What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
- The speaker steps away from the summer images that have been pretty positive at the end of Section 1 of "East Coker."
- Now we seem to be heading into "late November," which causes a transformation in the symbolic landscape of the poem.
- We're not sure at this point if the change good or bad. But if "Late roses" are filling with "early snow," it definitely sounds like a time of life and happiness (roses) is about to give way to a time of snow, and maybe even death.
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.
- The speaker listens to the rolling thunder, and feels like the sound of it is like the "triumphal cars" or maybe chariots "Deployed in constellated wars." Since these lines talk a lot about outer space, the speaker here is probably referring to the constellation Auriga, which is the Latin word for "charioteer." In the next line, he also mentions a "Scorpion," which no doubt refers to the constellation Scorpius.
- The speaker is here using his imagination in an innocent, almost child-like way to show how the night sky can fill us with wonder when we feel like we're connected to it. The speaker imagines great, ancient battles taking place among the constellations, and this fills him with a sense of connection to his surroundings. He talks about how comets "weep," possibly comparing the tails of comets to trails of tears.
- But what is all of this leading to, we might ask? Well for the speaker, the universe will ultimately "bring / The world to that destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns." In other words, the natural world has a cycle of fire and ice just like it has a cycle of life and death. The speaker has a half-optimistic, half-pessimistic view of modern culture, which seems to be going up in flames before our very eyes (remember that Eliot wrote East Coker just before the outbreak of World War Two).
- At this point, though, it's not clear if civilization is symbolically still burning with passion and purity, or if it's just entered a long and numb ice age.
That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meaning. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
- After hitting us with a really beautiful bit of writing, the speaker turns and criticizes himself, saying that all this poetry was just "a way of putting it—not very satisfactory." He says that at best, he's just "paraphrase[ing]" something he can't properly express, and worse yet, he's doing so "in a worn-out poetical fashion."
- Believe it or not, people in Eliot's time were already getting really concerned about the fact that nobody reads poetry anymore.
- So here, the speaker is almost saying, "Yeah yeah, I'm really long-winded and tough to read. I know it's not all that fun."
- However, whether we enjoy ourselves or not, and whether Eliot's poetry is any good or not, that still leaves us "with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meaning." In other words, it doesn't matter how much we dislike poetry or philosophy; we're still stuck with language as our main way of knowing the world, and language is never going to do quite the job we want it to.
- The speaker reaches a really weird conclusion when he says, "The poetry does not matter," because it seems that if anyone were going to think that poetry mattered, it'd be Eliot. But in the context of this passage, this comment makes sense because the speaker is saying that our struggle with language goes way beyond any single piece of poetry. A big part of this is because the poetry we end up producing is never quite "what one had expected." In other words, it's never quite perfect, because language can never be perfect.
- There's no point in trying to write a poem that totally captures the truth of life, since language never turns out the way we thought it would. And that's kind of like life, eh? It never turns out the way you thought it would, and you wanna know why?
- "Because we are not in control!" shouts the speaker, and there's no point in continuing to believe in the fantasy that we are.
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
- After spending a few hundred lines telling us about how great it'll be to find a sense of peace in the world, the speaker questions his own argument, asking what the value of this peace is supposed to be. He wonders if "the quiet-voiced elders" have deceived us into thinking that life was going to be great as soon as we found this supposed peace.
- Ironically, the speaker might be placing himself among this group of lying elders, since the deceitful arguments he's talking about here are very similar to the ones he's made throughout "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker." At this point, all of his words might just be "a receipt for deceit," meaning that they're scribbling on a piece of paper that remind us of the lies that we've "bought" into by believing them.
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
- Maybe the serenity the speaker's been talking about is all a sham. Maybe all the stuff he knows about Latin, Italian, German, and all the fancy literature of the past isn't "wisdom," but "only the knowledge of dead secrets." Maybe these things that the speaker prizes so much are totally useless for making sense of the darkness of modern times.
- Ultimately, there might be a pretty significant limit to "the knowledge derived from experience." This is a really depressing thing to think about, though, because, if this is the case, then we can't learn from experience, and we'll just keep making the same mistakes over and over. Major bummer.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
- Knowledge, says the speaker, just "imposes a pattern" onto the world that isn't really there—kind of like we do with constellations, which the speaker was literally celebrating like one minute ago. Now, though, he says that imposing our patterns onto the world isn't good enough, because in order to do the world justice, the patterns would have to change with the changes of the world and be "new in every moment." Trying to impose a pattern permanently would be like trying to create a building that would never fall down, and that's impossible. Don't you remember the opening lines of "East Coker"? If there's one thing we know, it's that buildings fall down.
- Every moment that passes gives a new measurement or "valuation of all we have been." So we are constantly taking stock of how we've performed as a civilization, and when we think we are seeing the truth of the "undeceived," we aren't actually seeing the truth. We're just seeing another lie that doesn't have the power to hurt us anymore, or can "no longer harm."
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment. Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
- We seem to be entering some sort of spooky "dark wood," where we can't really get a "secure foothold" and we're "menaced by monsters, fancy lights, / Risking enchantment." In short, the speaker seems to suggest here that there's a clear downside to the kind of imagination that he celebrates around line 230.
- He's suggesting that this kind of imagination can make the world seem beautiful; but it can also make the world seem terrifying, because there is a very thin line between spirituality and full-blown superstition when it comes to projecting our myths and stories onto the world.
- The speaker doesn't want to hear any more about the "wisdom of old men," which is again funny, since Eliot was no spring chicken (52 years old) when he wrote this poem. When he talks about old men's "fear of possession" (i.e., paranoia at having their actions controlled by some higher power), Eliot's speaker is definitely exploring the downside of having the kind of imagination that gets celebrated earlier in this poem. It might be great to look on the world with wonder, but what's keeping this wonder from turning into total paranoia or a schizophrenic nightmare? At this point, there's no clear answer to this question.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill.
- Ultimately, says the speaker, our biggest spiritual ideal should be "humility." It's pretty funny that of all people, T.S. Eliot is writing we need to take ourselves a little less seriously. But hey, the things we most often resent in the world are our own deepest flaws, and T.S. is human like the rest of us.
- Humility, says the speaker, is endless, and it is important for us to learn the lesson of humility. How do we go about doing this, you might ask? Well, have a look at the last two lines of this stanza. They basically end off where Section 1 of "East Coker" begins, reminding us that all humans (as well as all the stuff they build) will eventually return back to the earth and sea, and things will go on as though we never existed. Realizing that we will eventually die and every trace of us will be wiped from the Earth is a pretty good first step to becoming more humble, wouldn't you say?