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 Anglican 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
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning

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.


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
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

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.

40 thoughts on “Marina, a poem by T.S. Eliot

  1. 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.


      • I’m sure some poetry has more fans in one gender than the other. The blind dislike for Emily Dickinson that a British Council teacher I knew exhibited was half sexism. But there could be a million examples. Take “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s a very accessible poem for Eliot, but it has to appeal to men more than women because the insecurity it treats is much more a male experience. In “Marina,” when we think of the context in Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” some of Pericles’s private thoughts on mistaking his daughter for his young wife would be incestuous if pursued, I think. And that would be a male kind of illicit feeling, wouldn’t it?


      • I like this poem by Eliot. I liked it always as a mother who didn’t manage to have daughters, I kept giving birth to sons even though I had dreamed of my tiny, fierce daughter. I know that is not at all what Eliot meant but poetry is more multiple entry than prose. I also like what to me reads as a deep critique of neoliberalism although I know that is anachronistic for Eliot. There’s a lot in this poem for me without having to read it through a patriarchal lens.

        It probably reassures me that Eliot himself (this is what they told us at uni) liked people messing with his poetry and getting whatever they could out of it.


      • Great point – meanings of art definitely change over time as people’s experience and imaginations change. I think Van Gogh sold only a few canvases to his brother during his lifetime. And anyone who could write “How Unpleasant to Meet Mr. Eliot” would probably loved to sit down with you and discuss the meanings you find in Marina. Thanks!


    • 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.


      • 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:


        Liked by 1 person

    • I’m female and I love his work, always instantly react to it emotionally and physically, even if much of the understanding only comes years later!


      • I still delve into The Four Quartets after decades. Some people appreciate Eliot and others do not, but it’s never struck me that it divides along gender lines:

        I sometimes wonder if this is what Krishna meant-
        Among other things-or one way of putting the same thing:
        That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
        Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
        Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.

        The closest thing I can think of or passages like that is Rumi, and yes, the meaning I take from it forever changes and deepens. Thanks for your comment!
        or another way of saying the same thing.
        That the future is a royal rose,


  2. 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.


  3. 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.


    • 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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  8. Wonderfully evocative poem. Thank you. Though my favourite Ariel poem is not this one but Journey of the Magi. I’d like to make a small correction, if I may. You wrote that Eliot worked in a bank and joined the Catholic church. After working as a school teacher, he did work for Lloyds Bank, but he did not join the Roman Catholic church. He converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican church (although admittedly he sympathized with the High Church movement, a.k.a. Anglo-Catholicism, within the Anglican church).


    • I met a gentleman in Tokyo, an Englishman, a couple years ago, who described himself as an Anglo-Catholic. I assumed that this was just a way of suggesting that he was a conservative Anglican. He gently insisted that he and other Anglo-Catholics regard themselves as Catholic rather than Protestant, just not under the rule of the pope. Since I’m nothing, this isn’t a matter of urgency for me, though.


  9. Picking up on the “Burnt Norton” and “Marina” image of “the leaves were full of children,” I thought to mention Eliot’s poem “New Hampshire” in the Landscape series (published originally as part of “Words for Music” in 1934–Burnt Norton was started in 1935). Helen Gardner suggests the children’s voices in New Hampshire as well as the rest of Landscapes contains a kernel of Burnt Norton and the Four Quartets.


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  12. Reading this page is like looking into a mirror.
    I also took a “Yeats and Eliot” course.
    I attended the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
    And I have read and re-read Yeats and Eliot throughout my life.
    *And* Marina is also my favorite Eliot poem.
    Many thanks for your page here.


  13. It seems as though everyone forgets to simply enjoy…or not enjoy as much. So much talking…whats the point in an opinion if none is required?


    • Come on, Lynda. We discuss because it’s fun to share our likes and dislikes. You’re right, of course: if there really is nothing to discuss, then obviously there’s no point in discussing. But if someone has an opinion on something she thinks she can elucidate, then there is, after all, something to discuss.


      • I changed “or” to “on” in the phrase “on something….” Actually, looking back, “or” was what I meant. (Proofreading is dangerous.)


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