T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker” relies more explicitly on personal references than his earlier work. It is as if the mask has fallen. The poet is humbler and more vulnerable. The poem expands his meditation into a wider consideration of time and eternity, destiny and desire.
In the introduction to this five part series I proposed that there were three elements of Eliot’s poetry that were necessary to best understand Four Quartets: his biography, his spirituality, and his poetic technique.
Eliot’s late masterpiece relies more explicitly on personal references than his earlier work. It is as if the mask has fallen. The poet is humbler and more vulnerable. The artifice, alter egos, and alternative voices have evaporated and we are at last in touch with the poet’s true voice.
The person we discover beneath the world famous Nobel prize winning poet is a contemplative—a man of prayer who is deeply rooted in the mystical traditions of Christianity. These final poems also display the ultimate mastery of Eliot’s poetic technique. The voice is mature and strong, the sometimes bizarre and ephemeral style serves a humbler purpose and theme. The abstruse and abstract has become clear and direct.
Nevertheless, some readers still find the poems opaque. A small amount of effort to understand these three elements should, however, bring some illumination.
In “East Coker” Eliot’s biography, his prayer life, and poetic technique interact in an especially powerful way. The background for the poem’s composition is crucial for a wider perception of “East Coker” and the whole of the Quartets. Eliot had salvaged scraps of poetry from his work on Murder in the Cathedral and incorporated them into “Burnt Norton.” He would do the same as he began work on “East Coker.“
In 1939, with Britain about to plunge into war, Eliot was wondering if he would write poetry again. He had visited the village of East Coker in 1937, and using fragments of phraseology and ideas from “Burnt Norton” he began another poem in the same style and pattern. Only after the success of “East Coker” did he conceive the whole plan of four poems. “East Coker” therefore builds on the success of “Burnt Norton” and consolidates the genius and style of the first poem.
Eliot’s poetic technique is the first of the three aspects to consider therefore. In the first two essays I explained Eliot’s debt to the French symbolist poets and their use of images that are disturbing, bewildering, and emotionally evocative. Eliot uses this technique again in “East Coker.” What on earth does “comets weep and Leonids fly” mean? What is “a grimpen where there is no secure foothold”? “Grimpen” is not in the dictionary. Yes, you may track down a hint from a Sherlock Holmes story, but it doesn’t matter. You may not know the definition, but with the following line, “menaced by monsters,” you feel the emotion.
That was the idea. The emotion lies beneath the meaning. It is chthonic—sub-linguistic. The emotions rumble in the depths—where the wild things are. They are the underground—the tumultuous deep.
Eliot once commented, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” Another favorite technique is allusion and quotation. The voices of great minds echo throughout Eliot’s poetry. It is not only the great poets, but also historical figures, Eliot’s ancestors, political writers, saints, and spiritual authorities as well as scraps of overheard conversation, snatches of popular songs, evocative catchphrases, slang, and slogans.
A quotation opens the door to a whole separate scene. It evokes the conversation and the cultural setting. An allusion connects the readers with the whole life, thought, and writings of a particular thinker. It enriches the experience of the poem by giving it depth and rooting it in the context of a greater culture, and lodging it within a broader sweep of history, theology, and philosophy. “East Coker” is rich in these allusions. The poem opens with one. “In my beginning is my end” is an inversion of the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots, “In my end is my beginning.”
Eliot goes on through the poem to quote from the writings of a distant ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot, alludes to Dante, the book of Ecclesiastes, St John of the Cross, echoes Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Browne, and William Blake.
The poem is grounded in Eliot’s biography not only in the fact that he visited the Somerset village of East Coker, but why he visited. East Coker was the village from which his ancestor Andrew Eliot had emigrated to the New World in 1669.
The village is set amongst the rolling hills of Somerset, just a few miles from the market town of Yeovil. Somewhat separated from the village itself is the fifteenth-century manor house next to a twelfth century church dedicated to St. Michael. Access to the church from the village is along a lane cut deeply into the hill and hedge rows.
The opening of the poem therefore recounts Eliot’s visit:
Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village . . .
The scene, like so much of rural England, is remarkably unspoiled, and visiting on a summer afternoon (as Eliot did) brings you to rest on the lawn of the hill beside the church. There you can look across the fertile fields and imagine the quaint and ancient scene Eliot conjured up in 1937. Incorporating lines written by his ancestor Thomas Elyot, he imagines the country folk celebrating midsummer—rehearsing in their country dancing the endless cycles of life and death.
Eliot’s ashes are interred in East Coker church with the inscription, “In my beginning is my end. . . . In my end is my beginning” and this provides the perfect explanation for the theme of the whole poem. Moving on from “Burnt Norton” ’s meditation on the nature of time, memory, and the “sacrament of the present moment,” “East Coker” expands the meditation into a wider consideration of time and eternity, destiny and desire.
Eliot’s life is the summary of all that has been and the beginning of all that will be. His roots are in this village, and his own life is caught up in a cycle much larger than his own brief span.
With this in mind, the second and third sections consider the narrow expanse of the unexamined life. To live more deeply one must put aside the superficial ambitions. Eliot’s spirituality embraces the via negativa. The way of negation acknowledges the vanity of worldly ambition, the boredom of a shallow life, the angst lying just below the surface, and the horror of the dark in the middle of the night. The grim diagnosis of man’s situation without faith is summed up in his observation, “And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.”
The only way to abundance is the paradoxical way of self-abnegation. The poet paraphrases one of his mentors—another poet—St John of the Cross:
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
The fourth section links the way of personal repentance and dispossession with the eternal sacrifice of Christ. The flesh and blood of Christ bring life to the sterile wasteland.
In the final section Eliot returns to the biographical theme, and in an astoundingly moving passage he voices his own humiliation and personal emptiness. He realizes that if the way of self-abnegation is the only way forward, then for him that means the poetry is put aside. So he acknowledges, “the poetry doesn’t matter.” The words shift and slide. Poetry is an attempt to marshal the “undisciplined squads of emotion.” Every attempt is a new beginning to express what others have said before in a much better way.
Nevertheless, “old men should be explorers.” It is through the continual dispossession and denial of ambition that the soul launches out on a new quest. It is through the loss of everything that one gains everything. So, through a life of prayer he calls for us to “be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion.”
This is the third essay in Dwight Longenecker’s “Four Quartets” series.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Apollo and the Muses” (1826) by Heinrich Maria von Hess (1798-1863), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.