St. Louis has always had a love-hate relationship with the Mississippi River. The city depends on the river for its very existence. Yet we cursed the river for giving us too little water last fall and we now curse it for giving us too much. As is the case with so many of life’s mysteries, we need to look to poetry for insights into our complicated relationship with our river.
Seventy years ago, St. Louis native T. S. Eliot wrote The Dry Salvages, which opens with the lines:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable.
We know that Eliot was writing about the Mississippi because he says several lines later:
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom.
Eliot’s childhood home was on Locust Street just west of downtown. The rhythm that was present in his nursery bedroom had to be that of the Mississippi.
T. S. Eliot moved away from St. Louis over a hundred years ago, but his description of the Mississippi is still apt. He said the river was:
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce.
The river still is useful, but untrustworthy as a conveyor of commerce. A few months ago barge traffic on the Mississippi was threatened because of low water levels. Now the problem is high water levels and flooding.
Eliot wrote that the river was:
A problem confronting the builder of bridges.
It’s still a problem for builders of bridges. Lives were lost in the construction of Eads Bridge before Eliot was born, and in the construction of the newest bridge just north of downtown that is still unfinished and unnamed.
Eliot went on to write:
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.
These words still describe our relationship with our river. We forget and ignore our brown god until his seasons and rages disrupt our complacency, whether by withholding his scarce water and forcing us to choose between barge traffic on the Mississippi and water skiing on man-made lakes in South Dakota; or by destroying our levees and reclaiming his floodplain into which we worshippers of machines have expanded our cities. Sometimes our brown god forces us to destroy our own levees in order to save our cities, as was done in the case of New Orleans in 1927 and Cairo, Illinois in 2011.
St. Louis is blessed in many ways. We are fortunate have the abundance of water provided by the Mississippi. We are also fortunate to be the home of a poet whose genius helps us comprehend the nature of our strong brown god. As T. S. Eliot wrote so succinctly,
The river is within us.