The Dry Salvages— presumably les trois sauvages— is a group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages. Groaner: a whistling buoy.”
So runs the little note at the beginning of T.S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages," third poem in his sequence Four Quartets. The note is a poem in itself, really: factual-sounding at first, nearly pedantic, a miniature lecture (on etymology, pronunciation, definition) that nonetheless deepens on every side into shivery Eliotic resonance. He could have used pages, our poet, or rages—but no, it had to be the King James-y assuages. Suffering and succor. The name of the rocks themselves: aridity, salvation. And floating out there somewhere, the hopeless, enduring, sad old groaner.
Eliot himself considered the Four Quartets his greatest work, a career-crowning effort to fuse his two religions of Christianity and Modernism; reviewing the latest volume of Eliot's letters in the magazine Standpoint, David Worsley writes of "that curious phase of mid- and late-20th century English culture when...certain portions of Four Quartets seemed to be candidates for inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer, so often did one hear them read out in church."
In the elemental scheme of the Quartets, "The Dry Salvages" speaks for Water—the water that births us, carries us, drowns us. Trapped in wartime England in 1940, Eliot found his imagination traveling back to the seascapes of his boyhood, his summers in Gloucester, Mass., his sailboat voyages between Cape Ann and Maine with his friend Harold Peters, and then beyond them, towards the wild and watery origin of everything. "The river is within us, the sea is all about us...." The poem's religiosity springs from its confrontation with wastage, shipwreck, destruction—the broken net and the bone on the beach, and the terrible anxiety of the sailor's wife. "Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage?" For Eliot, who had converted to Christianity in 1927, the end was beyond—with God.
On a stormy afternoon in late September, I visited the Dry Salvages with some friends. We formed a company, it has to said, more Edward Lear than T.S. Eliot: two Englishmen, an Episcopalian priest, and (our captain) the treasurer of the town of Ipswich. Forward we fared, outward we voyaged, from Rockport's Pigeon Cove Harbor—where the Marauder and the Amber Jean and the Anger Management rode at anchor—and into a muscular six-foot swell. The low clouds were a dull pressure above our heads. Our boat, an 18-foot Center Console Robalo, reared and wallowed dramatically; genies of nausea lurked in the sea-pockets. And there, a mile or so out, were the rocks: the Big Salvage, always visible above the water with its white crown of guano, and its smaller, more treacherously amphibious neighbors.
"I must turn my drowned pen and shaking hand to indite this story...." So wrote Anthony Thacher, relating the disaster that came upon him and his family on Aug. 11, 1635. Sailing from Ipswich to Marblehead, his ship was driven up against the rocks now known as Thacher's Island, off to the east of Rockport. Thacher saw "mine own poor children so untimely (if I may so term it without offence) before mine eyes drowned, and ready to be swallowed up and dashed to pieces against the rocks by the merciless waves, and myself ready to accompany them." On Sept., 15, 1955, records the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, an 82-ton fishing boat called the California foundered on the Dry Salvages. With his patented downbeat ecstasy, Eliot in "The Dry Salvages" summons "the menace and caress of wave that breaks on water/ The distant rote in the granite teeth,/ And the wailing warning from the approaching headland..."—lines praised for their authenticity by Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, who wrote that they would "ring a bell in any sailor's heart."
You know when you've stepped inside a poem: You feel it, you hear it, the tuning-fork hum of a superior imaginative energy. While the tension holds, everything around you has a strange and dreamlike valence. Visiting the Dry Salvages is not like that. As we lurched towards the rocks, and began to hear the smack and suck of the waves at their rough ledges, I was only, glumly, aware of a kind of age-old lumpiness in reality—a hardness, a juttingness. The roosting cormorants disapproved of us. Three seals raised their heads above the water and regarded us with empty curiosity.
These rocks were concrete, unmetaphorical, and navigationally significant. You couldn't befriend them. You didn't want to mess with them. The sea pitches you, the rocks smash you—a state of affairs never quite, in the end, to be accommodated. "You cannot face it steadily," wrote Eliot, "but this thing is sure...." The Dry Salvages give you no help. Raw material? Only for the greatest of poets.
James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.