Study Guide

Four Quartets The Dry Salvages, Section 5

By Eliot, T.S.

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The Dry Salvages, Section 5

Lines 576-581

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers;

  • The speaker opens Section 5 with a long list of superstitious, occult-type stuff, such as communicating with Mars, the Roman god of war, conversing with the dead, telling the future (which is what "haruspicate" means), and palm reading. It's not clear where he's going with this list just yet, so we'll wait and see what he comes up with in the following lines.

Lines 581-587

release the omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

  • The speaker makes it all the way through his list of superstitions and ways of telling the "inevitable" future as though it's already happened. He suggests that many of these superstitions come from "pre-conscious terrors" that we might not fully understand.
  • So what's a pre-conscious terror? Well, it's basically a deep-seated fear of things that we have trouble making sense of in rational or "conscious" terms, like what happens before we're born (the womb), after we die (the tomb), or even what our dreams mean. 
  • The speaker says that everything he's just listed are "usual / Pastimes and drugs," basically saying that we use these superstitions to literally pass the time and to numb ourselves to the emptiness of daily life.

Lines 588-592

And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.
Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension.

  • The speaker adds that superstition and trying to predict the future will always be a feature of human life, especially when times aren't looking so good for cultures or nations as a whole. Here, he's almost definitely talking about what was happening in World War Two at the time when he was writing this poem, where the shores of Asia were being overrun by the Japanese army and "Edgware Road" (a major road in London) was getting really heavily shelled. The speaker draws these places together under their common experience of destruction, and suggests that it's natural for people to respond to these situations by superstitiously trying to connect the present with the past and future.

Line 592-597

But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

  • We might try to connect our own lives to some larger and more permanent principle, but the speaker realizes that this is a very difficult thing to do. He knows that "to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time, is an occupation for the saint," and not for the regular Joe. 
  • Further, he goes back on his use of the word "occupation," as though it were a job, and says that grasping the point where time meets the timeless means living your life on a totally spiritual level and showing constant "selflessness and self-surrender." Also, it's seeing the connection between death and love, and knowing that our mortality is the only thing that makes us capable of love, since it makes us do the most with the little time we have on Earth.

Lines 598-604

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

  • Most of us, the speaker admits, aren't saints. We can't just live our lives at every moment thinking about our spirits or a higher power. For most of us, we only catch the intersection of time and the timeless in isolated moments, like in a sudden "fit," or when we look out at nature and see the "winter lightning." Sometimes, we even manage to hear music "so deeply / That it is not heard at all." But in this case, says the speaker, we are the music "while the music lasts." 
  • It's tough to figure out how we could be music, but the speaker here might be reminding us that we participate in the rhythms of the natural world simply by being alive. In this instance, he's probably referring back to the "rhythms" of the river-god that he talks about at the very beginning of "Dry Salvages."

Lines 604-614

These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—

  • The speaker admits that his observations in this section (or maybe in all of the "Four Quartets") are just "hints and guesses" at some sort of spiritual truth. The rest, he says, is all the usual stuff you might think of, like "prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action." 
  • Throughout this poem, the speaker has been talking about the impossibility of overcoming life's contradictions. But here, he suggests that "the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual." In other words, he believes in the spiritual place where the distance between past and future is "conquered, and reconciled." Here, the principles of action and movement are totally combined with "that which is only moved / And has in it no source of movement." As the speaker has suggested throughout "Four Quartets," it is almost impossible to convey a sense of this religious experience directly, because our language will always sound contradictory. Nonetheless, he forges ahead in trying to talk about it.

Lines 615-621

Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freed
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;

  • This force that the speaker is talking about is something driven by "daemonic, chthonic / Powers," meaning that it's something that springs from the Earth itself ("chthonic"), or from nature. In this place in the poem, our actions exist in a sort of constant present moment, freed from all the baggage of the past and our anxious thoughts about the future. 
  • For most of us, this is the goal we'll never reach. But we're never totally defeated if we go on "trying." This is sort of like the speaker's big pump-up part of his speech. Just imagine that you're in a football locker room at halftime, and he's your coach.
  • With the speaker, it might be a little weird to picture, but his message is pretty coach-y. You can't ever lose if you keep trying, gang.

Lines 622-625

We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.

  • The speaker ends "The Dry Salvages" on a note of idealism, more or less suggesting that we have the power to nourish for ourselves "a life of significant soil." You'll never near anything about significant soil in "The Waste Land," where the totally barren soil is a metaphor for the impossibility of restoring our spiritual lives. Here, by contrast, significant soil promises us hope for the future. 
  • That said, this life of significant soil is "Not too far from the yew-tree," which we need to remember is actually the tree of death in most European cultures. Throughout "Four Quartets," the speaker has been talking about how becoming more connected to the idea of our own death can help us become humble and more spiritual. Well here, he uses the image of the yew-tree to remind us that, when we start creating a new spiritual life for ourselves from the soil of spirituality, we have to do this while keeping the yew-tree (or thoughts of death) nearby.

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