the same time, the speaker recognizes that the river-god is "[p]atient to some degree," since it has allowed us to throw meanings onto it that have managed to stick for a century or two (after all, we're still using the periodic table, right?). 
  • Next, the speaker starts talking about the river non-metaphorically, but rather as a real, physical thing. At first, he writes, we thought of the river "as a frontier," or maybe as a "conveyor of commerce," meaning something we could use to transport goods on boats. Next, we thought of it as something that only engineers had to deal with, since we created bridges to go over these rivers. 
  • What the speaker is getting at here is that we used to work with nature out of necessity. But in modern times, we build bridges over nature in order to avoid thinking about it. Instead of taking boats onto a river, we just build a bridge across a river, cutting nature out of our lives altogether. So long, nature, it was fun while it lasted.

Lines 395-399

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. 

  • Once we've solved the problem of dealing with the dumb river (personified here as a "brown god") we build cities and pretty much forget about it—and about nature—altogether. That said, the river is still there, washing out roads every now and then with "his seasons and rages." In its ability to destroy roads, the river also reminds us of what we "choose to forget," which is that we're connected to the natural world and all of the stuff we build is going to go away someday, along with us (don't forget the message of "East Coker"). 
  • We might go on worshipping technology and machines all we want, but the natural world—like the river—will always be waiting for us, lurking and watching as we grow old and our buildings eventually fall down. In the end, we might try to conquer nature, but we'll never succeed.

Lines 400-403

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.

  • Even when we're little children shut up in our nurseries, the river-god's "rhythm" is there with us. After all, we're still animals of nature, and we still have nature's rhythms inside us, no matter how hard we try to forget that. 
  • The rhythm of the river is also present 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." Basically, the speaker is saying here that all things, like the flower ailanthus or the smell of grapes, are connected to the river. Everything we encounter in our daily lives is connected to nature, although in the modern world, we often forget this fact.

Lines 404-410

    The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.

  • No matter how much we try to deny the fact that we're connected to the natural world (which is always changing), "the river is within us." After this, the speaker switches to the image of the sea to show how inescapable nature is. After all, the majority of the Earth's surface is still covered by the vast sea, and it's unlikely that humans are going to be able to change this anytime soon. 
  • In addition, the sea is "the land's edge," which is true in the literal sense, but also in the metaphorical sense, if we think of the sea as the untamed wild and the land as the realm of human civilization. 
  • The sea (nature) is always reaching into our human realm, eroding things until they're gone and tossing "Its hints of earlier and other creation: / The starfish, the horseshoe crab." In other words, nature reminds us of simple, unthinking organisms, and it might remind us that we're not so far off from these organisms, no matter how much credit we like to give ourselves. 
  • The sea also leaves tidal pools, which we can look into and find "The more delicate algae and the sea anemone." Here, the speaker is no doubt describing all of the things he might've found on the beach when he was a little boy vacationing in Massachusetts. But he's also using these beach creatures as metaphorical reminders of his own connection to nature, and of the fact that, deep down, he's just a simple creature (like a starfish). This admission is no doubt part of his bigger project of making us humble and preparing us for a better spiritual existence (if that's possible).

Lines 411-416

It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
                                              The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir trees.

  • Literally speaking, the sea destroys anything we might try to put into it, shattering our lobsterpots and breaking our oars and nets (a "seine" is a kind of fishing net). Metaphorically speaking, nature destroys any type of meaning or pattern we try to layer onto it. Lying at the bottom of the sea is "the gear of foreign dead men," which means that these men are made anonymous by the swallowing power of the sea. Basically, the sea is like a god because it's so infinitely larger and more powerful than anything humans will ever be able to come up with. 
  • The sea is in fact so big that not only one god, but a whole bunch of gods live inside its waves. The sea, the speaker tells us, "has many voices," meaning that you can't pin it down by giving it a single name like Neptune or Poseidon. The sea gets into everything. Its salt gets into the air and settles on "the briar rose," while its fog rises off the water and gets into the "fir trees."
  • These images show that the sea (and the natural forces it represents) are always pushing into the realm of human life (i.e., land), always reminding us of the natural world.

Lines 417-424

                                           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:

  • More and more groaning fills our ears, as wailing sounds seem to come from the sea in these lines. Yet they do not all mean the same thing. As the speaker says, "The sea howl / And the sea yelp, are different voices / Often together heard." Again, he's undercutting our desire to think that the sea is one giant entity with one voice. He's making it into a plural thing, which makes it tough for us to pin it down. 
  • Even the sound of the buoys (which is meant to keep boats from hitting them) joins in this general wailing, which—if we remember "East Coker"—could also represent the wailing of our own mortality, since the devouring power of the sea serves to remind us that we'll never live forever, and that the sea symbolizes how the natural world will eventually come for us.

Lines 425-431

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,

  • The silent fog of the sea oppresses us by reminding us of how temporary and unimportant human lives are in the eyes of nature. Then we hear a "tolling bell," which could be the bell on a buoy out at sea. This bell "measures time not our time," which is the time of the natural world, which thinks in terms of thousand- or million-year periods unlike the minute- or day-long periods we humans tend to think about. 
  • The time of nature is a time "Older than the time of chronometers," or older than human-made clocks, and older than the time "counted by anxious women / Lying awake, calculating the future." This last line makes it seems as though there's no real point at all to humans worrying about their futures, since these futures will all end up in the same place anyway, which is death. Um, hooray?

Lines 432-439

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 which
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
Clangs
The bell.

  • The "anxious women" who represent human anxiousness in general are seen here "[t]rying to unweave, unwind, unravel / And piece together the past and the future." This line could suggest that all human attempts to make sense of life will be useless until they come to terms with the fact that they are going to die someday. 
  • When we try to make sense of our lives on our own terms—or in other words, on egocentric terms—we tend to come up empty. In this situation, all of our attempt to make sense of the past are "all deception," since it's just our own desires we're projecting onto the past. Further, our future is totally futureless because there are no plans we can make that will change the fact that we're going to die. 
  • Finally, Section 1 of "The Dry Salvages" ends with the clanging of a bell, which is the sound that marks the end of our time here on Earth. This is the only thing we really need to focus on, because it is only by coming to terms with our mortality that we can actually get down to enjoying our lives. It's the fantasy of being in control and living forever that causes us stress because we know it's a lie. If we give up this fantasy and admit that death is waiting for us, we might be able to live more fulfilling lives.