Study Guide

Four Quartets East Coker, Section 1

By Eliot, T.S.

East Coker, Section 1

Lines 179-182

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.

  • No slowing down now. The speaker elaborates on the theme of time in "Burnt Norton" at the beginning of "East Coker." If all times (like past and future) are one time (like the present), then it makes sense that the speaker says, "In my beginning is my end" (179).
  • So what are some other things we might associate with the passing of time? We would definitely say houses rising and falling, either crumbling or being built up, either filling an empty field or leaving one empty again. Here you almost get a time-lapse sequence of houses, buildings, or highway bypasses going up and coming down in England.
  • The speaker here might actually be talking about the place that "East Coker" is named for. East Coker is a tiny village in England that Eliot's ancestors came from. Like Burnt Norton, it's a part of the English landscape that basically hearkens back to England's rural roots. In fact, a church in East Coker is where Eliot's own ashes were housed after he died. So… dude must have really liked the place.

Lines 183-186

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.

  • The time lapse continues as the speaker talks about the "old stone" of the past giving way to modern buildings. Further, the "old timber" giving way to "new fires" is almost definitely a reference to the Burnt Norton manor of the previous quartet. 
  • The ashes of these past buildings sink down into the earth, joining the "flesh, fur, and faeces" (ew) of all the humans and animals that have died in the same landscape. By comparing buildings to things that live and die, the speaker's telling us that everything eventually decays and rejoins the earth. In this way, we can think of the earth as containing the whole past and future. 
  • Biography note: when the Eliot writes, "In my beginning is my end," he must really mean it, because the ashes he's talking about in this poem could be his own ashes, which were placed in a church in East Coker after he died. In this sense, Eliot's "end" was already contained in this poem as he was writing it. Think about it.

Lines 187-191

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.

  • As the speaker's cycle of time continues, he tells us directly that all the things that people make are basically the same as people—they're around for a while and then they're gone. That explains why he personifies houses here as being able to "live and die." There's "a time for building," he says, and a time for things to decay and fall apart, which he conveys really well with lines 189-191.
  • In a way, you could read this passage as the speaker saying that it's not so bad that the world has gone to ruins in the modern age, since this might just be a part of the natural cycle of growth and decay that controls everything. Here, Eliot might even be reneging on poems like "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," which basically just talk about how terrible everything is. In this part of "The Four Quartets," the speaker suddenly becomes the smiling stoic, saying, "Aw shucks. Things might be bad, but that's just part of the circle of life." Cue the Elton John music.

Lines 192-201

    In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotized. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

  • In case you hadn't heard him the first time, the speaker repeats, "In my beginning is my end," turning this line almost into a kind of mantra. Suddenly, he places "you" near an open field, standing on a country lane of some kind. You're leaning against a bank and you see a van pass. It's unclear if the van is in a hurry, but what is clear is that the road "insists on the direction / Into the village" (196-197). 
  • After saying that the lane insists on leading you (or the passing van) into the village, the speaker adds that "the electric heat" of the afternoon seems to hypnotize you. (Thomas Thomas Thomas, can't you see, sometimes your poems just hypnotize me?) 
  • It's not a stretch at all to say that the village the speaker mentions here is specifically East Coker, and that the force that leads you into it is your own desire for a simpler life and a more meaningful connection to the past and the natural world. Even the grey stone of this village seems to absorb light instead of "refract" it. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, Eliot will use the phrase "grey stone" to talk about the misery of human existence. But here, the fact that the stone absorbs light might be a positive thing.
  • The positivity of this stanza, though, is made a little more complex by its final two lines, which talk about how the dahlias (flowers) "sleep in empty silence" and "[w]ait for the early owl" (200-201). These lines just seem to show the speaker forgetting about all his fancy ideas for a moment so he can take in the beauty of nature. That said, there's also something Zen-like about these lines, as if they could belong in a haiku or something. 
  • We might ask ourselves, "Why do the dahlias sleep in empty silence?" and "What is the 'early owl' a metaphor for?" Judging by the enigmatic tone of this particular passage, though, the speaker might want these questions to remain unanswerable. These images don't need to refer to anything beyond themselves, because they are intended to clear our minds of their modern clutter and make us focus on the present moment (and the natural world) in an undistracted way.

Lines 202-209

                                     In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –
A dignified and commodious sacrament.

