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.

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”

The Grapes of Wrath is turning out to be a really marvelous reading experience, full of great characters and great moments, but maybe the most interesting aspect of all at this point is the way Steinbeck and his characters play with morality.  The quotation that serves as this post’s title is from the (former) Reverend Casy, whose dialogues with Tom Joad explore faith and meaning and ethics in remarkably natural language.  He puts forward that thesis of moral relativism pretty early on in their conversation, but the nice thing about Grapes is its complexity—it’s not at all clear to me that Casy believes it himself, let alone Steinbeck.  The world inhabited by the characters is fraught with moral concerns, whether we’re considering the simple personal level (as when Muley Graves considers the problem of being asked by two hungry men for food, and his explanation of why he is compelled to share with them) or the much larger corporate level (as when the characters and the narrator explore how to make sense of right and wrong when the agent doing wrong is an impersonal company—how do you hold to account a person that isn’t a person?).  Casy and Joad and Graves aren’t moral relativists at all.  Sure, they make allowances for reality, as when Joad gives up the house and sprints into the cotton rather than stand his ground for his idea of what’s right.  But in the end it’s clear that all three of them understand that there are lines that should not be crossed.  One of the delights of the book, though, is that they don’t become particularly self-righteous, and they don’t have any immediate solutions to present.  They explore the landscape, both physically and through the sharing of stories, without drawing too many conclusions too quickly.  I’m loving it.

Another aspect of the book I’m enjoying is its richness, like an abundant harvest of lines and moments that I can’t quite hold in my arms.  I read on, realizing as I go that I’m letting great things spill past me on either side.  I just can’t pay rapt attention to everything I like or I’ll never get through.  And Steinbeck has a way of giving you scenes that work on enough levels that you can get something and move on—the (in?)famous turtle, who spawned so many high school English assignments, is a great example.  We can take it, if we like, as just the account of a turtle, just Steinbeck giving us another vision of how nature is being violated and damaged by human activity.  We can go just a little deeper, and read a few lines as symbolism—the turtle’s thrashing accidentally plants some seeds, for example, and it’s revealing and thought-provoking to spend a little time trying to tie a few elements of its experience allegorically to the small farmers of Oklahoma who are being driven off the land.  I got the feeling at that point that there was almost nothing about the chapter that I couldn’t continue to dig into and explore, but I wanted to keep moving, and so I did—whatever else there is to get out of the turtle (feel free to share in the comments any perspectives you have) will have to be saved for my next read of the novel, since I can already sense I’ll be returning to this novel again someday.  Anyway, that level of detail and interest is all over the book, and I keep pausing and then moving on all over the place, making little bits of meaning out of Joad’s childhood baptism and the blood of Muley Graves’s father in the soil and the ravenous hunger of the grey cat.  It makes me feel caught up in something huge, an emotion that I have only rarely felt in the Pulitzer journey…only Wharton and Age of Innocence really comes to mind as a comparison, and even that is not really right.  It’s like reading Melville, or Homer.  I hope the feeling lasts.

English: Buried machinery in barn lot in Dalla...

The Dust Bowl swallows a farmer’s livelihood, South Dakota, 1936 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steinbeck’s attention to detail doesn’t just work on that momentary symbolic level, either—the structure of the novel is working beautifully so far.  I loved the transition from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6.  In 5, Steinbeck’s telling the broad general story of the Dust Bowl, and there are nameless families being cast off their land.  It works great to give a sense of the great big thing that’s happening in Oklahoma, but it’s admittedly just a little remote.  But then there’s this perfect pivoting image—5 ends with a generic corporate employee knocking a generic farmer’s house off its foundations, and then immediately 6 begins with Tom Joad and the Reverend Casy arriving at Joad’s family’s house, only to find that it’s been knocked off its foundations in exactly the same way.  The sudden leap from the general to the very specific is incredibly smart—it makes personal the events I’ve just read in parable form in Chapter 5, and it reminds me how impersonal the injustice suffered by the Joads really is.  Tom’s family isn’t the victim of some vendetta—it’s just one more bystander getting eaten up by a machine that will not be sated.  And then Muley shows up and Joad and Casy pump him for some information, and the story gets so incredibly rich.  I kept flagging paragraphs saying to myself, “oh, I have to quote that in my blog post,” until I realized I’d marked about half of Chapter 6 for inclusion.  Really I just want some of you (all of you!) to try reading this book, since I’m really taken by it so far, and I’d love to talk it over with some fellow travelers.

