Study Guide

Four Quartets The Dry Salvages, Section 3

By Eliot, T.S.

The Dry Salvages, Section 3

Lines 515-520

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant—
Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

  • The speaker continues to struggle with all of the contradictions that he faces when he tries to talk about something he knows is inexpressible. His energy starts to wane a little here, and he starts to wonder about the true meaning of something said by Krishna, one of the primary avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  • When it comes to wondering about what Vishnu meant, the speaker is wondering if everything he (the speaker) has said in Section 2 of "The Dry Salvages" can be linked to the spiritual teachings of Krishna. For example, he wonders if "the future is a faded song," meaning that it's just going to be a time of regret for those who aren't around (who haven't been born) to regret yet. 
  • He wonders if the future is actually a time of sadness that no one really cares about, "Pressed between the yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened." He further wonders if we truly wish to elevate our spirits, "the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back." These questions actually bring us all the way back to the beginning of "Burnt Norton," where the speaker's second epigraph comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, translating as, "The way upward and the way downward is one and the same." Here, we see the speaker continue to struggle with the unsayable meaning of life by talking in riddles and contradictions. He does this quite frankly because life itself is a bundle of contradictions, and the more he writes like this, the more the speaker wonders if he's just saying the same stuff that the Hindu religion said thousands of years ago.

Lines 521-527

You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.

  • Whatever it is that the speaker's been trying to get at (death, the rock, the inexpressible, etc.), he says "You cannot face it steadily." But, in spite of this, one thing is sure, and that's that "time is no healer." Why can't time heal us? Well, because the person who needs to be healed no longer exists, because we're constantly changing in the flow of time. That's why he says that "the patient is no longer here," because, from moment to moment, the person we once were disappears and is replaced by another person, then another.
  • The speaker uses the image of a train to once again symbolize the forward-moving, single-track way that most modern people approach their lives. We all get into a train in our own lives when we settle into our routines and focus on our personal goals.
  • When we do this, we stop thinking about others in the same way that train passengers, after a moment of grief, relax "into relief" and settle into their snacks (fruit), entertainment (periodicals), and work (business letters). The overall effect of our routine, though, is numbness, and the speaker emphasizes this by showing that the train passengers relax into "the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours."

Lines 528-535

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you,
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think "the past is finished"
Or "the future is before us.
"

  • On the one hand, we don't escape the past as we move forward on the journey of our lives. Further, we don't escape into some completely different life, or into the future, even though we're never the same person we were a few moments ago (when we left the station), and we're not the same person we'll be a few minutes in the future (when we arrive at any terminus). As we move forward, we won't be able to say that the past is finished or that the future is coming. 
  • As you might have already noticed, the speaker finds it much easier to say what the nature of life isn't ("Don't look ahead. Don't look back.") more than he can say what it is. Every time he starts to say, "Well it's kind of like this," he has to backtrack and say the opposite. It seems like the closer we get to the heart of things, the more unavoidably contradictory we get.

Lines 536-541

At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
"Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.

  • Now all of a sudden we're back to the nautical imagery. As we continue on our life's voyage (this time on a boat and out at sea), we can hear the murmuring of a shell, which if you've ever heard it is like an endless, droning hum. The message of this wordless hum is pretty much the same as the speaker just told us: we're not the same person we were a moment ago (when we saw the harbor) or the people we'll be in the future (those who will disembark). 
  • In this sense, we only "think [we] are voyaging," although whether or not we're actually getting anywhere is uncertain. After all, if we're always changing from one moment to the next, can we really say that it's "us" who will arrive somewhere in the future? Think about it (but be sure to do some brain stretches before you do—don't want to cramp up).

Lines 542-544

Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.

  • Between the moment you just left behind and the one that's approaching, says our speaker, make sure to consider both the past and the future in the same way, or "with an equal mind." There's no point in emphasizing the past with unnecessary nostalgia, or the future with unnecessary faith in progress. Just think of them both in the context of the moment you're living in right now.

Lines 545-552

At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: 'on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death'—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

  • In a moment where you aren't really acting or not acting, you can receive the great message that every single moment of your life is the moment of your death. Wha? This might sound really depressing, but what it really means is that your life is totally meaningful every second of every day because you might die at any moment. It's kind of like what people are getting at when they say to live every day like it was your last. Well, that's what the speaker is saying here. He's telling you to live every minute like it's your last. 
  • This is what he means when he writes that "the time of death is every moment." He further says that realizing this truth is the only thing that will bring goodness to the people around us. We will "not think of the fruit of action" because we won't be thinking about ourselves so much anymore. The more we pay attention to the fact that we'll die, the less inclined we'll be to do things for ourselves. 
  • With this piece of advice in our minds, the speaker tells us to "Fare forward" on our life's journey while trying to stay humble and connected to our own mortality. We're getting tons of advice here. We hope you're taking notes.

Lines 553-560

                       O voyagers, O seamen,
You who come to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination."
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
                                   Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

  • The speaker understands that all of us, like sailors, will suffer from a lot of hardship, just like "the trial and judgment of the sea." But no matter what happens, "this" is our "real destination." "This" probably refers to an experience in which we can be intimately connected to the moment (or at least realization) of our own death at every moment. 
  • Here, we also realize that we've been getting a straight quotation from the Hindu god Krishna since the single quotation mark back in line 546. The speaker has been quoting from the lesson that Krishna teaches Arjuna on the "field of battle" in Hindu Holy Scripture. What Krishna hopes to teach Arjuna in this quotation is the importance of acting without thinking about how one's actions will benefit oneself. Like Arjuna, we must all learn to act in a way that reflects our spiritual respect for death. If we do this, we will become humble, giving, and good people. 
  • At the end of Section 3 of "The Dry Salvages," the speaker is not promising us a pleasant journey, so he won't say "fare well." He'll only say, "Fare forward" as he keeps encouraging us to press onward in our spiritual education.