East Coker does not deserve the taint of TS Eliot’s narcissistic gloom

Simon Jenkins

A Somerset village with a golden-toned church was done a serious disservice by this bleak, American poet.
east_cokerEast Coker church on Good Friday. The day may be immaterial to a non-believer, but to any lover of English churches Holy Week has drenched their architecture in terror and faith down the centuries, depicted in roods, screens, sepulchres and sanctuaries. But why East Coker? The answer is that it was here that TS Eliot chose to evoke, in the second of his Four Quartets, not just the gloom of the Good Friday season but his vision of mystical misery for all humankind. Were Eliot not a devout Anglican we might think him the bleakest of atheists on the strength of this poem. What did the village do to him, that he should use it to evoke such nihilism?
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Eliot’s ashes are buried in East Coker. He discovered that his Elyot ancestors went from here to America in the 1660s and one served on the jury at the Salem witch trials. The family eventually migrated to Missouri, where Eliot himself was born in St Louis. He had no other attachment to the place. In the late-1930s he cycled over when staying with friends nearby and on his last visit in 1939 took some photographs, but did not return before his death in 1965.
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The village was to Eliot rather an idea, a metaphor to put to poetic use, an idyll of England at the start of the second world war. To an expatriate it was also soil, roots, something to which, however much he ignored it, he should dutifully return. “In my beginning is my end,” he began the poem and ended it, “in my end is my beginning”. This faintly oriental paradox leaves Eliot pilgrims scratching their heads before stomping off to the Helyar Arms down the road.

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Another early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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