T. S. Eliot's "Marina"
I have a confession.
When I sit down to read a poem – a really, really great poem, such as one by Browning or Tennyson or Arnold – I approach it knowing full well I will, in all likelihood, not understand it.
At least not at first.
However, there are those poems that grip me, draw me in. I can’t quite grasp the full meaning of it, but I love the rolling cadences, the way the words feel off my tongue. The words, both the words themselves and how they have been used, how they play off each other, capture my interest. The mood has been set. The spell has been cast. I read the poem, again, and again, and then I put it up on my shelf in one of the lovely, old-fashioned tomes I have come to treasure and delight in exploring.
Over days, weeks, months – and, in at least one case, years – I return to it. Not necessarily regularly; life happens, I forget about the morsel of language, and sometimes, I am overcome by its perplexity and leave it there in spite. But eventually, its time will come. I will, at some unknown, rapturous moment, pick up that book, turn to that page, read those words that have become so familiar to me.
And they will make sense.
I’m not sure what it is that draws me to some poems. Sometimes, the poem doesn’t necessarily draw me in, it just presents me with a challenge that I desire to untangle from its shroud. Other times, I grasp just enough of its message that I just have to figure out what the rest means. Regardless, these are often the poems I return to again and again, delighted by the fact that no matter how many times I can pour over it, a new meaning, a different perspective, an extra proverb can be gleaned. Perhaps it can be read from an entirely different perspective that gives it a whole new life. Or perhaps there was just that one line that suddenly jumps out as the key to another world the poem has to offer.
Marina, by T. S. Eliot, is one of those poems. I read it a couple years ago, enchanted by the words, intrigued by the images. I read it a few times, laid the book on my nightstand, and promptly forgot about it for months. Last summer I picked it up again with new eyes, and its meaning jumped out at me. T. S. Eliot began his career as a modernist with the very worldly images found in The Wasteland, but became a Christian at some point and ended up with the very religious Four Quartets. I suspected that he had converted by the time he wrote Marina; a little research revealed that is indeed the case.
Everyone approaches this poem differently, and I have heard other interpretations of it. So I’m going to let you read it, but if you wish to read my impressions afterwards, realize that they are just that – my own. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you’d wish to discuss it. There are still some lines that are murky to me, and I don’t regret that – they’ll likely shine brightly in future readings of the poem. Without further ado, here is Marina.
(The opening line is Latin, and translates to, I am told, “What place is this, what region, what area of the world?)
Quis hic locus, quae region, quae mundi plaga?
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the humming-bird, meaning
Those who sit in the stye of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Are become unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place
What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger –
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.
Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
Okay, here we go.
The first stanza sets the scenery. We enter a marina, an small space of sea water, surrounded by rocky grey shores, little islands just off the shore, pine trees, singing birds, and fog. I sort of imagine a place like this one:
With fog and woodthrush voices added, of course.
Then the poem describes four different types of people, each one “meaning/Death” : “Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog” (violent people), “Those who glitter with the glory of the humming-bird” (people who seek fame and admirations from others), “Those who sit in the stye of contentment” (people with a false sense of security, or perhaps people who are content because they trust in their own strength), and “Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals” (people whose happiness relies on the lust of the flesh).
What happens to these people? They are “reduced by a wind,” by the pine and song and fog of the place Eliot has described. Why? What is so special about this place?
“By this grace dissolved in place”
Ah. The place is saturated with divine influence. The presence of Someone great and worthy of worship is obvious in the atmosphere, in the beauty of the scenery. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of the same idea in her own way in Aurora Leigh:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees it takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
In other words, all creation shouts testimony to its Creator (Romans 1:20), but only some people realize this; the rest take advantage of what God has given us through his creation and ignore the One to whom they should be eternally grateful.
So to sum up so far, Eliot is saying that the worldly pursuits of all the people he described above are on one road: towards death. At the same time, their pursuits are revealed to be fruitless by the place itself, which speaks of the divine: for it is saturated with grace, and grace alone can rescue them from hollow endeavors.
The next stanza (beginning, “What is this face”) brings in a new dimension of interest. The paradoxes heighten its intrigue. The narrator is coming face to face with One who is “more distant than stars and nearer than the eye” – perhaps – could it be – that this Person is close enough to knock at the door of his heart, but far away because of the distance that sin puts between God and man?
We soon learn something about the ship that the narrator of the poem is in. The ship has a cracked bowsprit, cracked paint, a leaking garboard strake, and seams in need of caulking. For my non-nautical friends, the bowsprit is the protruding part the front part of a ship (think of a pirate ship, which has a long stick coming out from it). The garboard strakes are the lower layer of planks in the ship – if they are leaking, water is coming in! Caulking is the seal between the seams of the ship’s planks.
In other words, the narrator is observing this marina on a ship that is falling apart. Why?
“I made this, I have forgotten
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.”
The ship is in a bad condition because the narrator made it that way. The ship is a result of his actions.
What is the result? There is a new life, a new form, in the narrator’s life, which is for a new life beyond. The key is “the new ships.” The old ship, that the narrator made, only to fall apart? It’s gone. He is given a new one, and one may presume, with new actions to accompany it. He is ready to face life with a new purpose and God to serve.
The conclusion then zooms back out to the rocky shores and woodthrushes (a very handsome little bird, I might add).
In summary, the poem is about a conversion. It traces a realization of the futilities of worldly treasures, and a realization that all creation abounds with God’s invisible attributes as “grace dissolved in place.” When he faces that strange face, that pulse in the arm that promises new life, who seems so far and so close at the same time, he surrenders. He allows his Savior to enter into his life, give him a new purpose, and replace the ship made by the narrator’s past with a new one made by God’s grace.