As “Burnt Norton” was inspired by T. S. Eliot’s walk around the garden and grounds of an old 17th century manor house in Cotswald, so “East Coker” was inspired by Eliot’s visit to the birthplace of Andrew Eliot, his first American ancestor. The poem was composed a few months after Great Britain had entered the war against Germany.
In my beginning is my end. In succession / Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, / Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place / Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass. / Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, / Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth / Which is already flesh, fur and faeces, / Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf. / Houses live and die: there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane / And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots / And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
“In my beginning is my end.” The American who had become a British citizen visits the village of the English Eliot who had immigrated to America 250 years earlier and founded one of the great American families. East Coker might literally be described as Eliot’s beginning and end. After his death his ashes were interred in St Michael’s Church.
Why did Eliot visit East Coker in 1937? Was he trying to make a connection to his ancestral past? He was 49 years old at the time of his visit. At that point in life one often seeks to find meaning in the history and stories of one’s family. I know that after my father died, I had to have several lengthy conversations with my Aunt Dottie and Uncle Ray about my father and grandparents. I later drove to Fredericksburg to visit a cousin, Dan Parkinson, who had lived with my grandparents and had worked closely with my father in the furniture business. I needed to know more about my father as a man, but I also needed to make a deeper connection to the ancestral Kimels. I don’t think Danny, whom I had not seen for decades until my father’s funeral, really understood why I needed to talk to him. My grandfather and grandmother both emigrated from Bohemia in the late 19th century. We know next to nothing about their life in Europe. I do not know where they were born and raised. I know that my grandfather had at least one brother who also came to the United States, but I do not know who he was or who my relatives on that side of the family tree might be. I have no East Coker to visit. Houses rise and fall. How many generations of Kimels have been buried in the earth “already flesh, fur and faeces”?
One of the first things an American tourist notices are all the old houses. For Americans a hundred year house is old, but in England that virtually qualifies as new construction. At least that is how it seemed when my family and I stayed in Lincoln for a month back in the summer of 1984. Each day (when we weren’t doing touristy type things elsewhere), we would climb the hill and visit the butcher and green grocer. Lincoln was a different world, unlike anything we had experienced in the U.S. History oozes from the stones. And the Lincoln Cathedral is absolutely stunning.
Eliot’s language evokes the well-known words of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Eccl 3:1-2). Here is the circle of life that is so easily forgotten in modern urban existence, but which inescapably shaped the living and dying of all previous generations of humanity and which still shapes the lives of hundreds of millions throughout the world. The rural community of East Coker has experienced this circle for over a thousand years. Modern Americans, by contrast, spend all of their energies avoiding their mortality. We love new buildings. We hide in our technology. The closest we get to the circle of life is Walt Disney’s “The Lion King.”
There is a time, sings the poet, “for the wind to break the loosened pane / And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots / And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.” We build our houses to protect us from the chaos. They provide a measure of safety and security, as does civilization, as does class, wealth, and status, as does religion. Even our cathedrals, built to glorify the Creator and shelter the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, can become fortresses of egoistic defense against the living God. Is Eliot simply noting the obvious fact that empires rise and fall; or is he perhaps intimating that we, safely tucked in our homes and hidey-holes, need to be shaken, convulsed, upended, rent asunder by the mighty wind who is Holy Spirit?
Veni, creator Spiritus
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora.
Only thus will we discover the beginning that is our end.