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This article is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.

'The Dry Salvages': A Reconsideration Donald Davie

IN 1956 I PUBLISHED an essay, 'T.S. Eliot: The End of an Era', which focused on The Dry Salvages. If only because this piece has attracted some attention over the years, it seems high time that I had second thoughts about it, particularly in the light of new information that has come to light in the last thirty years or more. To do this, I must first reproduce my 1956 essay, or as much of it as is immediately relevant.

My announced object, then, was to establish that The Dry Salvages 'is quite simply rather a bad poem'. My objections began with the very first lines:

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; ...

Helen Gardner, who in her Art of T.S. Eliot (1949), had cited these and subsequent lines precisely to show Eliot's masterly manipulation of language, had declared that the 'strong brown god' is 'a personification which the poet's tone makes no more than a suggestion, a piece of half-serious myth-making.' But, I objected, 'the first line has not sufficiently defined the tone (a single line hardly could) for this to be true.' I might have asked, but did not: How serious is half-serious? This would have saved me from having to navigate in the tricky waters of 'tone'. However, 'tone' was what ...

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