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East Coker on the Rebind

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Four Quartets

I love East Coker. I do. Last night I patched up my thirty-year-old copy of Eliot’s Four Quartets with clear packaging tape. When I was in college, one of my friends paid twenty dollars to rebind my twenty-five-dollar, leather-bound King James Bible for my birthday. But by last night no one had offered to rebind my $1.65 Harvest Book paperback edition of Four Quartets. Maybe I’m supposed to have internalized all the words I need by now.

The paper is thick, and the pages haven’t yellowed at all. The top edges of the pages have inexplicable, rusty freckles like the ones on my arms. I’m also “in the middle way.” In fact, I’m as old as Eliot was when he wrote East Coker.

Since when is fifty “the middle way,” by the way? Was Eliot flattering himself? My life divides neatly into smaller, decade-long lives, as if I were leading six different lives, and my fifties life makes me feel old, a lot like my thirties life did. My thirties were a little hard. I was out of shape and had lots of aches and pains. Some clock went off in my head at age thirty: I’m not married! What segments each of our lives?

What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?

When I was forty, I discovered the fountain of youth. An identity crisis and a slow recovery made the world seem new. I started an exercise-and-diet regime and a new career. I rediscovered poetry. My forties fulfilled the promise of my twenties – all of that Bible study and those fifty-four hours of English courses. But old age seemed to return with vigor last year about the time I turned fifty. For the first time, I know in my bones that most of my life has passed.

But, as I say, my youth and old age seem to come and go.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

A lifetime burning in every moment. “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past,” says the Preacher.

I was twenty when I wrote the first marginalia in my Four Quartets. What gets across the naiveté: my balloon-like script or my borrowed thoughts? Today my handwriting looks more wrinkled – more nuanced, I think. In college I wrote “the neg. theology” beside these lines:

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.

I remember the professor mentioning negative theology, which was the first time I had ever heard of the idea. I remember thinking that it sounded rather holy and cool, kind of like the essence of what my Jesus buddies and I were after in pursuing our very positive theology.

Why did I like Four Quartets back then? I remember liking the somewhat stiff diction that circled around on itself. The “dust in the air suspended” and the roses and bowls reminded me of quiet rooms of now-dead relatives and their loud, slow-ticking clocks. There was something quieting and alarming about rooms like that, and you can’t experience them after middle age. You’re too busy remembering them, outfitting them.

Earlier in his career, Eliot used the inherent contradiction of his language (his diction and syntax are at once kind of stately and creaky) to saturate his voice with irony. But Eliot uses his contradictory language in East Coker to achieve something quieter than irony; he achieves a kind of wisdom-poem, and his language seems perfect for an examination of negative theology. All that dust in the rose bowl and all that shadow fruit, all those footfalls in the garden. It’s an elegant and “a worn-out poetical fashion” all at once. In his end is his beginning.

But little in East Coker would have made sense to me in the beginning except for some of the more aphoristic and outwardly Christian portions of it. My overall attraction to it was inexplicable. Perhaps my spirit had found a kind of blueprint.

My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

East Coker is built on an Ecclesiastes chassis, and, as with Ecclesiastes’s body, you can’t tell if it’s coming or going. Old age, darkness, wisdom, despair, writing, and life cycles of people and families and civilizations circle around one another. East Coker has Ecclesiastes’s “a time for”’s, and it has a loosened pane and a tattered arras for Ecclesiastes’s loosened silver cord and broken golden bowl. The sun also rises:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence.

A lot of people think Ecclesiastes is depressing, and a lot of people think East Coker is depressing, too. But those people don’t understand apophatic theology, I say. The only thing that seems to depress Eliot in East Coker is his writing.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate . . .

The subject of preaching and writing is the toughest part of Ecclesiastes for me, too, because the moment preaching and writing point to negative theology (the “goads” and “nails” below, perhaps), they also create a chasm between positive and negative theology:

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Do you feel the chasm? After all he went through, the Preacher was stuck looking for acceptable words.

According to the negative theology, God is ineffable, so suddenly you have a problem if you want to explain him or the dance he set in motion around him. Here’s the other point in East Coker where Eliot seems to throw down his pen:

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

These appearances make the poet a subject of his own poem. As Eliot moves from the irony of his early poetry to negative theology, he replaces the anti-heroes of his early poetry with his narrator – himself. Ecclesiastes is a personal book, a working through, a seeker’s journal, and East Coker is, too. Eliot’s ancestors emigrated to America from East Coker.  He chose the poem’s opening and closing lines for his epitaph on the commemorative plaque in the church where his ashes are buried — St. Michael’s Church in East Coker.

