Quis hic locus,quae regio,quaemundi 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 Death Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning Death Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning Death Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning Death
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 waters meet. Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat, I made this, I have forgotten And remember. 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 My daughter.
On first reading you might be disconcerted by this poem. What does the Latin epigraph mean? How does it relate to the poem? What is the story behind the poem? Why the different movements which might seem disconnected from each other? Why has it been chosen to explore the theme of Resurrection?
Yet it is a poem worth persisting with. It is worth reading time and again until a meaning begins to emerge for you.
Let’s do some spade work first.
THE LATIN INSCRIPTION.
This is from a play by Seneca the Roman dramatist. . The Lines read “What face is this, what land what quarter of the globe.” Eliot transfers these lines to suggest Pericles.
HOW DOES “PERICLES” RELATE TO THE POEM?
” Pericles” is a late Shakespeare play. Without going into too many details of the plot Pericles is separated from his daughter in her early childhood, her mother having been shipwrecked and apparently drowned. The daughter Marina marked by her her purity and devout nature experiences mixed fortunes which lead to her separation from her guardians who give out that she has died. In a vision Pericles is shown his daughter’s death has been faked by her supposed benefactors so he sets out to sea to rediscover the daughter lost as a child.
The poem is one of restoration, of daughter to father, but also of rediscovery of a sense of meaning after a long period of turmoil. Not only this, there is a link with the idea of resurrection: the daughter who was thought dead has been discovered alive.
The theme chosen reflects the state of mind of a poet who has been living through a distressing marriage in which his wife has had a series of nervous breakdowns and has become a committed Christian.
The poet is in a new place spiritually. How is that to be conveyed? What is its meaning? How can it be expressed in language that is not just personal and confessional but meaningful for others. The poet seeks an analogy -a fisherman at sea discovers an island hitherto unknown. A relationship of tenderness is invoked-involving restoration or rediscovery. “What seas what shores… O my daughter”
In the voyager’s past is a world that has crowded his consciousness. It is a world associated with false meanings and death. The poet could designate it a world in which aggression and vanity and self-satisfaction and uncontrolled passion create a network of corruption but he makes it vivid by finding a correlative image for each evil to express the state of each as with, say, aggression. “Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog meaning / Death”. The placing of Death repeated through the stanza conveys a knell -like sound. In the face of the presence of death the resort to various srategies of escape are exposed to nullity.
Given the idea of restoration and renewed life after turmoil we can now see something of the poem’s development. First there is the sailor trying to identify where he has come to and connecting this place with the rediscovery of his daughter.
Then there is a sense of an escape from the world from which he has emerged which, has imprisoned him in a world of death, without spiritual meaning.
The displacement of this world of death is through the grace associated with the rediscovery of what was lost. It is the use of the word “grace”(a God-given acceptance) that establishes the Christian dimension. The grace is, however, also reflected in the natural imagery of “place” The natural aspects of “a wind, a breath of pine and the woodsong fog” are sufficient to dispel the unreality of the social world. of the previous stanza. We note with “fog”, however, while having the attraction of birdsong, even place does not yet have its clarity. The sound captured by the “woodsong fog” is a heralding of what cannot be clearly seen.
This wonderfully leads to the sense of the transcendent captured in the restoration of the daughter: “what is this face less clearer and clearer…more distant than stars and nearer than the eye”. The face that is before him is the expression of a providential goodness from beyond.
For the father the reconnection with the daughter is more than that; it is resurrection: she who was dead in his mind is now alive. For the reader, certainly the Christian reader there is the clear implication of the risen Christ with the varying New Testament stories of the nature of the reality he presents as being both physical and spiritual. A memory of past innocence is associated with this sense of the transcendent. Past and present near and far, physical and transcendent are brought together in unity here “where all waters meet”.
And also the future. Future purpose and activity is now made meaningful. The old boat, the old form, the body of the old life is there to be restored to new life. Hence there is the imagery of the boat needing renewal and preparation for what is to come. The future in some ways is the daughter and the promise of the new relationship with her and this is tied up with spiritual desire :
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
The reversion, the echoing return to the opening that completes the poem has behind it the reinforcing presence of the wonder the experience has brought.
The preparation of the boat for new journeys can be seen as acting as a metaphor for Eliot’s poem. In it he can be seen as adapting his poetry to a new expression : “Let me resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken”. Out of his spiritual travail ( see, for instance, a poems of meaninglessness like The Hollow Men) Eliot has experienced spiritual renewal which enables him to direct his poetry to something hitherto unattainable: – a renewed speech heralding hope : “The awakened..the new ships”. In doing so he has drawn on the tradition ( Latin poetry, Shakespeare) to extend what is possible in poetic speech, consciously welcoming the new in what had hitherto been for him a time of disintegration reflected in his earlier poetry of the “Wasteland”.
It has the potential to be for us a poem that inspires us on a like journey of renewal.