  • The speaker brings your mind back to the open field he's talking about, and says that if you don't come too close, you can "hear the music." By not coming too close, he most likely means not letting your rational mind try to control or make sense of the experience. This special experience isn't something you can "grasp" in the same way that you can memorize the facts in a biology textbook. It can only come if you're willing to remain a little ignorant, at least on a rational level. 
  • So what is it you'll be able to hear and see if you go along with the speaker's instructions? Well, you'll hear a bit of music "Of the weak pipe and the little drum" at midnight. These little traditional instruments could symbolize a sort of innocent (rural) past, still making itself heard in the dark times of Western culture. There is a simple dignity to be found in the past, hints the speaker, that we can still recapture today if we want to. 
  • The greatest symbol the speaker can think of to show the beauty of English history at its best is the "matrimonie" of man and woman in marriage. The "dancing around the fire" also alludes to England's pagan roots. 
  • As you might have also noticed, "matrimonie" is definitely not spelled right. That's because here, the speaker has actually switched to Old English spellings of certain words. "Daunsinge" for example, is actually "dancing." The speaker switches to these spellings to make it seem as though you've suddenly travelled back in time, and you're watching the wedding celebration of a man and woman from an age like Chaucer's (1343-1400). This old-school wedding celebration, with its simple folk and simple music, fills our speaker with a huge sense of nostalgia because the poet often wants to throw off the complications of modern life and return to a simple past. 
  • We can see his desire for a simple past in the way he describes the marriage as "dignified and commodious." Now, dignified might be a term that makes total sense to us in this situation, but commodious isn't all that romantic, since it basically means "simple and convenient." Nonetheless, the speaker's almost willing to admit here that he'd gladly give up all of his poetic brilliance and complexity of ideas if he could just return to a happier, simpler time.

Lines 210-218

Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,

  • As we read on, we find that the two marriage partners are linked together "Two and two" in "necessarye coniunction." The line keeps showing off the speaker's Chaucerian spelling and elaborates on the ideas of simple love and the happiness of a bygone age. The fact that this married couple leaps through the flames might symbolize their purification in fire, since fire has also served as an image of purification in "The Waste Land" and in Dante's Inferno (and let's face it, Eliot might be a little obsessed with the latter).
  • The dancing in circles symbolizes the couple's connection to infinity and the endless cycle of time—a circle traditionally represents unending things. And the dancing, of course, represents the kind of total commitment to the present moment that the speaker thinks we lack in the modern era (see also his discussion of dancing in lines 64-69).
  • All in all, the folks at this wedding party might not be all that sophisticated like the speaker, but their "rustic laughter" and "heavy feet in clumsy shoes" have something about them that the speaker really digs. This is because he thinks these people's dancing connects them to nature in a way that modern people aren't connected to nature. These dancing folks don't just have "heavy feet"; they have "Earth feet, loam feet," which directly connects their dancing to nature. 
  • Eliot doesn't hit us with many rhyming couplets in "The Four Quartets," but when he does throw us one in lines 220 and 221, his timing is perfect. The simple rhyming of "country mirth" with "under earth" totally captures the innocent beauty of the folks at this bygone marriage party. Further, the phrase "of those under earth" shows how their dancing directly connects them to all of their ancestors who once performed these same simple dances, but who have died. 
  • With this link between past and present, you can really start to sense why the speaker really liked religion and spirituality. Going to church for him wasn't just fulfilling because he felt that God loved him, but because he liked participating in the exact same rituals that people had been performing for thousands of years, and this made him feel connected to the past. 
  • Not only does the dancing of the simple wedding partyers connect them to their ancestors; it connects them to the natural world, as the speaker suggests a direct link by claiming that their dancing "nourishes the corn." Of course, back in pagan times, people would've thought that stuff like ritual dancing could have a direct effect on the weather and the quality of crops. In this sense, the speaker implies that this sort of dancing is an organic way of "Keeping time" that is way more meaningful than the mechanical clocks and trapper-keepers of our modern era.
  • And by the way, if you're starting to think that this guy's getting a little hippie on us here, it's not just you.

Lines 219-225

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

  • The speaker keeps on about how the folks in their past wedding celebrations are connected to their ancestors and to the earth through their dancing. Their dancing is also connected to the living seasons and "the constellations," in the sense that people used to tell what time of year it was by noticing the seasons change and by checking out the night sky. For the speaker, this is definitely a more natural way of keeping time than a digital Timex.
  • The seasons tell people when it's a good time for "milking" the cows, when it's a good time to "harvest" the wheat, and when men and women should "couple" or have sexual relations. This sort of connection to nature is something we've definitely lost in the modern world. 
  • When the speaker mentions "dung and death" at the end of this stanza, he doesn't mean it in a negative way. In this context, what he means is that dung and death are both the same, insofar as dung and dead bodies go back into the ground and fertilize the growth of new life ("nourish the corn"). In this way, the speaker reminds us that when we die, our bodies will go back into the earth and feed the growth of new organisms. For him, at least, it's comforting to know that we're part of this circle of life.
  • Okay, we can't help it. Here.

Lines 226-229

     Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.

  • Now that the midnight wedding-peasant dance seems to be over, dawn comes, and "another day" prepares for the same "heat and silence" that has led the speaker down a country road to East Coker. At this moment, the speaker knows that the "dawn wind" is blowing out at sea, because he's totally connected to his surroundings. 
  • When he says, "I am here," you might want to say back, "That's right, dude!" But then he adds, "Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning." What this probably means is that the speaker knows he's already connected to his "beginning," which is a thing that draws time together and therefore draws together all of the places he's ever been. He knows that his "beginning" could reside in any number of places, so it's best to hedge his bets and say that he's in many places at once.