In East Coker, the only anti-hero – the only fool – is the narrator, since anyone who preaches (or writes about) the negative theology is a fool. Ask the apostle Paul, who in his second letter to the Corinthians deliberately preached it in a clown suit.

East Coker shares Ecclesiastes’s ambivalence toward old age and wisdom just as it does toward writing. In East Coker, old men have nothing positive to offer the young.

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom resides in the darkness of God, and the only thing old men have to offer is something negative: the loss of themselves, a kind of death before death.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

But works like Ecclesiastes and East Coker are meant for the young as well as the old. In fact, East Coker reconciles the young and old, the ends and beginnings, in darkness. Perhaps Ecclesiastes and East Coker lend a little mystery to life, or at least to old age. I remember thinking as I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as a teenager, “Maybe the hoary head is a crown of glory, after all.” Young people feel a connection with a long, authentic life, or at least I felt such a connection back then. Even if I couldn’t decipher the old stone in my youth, I could at least carry it around with me.

Ecclesiastes ends rather perfunctorily: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” I can hear Thoreau rage against this ending, much as he declaims in Walden against the Westminster Catechism’s summary of man’s purpose: to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Suppose Shakespeare had taken Polonius’s famous aphorisms early in Hamlet and had put them in the prince’s mouth at the end. That’s the feeling I get from Ecclesiastes.

To be fair, Ecclesiastes’s end seems to focus on its younger readers – all of us, I guess, with beginner’s mind – since the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments may lead us, by God’s mercy, into the dark night the Preacher and John of the Cross and Eliot’s other mystic heroes believe in.  (And “Fear God, and keep his commandments”: if those ain’t “acceptable words,” I don’t know what are.)

But East Coker ends with a challenge to the old:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Eliot has given me a vision for my fifties, and maybe for my seventies if I go that long. (My sixties will take care of themselves, I reckon, like my twenties and forties.)

I carry my Harvest Book edition around now like I carried my pocket New Testament around as a teenager. In my beginning is my end.

— Peter Stephens


Written by MattAndJojang

March 21, 2014 at 10:21 am

6 Responses

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  1. Lots to think about. I’ve just turned fifty and I live down the road from East Coker……


    March 22, 2014 at 3:20 am

  2. East Coker is the ancestral home of T.S. Eliot – one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. It was in the 17th century when his ancestors left the place to immigrate to the US. He was born in the US in the late 19th century but migrated to the UK in the early part of 20th century, where he spent the remaining years of his life. “Four Quartets” is considered his masterpiece and he won the Nobel prize for literature, because of this poem in 1948. If I’m not mistaken his ashes are buried in East Coker.

    The poem is considered as T.S. Eliot’s profession of his Christian faith, hence the heavy influence of Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Dante. Also, it is influenced by Eastern spirituality, especially the Mahabarata. It’s a profound poem which will take a lifetime for us to really understand and plumb its full meaning. Love it! Especially its spiritual undertones and skillful use of paradoxical language (which, sometimes, makes it challenging to read). But the effort is worth it.

    I myself, Senan, am in my mid-fifties. And because I’m home bound and have a lot of time in my hands, I’ve spent quite a significant time thinking about my past life. I am sometimes bothered by the many false starts, mistakes, and failures that I’ve committed in my life. We, who are on the spiritual journey, often make the effort to be loving and compassionate towards others. But what I’m learning now is to be compassionate also towards myself – to come to terms with my past, learn to forgive myself, and move on. Sometimes, though, it is easier to forgive other people than to forgive ourselves. I’m learning now to be compassionate and to be gentle with myself…

    — Matt


    March 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm

  3. This is quite a good article, which I’ve bookmarked and added to my files. It deserves re-reads and thoughts before a response. Of course you already know how I love Eliot.

    One thing about the Quartets which also is interesting to me is the way his roots in the US become visible here and there. The Dry Salvages, for example, are off the coast of New England, and that river, that he thinks a “strong, brown god”? The Mississippi, the river that flowed through his home town of St. Louis.

    I don’t think many poets better capture the “in the world, but not of it” tension. I always think of the line about “garlic and sapphires in the mud”. That’s it, exactly.


