I love East Coker. I do. Last night I patched up my thirty-year-old copy of Eliot’s Four Quartets with clear packaging tape. When I was in college, one of my friends paid twenty dollars to rebind my twenty-five-dollar, leather-bound King James Bible for my birthday. But by last night no one had offered to rebind my $1.65 Harvest Book paperback edition of Four Quartets. Maybe I’m supposed to have internalized all the words I need by now.
The paper is thick, and the pages haven’t yellowed at all. The top edges of the pages have inexplicable, rusty freckles like the ones on my arms. I’m also “in the middle way.” In fact, I’m as old as Eliot was when he wrote East Coker.
Since when is fifty “the middle way,” by the way? Was Eliot flattering himself? My life divides neatly into smaller, decade-long lives, as if I were leading six different lives, and my fifties life makes me feel old, a lot like my thirties life did. My thirties were a little hard. I was out of shape and had lots of aches and pains. Some clock went off in my head at age thirty: I’m not married! What segments each of our lives?
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
When I was forty, I discovered the fountain of youth. An identity crisis and a slow recovery made the world seem new. I started an exercise-and-diet regime and a new career. I rediscovered poetry. My forties fulfilled the promise of my twenties – all of that Bible study and those fifty-four hours of English courses. But old age seemed to return with vigor last year about the time I turned fifty. For the first time, I know in my bones that most of my life has passed.
But, as I say, my youth and old age seem to come and go.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. 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.
A lifetime burning in every moment. “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past,” says the Preacher.
I was twenty when I wrote the first marginalia in my Four Quartets. What gets across the naiveté: my balloon-like script or my borrowed thoughts? Today my handwriting looks more wrinkled – more nuanced, I think. In college I wrote “the neg. theology” beside these lines:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
I remember the professor mentioning negative theology, which was the first time I had ever heard of the idea. I remember thinking that it sounded rather holy and cool, kind of like the essence of what my Jesus buddies and I were after in pursuing our very positive theology.
Why did I like Four Quartets back then? I remember liking the somewhat stiff diction that circled around on itself. The “dust in the air suspended” and the roses and bowls reminded me of quiet rooms of now-dead relatives and their loud, slow-ticking clocks. There was something quieting and alarming about rooms like that, and you can’t experience them after middle age. You’re too busy remembering them, outfitting them.
Earlier in his career, Eliot used the inherent contradiction of his language (his diction and syntax are at once kind of stately and creaky) to saturate his voice with irony. But Eliot uses his contradictory language in East Coker to achieve something quieter than irony; he achieves a kind of wisdom-poem, and his language seems perfect for an examination of negative theology. All that dust in the rose bowl and all that shadow fruit, all those footfalls in the garden. It’s an elegant and “a worn-out poetical fashion” all at once. In his end is his beginning.
But little in East Coker would have made sense to me in the beginning except for some of the more aphoristic and outwardly Christian portions of it. My overall attraction to it was inexplicable. Perhaps my spirit had found a kind of blueprint.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
East Coker is built on an Ecclesiastes chassis, and, as with Ecclesiastes’s body, you can’t tell if it’s coming or going. Old age, darkness, wisdom, despair, writing, and life cycles of people and families and civilizations circle around one another. East Coker has Ecclesiastes’s “a time for”’s, and it has a loosened pane and a tattered arras for Ecclesiastes’s loosened silver cord and broken golden bowl. The sun also rises:
Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence.
A lot of people think Ecclesiastes is depressing, and a lot of people think East Coker is depressing, too. But those people don’t understand apophatic theology, I say. The only thing that seems to depress Eliot in East Coker is his writing.
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate . . .
The subject of preaching and writing is the toughest part of Ecclesiastes for me, too, because the moment preaching and writing point to negative theology (the “goads” and “nails” below, perhaps), they also create a chasm between positive and negative theology:
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Do you feel the chasm? After all he went through, the Preacher was stuck looking for acceptable words.
According to the negative theology, God is ineffable, so suddenly you have a problem if you want to explain him or the dance he set in motion around him. Here’s the other point in East Coker where Eliot seems to throw down his pen:
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
These appearances make the poet a subject of his own poem. As Eliot moves from the irony of his early poetry to negative theology, he replaces the anti-heroes of his early poetry with his narrator – himself. Ecclesiastes is a personal book, a working through, a seeker’s journal, and East Coker is, too. Eliot’s ancestors emigrated to America from East Coker. He chose the poem’s opening and closing lines for his epitaph on the commemorative plaque in the church where his ashes are buried — St. Michael’s Church in East Coker.
In East Coker, the only anti-hero – the only fool – is the narrator, since anyone who preaches (or writes about) the negative theology is a fool. Ask the apostle Paul, who in his second letter to the Corinthians deliberately preached it in a clown suit.
East Coker shares Ecclesiastes’s ambivalence toward old age and wisdom just as it does toward writing. In East Coker, old men have nothing positive to offer the young.
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom resides in the darkness of God, and the only thing old men have to offer is something negative: the loss of themselves, a kind of death before death.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
But works like Ecclesiastes and East Coker are meant for the young as well as the old. In fact, East Coker reconciles the young and old, the ends and beginnings, in darkness. Perhaps Ecclesiastes and East Coker lend a little mystery to life, or at least to old age. I remember thinking as I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as a teenager, “Maybe the hoary head is a crown of glory, after all.” Young people feel a connection with a long, authentic life, or at least I felt such a connection back then. Even if I couldn’t decipher the old stone in my youth, I could at least carry it around with me.
Ecclesiastes ends rather perfunctorily: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” I can hear Thoreau rage against this ending, much as he declaims in Walden against the Westminster Catechism’s summary of man’s purpose: to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Suppose Shakespeare had taken Polonius’s famous aphorisms early in Hamlet and had put them in the prince’s mouth at the end. That’s the feeling I get from Ecclesiastes.
To be fair, Ecclesiastes’s end seems to focus on its younger readers – all of us, I guess, with beginner’s mind – since the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments may lead us, by God’s mercy, into the dark night the Preacher and John of the Cross and Eliot’s other mystic heroes believe in. (And “Fear God, and keep his commandments”: if those ain’t “acceptable words,” I don’t know what are.)
But East Coker ends with a challenge to the old:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
Eliot has given me a vision for my fifties, and maybe for my seventies if I go that long. (My sixties will take care of themselves, I reckon, like my twenties and forties.)
I carry my Harvest Book edition around now like I carried my pocket New Testament around as a teenager. In my beginning is my end.
Posted May 24, 2008.