Helen Gardner began her career as an assistant lecturer at the University of Birmingham in 1930. She took a position at the University of London in 1931, but returned to Birmingham as a lecturer in English from 1934-41. In her book, In Defense of the Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1982), Gardner recalls receiving a packet in the mail in the spring of 1940, in the midst of the "phoney war." Inside was the Easter Number of the New English Weekly, which contained a new poem by T.S. Eliot. 'I found myself reading a poem that offered no easy comfort, but only the true comfort of hearing a voice speaking out of the darkness without cynicism and without despair.' The poem would inspire her to recommend Eliot as wartime reading during a series of public lectures that summer. The poem was "East Coker," the second of his Four Quartets, and it had been sent to Gardner by none other than Henry Reed, who had been a graduate student at the University of Birmingham from 1934-36.
I came across a small homage to Reed today, in an article Gardner wrote called "The Recent Poetry of T.S. Eliot" (New Writing and Daylight, Summer 1942). A note to her discussion of "The Dry Salvages" expresses her gratitude:
Mr. Henry Reed, to whom I am indebted for much sympathetic and illuminating criticism, and without whose encouragement this article would not have been written, has pointed out to me a passage in Herman Melville's 'Redburn,' from which some of the sea imagery of 'The Dry Salvages' may derive. The voice of Mr. Eliot's seabell is certainly very like the sound of the Liverpool bell-buoy which Redburn heard as he sailed into the Mersey.
Here is the relevant section from Melville's sea-faring novel Redburn: His First Voyage (1849), concerning the bell-buoy:
After running till about midnight, we "hove-to" near the mouth of the Mersey; and next morning, before day-break, took the first of the flood; and with a fair wind, stood into the river; which, at its mouth, is quite an arm of the sea. Presently, in the misty twilight, we passed immense buoys, and caught sight of distant objects on shore, vague and shadowy shapes, like Ossian's ghosts.Melville's "Bett" is a variant of "beat," a rhythm or measure. Compare this with Eliot's sea-bell in "The Dry Salvages" (1941):
As I stood leaning over the side, and trying to summon up some image of Liverpool, to see how the reality would answer to my conceit; and while the fog, and mist, and gray dawn were investing every thing with a mysterious interest, I was startled by the doleful, dismal sound of a great bell, whose slow intermitting tolling seemed in unison with the solemn roll of the billows. I thought I had never heard so boding a sound; a sound that seemed to speak of judgment and the resurrection, like belfry-mouthed Paul of Tarsus.
It was not in the direction of the shore; but seemed to come out of the vaults of the sea, and out of the mist and fog.
Who was dead, and what could it be?
I soon learned from my shipmates, that this was the famous Bett-Buoy, which is precisely what its name implies; and tolls fast or slow, according to the agitation of the waves. In a calm, it is dumb; in a moderate breeze, it tolls gently; but in a gale, it is an alarum like the tocsin, warning all mariners to flee. But it seemed fuller of dirges for the past, than of monitions for the future; and no one can give ear to it, without thinking of the sailors who sleep far beneath it at the bottom of the deep.
The sea howlReed's suggestion makes for a strong argument, and Gardner says in her article that "The Dry Salvages" 'marries most absolutely metaphor and idea. The sea imagery runs through it with a freedom and a power hardly equalled in Mr. Eliot's other poetry.'
And the sea yelp, are different voices
Often together heard: the whine in the rigging,
The menace and caress of wave that breaks on water,
The distant rote in the granite teeth,
And the wailing warning from the approaching headland
Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner
Rounded homewards, and the seagull:
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,