September 1, 2019


Listening to "East Coker" (Dwight Longenecker, August 31st, 2019, Imaginative Conservative)

In "East Coker" Eliot's biography, his prayer life, and poetic technique interact in an especially powerful way. The background for the poem's composition is crucial for a wider perception of "East Coker" and the whole of the Quartets. Eliot had salvaged scraps of poetry from his work on Murder in the Cathedral and incorporated them into "Burnt Norton." He would do the same as he began work on "East Coker."

In 1939, with Britain about to plunge into war, Eliot was wondering if he would write poetry again. He had visited the village of East Coker in 1937, and using fragments of phraseology and ideas from "Burnt Norton" he began another poem in the same style and pattern. Only after the success of "East Coker" did he conceive the whole plan of four poems. "East Coker" therefore builds on the success of "Burnt Norton" and consolidates the genius and style of the first poem.

Eliot's poetic technique is the first of the three aspects to consider therefore. In the first two essays I explained Eliot's debt to the French symbolist poets and their use of images that are disturbing, bewildering, and emotionally evocative. Eliot uses this technique again in "East Coker." What on earth does "comets weep and Leonids fly" mean? What is "a grimpen where there is no secure foothold"? "Grimpen" is not in the dictionary. Yes, you may track down a hint from a Sherlock Holmes story, but it doesn't matter. You may not know the definition, but with the following line, "menaced by monsters," you feel the emotion.

That was the idea. The emotion lies beneath the meaning. It is chthonic--sub-linguistic. The emotions rumble in the depths--where the wild things are. They are the underground--the tumultuous deep.

Eliot once commented, "Good writers borrow. Great writers steal." Another favorite technique is allusion and quotation. The voices of great minds echo throughout Eliot's poetry. It is not only the great poets, but also historical figures, Eliot's ancestors, political writers, saints, and spiritual authorities as well as scraps of overheard conversation, snatches of popular songs, evocative catchphrases, slang, and slogans.

A quotation opens the door to a whole separate scene. It evokes the conversation and the cultural setting. An allusion connects the readers with the whole life, thought, and writings of a particular thinker. It enriches the experience of the poem by giving it depth and rooting it in the context of a greater culture, and lodging it within a broader sweep of history, theology, and philosophy. "East Coker" is rich in these allusions. The poem opens with one. "In my beginning is my end" is an inversion of the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots, "In my end is my beginning."

Eliot goes on through the poem to quote from the writings of a distant ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot, alludes to Dante, the book of Ecclesiastes, St John of the Cross, echoes Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Browne, and William Blake.

The poem is grounded in Eliot's biography not only in the fact that he visited the Somerset village of East Coker, but why he visited.

Posted by at September 1, 2019 7:11 AM


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