There are things to deal with, of course—Steinbeck is very blunt and honest about sexuality (and how men like these men would talk about it), and the characters clearly feel on some level emasculated by what’s happening to them.  At one point they use pretty clear (although not very graphic) language to employ a rape metaphor in the context of the companies taking over the land—this is problematic, of course, although it’s still a fair question what is accurate character depiction and what is Steinbeck’s insensitivity.  I’m keenly aware of having no real female characters yet, and I’m anxious to meet some and see if Steinbeck can handle them better than he did in Of Mice and Men.  And at some point I should probably tackle the question of whether this novel is propaganda, given that it was so radical for its era that Steinbeck was denounced on the floor of Congress as a dangerous man.  I think it’s telling important and hard truths about what it’s like for one man, or one family, to try to take on and beat the pitiless progress demanded by a beast that lives on nothing but profits.  In this way, it’s talking about people’s connection to the land in a way that Pearl S. Buck only kidded herself she was doing, and it’s confronting the political causes of the suffering in the Great Depression that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t (although there the decision was a conscious one, and I don’t blame her for it).  But it is also fair to ask the novel some hard questions, since the Dust Bowl and the migration west of the Okies and the Great Depression are not merely the fault of a few soulless banks—not only that, at least.  I don’t know what I really expect of Steinbeck on that front, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about, and I expect to post about it sooner or later.  For now, the energy of the book is pulling me forward, and hopefully I’ve shared enough that it’s pulling a few of you, as well.

1932: The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

Literary Style:

Having sped through the last 1/4 of this novel, I think I can soften some of my criticisms of Buck’s work, but I’m still fundamentally dissatisfied by the reading experience I’ve been through.  To cast things positively first, though, I think she ultimately does a nice job weaving together a lot of different elements to the story.  There are some actions that “come full circle”, so to speak, and I feel she’s pretty successful with them.  And honestly, the more I think about it, the more I think her central character, Wang Lung, is pretty well described—we do get inside his head.  It’s what’s inside there that limits the novel, in my opinion.

Chekhov famously suggested that happy families are boring, and that it’s unhappiness that makes for interesting art.  I think Wang Lung’s a good counter-example—his unhappiness, his cruelty, his selfishness, is simply really boring.  He’s not a charismatically fascinating villain (like Milton’s Satan, say, or Shakespeare’s Iago).  He’s not even really a usefully pitiable villain (Tolkien’s Gollum, or Shakespeare’s Shylock).  The combination of his banal personality with his casual complicity in a whole lot of sadness and suffering is depressing without feeling purposeful.  There’s very little character development outside of Wang Lung—characters do change a bit as they age, but Buck seems uninterested in explaining or even trying to understand why or how they do.  So we’re stuck inside a man who maybe does learn and grow a little, but in a fundamentally unsatisying way.

And towards the end, Buck really lays it on thick with her symbolic! phrases! about the goodness! of the earth!  It’s clear to me that she thinks this is the real heart of the story—the relationship of Lung to “his” earth, and of his family to the earth, and how their detachment from their land ultimately works to their destruction (a cycle we saw, in part, in the fall of the house of Hwang early in the novel).  But it just doesn’t land for me, principally because it’s not at all clear that any of them were better people for being tied to the land.  They were less decadent people, they quarreled less…I can see that.  But Lung wasn’t any less cruel to his wife or his sons, he wasn’t any less selfish or myopic, when he was working the land every day.  If Buck wants to do something with the importance of the land, I grant that there are threads to work from here.  Lung’s most admirable quality is probably his work ethic, or else his foresight in knowing that the land will matter.  His finest moment in the book has to do with his devotion to the old servant who, if anything, loved the land even more than Lung did.  But Buck’s throwing around a lot of strands that try to make the earth into this iconic symbol that explains most of the events of the novel, and it’s not working that way for me.

I recognize that Buck had a different audience in 1932 than she does today.  Her decision to foreground Wang Lung would almost certainly be different for today’s reader—this would have been O-Lan’s (sad) story, or Pear Blossom’s, or even Cuckoo’s.  She might feel a freedom to get further inside the head of more than one character, or to ease up a bit on the importance of “selling” the title’s significance.  But for me, I just can’t pretend a novel works when it doesn’t, no matter how “of its time” it is.  I can read and enjoy plenty of novels from earlier times, even novels whose attitudes about race or gender are more backwards than Buck’s tale.  Those books work on me because I feel they still have things to say to me, and I can hear them speaking.  Despite the fact that I think Buck’s a capable enough craftsman in prose, I can’t hear much of what she wants to say here—that may be my issue more than hers, but it’s my review and that’s the way it fell for me.

