Poetry Friday: 1940, part 2

English: St. Michael's, East Coker, Somerset T...

St. Michael’s in East Coker, where Eliot’s family came from, and where his ashes are buried. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been four months since I began our intermittent look at one of the 20th Century’s greatest poems—T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In one of my posts on the poems of 1936, I devoted my attention to the opening stanzas of the first of the quartets, written in that year—“Burnt Norton” captured the imaginations of more than a few of you, and since then I’ve been anticipating “catching up” with Eliot’s poem and getting to dig into the next section.  Here we are in 1940, and it’s time to ponder the second of the quartets, which is entitled “East Coker”.  This time, rather than drawing from the first section of the quartet, I’ve skipped forward to Eliot’s summation in the end of the fifth section, since I think there’s a lot of meat on the bones there, and I’m hoping it will further inspire some of you to give the whole thing a read.  This is an excerpt from section V of “East Coker”:

“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.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
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’s fascination in the quartets with a few powerful images—time, love, the idea of home, etc.—continues here, and I love the phrases he turns.  In “Burnt Norton” he opens by inviting us into a garden of metaphor, into “our first world”, and here he seems to clarify what he’s interested in: for me, at least, the notion of home being “where we start from” identifies a little more clearly what he means by “our first world”.  Eliot likes to surprise, and I find it surprising (but also intriguing and maybe true) that as we age, the world grows, not more familiar, but more strange.  Time starts to burst open again here, as it did in “Burnt Norton”—each moment contains, not merely a moment, but a lifetime.  And not merely a lifetime, but an age of the Earth, something that happens on the scale of geology (the “old rocks”).  And then suddenly the poem is homely again; we are pulled from that kind of epic abstraction back to an evening with lamps on side tables and photo albums open in our laps.  What is he doing to us?  What is he doing to time and place?  I am confused but not letting go.

He shifts then to one of his other great themes—Love—and says something I feel sure is true: that love is (at least in some ways) most itself when we are detached from the here and now.  “East Coker” plays with love in many senses . . . in another famous passage from earlier in the quartet, he tells his soul to be still and “wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing.”  I don’t know what that means, other than that in all of these phrases I get the sense that the way to gain love is to lose it; the way to find it is to give up the chase.  Eliot tells us at one point that we “must go by the way of dispossession . . . what you own is what you do not own.”  There’s something powerful and real locked up in there, and I don’t know how much of it I can give words to, even though I feel I understand him.

The last portion of “East Coker” is reminiscent for me of another famous English poem—Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s “Ulysses”—where old men decide to explore on, and “smite the sounding furrows”.  I think that’s intentional, but unlike Tennyson’s Greek hero, Eliot isn’t restless and purposeless in this desire for adventure.  He’s not taking to the seas again to escape the “still hearth” and “barren crags”, like Ulysses—instead, he wants a deeper communion.  With whom?  With what?  We are not yet told.  Only we are told that he must pass (and we must pass, if we continue on with him) “through the dark cold and the empty desolation,” through, in that most evocative of phrases, “the vast waters of the petrel and the porpoise.”  What waters are these?  The waters over which the Ruach brooded in Genesis, the formless and the void?  The waters at the edge of old maps, ribboned with sea serpents, pouring endlessly over all sides of the world?  He is imbuing this journey, and this sea, with something symbolic, but I’ll confess I can’t settle on a specific image.  I only know that it moves me.

There’s a lot more to “East Coker” that I can’t get into—there’s an enormously important series of allusions to Dante (Eliot describes himself as being “in the middle way”, and there are direct references to purgatory, etc.), for example—because it’s too big, and because I want you to read it.  Even the last line (“In my end is my beginning.”), which I want badly to try and unpack, is too much for the scope of a blog post.  Eliot is tying up all of “East Coker”, which begins with the line “In my beginning is my end,” and which plays more than once with the notion of ends and beginnings.  Eliot’s engaged in something really valuable.  We’ll be back with him and the last two quartets before long—probably before 2012 is out.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll ponder his words, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

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4 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1940, part 2

  1. Oh yay, a blog post on The Four Quartets. I truly love this poem, and East Coker has some amazing moments. The earlier section on language, in which he recounts the time he has “mostly wasted” trying to master poetry, “a raid on the inarticulate, with shoddy equipment always deteriorating,” always takes my breath away.
    I love the parts you picked out. They have such deep thematic resonance, and are so important to the rest of the poem. The idea that the world becomes more strange as we age comes back in a beautiful and completed way in Little Gidding. The way Eliot moves between the eternal or timelessness of a moment and the everyday is so moving. I’ve heard the Four Quartets described as a long attempt to reconcile time and the timeless. Burnt Norton gives us the problem, a beautiful eternal moment in the rose garden that cannot be reconciled with the rest of life, “ridiculous the waste sad time before and after.” The rest of the poem, it has been argued, is the speaker or the poet trying to understand that moment and moments like it.
    I also think the Four Quartets have a lot of Eliot trying to find his way home. He was originally from America, but moved to Britain, converted to Anglicanism, became a British citizen, and I think truly considered Britain as his home. In East Coker and Little Gidding especially we see him returning to a place, a very British place, where his ancestors once lived, his own “first world” if you will. It’s interesting to see the way home and belonging are mixed with heaven and the eternal in his poetry.
    I feel like when I’m reading the quartets I can feel Eliot thinking and I’m thinking and philosophizing along with him. It’s a marvelous experience, made infinitely better by the sheer virtuosity and beauty of his writing.
    Anyway, I’m glad I cam across your blog. I can’t wait to see the rest of your posts, on the Quartets and other things.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Emily! I’m very glad to have someone here who knows the poem better than I do—I love it, but I’ll admit that for years I focused so intently on “Little Gidding” (which is indescribably beautiful) that it’s only now via this blog that I’m taking the time the first three quartets deserve. Your point about language is excellent, and I’m glad you feel I was capturing enough of the themes that tie into the poem as a whole—I’ve been feeling almost out of my depth, and it’s reassuring to know the work is good. I definitely agree about Eliot and Britain being key to the poem…I decided not to get too far into it in this post (though I did post the image of the church with a caption that I hope nudged people that way), but your comment reminds me that I should next time out. 🙂 I’m very pleased you dropped by, and hope you’ll comment often—it’s always good to get new perspectives!

  2. Nerija S. says:

    I love Four Quartets. I was lucky to be able to explore this poem in full, for a class on 20th-century American poets. I love Eliot’s style in general — the way he borrows and blends different voices, whether imagined (the thrush) or via literary or historical allusions and quotes; and the overall metaphysical, mystical tone. The voice-collage style is more obvious/explicit in a poem like The Wasteland (he was even originally going to title it He do the police in different voices,” a quote from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend), but it’s definitely there in Four Quartets.

    I especially like the circular structure of the Quartets, both within a section like East Coker, and the poem as a whole.

    • Nerija S. says:

      Whoops, I forgot to end the italics…the original title of “The Wasteland” was just “He do the police in different voices,” not “A quote from Dickens’…” ^_^;

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