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?
- Here, the speaker's asking about when our suffering will end. When will we get past all of this wailing and wreckage? The rest of these lines continue in the same vein with images (wilting flowers, bone) associated with death—except for the last part about the "unprayable / Prayer at the annunciation," which kind of comes a little out of left field.
- First of all, why would the annunciation (where the archangel Michael told the Virgin Mary she's going to give birth to Jesus) be a "calamitous" thing? Well for starters, it was an event that completely changed the course of human history, since Christianity would eventually rise to be a dominant force in the world. In this instance, "calamitous" might not have a negative meaning, but a positive one. Maybe a really jarring world event is what we all need before we can get back to being good people.
- With all that said, it's good to know that, unlike "Burnt Norton" or "East Coker," Eliot was writing "The Dry Salvages" right smack in the middle of World War Two, when the Nazis were bombing England on a daily basis. So here, the speaker might actually be wondering when the suffering of the war will end, but also wondering if the end of the war will bring about any kind of spiritual rebirth.
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.
- Well, it turns out that maybe there is no end to all of our suffering, only "addition" to it. After all, we can never forget or escape our pasts, just like we can't escape "the trailing / Consequence of further days and hours." Like a river, time is always flowing.
- But unlike a river, life keeps piling up memories and events that become part of us, and we have to deal with that.
- Why would this piling up be a bad thing? Because when you're living through an awful time like World War Two, you start to get a little bit numb just to live daily life with the knowledge that a bomb could drop on you at any second. During this phase, you might grow cold in a way you can never escape, as "emotion takes to itself the emotionless / Years of living among the breakage." This breakage, though, is not just the physical rubble of England, but the metaphorical breakage "Of what was believed in as the most reliable," meaning the symbols and beliefs that had significance in the past. Now we're right back in the rubble of "The Waste Land," picking our way through the shattered beliefs of the past with our old buddy T.S. Eliot, the world's most sullen tour guide.
- That said, the speaker adds a final line here that would never fit with "The Waste Land," saying that all of the things we once thought we could rely on are "therefore the fittest for renunciation." Changing his tune from his younger days, he says we especially have to start letting go of the beliefs and values we prize most deeply, because it's only after losing everything that we might be able to start rebuilding our spiritual lives.
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.
- It's only when we have nothing that we're able to start over and create something good. The speaker thinks of our final loss as our "final addition" because is it only by losing that we gain (or add) the power to start acting. This "final addition" is therefore the failure of our pride and our resentment at "failing powers," or things we once thought were powerful.
- More specifically, the speaker might feel resentment at the "failing power" of England for getting beaten up so badly by Germany. At this time in world history, remember, England had been the world's most powerful country for hundreds of years, and the idea of being attacked on English soil had been unthinkable for pretty much just as long. In these lines, then, you can see the speaker trying to see a silver lining in the beating that England was taking from Germany at the time.
- Further, we need to "unattach" our devotion and almost start to look hopeless if we're going to hit rock-bottom (which the speaker seems to think we must do). In modern times, we're all "In a drifting boat with a slow leakage," meaning that we're constantly stranded and sinking. And finally, we must continue to listen silently to the sound of the bell that reminds us that we're going to die, either a minute from now, an hour from now, or a decade from now. It's going to happen, and we need to make peace with that. Feel any more peaceful?
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.
- Again, the speaker asks, "Where is the end of it all?" Where is the end of all our sailing on stormy seas? We can't think of a time that doesn't have an ocean (an abyss of nature that conquers us way more than we conquer it). We can't think of a time when this void-like ocean isn't filled with the "wastage" of our failed and vain human projects.
- Never will we have a future that has a clear destination and purpose. All things lead to death, and for like the hundred-and-thirty-eighth time, the speaker implies that this isn't that bad of a thing. He's just trying to make us give up our conventional desires so we can replace them with more spiritual ones.
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.
- If we think of ourselves as a bunch of folks on a leaking boat (and yes, the speaker wants us to do this), then we have to think of ourselves as "forever bailing." The work of trying to keep ourselves and our culture afloat is neverending, and there's no point in trying to make it end.
- We have to think of the fishermen (ourselves) as coming to shore to draw their money from their bank savings because they're losing money, or as drying their sails on the dock, a repetitive activity that they'll never escape having to do over and over again for as long as they live.
- What we can't do is think of ourselves as "making a trip that will be unpayable / For a haul that will not bear examination."
- These lines paint a metaphorical scene of fishermen going out to sea for a fishing trip they'll never be paid for, for a "haul" of fish that no fish buyer will ever examine. In other words, we need to find a way to embrace our neverending struggle without completely giving into feelings of hopelessness or giving up. Most people, implies the speaker, will probably give up instead of accept and endless struggle, but we must try to avoid this.
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 payable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
- Did we mention that there's no end to the struggle of life? Well, the speaker sure has. There's no end to the sound of "voiceless wailing" the marks our suffering. There's no end to the withering of flowers, meaning that there's no end to death and decay.
- There's no end to the sense of drifting we get in our lives, the sense that we lack direction.
- There is no end to the prayer that our mortal bones make to Death, which is actually our God, since it haunts everything we do. The only end we could possibly see to these things is the prayer we can just barely make to the "one Annunciation" of Christianity, which promises us that we'll get into heaven and have eternal life when we die. It's not clear here if the speaker's totally saying that Christianity is the answer, but this line does give us one of our rare (very rare) hints that there is something waiting at the end of our lives instead of death.
