Meditating Four Quartets: East Coker (V)

Early last Lent (2014) I began to blog on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I had hoped to complete my ruminations in six months or so, but I had to break off in mid-August in order to begin my preparations for my November lecture in Wales. I didn’t even have a chance to finish the series on “East Coker,” the second of the Quartets. It’s time to do precisely that.

Fifth Movement

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—but there is no competition— / There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. / For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

“East Coker” begins with an invocation of temporality, the rhythms of life, and the pervasive presence of death. Here in the concluding movement the poet reflects on his struggles, and failures, to speak truly within time. Every writer knows both the challenge of finding the right words and the feeling that no matter how hard one has worked on the composition, it’s just not right. Did St Paul always find the right words? Did he never re-read one of his letters and say to himself “Hmm, I could have said that better”? Word processors have changed everything. Revision and rewrites are so easy. But they weren’t easy for the biblical authors nor for poets only seventy-five years ago.

The challenge of the poet is more daunting than that of other writers. As Thomas Howard observes: “Poetry demands above all an almost hydraulic compression of language that obtains quite differently when it comes to the work of the prose writer” (Dove Descending, p. 86). Eliot looks back on twenty years of composition and sees but failed attempts to say what he wanted to say. Earlier in the poem he referred to the “intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.” His poetry, he now sees, has been but raids on the inarticulate. The poet, like everyone, lives in time; and the words he employs share in this temporal location. No matter how hard he might work to master the terms and refine the imagery, the poem never quite expresses what he wants it to express, for both the poet and the linguistic environment have changed. Once put into final form, the poem immediately becomes out-of-date. “As soon as [the poet] speaks,” explains Kenneth Kramer, “his words are altered in and by time’s passing” (Redeeming Time, p. 98). Between beginning and end necessarily arises a semantic disconnect.

The theologian faces a similar challenge and failure. He too lives in time. He cannot step outside history to lock-in the truth of the God who has spoken his Word in history. It doesn’t matter whether the theologian is Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. The truth of which he would speak always surpasses and breaks the “shabby equipment” he is required to use. Christos Yannaras refers to Orthodoxy’s “apophaticism of knowledge”—“our refusal to exhaust knowledge of the truth in its formulation” (Elements of Faith, p. 17). Life cannot be imprisoned in scholastic precision, which is why antinomy, paradox, and metaphor remain essential to theological reflection:

In the texts of the theologians and Fathers of the Church concepts often contradict one another conceptually in order that the transcendence of every representation of their content may become possible, and that the possibility of empirical participation of the whole man (and not only the mind) in the truth expressed therein may show through the logical antitheses. The God of the Church is “Being beyond all being, Divinity more than divine, the nameless name, beginning beyond all beginning, mind beyond the power of thought and word unspoken and the uncontained which contains all things. The knowledge of God is “knowledge in ignorance, participation in what cannot be shared.” Theology is the “form of the formless, shaping of shapeless things, symbols of the non-symbolic, forms of things without form”; it expresses “dissimilar similarities drawing everything into its eternal embrace” [St Symeon the New Theologian]. (pp. 17-18)

And this is why, I would add, that theology must never allow itself to become stuck in mere reiteration of the doctors of the faith, as if in their testimony they had captured and perfected the truth once spoken. Because historical and cultural context is always changing, reiteration can easily become a falsification of spiritual experience. One can repeat the words and yet be speaking heresy. Doctrines must develop in order to remain the same. For the theologian, as for the poet, “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” Only the Holy Spirit can assure the continuity of the gospel in time.

(Go to next meditation)

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

  1. tess says:

    Oh, Eliot! Reading him is such a worthy endeavor.
    I’ve never commented before, but I wanted to let you know your reflections on Eliot moved me very deeply. Thank you.


  2. Jonathan says:

    It has always impressed me how little poetry TSE saw fit to publish. In fact he didn’t write very much at all, anyway not by comparison with other poets who have made contributions of similar stature. I guess he was busy with critical work (do you read his prose, Fr. Aidan?) and with his remarkable career as an editor. But given that, I think there was as well a spirituality in his self-restraint as a publishing poet.

    East Coker, if I remember rightly, was TSE’s first poetic composition in several years, begun just as World War II was starting — talk about “conditions that seem unpropitious.” There is a tension, I think, throughout East Coker and all the Quartets, between the idea of “unpropitious” history, and the sentiment that “Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter.”


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