The Dry Salvages, as the poem’s headnote explains, is a ledge of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where on vacation Eliot played as a boy and a favorite haunt returned to while at Harvard. Although Eliot did not personally coin the name The Dry Salvages, he nevertheless chose it for its evocative qualities as he had earlier chosen Burnt Norton. Dry, Eliot’s metaphor for spiritual depletion, recalls the imagery of modern life in The Wasteland, and salvage, pertaining to human wreckage, suggests the need of being salvaged. Taken together the words convey the typically ambiguous Eliot symbol, spiritual barrenness (dry) and, because of The Dry Salvages’ proximity to the sea, spiritual fullness.
Earlier I stated that Eliot associated each Quartet with one of the four elements-air, earth, water, and fire, but even if he had not, it seems a given that one of the Quartets would have been devoted to water, an image as fundamental to his poetry as stairways (“Prufrock,” The Wasteland, “Ash Wednesday”). In his earlier opus The Wasteland, water, of course, represents life and spirituality, but also “death by water” and, when polluted, the spiritual corruption of modern existence.
Apparently from his earliest days, water had left a strong impression on Eliot. Not only did he play as a child among the Dry Salvages on the Atlantic sea coast, he also romped on the beaches of the Mississippi which rushed along the west bank of St. Louis where he was raised, and it is these two great natural forces from childhood, the river and the sea, that buoy up the imagery that washes throughout the poem. The poem’s first lines undoubtedly refer to the Mississippi, “Useful, untrustworthy, . . . a conveyor of commerce,” but they also suggest the two other great rivers in Eliot’s life, London’s befouled Thames of The Wasteland and, in the phrase “strong brown god,” India’s holy Ganges of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Such critics as Nancy Gish read Eliot’s river as a destructive force only (1981, p. 108), a view inconsistent with Eliot’s typical symbolic patterning. As we have continuously seen, Eliot’s chief symbols, the rose, the circle, dancing, fire, all possess dual characteristics-time and the timeless, permanent and impermanent, sublime and profane, creative and destructive. However, words such as “implacable,” “destroyer,” “unhonored, [and] unpropitiated / By worshippers of the machine” seem initially to confirm Gish’s pessimistic view. But the river is not simply destructive; untamed and elemental, it is also the antithesis of “the dwellers in the city” who have forgotten the primal font from which all life springs.
The river, over the eons, has been crystallized by philosophers and poets into a metaphor for time, as the sequential flow of past, present, future, and unfathomable eternity, and Heraclitus’ stream that cannot be stepped into twice, that encompasses all the changes of sequential time, including Eliot’s progression of “the nursery bedroom,” “the April dooryard,” “the autumn table,” and “the winter gaslight.” “The river is within us, the sea is all about us,” Eliot informs: individuality and eternity, the one an expression of the other, the individual river a tributary of the vast encompassing sea. The river and the sea, the drop and the ocean, are simultaneously different and the same.
In Huckleberry Finn, for which Eliot once wrote an introduction, Twain makes the Mississippi River the source of eternity and natural goodness in opposition to its shores which are the sources of temporal activity and human corruption. For Eliot, all oppositions are found in the image of water itself. Containing all temporal states within it, the eternal sea is a primeval intelligence which litters the beach with “hints of earlier and other creation: / The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone.” It also tosses up the wreckage of humanity’s disparate and desperate endeavors, containing within its “many voices” the woeful sounds of time:
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,
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 watch
When time stops and time is never ending.
The bells of sea vessels toll out the moments of human life on the timeless sea, and the faithful Penelopes weave together the deceptive pasts and the futureless futures waiting for their absent Odysseuses. The time of the sea predates time (“chronometers”), and the weaving of grieving wives for absent husbands is an endless cycle that envelops both the time that does not exist (“stops”) and the time that never ends, which are the two extremes of the same thing-eternity.
Stanza II elaborates this theme of never-ending that depicts both the eternal sea of spirituality and the endless, “soundless wailing” of life in time. When will this multitude of suffering and destruction end? the poet ponders, and his initial conclusion is that “There is no end, but addition.” The aged of East Coker who spend their evenings with “the photograph album” are in The Dry Salvages full of “resentment at [their] failing powers,” and feel cast “[i]n a drifting boat with a slow leakage.” The fate of these fishermen-that is all humanity-is to sail into the futureless-future in a fog-bound ocean “littered with wastage.”