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
- As we grow older, we start to realize that history isn't just a story of ongoing progress. It "has another pattern," and isn't just some "sequence." This belief comes from our "superficial notions of evolution," which lead us to think that we're somehow improving ourselves as time goes on. But in the end, this is just a way of "disowning the past." If we believe in evolution, then we don't really worry about the past all that much, because all that matters are the improvements that evolution is always making on us.
- By forgetting the past, though, we turn away from the proof that we aren't getting better. If anything, suggests the speaker, history has just been one giant mess of suffering.
- History note: while Eliot speaker was writing this poem, the Nazis were going around saying that they were the next step in human evolution. They believed that blond-haired, blue-eyed "Aryans" of German descent were higher beings than Africans or Jewish people. And as most of us know, they didn't turn out to be much of an improvement on anything.
- Now on with our show. If we're ever going to make our lives better, says our speaker, it's not going to come from forgetting about the past or clinging to some idea of constant human progress. It's going to come from humility and from accepting the natural cycle of birth and death that we're all a part of.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.
- Our moments of happiness have a deep meaning, but this meaning is something we miss if all we think about is our own happiness. For example, our moments of happiness don't just consist in the "sense of well-being, / Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection, / or even a very good dinner." Rather, our feelings of well-being are basically just as temporary and superficial as our enjoyment of a good meal.
- What matters to the speaker is the "sudden illumination." We have had an experience of something deeper, he says, but we "missed the meaning" because we didn't look for it properly. Further, if we actually manage to approach this deeper meaning in our lives, this meaning completely brings back or "restores" our past experiences "In a different form." This new form is something completely different from anything we've experienced, because it's beyond "any meaning / We can assign to happiness."
- In other words, the speaker's telling us that our quest for spiritual meaning can't be the same thing as a quest for happiness. It has to be a quest for something deeper than happiness, and we have to be willing to endure pain if we want to make this quest.
I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.
- The speaker has said before (many… many times already) that the past experience we're trying to find meaning in is not just an experience from our personal lives. It's an experience from the life of our entire culture, and it has to come from "many generations." In looking to the past, we must try not to forget something about our lives that it's completely impossible to express, something "ineffable" in the speaker's words. We can't say what this thing is because it's probably unsayable, but whatever it is, it connects us to our history and to the lives of all the people who lived before us.
- In our "backward look" to the past, we glimpse something beyond the normal, comfortable "assurance / Of recorded history."
- We see something scarier than what the textbooks tell us about the past. We can look on this directly, so we can only give it a "backward half-look / Over the shoulder." And the thing we end up looking on (without being able to express it) is a form of primitive terror. Maybe it's death we're looking at. Maybe we're looking at the fact that everyone before us has had the exact same relationship to death as ourselves. Maybe we're looking at a world that existed without us for thousands of years, and will continue to exist without us for thousands more.
Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony
(Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,
Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,
Is not in question) are likewise permanent
With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
- We also come to realize that, like our moments of happiness, our moments of agony stay with us in a nearly permanent way, becoming part of who we are. It doesn't matter what caused these moments of pain, whether it was a misunderstanding or "Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things." What matters is that we tend to gain an appreciation for how much agony changes people when we see it in others. We don't see it changing ourselves to the same degree. This is why it's important to relate other people's lives to our own, and to forge connections in this way.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead n****es, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.
- We might not realize how much our pasts have changed us because in our own pasts, we tend to remember things that have happened and actions we have taken. But when we look to the "torment of others" we can see very clearly (probably more clearly than those people) how pain has shaped them, how it stays with them even after years of trying to get over it. People change, and we might see them smile when we meet them, but we know that "the agony abides" inside them.
- Even though the speaker's been talking about how time tends to knock down buildings and destroy all of our attempts to make something permanent, it also has a way of preserving the stuff that we'd like to get rid of: like pain. In this sense, "Time the destroyer is [also] time the preserver."
- The same is the case even for the river, which is a symbol of endless change, and yet the river still contains the history of all the "dead n****es, cows, and chicken coops" it has washed away. In other words, the fact that the river is constantly washing things away doesn't wash away the fact that the Western world has a horrifying history of slavery, which the speaker alludes to with his comment about the "dead n****es," who were once treated no better than farm animals like cows and chickens, or worse.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the somber season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
- In the final lines of Section 2 of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker appears to directly reference the formation of sea rocks that this poem is named for. They appear to be something that is totally unmoving even as the waters around them are "restless." Waves can wash over the rock all they want, and fogs can conceal it, but it's still there, sticking out like something that'll never change.
- It can sometimes serve as a monument "On a halcyon day," meaning that it can be a monument to happier and more youthful times, a halcyon being a type of kingfisher bird that—according to legend—makes a nest that floats on the sea (check out our analysis of the kingfisher in lines 136-139).
- In "navigable weather" (or in other words, when things are going pretty well), this unchanging rock is a seamark that we can use to figure out what direction we want to head in. At this point, we should probably realize that the rock isn't just a rock, but a symbol for some unchanging principle in our lives that we can use to remember the past or to figure out where we want to go in the future.
- But when times are gloomy or violent, "in the somber season / Or the sudden fury," this rock is "what it always was," which is nothing except an unmoving shape in the middle of a restless sea. Because it's unmoving, we try to project our meanings onto it. But the rock is ultimately something that is inexpressible. In fact, it might be this inexpressible thing that we use to orient our lives. Maybe the rock stands for death. In any case, it symbolizes the place where our words fail us, and this place will always be around for the speaker, no matter how much things may change. The meaning that escapes our words will always be out there on the horizon, just as the Dry Salvages were on the horizon of the sea when a young T.S. Eliot gazed out from shore at Cape Ann, Massachusetts.