I would suggest that the word "cargo" suggests an animation and intention that the river does not have. The word cargo referring to something being taken down a river would always suggest someone's purposeful moving of something for a predetermined reason (not necessarily for economic value or trade; most definitions of the word suggest only something being transported). No such purpose or motivation can be assigned to a river, since an inanimate river has no purpose. So we have two things going on at the same time:
1. An irony that these two things can go together -- a river with no ill intentions, just a river, perhaps even a beautiful river, but one with a "cargo" of tragedies. The river is the unwitting bearer of things ill done, and done to others' harm.
2. A reflection back on humanity. It is a literary device often appealed to, that of putting the "responsibility" for evil in the hands of nature. The realists and naturalists often did this, to different purposes. But often what was happening is that by having nature carry out the dirty work, the writer could be pointing an accusatory finger at humans who were doing similar dirty work, while still keeping the subtlety of indirection.
I believe the context of this individual poem and section in this poem give credence to both of these meanings. If you see the poem (and not just the word "cargo") saying something economically, could you share it? Of course, if it was just meant to be a joke, you can ignore that question.
>>> [log in to unmask] 07/08/04 02:54AM >>>
Cargo suggests trade, economic value of some kind.
Of what economic value would dead black people be?
Bounty hunting perhaps?
From: Debra San [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Wednesday, June 30, 2004 3:16 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: cargo
Carrol suggested that I talk about my original post. By coincidence
(I guess), it was prompted by something he had said:
>But the cargo of "dead negroes" is offensive. One wonders about the
>process by which _any_ corpse, black or white, ends up floating down
The process, it seemed to me, was explained by the economics of the
slave trade, which was information that Eliot's poem had not provided
because it _is_ a poem and not a history textbook. At this point you
can imagine the little lightbulb that went on over my head. Or maybe
it was three lightbulbs:
(1) If "a cargo of dead (N)(n)egroes" had appeared in a textbook's
discussion of the slave trade, would it not be evident that the
offensiveness comes from the facts of history and not from Eliot
alluding to those facts?
(2) Didn't Eliot's own language -- "the torment of others," "the
agony abides" -- demonstrate better than any commentary I might write
the grief that motivated the image in his poem?
(3) Wouldn't putting the two together -- the historical information
and the language Eliot used -- be a helpful device for approaching
some of the complexities of his poem, in particular its meditations
on how time affects perceptions of and responses to suffering?
I specified 1941, the year that "The Dry Salvages" was first
published, because to contemporary ears the word "Negro" or "negro"
is prejudicial -- it sounds only one notch above the slur known as
"the N word."
re: Carrol's new post
>Any construal of the line certainly has to give some explanation of the
>collocation of negroes (or Negroes), chicken coops, and cows.
To group dead people, chicken coops, and cows is to create a
startling, even shocking, image. It practically jumps off the page.
Whatever the image is saying, it's not whispering or implying; it's
shouting. But what is it shouting? Maybe a proclamation of Eliot's
hidden racist self: "These (N)(n)egroes, these so-called humans, are
really no better than animals! What I said about the agony of
others, forget that sentimental crap! What I want to do is
contribute to that agony with this demeaning and dehumanizing
collocation." Well, that's one possibility. But maybe something
else is going on. Maybe instead of making mincemeat of the poem's
philosophical points, the image enacts them by shouting: "The agony
of others is not an abstraction! I'm talking about demeaning and
dehumanizing reality, the reality of (N)(n)egroes tossed overboard,
being treated like animals! Like animals! Get the picture?" So
that's another possibility. There are no doubt more.
To Will: Thank you. I'm sure we'll do fine.