By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A Cooking Egg’ first appeared in T. S. Eliot’s second collection, Poems, in 1919. You can read ‘A Cooking Egg’ here; below are some thoughts on this elusive and difficult poem, designed to serve as a brief analysis of the poem’s meaning and features.
A cooking egg is an egg that is past its prime and so cannot be eaten by itself, but can still be used in cooking in combination with other ingredients. In the context of the poem that follows – and the epigraph (which, although not mentioned by Eliot, is taken from the fifteenth-century French poet François Villon and roughly translates as ‘By the 30th year of my life, I have drunk up all my shame’) – the ‘cooking egg’ is meant to represent the speaker’s own sense of his youth being over.
He and his companion, Pipit (who has some ‘knitting’ on the table, potentially, though not necessarily, denoting middle or old age), seem to have settled into a comfortable but sterile maturity together, with the lives of the student at Oxford (‘Views of Oxford Colleges’) and of the debutante at the ball (‘An Invitation to the Dance’) behind them. (Alternatively, Pipit might not be the speaker’s partner, but his retired nurse; critics remain divided over this issue, though it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that Eliot himself denied it when I. A. Richards suggested the ‘nurse’ idea.
The speaker then imagines what heaven will be like, and comforts himself against his sterile earthly life with the fact that he will have the finest company in the afterlife. However, the way he describes these people (e.g. rhyming ‘Sidney’ with ‘kidney’) is tongue-in-cheek, suggesting the speaker possibly doesn’t even fully believe in the vision of heaven he espouses.
The poem ends with the speaker’s pronouncement that honour and glory have vanished from the world (‘the eagles and the trumpets’, suggestive of ancient Rome, the world of Coriolanus) and that the modern age consists of people drooped over ‘buttered scones and crumpets’ in tearooms (‘A.B.C.’s’ in the final line of the poem refers not to the alphabet but to the Aerated Bread Company, a chain of cheap teashops in London at the time).
Whether Eliot is here referring to his own life – he was around 30 when he composed this poem, the same age as Villon’s speaker – we cannot say for sure.
The tone of these poems – ironic, detached, masklike – makes it difficult to perform any straightforward biographical reading of this poem, or the other quatrain poems. (This is in keeping with Eliot’s theory of the ‘impersonality’ of poetry, of which more later.)
As with ‘Prufrock’, we are left unsure as to how far we are meant to identify with the speaker (everyone has to leave their life behind, after all; and most people resent certain aspects of modern life and want to escape to another time/place, as he does) and how far we should regard him as a laughable figure (and here, the facetious rhymes – e.g. Sidney/kidney but also trumpets/crumpets – reinforce the subtle comicality of his perspective).
‘A Cooking Egg’ shows a subtly comic side to Eliot’s poetry, which makes it fun to analyse – though, as so often with a T. S. Eliot poem, we are presented with numerous allusions and references to unravel and decode.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: A chicken egg (picture credit: Sun Ladder, 2009), via Wikimedia Commons.