“Quai de la Tournelle” by John Dos Passos is a four stanza, three-section, free verse poem that describes how sights, sounds, and smells bring forth memories of past experiences. The poem has a great number of alliterations, repetition of similar sounds in words, that added to the flow of the poem. As well as imitating the sound of the river itself.
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The poem begins with the narrator looking out at the Seine River and describing the conflict he feels as it “swirl[s] away.” He describes it as being both “dark” and as “Laughing,” setting up the backdrop for the tumult of emotions that he will expound on.
In an attempt to escape from the powerful emotions that hearing and seeing the river unearth, the speaker flees into his home. Bolting the door behind him, he ascends to his room where he hopes to find silence. Instead, an open window lets the sounds of the river into his room.
It is at this point in the poem that the reader will come to understand that the narrator has lost a love of the utmost importance to him. He feels this loss intensely and is further reminded of it on the bank of the river. Additionally, as he looks below him to the street, it seems as if every passerby is in possession of a lilac flower (symbolizing love and youthful innocence, two things he has lost). The smell of the flowers has a similar impact on the speaker as the sound of the river.
The poem concludes with the narrator relating his loss of love to the formation and dissipation of the smell of flowers and the rapidly running river.
You can read the full poem Quai de la Tournelle here.
Analysis of Quai de la Tournelle
In the dark the river spins,
Laughs and ripples never ceasing,
As it flies it calls with it
Through the meadows to the sea.
The first stanza of this poem introduces its main character, the Seine river. The river is immediately described as “dark,” spinning and full of unceasing “Laugh[ter].” These personified attributes given to the river allow the reader to experience the setting emotionally. The speaker of the piece is observing the river from the Quai de la Tournelle, a section on the bank near the Notre Dame Cathedral.
The speaker alternates between admiring the “ripples” of the river and bemoaning its darkness and haste. Additionally, the Seine is noisy as it ruses “under arches” and “past the hows of barges.” In this context, “howe” is referring to the depression made in water by the weight of a passing barge. The water is undeterred by any obstacle, strongly racing with “snaky silver glitter.” It is reflective in the sun, giving a magical quality that “calls” to the speaker. He imagines it’s path from “the meadows to the sea,” and is amazed and distressed by its speed.
I close the door on it, draw the bolts,
Madness of the spring at sea
The speaker, in an effort to escape from the emotions brought to mind by the sights and sounds of the Seine, retreats into his home. He is careful to close and “draw the bolts” on his door, and ascends to his “silent room.” It is there he hopes he will be able to find some peace, but it is not to be.
The window in his room “swings open” and once more his ears are filled with the sounds of the Seine. It comes to him again like a “shuttle-song” that brings, “love and night and madness.” The river is a place of conflict for the speaker. He relates it both positively and negatively as it is intimately connected with a love he once had and is now lost.
The streets are full of lilacs.
Lilacs in boys’ buttonholes,
Arms full of lilcas, people trail behind them through
And lavished vermilion kisses
Under the portent of the swaying plumes
Of the funeral lilacs
The third stanza, and the second section, of this poem, makes clear to the reader that this speaker is hoping to forget about, but is constantly reminded of, a relationship he was once a part of.
He looks down at the street below his window and sees that it is full of “lilacs.” Lilac flowers are often considered symbols of love and youthful innocence, two things lost to the narrator. He sees that everyone is in possession of a flower and that “people trail” the fragrance of the flowers behind them as they walk. The fragrance is to the speaker, the smell of lovers taking long walks through hedgerows in May. Everywhere he turns he sees reminders of his past. There is no way to forget what he has lost.
The streets are full of lilcas
In the fleeting ripples of the jad-green-river
The final stanza concludes the poem and brings the reader back to the river. Passos is able to define why this speaker is so connected to the river as well as why it is such a poignant reminder of love lost.
Once more he reiterates that the “streets are full of lilacs.” Everyone below him, it seems to the narrator, is experiencing the love that should be his. The smell of the flowers is ephemeral. It is short-lived and it quickly “form[s] and fade[s].” So too does the narrator understand the river. Just as he had love, then lost it, so too do the ripples in the “jade-green river” appear and then disappear.
About John Dos Passos
John Dos Passos was born in born in Chicago in 1896. He attended Harvard and after receiving his BA, volunteered to serve in the US Army as an ambulance driver during World War I.
After the end of the war, he traveled throughout Europe taking jobs as a newspaper correspondent and further informing his progressive social beliefs. Throughout his life, he published over forty books many of which deal with political themes. His most well-known works are those contained within his USA trilogy. His only collection of published poetry, A Push Cart at the Curb, was released in 1922 and many of the poems appeared in popular magazines. John Dos Passos died in 1970.