Friday, July 17, 2009

East Coker

T.S. Eliot completed “East Coker” in February 1940, having conceived it as a follow-up to “Burnt Norton” in what was to be a four-part sequence. In a sense, he picked up right where he left off – with the darkness and dust at the end of “Burnt Norton.” The follow-up poem begins with images of destruction, reminiscent of the end of The Waste Land, and then moves into the distant past – to a “deep lane… dark in the afternoon” in a rural village in Somerset, near the western coast of England.

East Coker is the village that Eliot’s ancestors came from, before they arrived in America in the mid-1600s, and the poet imagines them among the townfolk dancing at midnight – alive and ecstatic. Then he pictures them in the ground, buried at nearby St. Michael’s Church, their graves marked by illegible headstones. And again, the darkness. If the garden of “Burnt Norton” is a complex image, then the darkness of “East Coker” is even moreso (I won’t attempt an explanation here). In the third section of the poem, set deep in the London underground, the poet anticipates “the darkness of God” – the mystical union that replaces faith, hope and love with complete surrender. I have, for years, believed that this passage is central to the entire sequence, what Eliot calls “the still point of the turning world.” It leads him to contemplation of the Incarnation of Christ in the fourth section.

The next poem, “The Dry Salvages,” ends where “East Coker” begins – in the village in Somerset where Eliot plans to join his ancestors when he dies. (His ashes are, in fact, interred beneath a marker in the corner of St. Michael’s Church.) That was his home because, he says, “home is where one starts from” and also the “significant soil” where one ends up.

After I left London two weeks ago, I flew to East Texas to visit a friend. We met a few years ago, when he hired me to help him tell a story about his family: three generations of ranchers born out of slavery. The land my friend lives on today contains an original plot of land that was given to his great grandfather after Emancipation by his white owner. My friend remains on the land because, since he was a boy, his parents and grandparents advised him to “keep the land… they’re not making anymore.” The larger community lives by the same philosophy: They are caretakers of the land and the legacy of their ancestors. Last week, we took a group of local students on a historical tour and my friend advised them: “If you don’t honor your ancestors, you can’t really know who you are.”

A few years ago, I started researching my own family history. The search led me to a nearly forgotten family cemetery in rural North Carolina, where I stood in front of the tombstone of Joseph Maddrey – my great great grandfather, who died in 1912. Talk about looking death in the face. I continued researching and was able to learn quite a lot about the day to day experiences of my ancestors – where they lived, where they worked, where they attended church, and where and how they died. (For details, see my blog archives from the summer of 2006 – which also includes photos from a trip to Eliot’s boyhood summer home in Gloucester, Massachusetts.) This was, and remains, a very humbling discovery.

Death, for Eliot, provides continuity to the past and the future. It’s the same thing in the East Texas community of Mt. Union, where being closer to the earth brings one closer to God. Allow me to steal an excellent elucidation of this idea from a 2007 essay by Joseph Bottum entitled “Death & Politics” (printed in First Things, issue # 174):

“The significance of life derives from the presence of the future, while the richness of life derives from the presence of the past. How we live is important only if we see the consequential future flowing toward us – beginning, always, with the fact that we will die and must prepare our children to assume the burdens of culture. How we live is thick and meaningful only if we see the momentous past, the ancient ghosts, dwelling among us – beginning, always, with the fact that our parents have died and left their corpses’ care to us. Death is the anchor for every human association, from the family all the way up to the nation-state. It provides a reason for association; it keeps us from drifting by tying us to a temporal reality larger – richer and more significant – than our individual present.”

Sitting in St. Michael’s Church, I was not overcome with some magical or psychic sense of Eliot’s presence, but I was struck by a particular smell – a musty, smoky smell that reminded me of early autumn in my hometown, where the neighbors used wood stoves to stay warm. The phrase “the drafty church at smokefall” (from “Burnt Norton”) sprang instantly to mind. So maybe Eliot was there with us, in a sense.

We sat in the church of Eliot's ancestors while Professor Gail McDonald gave a lecture on the poet’s religious humility, and posed a significant question: How can we make Eliot’s Christianity palatable to secular, liberal, humanist professors? One student rightly responded that we should not have to make Christianity seem palatable in order to present a Christian poem to the world. We don’t preface non-Christian poems, he said, by trying to make a non-Christian worldview seem more palatable. This is a valid point, but I’d argue that Four Quartets should not even be presented as a “Christian” poem. I think the word carries too much baggage, and immediately introduces too many preconceived notions to the reader's mind. Readers should be allowed to find the poem, and its meaning, for themselves... just as people should be allowed to find God on their own terms.

For me, “Do you believe in God?” is not the right question. It’s “How do you believe in God?” In a 1935 lecture, Eliot said, “What I want is a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian.” I believe this comment helps to explain the achievement of Four Quartets – it is a series of poems about belief, not about dogma. And “East Coker” is an expression of a particular stage of belief: the dark night of the soul, which demands a complete surrender of self to a "larger reality." In this stage, preconceived notions must be thrown out the window.

... Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon

And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village...

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark

... 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.

I said to my soul, be still...

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