Historical Insight:

This is normally where I talk about how this book helps me gain an insight to America at the time.  I’m not sure how far I can take it with this book—obviously the setting is China at some indeterminate time in the recent past (seemingly early 20th Century, but honestly I couldn’t quite read the cues I’m pretty sure Buck was dropping, since my mental timeline for China’s history just isn’t fine-grained enough).  I do think it’s no real accident that the winning novel for the (arguably) worst year of the Great Depression is a novel about a struggling farmer and his relationship to the land.  It’s a shame, in my opinion, that the novel doesn’t do more to empathize with the people who struggle and fail—we really don’t get any sense of them, and instead get Wang Lung, who seems to represent the idea that if you’re canny and work hard enough, you can always get ahead (not a very realistic notion in America circa 1932).  But I think it’s clearly at least nodding towards some ideas and some realities that other American authors (cough-cough-John Steinbeck-cough)  examined with more clarity.

I do agree with some of my commenters that this is the book’s real strength: I feel I know more about a lot of elements in Chinese society at the time than I previously had.  I’m admittedly having to trust that Buck got it right (as I had to with Laughing Boy…and which I could not possibly believe of Scarlet Sister Mary).  But I’ve heard enough from enough people to assume that’s at least plausibly fair.  Personally, if I wanted to get a handle on Chinese society, this is not the book I’d start with.  And if I was handling China for middle schoolers, this is not the book I’d start with (though it’s certainly played that role for decades)—I don’t think it gives China much credit at all.  Chinese religion, social structure, economic opportunity….all of it is pretty soundly looked down on by the implied narrator.  I can correct for that bias in my head—for example, imagining what it’s like for the many peasants who believe in the importance of temple offerings, unlike Wang Lung—but I wouldn’t want to try and get 8th graders to do the same.  Anyone who is trying it, I salute you: it’s got to be a difficult road to walk.


By my non-scientific and totally-irregular ratings system, The Good Earth gets a “find a better book than this”.  Seriously, if you want some good examinations of the farming life, read Steinbeck.  If you want to examine how wealth corrupts ordinary people, read Fitzgerald or Wharton or James or any of the dozen other American novelists who tackle that issue with regularity and skill.  And if you want to learn something about China, read a book by a Chinese author, or else a book written recently enough that the Western author is more aware of their cultural baggage and more able to correct for (or acknowledge) it.  This isn’t a bad book.  But if it’s the best book of 1932, I’ll purchase a hat, and eat it.

The Last Word:

As is our custom at Following Pulitzer, Buck gets the last word.  In this case, I chose a passage very late in the book, when Wang Lung is an old man.  I think it’s some of Buck’s best writing—it works pretty well, as do a number of her passages, though not consistently in my experience—and it does show some of the nods she makes at the symbolism she sees at the heart of the story.  It may well be there more than I guess, for her and for you:

Spring passed and summer passed into harvest and in the hot autumn sun before winter comes Wang Lung sat where his father had sat against the wall.  And he thought no more about anything now except his food and his drink and his land.  But of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers.  And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.


I was going to include this in the post I published today (visible just below this), but didn’t know where to put it in.  The symbolism of the boat that carried the men to France interested me, because I recognized the name “Anchises” the moment Cather identified the liner that Claude was boarding.  Anchises is the father of Aeneas, the only Trojan prince to escape the doomed city, the man who later founded the Roman Empire, according to myth.  In the Aeneid, Anchises’ most famous scene is when, as Troy falls to fire and the bronze Achaean spear, Aeneas literally carries his aged father out of the city on his back, rather than leave him to die.  It’s a classic image that has been painted and sculpted many times over the years.

What I wonder is whether Cather used that name for intentional symbolism and irony: the liner, after all, is carrying young healthy men away from the safety of the United States into a war-torn landscape that may claim their lives.  Anchises, in a sense, carries Aeneas back into the city to die.  Does that seem to you all like a real stretch, or is it possible that Cather would go for such a reference?