Eliot, "East Coker" (Commentary)


East Coker, Somerset, England is the place of family origin for the Eliots.  Sir Thomas Elyot, one of the more famous of the family members from East Coker, wrote The Governour (1531). 

The old always replaces the new. Great houses, as architecture and lineage, "live and die."  Earth, after all, is formed of all the elements decayed, be they "flesh, fur [or] faeces."  Here, the opening invokes Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which begins with "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven."   [Wainscot is wood wall paneling.] Arras refers to a French tapestry whose threads running through the material form both a background and, when coloured, a foreground pattern, even when they are the same thread.  These represent aspects of the end of great houses -- times of decay. The arras tapestry also suggests the way families extend over generations. (1-13)

"Now the light falls/ Across the open field" recalls the light in the rose garden from Burnt Norton.   Eliot describes a late afternoon sunset on a summer day when the day's light and energy are absorbed by the surroundings and nature waits for the coming day.  In such a setting, one can encounter a midnight, wedding dance in an open field about a fire.   It is a country dance built on the traditions of those "long since under earth."  The rhythms of the dance are in harmony with the rhythms of the seasons and the world. (This also looks back to the rhythms of creation associated with the "trilling wire" in BN,)  The archaic spelling "In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie" and "necessarye coniunction/ Holding eche other [. . .] Which betokeneth concorde" are lines taken from Elyot's The Governour, and thus suggest the language and motifs of past generations. (14-47)

Because Eliot dwells in the realm of memory, it is unclear where he resides -- "here/ Or there, or elsewhere." (48-51)


The opposite of such harmony and cycle, is  a conflation and confusion of the seasons with "snow drops writhing under feet" and "hollyhocks that aim too high."  Indeed it results in something amounting to a cosmic war, invoking images of the final apocalypse.   The Leonids are the constellation of Leo the Lion, which also has some association with Christ. (51-68)

All this earlier imagery (of dance, harmony, and conflagration) is rejected, for its sense of rhythm and cycle is in ruins.  These past examples in poetry appear only limited in value because the present patterns seem ever new and unprecedented.  Eliot, like Dante, has awoken in a dark wood, "menaced by monsters."  The only wisdom of the old worth trusting is that of humility. (69-101)


The modern age accompanies the past and all its institutions to the dark, silent funeral with no one to bury.  [The Almanac de Gotha is a history of genealogy of the royal princes of Europe.] (102-112)

Eliot plays off Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God."  Here, he returns to the theme of the dark night of the soul by drawing on three extended similes: 1) he compares the world to a theatre in which the lights are put out and the scenery rolled away; 2) he compares it to the uncomfortable silence between individuals who stopping making small talk on the subway ride; 3) he recalls the experience of being under ether when the mind is conscious but without thought.  Each is a kind of divine judgment that asks us to lay aside hope of temporal success in the world.  The only dance and light (to invoke the earlier images of the poem) is stillness and silence. (113-129)

To further reflect on this paradox, Eliot invokes images of things unlooked for -- streams that whisper, winter lightning, overlooked wild thyme and strawberry, the laughter in the garden from BN.   [Some critics also associate the use of wild thyme with Shakespeare, i.e. I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,/ Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows (Midsummer Night's Dream 2.1.250-251).]

The only way to obtain what matters is to undergo a spiritual birth and death.   (130-135)

He returns to the theme of Burnt Norton, the way of negation -- a way in which you must lay aside all you claim to be for what you are not. He includes here a wonder pun on repeat -- "I shall say it again./ Shall I say it again?" (136-148)


Christ, who is himself a wounded surgeon, must wound us to heal us.  We must obey the Church, our dying nurse, who is to teach us the problem of our sin in Adam's curse, and we must be fully aware of our sickness in order to be free of it.  (149-158)

In a sense, the whole earth is our hospital.  The next few lines have been read in two ways: either the ruined millionaire, God, calls us to die from all our earthly, temporal cares, or the ruined millionaire, Adam, has cursed us with an absolute care that will be the temporal death of us. (159-163)

Either way, we are called to a paradox -- to be warmed, we must first freeze.  Our dark night is a purgatory to purify us.  We must then partake of the elements of communion, "the dripping blood" and "the bloody flesh."  Like Christ's sacrifice, this is our Good Friday. (164-173).  All of this suggests a death to our self-dependence.


Like Dante in the middle way, Eliot has spent twenty years l'entre deux guerres ("between two wars") attempting to use language with each new attempt unable to build on the past examples.   And yet each new poetry is really only a recovery of what has been lost and found.   Here again, like Eccelesiates, Eliot recognizes that there is nothing new under the sun.  But our mission is "only in the trying." (174-191)

The older one becomes, the more complicated the pattern becomes.  Not just the isolated, present moment like that of the garden in BN, but an abundance of moments brought together.   Youth, a time of "evening under starlight," and old age, a time of "evening under lamplight" both have their season.  Old men are called to love's deeper intensities and to put away the temporal commitments of "here and there." Instead, we should move onto "a deeper communion" found only in the way of negation.  (The petrel is a white-winged seabird. )  Eliot ends by reversing the opening line.  (192-211)

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding