A summary of Eliot’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘East Coker’ is the second poem in T. S. Eliot’s four-part sequence, Four Quartets. Eliot wrote ‘East Coker’ during the Second World War, and the poem was published in 1940. It became an immediate bestseller, selling 12,000 copies shortly after publication. (Characteristically, Eliot’s response was to say the poem can’t have been very good if so many people liked it.) The themes and images Eliot uses in ‘East Coker’ have been analysed and interpreted in a variety of ways.
Start with that title: as with the previous poem, ‘Burnt Norton’, the small Somerset village of East Coker is a place that Eliot had visited shortly before writing the poem. It was his ancestral home, where his namesake and distant ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot lived in the sixteenth century. Eliot will quote from Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour (1531) in the first section of ‘East Coker’.
The first section of ‘East Coker’ continues, in effect, the theme of flux which Eliot treated in ‘Burnt Norton’. Houses are built, restored, destroyed, or replaced; time marches on; the landscape changes with the succeeding generations. The earth itself (and earth is the classical element that runs through ‘East Coker’) is composed of the remnants of past living things: flesh, fur, faeces, bone. Anyone who has been to East Coker in Somerset can vouch for the experience of ‘lean[ing] against a bank while a van passes’ (the roads leading into the village are extraordinarily narrow), the ‘electric heat’ and the ‘empty silence’: even now, East Coker is miles from a main road and any busy traffic or built-up area. Visiting this village where his Tudor ancestor once lived (Sir Thomas Elyot served at the court of King Henry VIII), Eliot imagines the simple lives of the peasants who would have lived in the village at that time. Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Governour, from which Eliot quotes here (‘In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie’), was published just before the Protestant Reformation occurred and England would undergo a dramatic religious change, with Henry VIII breaking with Rome (i.e. Roman Catholicism) and declaring himself Head of the Church of England. This simple rustic picture of people dancing around a bonfire to celebrate a marriage precedes this turbulent period of English history by just a few years – a contextual fact whose significance would not have been lost on T. S. Eliot the Anglo-Catholic.
In the second section, the order and pattern of the world – the seasons, the country dances, the ceremony of marriage – break apart, and we have a picture of confusion: the seasons are lumped together (late November already shows signs of snow, and not just in the ‘snowdrops’; there are also echoes of spring and summer in this autumnal month), and the cycle of nature has fallen away. Eliot then critiques his own ‘way of putting’ this, rejecting his poetic style as ‘worn-out’ and self-consciously examining and analysing – as he had begun to at the end of ‘Burnt Norton’ – the role of ‘words’, the poet’s tools, in seeking to capture human experience. We then get a brief horror-show featuring ‘monsters’ and ‘a grimpen’ – a word Eliot lifted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), which features a fictional place named Grimpen Mire. The only kind of wisdom that means anything, Eliot decides, is ‘the wisdom of humility’ – knowledge derived from experience can only take us so far.
The third section revisits something else Eliot had touched upon in ‘Burnt Norton’: the dark night of the soul, which is again depicted by way of modern experience – specifically, a theatre when the lights go out, the pause between stations on the London Underground when people run out of things to say to each other and silence descends, and the experience of the mind under ether or anaesthetic, when we are conscious, but only ‘of nothing’. This is the kind of darkness – what has been called ‘the way of negation’ – that Eliot believes we should embrace, as a way of reaching God. To possess what we do not possess, we must first learn what it means to experience ‘dispossession’; to learn what we do not know, we must first learn what it is we are ignorant of.
The fourth section is a brief lyric about a ‘wounded surgeon’, representing Christ. Christ is wounded (because of the Crucifixion) but he is also the surgeon, the one who can heal mankind. Our ‘sickness’, Original Sin, must be faced if we are to be healed. We need to undergo our dark night of the soul, our purgative treatment, if we are to be saved.
The fifth and final section of ‘East Coker’ sees Eliot confessing that he has tried, and failed, to wrest words into new meanings during the two decades between the two World Wars (‘l’entre deux guerres’). He feels he has failed; but still one has to try. As one grows older, one moves away from the idea of the single present moment that he had been attempting to capture in ‘Burnt Norton’; one realises there is a whole ‘lifetime burning in every moment’.
When he died in 1965, Eliot’s remains were interred in St Michael’s Church in East Coker. The memorial plaque bears two lines from the poem: ‘In my beginning is my end’ and ‘In my end is my beginning.’ Eliot begins ‘East Coker’ with the first of these, and ends the poem with the second. How are we to analyse this cyclical notion of life? As with the capturing of such circularity in poetry, there is ‘only the trying’. The pictures above are from a visit we here at Interesting Literature made to Eliot’s final resting-place in 2014.
Continue to explore Eliot’s Four Quartets with our summary and analysis of ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third poem in the sequence.
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.