This, the second of the Quartets, appeared in 1940. It takes its name from the village in Somerset, England, that was the home of Eliot’s first forebear to leave for America in the 17th century. This poem is most concerned with the place of man in the natural order and with the idea of renewal. The most explicitly Christian of the quartets, this is also the one that addresses the War most directly, particularly in its pessimism and visions of destruction. In addition, Eliot here engages in what is perhaps his most extended and direct meditation on his poetic career.
The first section of “East Coker” describes the cycle of renewal and decay as Eliot sees it. Houses and other signs of human habitation become empty fields or freeway overpasses. In the fields on summer nights, if one listens carefully enough, one can hear the sounds of the simple rural life of the past. The language of this section is reminiscent of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, with its emphasis on natural cycles and harmony. Time here, however, is less cyclical than it is linear: “In my beginning is my end.” The second section of the poem opens with a lyric on the disturbance of the seasons. Suddenly, the poem reverses itself, and Eliot attacks his own poetic work as “not very satisfactory: / ...worn-out poetical fashion.” Eliot rejects “the knowledge derived from experience” as having “only a limited value,” and he identifies humility as the only wisdom possible for humans. The section ends with a reminder that the houses and the dancers of the first section have all disappeared. The third section provides a continuation of the string of disappearances, as Eliot catalogues those who have passed into the darkness of death. This recalls the first section of The Waste Land (“I had not thought death had undone so many”), except that it is, of course, much more pessimistic: Here, there are not even the ghosts of former friends with whom to converse. The meditative portion of this section combines an Eastern nihilism and rhetorical structure with a more Christian message, as the poet tells himself to wait patiently and to expect a difficult route to awareness. The fourth section of “East Coker” provides the most explicit reminder of the war. It describes a hospital staffed by a “wounded surgeon” and a “dying nurse” where patients are not healed but are led through painful illness to death and a tenuous salvation. The section ends with a reference to Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion—a reminder that anything worthy must come through suffering, forbearance, and deferral to a higher authority. The final section of the poem again focuses on Eliot’s failure as a poet. He has wasted his youth and has only learned how to articulate ideas that are no longer useful. His life is a struggle to “recover what has been lost.” Finally, he settles for an unsatisfying earthly existence followed by the promise of darkness and death, in which he will finally find that “[i]n my end is my beginning.”
In this Quartet, Eliot continues to reject previous poetic forms in favor of an experiment with language. Terms like “end” and “beginning” take on multiple meanings and shadings as they are reused and juxtaposed. Eliot here displays a certain cleverness with words (the “receipt for deceit” that our forebears leave us, for example) that suggests frustration with trying to communicate via his normal tone of high seriousness. The fourth section of “East Coker” is written in perfect ababb rhyme and is one of the few works in which Eliot uses a sustained formal structure. Perhaps in this submission to the authority of tradition, Eliot mirrors his thematic submission to the authority of God in this section, which ends with the reference to Good Friday. Perhaps Eliot resorts to a more formal structure in the feeling that many of his previous poetic efforts seem futile. Either way, “East Coker” represents a continued shift away from the highly fragmented style that characterizes The Waste Land and the other early works.
In “East Coker,” Eliot continues to work with a set of images that have appeared in his poetry since The Waste Land. Encounters with “shades,” or ghosts, come to represent the poet’s own mortality. They also come to represent a level of understanding that is always within sight, yet forever unattainable. In this quartet, the children in the garden from “Burnt Norton” and the shades on London Bridge from The Waste Land have been replaced by villagers on the green, dancing in celebration of a wedding. The poem even shifts into archaic English at this point, as if to assert that the apparitions are momentarily speaking through the poet. The villagers reappear at other moments in the poem, often just when Eliot remarks that they have disappeared, and are supplemented by the shades of section three, who represent literally the citizens of London descending into subway tunnels to escape World War II air raids but who also seem to denote the masses of humanity who have lived and died without making a mark on the world. Everything cycles endlessly but without meaning: What could it possibly mean to be a part of something the whole of which no one will ever have sufficient perspective to see?
Even Eliot’s take on Christianity is colored by despair. The rebirth he describes as resulting from Christ’s crucifixion is no rebirth at all but a terrifying stay at a hospital staffed by corpses. The best we can hope for is to “die of the absolute paternal care.” Eliot emphasizes not Easter Sunday—the day of the Resurrection—but instead Good Friday: the day of Christ’s death, for which humans bear responsibility. The hospital imagery and the emphasis on human malignity are obvious references to the European war raging while Eliot was writing. They also, though, represent his realization that human folly and the inability to see the larger designs behind history doom any human endeavors to failure.
Particularly doomed to failure are Eliot’s own attempts at poetry. This is by far the poet at his most pessimistic. The beautiful, if confusing and despairing, lyric that opens the second section is erased by the harsh assessment of poetry that follows it. Here words not only fail to signify completely but indeed actively falsify, for they fail to appreciate the pattern rendered anew “in every moment” for what it truly is: “a new and shocking valuation of all we have been.” This is the same assessment of time and perspective that Eliot had made in his earlier essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” except that here, the destruction and renovation brought about by time does not enable poetry or enrich the cultural tradition—rather, it is merely crippling. The contemporary world in this poem is made up not of the fragments of past glories that were featured in The Waste Land, but of disconnected, entirely new and culturally blank features: overpasses and subway tunnels. Thus, “East Coker” offers little hope for either humanity or poetry.
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