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 learn 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 had to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
- At the beginning of Section 5 of "East Coker," the speaker seems to take stock (much as T.S. Eliot himself might) of his life as a poet, saying that he's middle-aged now, and has been writing for twenty years between World Wars One and Two, or "l'entre deux guerres" ("between two wars").
- Throughout his life, the speaker has tried to learn how to use words properly, yet has discovered that "every attempt / Is a wholly new start." Even though the speaker was one of the most famous poets in the world when he wrote "East Coker," he shows a lot of humility in saying that he's still merely trying to "learn" how to use words. Here, he's actually showing some of the humility he thinks we should all try to show in our own lives.
- Every time he sits down to write, says the speaker, he completely begins again. He can't just take the skills he's developed as a poet and completely scribble down perfect poetry. Everything he writes feels like starting over, and this is because each time a poet finishes a work, he or she "has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer had to say, or the way in which / One is no longer disposed to say it."
- In other words, the speaker says that since life is always flowing and changing, and language is never quite grasping the thing it wants to say. We have to accept the fact that, no matter how good we think we are at communicating, we're ultimately powerless to make language do what we want it to. Or worse yet, we keep changing as individuals, so by the time we've actually gotten language to express our deepest emotions and beliefs, we've become different people and don't totally believe those things anymore. Darn the luck.
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.
- Since we're always changing and language isn't under our control anyway, it turns out that every time we try to communicate something, we're basically starting over. Continuing with his war imagery, the speaker claims that our efforts to communicate are like a "raid on the inarticulate," or like an attack we constantly make on something that can't really be spoken or written.
- As we make these attacks on the inexpressible, our "shabby equipment" (our words) are always deteriorating, because the more that time passes, the more these words are removed from the idea or emotion they were supposed to express. In this sense, our words are constantly deteriorating as they're left behind by the changing or "turning" world.
- Our words are also constantly deteriorating because our emotions are always "imprecise," never quite the thing that words are trying to express. Instead, our "undisciplined squads of emotion" are always disobeying the organizations and patterns that we try to force onto them with words.
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.
- Our words are totally useless when it comes to the inexpressible stuff we're always trying to express. Besides, even the stuff that we could conquer through our willpower "has already been discovered / Once or twice." The speaker is probably talking here about the true greats of Western literature like Dante or Shakespeare. It's totally possible that these men have been able to express the inexpressible, but the speaker admits that we modern people can't possibly hope to be as great as these guys.
- That said, it's not like we're competing with Dante and Eliot here. We're all in this thing called life together, and our biggest concern now is trying to "recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again." What has been lost, we might ask?
- Well it's not totally clear here, but the speaker is probably talking about some higher meaning to life that great literature can help bring us toward.
- There's another problem, though. Even though words can never quite say what they mean, the age we live in is especially bad for finding higher meaning in our lives. This is what the speaker means when he says that we work "under / conditions / That seem unpropitious." But who knows? Maybe our modern world has seen "neither the gain nor loss" of any great meaning.
- In any case, the speaker concludes this thought by saying that "For us, there is only the trying." Or in other words, all we can really do is keep trying to express our deepest emotions in words, even though we know we're going to keep failing. To say that "The rest is not our business" is the same thing as saying that the desire to be a "great author" in order to feed our egos no longer has any meaning in the modern world. All of the things that actually are sayable have been said by great men like Dante or Shakespeare, and no one from the modern age will ever be as great as these men. We modern folks are simply arriving at the party too late.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
- Even though we don't really know where our words end up taking us, we do know that "Home is where one starts from." But on the other hand, isn't this whole poem about feeling spiritually homeless? Where's home, for the speaker?
- At least he clarifies what he means by implying that the "home" we start from is the sense of home we have when we're young.
- We can assume this because he then says that "As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living." So as we grow up, we realize more and more that we don't actually understand most of the world.
- When we are younger, the world looks as though it has a clear pattern and works according to certain rules. But this pattern becomes more complicated and harder to recognize as we get older and enter the adult world. By saying that the pattern "Of dead and living" becomes more complicated, the speaker implies that our relationship to the dead becomes more complicated as we grow out of childhood. It's no longer a simple matter of, "Dead people go to heaven and live forever in happiness," and we start asking deeper questions about what's actually waiting for us after death.
