Marina, a poem by T.S. Eliot

One of best educational experiences I ever had was a class called “Yeats and Eliot” that I took as a college sophomore. I’ve been reading and rereading his work ever since. The name of this blog, “The first gate(s)” comes from the opening of Eliot’s long poem, “The Four Quartets,” which matches the scope and depth of the work of any poet who ventures into ineffable realms.

T.S. Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1934. Public Domain

Eliot must have been quite a character.  He scandalized the early 20th century literary establishment with images like this, from the opening of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

At the same time he offended the avant garde because he worked in a bank and joined the Catholic church.  Aware of such contradictions, he was never afraid to parody himself:

“How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.”

By all accounts, he was also a joker, who served whoopee cushions and exploding cigars to dinner guests.  He and Groucho Marx were mutual fans.

***

“Marina” was one of the first Eliot poems I came to love, but I hadn’t read it for quite a while.  Ironically, it was the political conventions that brought these lines from the poem to mind:

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Death
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Death

Marina was #29 in Eliot’s series of  “Ariel Poems,” first published in September, 1930.  It was based on the Jacobean play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre.  Shakespeare is credited with the last acts of the play, the story of Pericles’ separation from, and reunion with, his daughter, Marina (most scholars believe the opening was composed by an inferior collaborator).

The play however, was simply a catalyst for poem that lives a life of its own, with haunting imagery that I think can speak to any of us, wherever we are.

Marina

By T.S. Eliot

Quis hic locus, quae regio, 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
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 insubstantial, 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
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.

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13 Responses to Marina, a poem by T.S. Eliot

  1. Rosi says:

    I’ve tried and tried to relate to Eliot, but never found that connection. My husband loves his work. I wonder if men simply relate better to his work. Although my relationship with his work could be colored by the fact that the worst professor I ever encountered in my life was a huge fan.

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    • I know poetry is deeply personal, but I’ve never heard the suggestion that it can split along gender lines for certain poets. Who knows – maybe…

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    • Shefali says:

      I have a female professor teaching me Eliot and she likes his poetry so much that I often wonder what it is that she can see in his poems that I can’t. It isn’t gender, but something else. I like Eliot but I don’t relate to him all the time. But ‘Prufrock’ poem is breathtakingly beautiful.

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      • Thanks for your question. I don’t relate to all of Eliot’s poems, but I’ve been reading “The Four Quartets” for 40 years, and I still find new things in it. I’m sure you’ve heard parts of it quoted

        “We shall not cease from exploration
        And the end of all our exploring
        Will be to arrive where we started
        And know the place for the first time.”

        I took the name of this blog from the opening stanza:

        “Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
        Round the corner. Through the first gate,
        Into our first world, shall we follow
        The deception of the thrush?”

        And perhaps my favorite passage in this or any poem:

        “For most of us, there is only the unattended
        Moment, the moment in and out of time,
        The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
        The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
        Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
        That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
        While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
        Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
        Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
        The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”

        You’re right, this stuff is beyond issues of gender. Have a look at the Four Quartets. Skip over the sometimes annoying obscurities. Look at it a little at a time and let it grow on you.

        Eliot thought this was his greatest work. Here is a recording of him reading it: http://www.openculture.com/2013/06/listen_to_ts_eliot_recite_his_late_masterpiece_the_ifour_quartetsi.html

        Enjoy!

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  2. rashmi says:

    there is no proper explanation of this poem ,if this poem is explained in detail it will be a great help

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  3. Protik Prokash Banerji says:

    Hercules Fuerentes, most say, Rashmi. Yet all poetry as Morgan said, is deeply personal. I read it as a brave but luckless, celebrated but accursed father’s love for his daughte.

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  4. richard mennen says:

    Since the poem references Pericles and his daughter Marina in Shakespeare’s play Pericles, Prince of Tyre, the meaning of the poem should, depending, of course, in your preference for how to read poems, begin with the play which is complex in itself. Briefly, Pericles at the end of the play is reunited with his daughter who had died at childbirth and was buried a sea. Pericles travels the ancient world by boat distraught to point of forsaking even talking to anyone. At the end of the play the ruler of Mytilene sails to the boat, comes aboard, and seeing Pericles and hearing of his state suggest bringing to him an extraordinary woman, a maid, who may by her presence and speech save Pericles from his despair. Of course that woman is Marina, whom Pericles discovers in a very touching discovery scene is not dead but is reborn to him. The whole story is wrapped in the symbology of the sea, and water (Marina is her name), and a mystical notion of rebirth. In Elliot’s poem there is also the power of memory as a restorative agent. Elliot was deeply involved in mysticism, and this is yet another perspective from which to see his poem.

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    • Thanks for you thoughtful and detailed comment.

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    • In another way, the poem exists on its own, independent of its inspiration in the play. Several passages in this early poem strike themes Elliot explored in depth in his final poetic, magnum opus, “The Four Quartets.” I think the most obvious example may be:

      From Marina –
      Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
      Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

      From “Burnt Norton,” the first of The Four Quartets –
      Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
      Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
      Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
      Cannot bear very much reality.

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  5. Kev says:

    You can’t beat a bit of Eliot…nice article, beautifully done. :)

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