The third of the Four Quartets, “The Dry Salvages,” uses water and the ocean as metaphors throughout the poem. The ocean symbolizes the collective unconscious, where our individual consciousnesses can either drift aimlessly, or merge and become part of the Universal Mind.
Eliot begins the poem by establishing a connection between water and the divine consciousness, or god. God is represented by a river, implying that a connection with god provides a pathway for our consciousnesses to flow into and merge with the collective unconscious. Unfortunately, we have allowed our obsession with science and technology to interfere with our ability to connect with the “river god.”
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 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.
Eliot then makes the connection between our consciousness and the collective. In keeping with Eastern mystical traditions, it is described as being with us and at the same time around us. It is what connects us to the world around us, as well as to all creation.
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:
(Lines 15 – 18)
In the second section of the poem, humans are depicted as lost and adrift in the sea of consciousness. Our psyches have become fragmented and we are like the wreckage of ships tossed aimlessly, instead of voyagers navigating the realm of the divine consciousness.
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,
(Lines 79 – 82)
Later in the poem, Eliot attempts to describe the connection between the individual and the collective consciousnesses, but admits that it is something beyond verbal expression.
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:
(Lines 96 – 100)
For me, the final stanza, which comprises the entire fifth section, is the most fascinating. Here, Eliot describes our interest in the mystical arts as an attempt to guide us through the turbulent sea of consciousness.
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; release 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;
(Lines 184 – 194)
While I personally do not think this poem is as great as the first two in the book, it is still a very good poem and worth taking the time to read. There is quite a bit more in there that I didn’t cover but could certainly be explored, such as the metaphor of the train symbolizing our movement from past to future, as well as some interesting allusions to Christian and Eastern mysticism. Again, it’s definitely worth reading.
Look for Part 4—“Little Gidding”—soon.