“I think that the river/Is a strong brown god:” river symbolism in “The Dry Salvages”

i-think-that-the-river-is-a-strong-brown-godFrom T. S. Eliot: A Study in Characters and Style, by Ronald Bush

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 recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.  
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget.  Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
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[…] by the time Eliot had finished his first draft [of “The Dry Salvages”], the sea and the river were related in one venerable figure: the river of an individual life flowing into the sea of eternity. Moreover, each half of that figure had acquired a particularly American coloring – one might even say a double wash. The river, for instance, emerges in Whitmanesque lines that recall more than Whitman.
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Steeped in the Emersonian notion that the American self is a process, the lines remind us that Whitman envisioned the river of life as an open road, and that after him Mark Twain put the river road at the center of Huckleberry Finn. That openness of self was part of Eliot’s birthright, and he would later give us a landmark description of Twain’s achievement: “The River gives the book its form….We come to understand the River by seeing it through the eyes of the Boy, but the boy is also the spirit of the River….[Huck Finn’s independence is] the independence of the vagabond…. Like Huckleberry Finn, The River itself has no beginning or end.”
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An early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of  T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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