    March 24, 2014 at 8:29 pm

  4. Love the Four Quartets, too, Linda! Love its spiritual undertones, meditative quality, contemplative mood and skillful use of paradoxical language. For one thing, when I read certain lines in the poem, I could hear echoes of the voices of the great Christian mystics, especially St. John of the Cross – who is also one of the greatest poets of Spain.

    For instance, the lines:

    And the bird called, in response to
    The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery…

    brings to my mind these lines from St. John of the Cross’s Spiritual Canticle, lines which speak about the Christian contemplative experience:

    My Beloved, the mountains,
    and lonely wooded valleys,
    strange islands,
    and resounding rivers,
    the whistling of love-stirring breezes,

    the tranquil night
    at the time of the rising dawn,
    silent music,
    sounding solitude,
    the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

    Also, one of my favorite lines:

    At the still point of the turning world… there the dance is…

    reminds me so much of Psalm 46:10:

    Be still, and know that I am God.

    The beauty of the Four Quartets is that it could mean different things to different people. It’s like a diamond with many facets that can be viewed from different angles. It’s also one of those rare poems that nourish not only our aesthetic sensibilities, but also our spirits. Simply beautiful!

    — Matt


    March 26, 2014 at 10:40 am

  5. This is a really good essay. I’m glad to have discovered it.

    Most scholars believe the perfunctory ending of Ecclesiastes was added later. It does seem unlikely that the Teacher would tie a ribbon around it all at the end that way.

    After reading this I can see that I would profit from some time spent with Mr. Eliot.

    “Home is where one starts from.” There is much truth and beauty in that short sentence.

    I’m an admirer of Wendell Berry, who has entitled an essay (and a collection of essays) “The Way of Ignorance” and began it with the lines, “In order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.” Berry is an admirer of Eliot and in one of his best-known poems he wrote, “Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.”

    Thanks for sharing this!


    April 6, 2014 at 9:09 am

  6. Love, Wendell Berry, too, Bill! I didn’t know that he was influenced by T.S. Eliot, although I’m not surprised that he was. T.S. Eliot has influenced a lot of people: poets, mystics, philosophers, authors, and even non Christians. The Four Quartets is simply beautiful! It’s unmatched in terms of its profundity, depth and breadth! It’s paradoxical language is reminiscent of the language of the mystics.

    T.S Eliot’s lines: “In order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance,” are actually inspired by the great Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross, whose works he was reading when he was writing the Four Quartets.

    In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
    Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
    In order to arrive at possessing everything,
    Desire to possess nothing.
    In order to arrive at being everything,
    Desire to be nothing.
    In order to arrive at knowing everything,
    Desire to know nothing
    In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure,
    Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
    In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not,
    Thou must go by a way that thou knowest not.
    In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not,
    Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not.
    In order to arrive at that which thou art not,
    Thou must go through that which thou art not.

    — St. John of the Cross

    Poets and mystics seem to agree that the deepest truths cannot be grasped through discursive thinking or intellectual analysis. That’s why they valued “The Way of Ignorance.” In fact, the mystics encourage us to let go of all thought during the time set aside for contemplative prayer or meditation, so that a deeper insight might arise from the depths of our being. This is what the Jesuit priest and spiritual author, William Johnston, who is also one of the pioneers in the Zen-Christian dialogue, refers to as “super thinking.”

    It is meditation without an object. It is what elsewhere I have called “vertical meditation,” because it is sometimes described as a “going down,” a breaking through layers of consciousness to the depths of one’s spirit or core of one’s being. One pays no attention to the thoughts and images that pass across the surface of the mind. One simply ignores them in favor of a deeper activity. In Christian terms it may be better to call it contemplation rather than meditation, since it is so akin to the mental exercise described by the great Christian contemplatives. This is sometimes spoken of as darkness, emptiness, silence, nothingness. It has been called the “dark night,” not because it is particularly painful but because of the absence of clear-cut thoughts and images in the mind. Again, it is called the cloud of unknowing, because one is as it were, in a cloud without clear images and ideas. Sometimes it is spoken of as “thinking of nothing;” but I like this terminology less because it can give rise to the misconception that contemplation is a form of idling. A better term is “super thinking.”

    — William Johnston, S.J.

    I believe, too, that the ending of Ecclesiastes was not added later. By the way, Ecclesiates is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Some find it pessimistic, but I don’t think that’s the right way to describe it; it ‘s simply realistic. It’s just describing the human condition as it is, that we live in a fractured and broken planet. But it doesn’t stop there. It gives us a way out. That’s why it ends with the statement: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” That’s what matters most in life…

    — Matt


    April 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm

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