Moments of time, moments of human suffering, strung together become an endless sea of time, a sea defiled by corrupt desires and feckless action. From the vantage point of the eternal present, the sailors who sail this sea of time are “forever bailing”; their past is unreliable, “a partial fallacy,” which they misuse by accepting “superficial notions of evolution,” forgetting the value of history, “The moments of happiness . . . Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection.” The real benefit of the past, the poet says, is found in tradition, in the experiences “of many generations-not forgetting / Something that is probably quite ineffable.”
At the end of this stanza, the poem’s persona fully appreciates the dual meaning of time never-ending, realizing that “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,” that a rock in the ocean can be either a perilous hazard or a navigational marker, that time can be an endless string of miseries or a vision of eternity within time; it is a two-headed coin with the ever-changing on one side and the never-changing on the other. This is what Hugh Kenner and others have failed to properly comprehend. Kenner seems to think that in The Dry Salvages Eliot is simply an advocate for the capturing of brief time, an attainment that would have little if any practical value:
The Dry Salvages . . . is what our capacity for orderly generalization from experience can give us, not the continual apprehension of the still point but an account of how our experience would be related to such an apprehension if we could have it. (1959, p. 316)
What Kenner is missing is that Eliot is after more than just a “glimpse” into timelessness. The eternal moment for Eliot is precious not simply as a visionary experience, but because he realizes that eternity exists everywhere, everywhere that time exists, because the still point is both the center and the source of time. Therefore, it is unnecessary to go anywhere to escape time and the suffering associated with it. Eternity is time’s deepest value just as infinity is space’s deepest value. And to know eternity is to know the deepest value of one’s own life, unbounded and eternal, and to know this level is to be able to transcend the whips and scorns of time.
Kenner’s complaints, however, are not without merit. Implied rather than stated, he criticizes Eliot for offering eternity as the solution to life lived in time but without stating how this eternity is to be annexed.6 This is certainly a glaring deficiency, but we must forgive Eliot for his lack of practical solutions, for he is after all a poet and not a sage. But, unlike the Audens of the world who believe poetry has no practical effect on life (Auden, 1971), Eliot’s spiritual/poetic solutions are offered with the same kind of sincerity as Emerson’s and Matthew Arnold’s. Intellectually he understands that to avoid the destructive nature of time one should simply step out of it, and he offers history, philosophy, and religion to support his position. What he could not offer was a practical method that would actually allow his audience to experience the transcendence he espoused, a role that the Maharishi Transcendental Meditation technique has proven to fulfill for millions around the world.
In Section III the poet surmises, “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant-,” a query that directly alludes to Eliot’s chief philosophical source, the Bhagavad-Gita. This apparently random thought, however, will remain unanswered until Eliot once more examines the emptiness of past and future and the fallacy of sequential time, which he compresses into such oxymoronic images as “the future is a faded song,” and flowers “pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.” In the world of change, time cannot be arrested; it keeps slipping into something else-the future into the present, the present into the past, the past into the remote past, and the remote past into forgetfulness. In this transitory world, the demise of an event exists before it has occurred, has “faded” before it was conceived, turned into a remembrance before it has happened.
The strangeness of time is most peculiar when experienced not between a person and an object but between living beings. Because life is always in flux, precise continuity in human interaction may seem to but does not actually exist. The reason is that everyone is changing in every moment. The friends we talked to yesterday are not the same as those before us now, nor are we the same to them, and because we are different so too are our relationships, things we have said, actions we have performed, attitudes we have held. Because time is continuous in our own lives we don’t notice the changes in ourselves, nor those in friends we see frequently, but nevertheless time inexorably produces its effects.
These changes are not only psychologically and sociologically true, they are also physiologically true. In a one-year period more than 90% of the body’s cells are replaced, and within seven years the transformation is complete. Therefore, when Eliot says, “time is no healer: the patient is no longer here,” he is being both metaphorically and scientifically accurate. The next time the doctor and patient meet, a different doctor will be treating a different patient. “You are not those who saw the harbour / Receding, or those who will disembark,” he says. Existence is in a state of constant decay and renewal, and in spite of the discrepancies between what we see, between what we remember, and between what we anticipate, there is only the eternal moment, which is past, present, and future. Those tied to thinking of the temporal world as a continuum live a delusion of time from which they cannot free themselves. Eliot sympathizes with their ignorance, but in the words of the Bhagavad-Gita he pleads with them to
consider the future
And the past with equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
this is your real destination.
