Study Guide

Four Quartets East Coker, Section 3

By Eliot, T.S.

East Coker, Section 3

Lines 280-288

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. 

  • Quick question: who's gonna die? 
  • Quick answer: everybody (eventually…).
  • Or, in the speaker's words, "They all go into the dark." That's right, everyone in the world is going to die someday; no matter how important or immortal they might think they are, they're all going end up dead at some point. 
  • To make his point a little clearer, the speaker gives us a laundry list of all the proud figures who are going to die someday: "captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters…" And with this list, you can really get a sense of the Biblical proportions that the speaker gives his message. You get the sense that he's like God from the Old Testament, smiting the proud, the vain, and the gluttonous alike. 
  • And it's not just people who vanish into nothingness. Eventually, the "Sun" and "Moon" are going to disappear, too. In a fairly humorous moment, the speaker adds that important newspapers like the "Stock Exchange Gazette" (which, as you can imagine, talked about a stock exchange that had totally collapsed in America by the time the speaker wrote this poem). What's funny here is that, by mentioning these publications after saying that the moon and sun will disappear, the speaker mocks the idea that people in his time would have an easier time imagining the loss of the sun and moon than imagining the loss of important newspapers. And last time Shmoop checked, the sun and moon are still going strong, and newspapers… meh, not so much.
  • Surprise, surprise. After talking about how humanity is going to die someday and leave no trace on the universe, the speaker suggests that our senses are "cold" and we no longer feel the "motive" that's supposed to drive us to take "action" (284). Based on what the speaker has said so far, this has to do with the fact that humanity hasn't come to terms with its own mortality, and is spending too much time fantasizing about immortality and self-importance.

Lines 289-294

And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,

  • Not only will everyone and everything the speaker mentions die, but we (the readers) will also "go with them, into the silent funeral." This funeral is for no one in particular, "for there is no one to bury." In this case, the speaker is still talking about the plain fact that we'll all die someday. 
  • Having "no one to bury" at the funeral might sound good at first, but let's just think about that for a second. Burying someone is a way of getting closure on the fact that they're gone, and the painful act of burying is necessary if we're going to heal ourselves and move on with our lives. By denying us a body to mourn over, though, the speaker is suggesting that the sadness we all feel in the modern age is something we can't get over, because we're not exactly sure of what we've lost. Or in other words, we're not exactly sure what we're mourning (having no body to bury), and this makes it much more difficult for us to get over our sense of loss.
  • The speaker mentions next how he once told his soul to "be still" and to let the darkness of nothingness come over it. He wants his soul to accept total darkness and oblivion, which basically means he wants his soul to completely disappear. Why would he do this? Well throughout this poem, the speaker has been alluding to Eastern religions, and many of these religions believe that spiritual peace can only come to us after we've overcome the constricting force of our own self-obsessed egos. To this end, the speaker blends eastern with western religion by mentioning the "darkness" of the Christian "God," and associating God with this darkness that destroys the ego.
  • Now usually, we associate God with light; but here, the speaker wants us to associate God with darkness and death, because it is only by embracing our own mortality that we can learn to be humble and can find a true path to spiritual fulfillment. 
  • With an incredible image, the speaker compares the darkness that destroys our egos to the darkness that falls over a theater when the stage crew is changing the scenery, when we (the audience) can hear them rustling around in the darkness. This is like saying we can sort of sense (hear) God at work when we start to let go of our egos, but we can't really prove (see) that He's there.

Lines 295-300

And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away –
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;

  • Just like the scenes being changed on a dark stage, we all know that secretly, all the superficial things we care about in our day-to-day lives are "being rolled away" forever. Or, to use another example, it's like when we're riding the subway ("underground train") and the train stops in the dark tunnel "between stations," and we're in a group full of people in the darkness. 
  • At this moment, the darkness and stillness reminds us of death. People deal with the anxiousness of the moment by speaking more loudly at first, but eventually, the conversation falls and "slowly fades into silence." This is the moment, the speaker tells us, when "you see behind every face the mental emptiness deeper / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about."
  • In other words, people aren't anxious just because they don't have anything to think about, but because they have nothing to think about. They have to think about their own approaching nothingness, which is going to come to us with death. Sounds like fun, eh? 
  • Also, think about the train image in this passage. We modern folks might prefer that our lives work just like a train, always moving forward on a straight track, and never veering away from that track. In this sense, then, the train symbolizes just how much people rely on constantly getting from one thing to another in their lives in order to avoid thinking about big spiritual questions. But every now and then, though, the train of life might get stopped in a dark tunnel, and we'll have to start thinking…

