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.