Meditating Four Quartets: East Coker (III)

Third Movement

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark, / The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant, / The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters, / The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers, / Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees, / Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark, / And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha / And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors, / And cold the sense and lost the motive of action. / And we all go with them, into the silent funeral, / Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.


They pointed the Hubble telescope at an empty patch in space for a total of 50 days. What we could not see the telescope could—over 10,000 individual galaxies. Hence I stumble when I read the phrase “vacant interstellar spaces.” I know Elliot would have us imagine that empty blackness between stars, but all I can think of is this is the presence of all the galaxies. And then I remember Ransom’s experience in Out of the Silent Planet. On the trip to the planet Malacandra he encounters the quickening radiance that fills the heavens:

But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now-now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.

But the poet asks me to push my own images aside and to imagine utter blackness, that blackness one might experience when one is alone at night in the forest, when one cannot see one’s hand in front of one’s face, the vacant space that stretches between stars, void of all illumination, void of all energy and life. Into that dark they go.

It doesn’t matter who they are. The rich, the famous, the nobility, the powerful—all are powerless before the inevitability of their mortality. They all die and enter into the nothingness. Perhaps the privileged hope that somehow their position and status might shield them from the darkness, yet death triumphs against all of our defenses. What does the phrase “And dark the sun and moon” mean? Is Eliot including the two great lights of day and night in the list, as if they were just two other individuals who thought they could escape death? This apocalyptic note feels odd to me.

Why has Eliot chosen to speak of these groups of people in the third-person? Is it because they are more prone to deceive themselves about death than others? I confess that these are my least favorite lines I have come across so far in the Quartets. Is the Eliot smugly sitting in judgment upon them? Are they more vacant than everyone else? Does he see himself exercising the role of prophet? Is he not one of “them”?

“And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.” And now a new image comes to mind—the theory of the heat death of the universe.

The stars run out of fuel. Energy dissipates, motion ceases. The temperature of the universe approaches absolute zero–maximal entropy. In the words of the 19th century physicist Rudolf Clausius: “The more the universe approaches this limiting condition in which the entropy is a maximum, the more do the occasions of further change diminish; and supposing this condition to be at last completely attained, no further change could evermore take place, and the universe would be in a state of unchanging death.”


But heat death is not merely future, certainly not for Eliot. Death has so penetrated our souls that we find ourselves in a state of frozen paralysis. We are incapable of extricating ourselves from our lifelessness. We are incapable of initiating change. It’s just too cold. Please just let me sleep.

“And we all go with them, into the silent funeral.” Finally Eliot includes himself and all who do not identify with the above-mentioned groups. We too go into the dark; we too join the funeral procession. We have no choice. Perhaps if we live in a country with great medicine and excellent medical insurance coverage we might delay our plunge into the abyss, but the nothingness will overcome us.

I cannot count how many people I buried during my years of active ministry. With many I had the privilege of walking with them into the darkness. With others I was called after their death—to speak the words of the burial liturgy.

“Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.” We bury corpses, not persons. And yet … the person is always named. When I buried Aaron two years ago, I was acutely aware that it was his body I was burying, yet it was more than a corpse in a casket—I buried my son. People sometimes say to me, “He’s in a better place.” I want to say to them, “I buried my son.”

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2 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: East Coker (III)

  1. I often think about all the souls that have died over the eons. Where do they go? Are they transformed into those galaxies that twinkle in our night sky? Is there anything after this? I cannot know, but I can hope. I hope we are all reunited on the “other side”. I hope we are more than slime on a petri dish. Hope is all we have, and some of us have love. We all have the certainty of finding out the answer, eventually.


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Eliot’s friend, Charles Williams, included in his selection of daily readings, The New Christian Year,
    “Although Christ died as a man, and His holy soul was separated from His spotless body, nevertheless His Godhead remained unseparated from both—from the soul and from the body.

    St. John Damascene: De Fide Orthod. iii.”


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