So [said] Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
The “moment which is not of action or inaction” is the moment of potential action, the break in time, which is silence and eternity.
Maharishi has described the gap between time, action, change, all diversity as Transcendental Consciousness lying in between the relative shores of temporality and duality, a state experienced during the practice of Transcendental Meditation® technique as the source of one’s own self.
Initiating the action to know this “moment of inaction,” Eliot says, is the one act that can “fructify in the lives of others.” How does such a personal act bring fruition in other people’s lives? Eliot doesn’t say. But, Maharishi explains how it is possible to positively affect the lives of others through a personal action. He explains that during the Transcendental Meditation program when we transcend, we raise not only our own consciousness-increase the harmony and deservability of our own lives, purify our own selves-we also raise the consciousness of others and the world in general. This is possible because the field of Transcendental Consciousness is infinitely correlated. Maharishi explains, that “When this level of infinite correlation is enlivened by individual awareness, every thought and feeling creates a thrill on all levels of collective consciousness” (1978, p. 348).
Therefore, according to Maharishi Vedic ScienceSM, because everything is correlated at the deepest level of existence, when a single individual’s awareness becomes enlivened in that Unified Field of pure consciousness, then some enlivening effect also takes place throughout the world. And when pure consciousness becomes more lively in the field of change, via the individual, Natural Law gets awakened and all of life benefits. This phenomenon is presently taking place around the world in what has come to be known as the Maharishi Effect.7 Because the Maharishi Effect (both the term and the technique) is recent, it cannot be said to exactly express Eliot’s moment of action and inaction that will “fructify in the lives of others.” However, Eliot’s explanation of fructification sounds very much like the Maharishi Effect. Eternity, beneficial to everyone, can only exist in the temporal field through the individual consciousness of one who comes to know eternity. As the number of individuals experiencing the field of eternity increases, the greater the impact the Maharishi Effect has on the world.
The moment between action and non-action is for Eliot the “real destination” of all journeys, of life itself. To reach this destination he invokes Krishna’s warning “do not think of the fruit of action.” For Eliot and many commentators on the Gita, this statement is a warning against desire, a warning not to look for success in the field of action but rather only in the field of transcendence.
In his commentary on Chapters 1-6 of the Bhagavad-Gita, the source of Eliot’s allusion, Maharish corrects all interpreters who have misunderstood Krishna’s injunction to “Live not for the fruits of action, nor attach yourself to inaction” (1967, p. 133). Maharishi explains that it is the mind’s nature to desire. Desires rise spontaneously whenever there is a lack, thus making desires the precursors to action, and hence an essential part of evolution (Maharishi, 1967, p. 51). The necessity and inescapablity of desires can be seen in the desire to be free from desires.
Maharishi notes that it would be absurd to infer “that a man has no right to the fruits of action.” It is not the fruits themselves that are undesirable, it is attachment to the fruits which binds a person to the field of time, and it is attachment that limits the kinds of actions and fruits that can be produced or even appreciated. Attachmen is bondage born of discontent. Desire, on the other hand, is the catalyst that moves one in search of contentment, but when the fruits of a particular action fall short of desire, new desires emerge and the cycle is renewed. Only when the mind is fulfilled in the bliss of Unity Consciousness is attachment dissolved. However, even in this state when one is free from their binding influence, desires remain, but instead of personal desires they have become desires to act for the universal good (1967, p. 134).
The final section of The Dry Salvages opens with a series of esoteric but inadequate ways of dealing with time: seances, astrology, handwriting analysis, palmistry, the reading of tea leaves, tarot cards, and modern psychology, each an occult or pseudo-science that attempts to arrest the past or divine the future. These superficial means of fathoming time, “curiosities” Eliot calls them, contrast with true spiritual vision:
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With Time, is an occupation for the saint-
Eliot acknowledges historically accepted saints as Krishna, Buddha, Christ, and Thomas Beckett of his Murder in the Cathedral, but also ordinary human beings who possess spiritual conviction and perseverance, qualities that distinguish them from the common lot. It is these qualities that seperate Celia, the heroine of Eliot’s The Cocktail Party-a work that shares a spiritual vision with the Four Quartets-from Edward, Lavinia, and Peter. Celia, whose everyday world “seems all a delusion,” embraces the world of the ascetic offered her by the enigmatic Reilly:
Reilly: The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.