- As we grow older, we don't experience an intense moment just every now and then, but instead feel "a lifetime of burning in every moment," which is not only the pain and suffering of our own lives, "But of old stones that cannot be deciphered." In these lines, the speaker seems to suggest that, as we get older, we try to find new ways of connecting to past generations, since a feeling of continuity is important in our lives.
- We don't have any direct way of connecting to the past, though, only a bunch of "old stones that cannot be deciphered." In this, the speaker means that our connection to the past is written in words that we can't fully understand. This reference to old stones might refer to the Rosetta Stone, an ancient stone that first allowed scholars to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. In the speaker's case, though, the old stones of the past are never fully translatable, since we can never truly know the intent behind writings that were created hundreds of years ago.
- Much like in Eliot's "The Waste Land," the focus here is on our collective inability to connect to our own pasts, which might have been way richer in meaning than our current world is. Because words are always a failed attempt to give meaning to inexpressible emotions, though, our efforts to make sense of our common condition will always fail. Yet we have no choice but to keep trying. So buck up, buckaroos.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
- Okay, we'll admit it. These lines are super-tough to unpack, and it seems almost like Eliot might be bringing in specific occasions from his own life here. There's an inside joke quality to a line like "The evening with the photograph album." But if we do a little digging, we can find some accessible meaning in these lines. Shovels ready?
- The line, "There is a time for evening under starlight" suggests that the speaker thinks there's a time for us to be out in nature and to experience the night sky (probably without any pollution from the cities). But at the same time, he also admits that there's "A time for evening under lamplight," meaning that there's also a time for us to experience the night sky from inside the city and under "artificial" streetlights. Unlike other parts of "East Coker" and "Burnt Norton," the speaker says here that sometimes the city and modern technology can be okay.
- There is even a time for spending our evenings with a photograph album, thinking back on past times. After all, says the speaker, "Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter." This is a weird thing for him to say here, since the rest of "East Coker" and "Burnt Norton" have been all about bringing us back to the present moment of here and now. But now, the speaker's hinting that there's something beyond here and now that we have to get in touch with.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
- Traditionally, we might think of old age as a time to settle down; but the speaker thinks it's a good idea for old men to be "explorers" and to continue experiencing new things. Throughout "Burnt Norton" and "East Coker," the speaker has constantly implied that one of the worst forces in human life is the force of routine and habit, which makes us take things for granted and makes us feel bored and empty.
- After saying that "Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter," the speaker says that "Here or there does not matter." So in other words, there's no use thinking of our lives as being here, there, now, or anywhere, because these categories are too limiting. The important thing is for us to find a way to "be still and still moving." It's not quite clear how this is possible, but it seems to have something to do with being spiritually connected to something that can change while still staying the same. If that sounds complicated or contradictory, just know that it's supposed to.
- As we try to find a place of stillness that's also moving, we must always be looking for "a further union, a deeper communion," or some way of becoming more connected to the people and the natural world around us. Even though the modern world might be a place of "dark cold and empty desolation," we have to keep pushing for ways to bring ourselves together.
- The final images of "the wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters / Of the petrel and the porpoise" point forward to the nautical imagery of "The Dry Salvages" (just trust us at this point). But they also close "East Coker" with the image of feeling like we're stranded out at sea, and they associate this image with a great cry, which is probably the cry of our own souls feeling adrift, and looking for a deeper connection to the world.
- After leaving this final image in your mind, The speaker writes, "In my end is my beginning." The statement is a chiasmus of the opening line of "East Coker," which reads, "In my beginning is my end." Like a double-helix, these two lines wrap around each other and draw all of "East Coker" together as if we've read the entire thing in one instant, while also reading it over an entire lifetime. Every moment of our lives marks a beginning and an end, and if we are going to get over our modern spiritual sickness, we're going to have to completely rethink our relationship to time, and start seeing significance in every single moment, just like the speaker is trying to get us to do.