Lines 301-307

Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

  • Picking up on the subway and theater examples, the speaker adds another situation where we might confront our own nothingness, when we're under an intense drug like ether. When you're under the spell of ether, you're not completely knocked out, but your conscious mind almost is. In other words, this state gives us a little taste of what it's like to be almost dead, but not quite there. 
  • In this state of not-quite-being-dead, the speaker told his soul to lie still, "and wait without hope," because it seems at this point like the only thing that can really give rebirth to the soul is total humility and hopelessness. It's only by going to the deepest point of darkness that we can start to climb back toward a good spiritual state.
  • If we wait with hope, it will be "hope for the wrong thing." Why is that, you ask? Well, as long as we hope for things to get better, we haven't totally hit rock bottom. And it's only at rock bottom, the speaker suggests, that we'll actually rebuild ourselves on a solid foundation. Also, the speaker tells us that it's important to "wait without love," because it's not until we've experience total hopelessness, loveless-ness, and humility that we'll shake off our selfish egos. 
  • We can still have "faith" for good things to happen, but these lines imply that it's important that we don't think too specifically about what we're hoping for. We need a sort of general faith that isn't ruined by specific desires (like wanting a new iPad). 
  • Basically, the speaker tries to sum up what he's saying here when he tells us to "Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought." At first, we might be all like "Hey dude, don't you tell me I'm not ready for thought." But what the speaker means here is that we shouldn't start to think until we've purified ourselves by destroying our egos. And we can't do this until we've hit rock-bottom, which we haven't done yet.
  • The only way we can get rid of our egos is if we keep descending into the darkness of rock-bottom. In this sense, only the total "darkness" can "be the light" guiding us to redemption, and total stillness (the total collapse of the ego) shall be the "dancing" that gives us new life.

Lines 308-312

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

  • The speaker throws us a couple of images of nature to help, and based on what he's said so far in this poem, he does this to remind us of the importance of connecting with the present moment and the natural world. Also, though, he reminds us of all the stuff that's going to keep happening long after we're dead and the world has forgotten about us. The mention of the "wild thyme unseen" especially shows that the plants of nature will continue on, whether we're around "see" them or not. Here, the speaker is going after that old "tree falling in the woods" riddle and saying very clearly, "Yeah, the tree still falls with or without you."
  • Another thing that brings us into the present moment is the "laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy" that draws our minds back to those innocent children the speaker's always going on about. Again, he connects the awesomeness of experiencing the present moment with "the agony / of death and birth." In doing so, he reminds us that finding spiritual fulfillment is going to require a certain death in our egos and rebirth of our spirits, and this death is going to cause us a lot of "agony."

Lines 313-317

                                      You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

  • Yeah, dude, we totally are saying that you're "repeating / Something [you] have said before." You've been smacking us over the head with the same point for three hundred lines now. If only we could say exactly what that point is…
  • The speaker admits to how repetitive he's being. But the reason he needs to be repetitive is because he's trying to convince us of a spiritual truth, and this isn't as simple as training a cat to use the bathroom. The speaker can't just lay out instructions for spiritual enlightenment; he has to find different ways to say the same point, in hopes that eventually we'll be able to absorb the spirit of what he's saying. 
  • For us to "arrive there" (which is apparently the place we want to be), the speaker says that we have to take a route that's going to be really, really unpleasant, and "wherein there is no ecstasy." Where is this place we want to get to? Well, it's basically "where you are." But how is "where we are" the place we want to get to? Think about it for a second. The speaker has spent a lot of this poem talking about how we modern folks never actually enjoy the present moment. So in this sense, the place we're actually trying to get to is the place where we already are. Or in other words, the speaker implies that we spend way too much time trying to get somewhere in life, when it'd be better for us to try (just for once) to connect with where was already are, which is the present moment.

Lines 318-321

In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.

  • In order for us to get to this place that we "do not know" (since the speaker assumes we're all superficial and hollow), we have to totally empty our minds of all the stuff we think we know and "go by a way which is the way of ignorance." And if we want to gain the spiritual fulfillment that we all apparently lack, then we have to "go by the way of dispossession." 
  • So does this mean we have to give away all our stuff? Well maybe, but for starters, why not care a little bit less about the stuff you own and care a little bit more about the things you can't buy, like spiritual peace.

Lines 322-326

In order to arrive at what you are not
   You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

  • In order to arrive where the speaker wants to bring us, we must "go through the way in which [we] are not," which according to the context of this section, is more or less saying that we have to pass through some sort of experience where our egos are totally broken down. 
  • Further, we have to totally embrace our own ignorance and accept the fact that we aren't nearly as smart as we think we are. In other words, the only knowledge that's going to lead us to redemption is the knowledge that "what you do not know is the only thing you know." The only thing we really own is the freedom to let go of our desire to own stuff, and the only place we really are is "where [we] are not."
  • The speaker leaves us in a bit of a conundrum. He's basically saying that we can't even safely say that we are "here" at any one moment, because our minds are always elsewhere, focusing on all the achievements and possessions we want to have. To this extent, we basically just need to get over ourselves in a really radical way.