Celia: That sounds like what I want.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t in the least know what I am doing
Or why I am doing it. There is nothing else to do:
That is the only reason.
Reilly: It is the best reason. (Eliot, 1962, pp. 364-366)
Celia deliberately relinquishes her accustomed life, possessions, and ordinary relationships in order to pursue the strenuous activities of a would-be saint. Eliot presumably believed that only a reclusive existence fraught with hardships and even the specter of danger would result in deep spirituality. This is a vision of spirituality in a society out of balance, where suffering and a withdrawal from life are perceived as virtues.
Maharishi gives an explanation of how one such society-India-lost the greatness of its culture through a similar misinterpretation:
It was the perfection of his presentation that caused Shankara’s teaching to be accepted as the core of Vedic wisdom and placed it at the centre of Indian culture. It became so inseparable from the Indian way of life that when, in course of time, this teaching lost its universal character and came to be interpreted as for the recluse order alone, the whole bases of Indian culture also began to be considered in terms of the recluse way of life, founded on renunciation and detachment.
When this detached view of life became accepted as the basis of Vedic wisdom, the wholeness of life and fulfillment was lost. This error of understanding has dominated Indian culture for centuries and has turned the principle of life upside down. Life on the basis of detachment! This is a complete distortion ofIndian philosophy. (1967, p. 15)
When a teaching loses its universal truth and general application, it can only be sustained by the most rigorous devotees of the knowledge. Such saintly figures deserve our admiration for keeping the teaching alive, but without universal appeal its effect on the world is minimal. Maharishi’s comments above explain the degeneration of the teaching of Shankara, but they could describe the disintegration of any body of spiritual knowledge. For a teaching to remain vital it must be holistic; it must bring fulfillment to everyone, not simply those few with the will and inclination to reject ordinary life.
Eliot concludes The Dry Salvages again through a set of oxymoronic images of heightened vision: “The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning / Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all.” These moments for Eliot are the deserved wealth of the saints, won through
right action [which] is freedom
>From past and future also.
For most of us, this the aim
Never here to be realized.
“For most of us . . . Never here to be realized,” Eliot says. He sees here the spiritual expectations of human beings as distressingly low, but as we have seen, this need not be the case. Maharishi realizes that to spiritually revitalize the world, spiritual fulfillment must be found not simply among monks, it must be extended to that vast majority living a worldly existence, “the householders,” and he understands that their vigorous lifestyle can actually be an asset for spiritual growth. Evolution, he explains, depends upon a balance of deep rest and dynamic activity; hence, the vitality of the householder, the non-recluse, alternated with the Transcendental Meditation technique forms an ideal combination for spiritually rejuvenating life in our time (1967, pp. 10-16).
Maharishi’s teaching also corrects another misunderstanding of spiritual growth commonly accepted and asserted here by Eliot-Buddha’s message of right action-which has actually over time become completely inverted. It is not right action that leads to spiritual freedom; it is the other way around. In Maharishi’s words, “The teaching of right action without due emphasis on the primary necessity of realization of Being [pure consciousness] is like building a wall without a foundation” (1967, p. 11). Achievement in life is dependent upon right action, right action upon clear thinking, and clear thinking upon the deepest level of silence which Maharishi refers to as the foundation of action. Permanently gaining this state of deep silence, pure consciousness, which is the source of all life and all activity, a person spontaneously performs right action in accord with the all the Laws of Nature. Thus, it is not right action that leads to enlightenment; it is enlightenment that produces right action.
After this vital discussion of action, The Dry Salvages ends equivocally. In lieu of a confident, beatific vision, Eliot leaves us with only the faint hope that all will be nourished not at but rather “Not too far from the [Buddha’s] yew-tree.” Eternity, he has established exists everywhere that time exists; however, until one actually experiences it, one can only live near not in eternity that the yew-tree symbolizes. The reason for this tepid ending is clear enough, for unlike the self-contained Burnt Norton, The Dry Salvages functions like East Coker in the overall structure of the Four Quartets. It is an intermediary state, a stage on the path rather than the journey’s final destination; thus, Eliot’s most expanded spiritual vision is left for the Quartet that is to complete his holy and holistic circle: Little Gidding.